A version of this article appeared in The Herald Magazine
IT will doubtless be to the indissoluble chagrin of old hippies and old punks, in whose daydreams still lurk fragments of counter-cultural zeal or situationist argot, that they have been outdone and outlasted by a youth movement that’s as disinterested in political posturing as it is in guitars and leather.
Dance music – electronic dance music, consisting primarily of programmed, repetitive beats, lest you presume we’re talking about sarabandes and minuets – accounts for the most enduring youth phenomenon the UK has ever seen. Prone to constant self-renewal and reinvention and despite the best efforts of rock critics at proclaiming it dead every 18 months or so since about 1992, it is also the most diverse.
Bubbling up from the fag-end of the disco era in the US, “house” music – so-named after the Warehouse club in Chicago – came spluttering and cranking out of America’s north-eastern cities in the mid-1980s. Chicago DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy effectively played about with the raw materials of sound: experimenting with computer technology and already-vintage drum machines, they looped samples and collaged existing records, then laid down the results on new tracks or live in clubs. In Detroit, their contemporaries evolved the sparser, more alien and futuristic sound that would become known as techno.
At the legendary gay New York club the Paradise Garage, DJs fused these novel sounds with their own extended and distended mixes of funk and disco records. It was frenetic, euphoric underground music that found a captive audience, thanks in large part to a new club drug of choice: Ecstasy. Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, the “love drug”, induced overwhelming sensations of well-being and empathy and made it just about possible to dance all night.
Received wisdom has it that this potent, heady mix only breached the consciousness of young Britons after a few hundred bohemian drop-outs and itinerant suburban south Londoners experienced it in the bars and clubs of Ibiza – which had long been a haven for hippie jetsetters – in the summer of 1987. In truth, house records were being heard in clubs in places as far north of London as Scotland well before the Balearic-inspired scene began spawning its own records and its first distinctively British sub-genre, dubbed “acid house”.
At any rate, 1989 was the year dance music made Britain sit up and take note, the year it jumped from the underground into the charts, the newspapers and even the countryside. Twenty years ago, parliament and the tabloids were in the grip of consternation about illicit all-night “raves” at which young people were taking a new drug whose effects their moral guardians were smart enough to perceive were not those of alcohol. In England, rave entrepreneurs and the police were locked in a contretemps – having had events in disused inner-city warehouses busted, the former were staging huge parties on farms and greenfield sites around Oxfordshire. Alarm in the press – one scare story in the Sun reported that youngsters were “so drugged up they ripped the heads off pigeons” – gave the whole scene the oxygen of publicity and numerous events attracted upwards of 15,000 people. At one of them, Scottish proto-ravers the KLF demanded their fee of £1000 in Scottish pound notes, scribbled “we love you children” on them and showered them on the crowd. But by the following summer the government had passed new legislation introducing harsher penalties on organisers.
In Scotland, there was little of the same tension at play, at least according to Ricky Magowan, a promoter whose company Streetrave – now Colours, the biggest organiser of dance events north of the border – was also putting on its first parties in ’89. “We didn’t really do anything to that level that was going on in England so we didn’t get the same flak for it – we were in established buildings and had health and safety certificates,” he says. “When we started, it was about us as clubbers creating a new scene. We were already running buses to different places like the Hacienda in Manchester, so we thought ‘why not start something for ourselves?'”.
“There was already a scene that existed with stuff like the soul all-dayers, but then this new generation came through in 1988 and 1989 and it became something totally new and different. We started doing a monthly night at the Ayr Pavilion, which got 1300 people every month and things just grew from there.”
Another former promoter, Andy Unger, who still DJs in Glasgow, says the years 1989-1992 represent something a “golden age”. “There was this whole package,” he remembers. “You didn’t need the drugs because the music was so good, but they were there for whoever wanted them. I think it was similar to what happened with punk rock but on a much bigger scale. Dance music felt like a revolution at the time, it was very inclusive and it triggered an enormous reaction in people. It was the last form of music that was entirely unlike anything else, and it inspired a lot of people to do something for themselves, like produce their own records or DJ or run a club night.”
