‘I’d take my E and sit by the door, on the scaffolding, and watch people’, remembers DJ and producer Neville Watson, in words accompanying his brother Gavin Watson’s photo-essay Raving ’89. ‘You could tell the moment like THAT! – your life’s not going to be the same ever again!’.
For many young people across Britain that summer, novelist Sarah Champion has written, ‘Chicago’s house music and the drug ecstasy became a double-act like fish and chips’, producing raves with a visceral sense of change.These intense experiences, and the transformation of everyday life that they brought for some ravers, have been reappraised by British artists, filmmakers and even contemporary dancers thirty years on. For them, 1989 was not only a year of seismic geopolitical events, but a so-called ‘second summer of love’ that lasted several seasons. What do these creative reimaginings and cultural interpretations tell us about how rave is remembered, and its impact on British social and political life in the following decades?
Artist Jeremy Deller’s Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984 – 1992, first broadcast on BBC4, is explicit in its attempts to come to terms with this legacy. Framed as an A-level Politics class, Deller’s film attempts to place rave in its historical context and explain its relevance to today’s teenagers; many of whom appear visibly baffled by archival footage of heaving fields of gurning, dungareed youths. Inventive and imaginative, Deller importantly links rave with the cultural and political climate of the 1980s and highlights Black British sound-systems as key antecedents. Everybody in the Place is also a highly speculative work, at some points more successfully than at others. When a student asks what exactly was the link between the miners’ strikes and the music of rave, Deller responds with a slightly sheepish explanation: ‘it’s just an idea I have about it’.
Gary Clarke’s dance show Wasteland (currently touring the UK) explores these very links, with a story of intergenerational conflict between a recently unemployed Yorkshire miner and his raving son. Mostly eschewing (presumably expensive) licensed music, Wasteland’s original soundtrack means that the music is as hard, unrelenting and anonymous as it might have sounded in the post-industrial buildings of Yorkshire only once relying on the rushy, sticky-floored nostalgia of the KLF’s “What Time Is Love?”. The choreography, based on YouTube footage of ravers at the Haçienda and Fantazia, captures a sweaty intensity, while the deployment of KLF member Jimmy Cauty’s repurposed riot shields alludes to both the Battle of Orgreave in 1984 (which Deller re-enacted in 2001) and the protests against the Criminal Justice Bill a decade later.
The Sweet Harmony: Rave|Today exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery (which featured Deller’s work) reached for similar socio-political relevance, albeit somewhat clumsily. In a room devoted to “Protest”, it drew a line from Matthew Smith’s photographs of 1990’s Freedom to Party and protests against the 1994 Criminal Justice & Public Order Act all the way through to contemporary images of Extinction Rebellion and ‘DJs for a People’s Vote’.
In Everybody in the Place, Deller is also keen to invest rave with political import and asks interesting questions about its ideological tendencies. Raves could be a radical space, reclaiming buildings otherwise abandoned to industrial decline and suggestive of anarchist theorist Hakim Bey’s temporary autonomous zone. But they also were events in which those of an entrepreneurial bent could make a lot of money, leading cultural critic Joshua Clover to describe the pay parties around the M25 motorway as the ‘neoliberal orbital’. Deller points out that one of the young free-marketeers exploiting the commercial potential of raves was Paul Staines, better known today as the publisher of the right-wing ‘online scandal sheet’ Guido Fawkes.
But as he openly acknowledges, Deller’s history is only ever partial. Ecstasy (or MDMA) is mentioned just once, in a brief aside that argues that its widespread use was mobilised as a justification for the crackdown on acid house parties. In fact, documents released by The National Archives suggest that the Conservative government were largely unconcerned about drugs at outdoor raves and were far more fixated on the unlicensed events’ impact on landowners in the Home Counties.
Deller’s explanations that, firstly, he would be unable to talk about drugs to sixth-formers for fear of glamourising or condoning their use and, secondly, that ecstasy wasn’t particularly important anyway, are largely unconvincing. As historian Lucy Robinson has noted, it is possible ‘not to celebrate or denigrate drug use, but to take it seriously as a way into the broader historical forces, economically, culturally, politically, individually and collectively.’ By 1992, an estimated 500,000 people were taking ecstasy regularly, and testimonies such as Watson’s suggest that the drug was an essential ingredient to the rapid popularity of rave.
The role of ecstasy is better acknowledged in Brian Welsh’s feature film Beats (2019). As a story, Beats is a coming-of-age tale by numbers, but where it succeeds is in how it deals with this consumption of drugs and the impact it had on community, on sociability and kinship. Centring on the lead-up to the 1994 Criminal Justice & Public Order Act, it nods obliquely towards those political debates with a reference to Autechre’s Anti EP and its non-repetitive rhythms. At its heart is the chemically-enhanced friendship between two young men from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Ultimately this relationship is a fleeting one, but no less significant to each of them.
And perhaps this is what is important to public histories of rave. All of these films, exhibitions and performances wrestle with the question of what the consequences of the ‘second summer of love’ were for wider British society, beyond the collective pleasures that it gave disaffected youth in late Thatcherite Britain. In their attempts at meaning-making, those that situate rave within conventional politics seem too neat for a scene that fragmented very quickly, both musically and socially. Of course, part of rave’s legacy is these cultural products themselves, some of them sponsored by multinationals such as Gucci and Spotify, keen to appropriate what Sarah Thornton has described as the ‘subcultural capital’ of rave and clubbing.
But clues to its deeper legacy can instead be found in photographer Vinca Peterson’s assemblage of diary entries and paraphernalia that took up a whole wall of the Saatchi Gallery. This collection of flyers, fanzines, newspaper articles and photos point to rave’s profound personal impact, leading her to a nomadic lifestyle following sound-systems across Europe. These experiences provided ‘close friends, a wider like-minded community and lots of fun’ (and ultimately made her career as an artist). Rave swept up many young people like Peterson in its insistent beat and, for some, as Watson contended, their lives were ‘not going to be the same ever again’.
Peder Clark is a historian of modern Britain starting a project on ecstasy, raving and health. He is currently working as a Research Associate on the Medical Humanities in China and the UK project, University of Strathclyde. He tweets at @pederclark.