Rave remembered

A new exhibition celebrates 20 years of rave photography. Dave Swindells wrote some of the first pieces on the scene in Time Out and took many of the pictures that defined the era. Here he slips back into an '88 state

  • Rave remembered

    Raving at the Roller Express, Edmonton 1992 (image © Dave Swindells)

  • Raving may be ‘nu’ now but it’s not exactly new. Dancing together under the stars and under the influence of anything from plants to pills is older than civilisation and a distinctive yet universal characteristic of human tribes, but it didn’t happen much in London in the 1980s. There was a vibrant club scene, with the kids getting into hip hop and rare groove, indie rock and trash disco, but the closest we got to raving as we now know it was at warehouse parties, which usually happened in the cultural deserts around Old Street and Kings Cross and (shock horror!) went on all night.

    It took the potent cocktail of acid house, Balearic beats and (the widespread availability of) ecstasy to turn a club scene that had started going around in circles –while admiring its reflection – into a raving culture covered in smileys, dressed as Day-Glo-surf-disco pirates or in hippy chic and waving its arms in the air so much that sales of Sure went through the roof.

    Not that we called it rave at the time. We didn’t know quite what to call it but as Time Out Nightlife editor I knew better than to call it an ecstasy orgy, or indeed, to refer to drugs at all except obliquely, at least not in the early daze of the second summer of love, as 1988 came to be called.

    But by August that year we were already looking ahead towards the inevitable ‘London gripped by ecstasy!’ tabloid headlines and looking back on our coverage: ‘Time Out first mentioned acid house in January and covered [Paul Oakenfold’s] balearic beat club The Future in March and the Shoom club in April. We’ve reported the scene on its own terms – it hasn’t been a media circus and in many ways is still an underground movement… Radio London asked club runners if ecstasy is easily obtainable at their nights. What do they expect them to say? “Oh yes! Come on down, see for yourself, and bring the Drug Squad while you’re at it!”’

    Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker’s Balearic holiday has passed into legend, but only because it inspired Oakenfold and Rampling to run parties at the end of ’87 to carry on the spirit and create a more musically – and socially – inclusive scene.

    Shoom was significant because it was so intense in there and because so many people were influenced by it. The Fitness Centre in Southwark held about 300 Shoomers at a squeeze and most of them were on E, the music was deafening (but who was complaining as ‘Release Your Body’ by Bang The Party or ‘Promised Land’ by Joe Smooth boomed around the room?), and when the strobes weren’t blinding you the dry ice was. It was more like a sauna than a fitness club, with steam billowing out of the door past the queue.

    It was at the Shoom in April 1988 that I saw all the top club promoters partying, and it dawned on me that this was going to be not just a major club story (they all went on to run their own club nights) but something that could grow into an era-defining social transformation that would rapidly expand worldwide. Okay, so I got a bit ahead of myself there, but in the summer of 1988, it seemed like almost anything was possible…

    In May and June there were a series of impromptu street parties that blocked Tottenham Court Road at 3am after The Trip closed at the Astoria. The police adopted a softly-softly, laissez-faire approach because nobody was really doing any harm, except maybe the ones dancing on top of a bus shelter shouting, ‘Can you party?’ and ‘Aciieeeeed!’ at confused passers-by. There was a Time Out and Spectrum party in a marquee in Jubilee Gardens in June where acid house beats blasted out across the Thames towards the House of Commons and in July I saw tough-looking hooligans chatting and making daisy chains together at their first daytime rave. Andrew Weatherall glanced towards the group and chuckled, ‘those two are Chelsea Headhunters, he’s ICF [West Ham’s notorious Inter City Firm], they’re Millwall and he’s Tottenham. Last week they’d have probably kicked the shit out of each other…’

    Of course there were bellyaches too, when the violent bastards muscled in to control some of the lucrative raves in 1989; when young clubbers like Leah Betts died after taking pills; when the government wanted to ban raving to ‘repetitive beats’ in 1990; when mass arrests and sound systems were confiscated.

    Raving went back underground after that, leaping about to happy hardcore, hard house, jungle, Goa and psy trance and countless other bleeps and beats throughout the ’90s. It’s taken until the mid-noughties for the original carefree spirit to return. Only fairly recently, as acid house and electro-techno fire up dancefloors, has it been worth looking back to the early daze for inspiration.

    And now there’s nu-rave, which is as refreshingly positive and carefree as can be (the nu-rave bible isn’t called Super! Super! for nothing), all flouro-dressed up, glowsticks-at-the-ready, with loads of new DJs, bands and club nights and an open-minded approach to dance music. Electro, rock, grime, hip hop, house and pretty much anything else that’s uptempo may figure in a multicultural, polysexual, right ol’ (sorry, nu-) raving mash-up. Which is just as it should be right now.

    Pills, Stills & Bellyaches is at the PYMCA Gallery from Thursday.

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