Various commentators and social historians have argued that dance music in the UK both tapped into the individualism being championed by the Tory government and catered to a deeper need for communal experiences. Dance music and Ecstasy are variously credited with uniting black and white, straight and gay, and even pacifying football hooligans. A lot of vocal dance records rhapsodise along preposterously utopian lines, but notwithstanding anti-capitalist techno-hippies’ attempts at using ear-blisteringly awful hardcore techno to “hack the consciousness interface”, for the most part it’s been hedonism first, second and third on the agenda.
But just as the naive, loved-up idealism of dance music’s pioneers became diluted by gangsterism, the drug economy and rampant commercialism, throughout the 1990s the scene itself splintered and forked into scores of specialist sub-genres and sects. Some clubs stuck to the basic diet of house and techno, others branched off into hard dance and trance, and the burgeoning rave and hardcore scenes snowballed – ever-harder, ever-faster – with a logic of their own. With the emergence of jungle, breakbeat and drum n bass, all rooted in London’s long-standing black soul and funk subcultures, there was genuine innovation – this was music which sounded to mid-1990s ears every bit as radical and spell-binding as had Chicago house a decade before, and, in turn, it would go on to spawn sunnier subgenres like speed garage and two-step, as well as the more menacing grime. But by about 1995, rave had changed from being breezy, silly and fun into something aggressive, intoxicated and downright daft, due at least in part to people experimenting with more debilitating drugs – for some Ecstasy was no longer enough on its own; it had to be mixed with the likes of temazepam, cocaine, speed and ketamine, and with strong drink.
Ian Kinghorn, a 36-year-old Edinburgh-based artist, admits he was a “late starter” with dance music, but his experiences with Ecstasy – though fairly “melodramatic” – are not atypical. “I started going clubbing in 1999,” he says. “I went to mostly gay clubs that were playing trance and progressive house, but it was really Ecstasy that got me into it because I never really understood the music before that. When I took E everything made sense and sort of locked into place – I was converted almost overnight and after that it became almost a religious thing.
“I went through a sort of honeymoon period – you’re just in love with everybody and everything. I had suffered from depression before and I never knew that happiness like that was possible. For that time, in the club, I realised I loved who I was and because everyone was on the same wavelength it was a really beautiful, friendly atmosphere.”
Over a period of about two years, however, Kinghorn’s Ecstasy intake increased. He also started experimenting with cocaine and ketamine and while his weekend highs were “still worth it”, he began experiencing crippling mid-week comedowns. “The scene itself became a bit stale and predictable,” he says, “and I think I was trying to compensate for that, chasing that initial rush. There came a tipping point where it became too much and I just had to stop it altogether.”
Tales abound of Ecstasy users experiencing burnout – Kinghorn ultimately suffered a “sort of breakdown” – but for many more moderation militates against any real ill-effects. And for others the drug’s seemingly inbuilt provision of diminishing returns prompts them simply to realise good things don’t last forever. That which goes up comes down, and so it was with the superclub and superstar DJ phenomena that came crashing about the ears of the UK’s super-annuated dance music megaliths in the early years of this decade. Dance had forced the liberation of licensing hours up and down the country and become a part of the entertainment establishment, but large swathes of the population suddenly realised it just wasn’t worth paying £50 to stand in front of Judge Jules for five hours.
These are, perhaps, slightly saner times, and if you can drag yourself away from binge-drinking and fights in kebab shops- corollaries of what now passes for this country’s primary entertainment industry and by-products, in part, of dance culture’s all-night sensibilities – it is a comfort still to be able to sneak off to dark, underground spaces like Glasgow’s Sub Club and tune in to the universal language of house.
Daisuke Nakajima, a young Japanese journalist who spent four years in Glasgow reporting on Shunsuke Nakamura’s exploits at Celtic, knows the truth of this. Nakajima fell in love with dance music after seeing Underworld play in Tokyo in 2000, made most of his Scottish friends on visits to “the Subbie” and illustrates pointedly the music’s international, cross-cultural and cross-generational appeal. “Dance music brings people together,” he says. “To me it’s about friendship and being open-minded; it’s not about drink or drugs. In Japan no-one thinks of it as being American music or British music, either. It’s just truly global.”