Trance encounter: Can it really be 25 years since acid house was born?

Ian Burrell looks back on a summer of love...

Ian Burrell
Friday 29 June 2012 21:35

What became of the ravers? Once they were dancing in the warehouses and fields, now they're the mums and dads, the entrepreneurial company directors, the van drivers, the Radio 2 listeners, the politicians and that middle-aged lady in the park, walking her dog.

More than the ageing teddy boy, the tattooed skinhead or the pony-tailed hippie, the former acid house devotee is hard to spot. "A hippie might have taken it on as a lifestyle choice but there's no one walking around in 'Smiley' T-shirts and dungarees at the age of 50," says the filmmaker Gordon Mason. "But when you ask them about that time, they all have that glint in their eye."

It is 25 years this summer that a series of cultural forces collided to shift the tectonic plates of British music. The first tremors came from the Balearics and the projects of Chicago, compounded by the emergence of a euphoric drug known as 'E'. The aftershocks are still being felt today. In the United States, the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) movement is only now coursing through mainstream youth culture as it did in Britain a generation ago. And in fashionable east London clubs such as Dalston Superstore and Bar A Bar, a new crowd of ravers are enjoying a summer of love with nights like Paris' Acid Ball.

"I've always thought this was an evolving scene – and it's still evolving," says Dave Swindells, who chronicled British club culture in words and photographs as the Nightlife Editor of Time Out between 1986 and 2008. With Mason and the graphic designer Dave Little – the artist behind such Acid House institutions as the club Spectrum and the Boy's Own fanzine – Swindells is staging 'A Little Summer of Love' celebration in west London this evening to recognise the emergence of a movement that changed their lives.

Mason has devoted several years to creating a lasting document of the acid house story by filming interviews with no less than 75 of the original protagonists – the promoters and DJs, the musicians and the security guards, the dancefloor stalwarts and even the police officers who trailed them from the city to the motorway service stations and on into the countryside as the parties grew larger and moved outdoors. This exhaustive account has cost him around £100,000 and taken him around the world.

For the sources of acid house are diverse. Without question a pivotal moment was the decision in 1987 by the young DJ Paul Oakenfold to spend his 24th birthday on the island of Ibiza where his friends, Trevor Fung and Ian St Paul, had rented a bar. He took fellow soul boys Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker with him. What they experienced in the club Amnesia that holiday – an ecstasy-enhanced exploration of the sounds of resident DJ Alfredo – was to change the course of global club culture.

Other forces were at play as the British music scene began an extraordinary transformation. Earlier in 1987, a group of Chicago proponents of the electronic-based sound called 'house' toured the United Kingdom for the first time. They attracted little attention in London, but Marshall Jefferson, Frankie Knuckles and Adonis were treated like heroes in cities such as Manchester and Nottingham, where the repetitive beats of house were readily accepted by an audience raised on Northern Soul. In the months to come, pioneering northern DJs such as Mike Pickering and Graeme Park would become house evangelists.

Both fledgling scenes were inspired by the club scene of New York and particularly Paradise Garage, where Oakenfold and Pickering were among British visitors hypnotised by the cavernous dark room and the music played by the likes of Larry Levan. The Garage became an inspiration for Manchester's Hacienda and, several years later, London's Ministry of Sound.

But the first club in the capital to reflect the new scene was The Project, Oakenfold and St Paul's attempt to gather together the English bar workers who had spent the summer in Ibiza and to recreate the Balearic atmosphere they'd discovered. This fledgling acid house scene took its name from the Chicago tune "Acid Tracks" by Phuture. Other clubs emerged: Hedonism – on a west London industrial estate – was the first acid all-nighter. RIP was a sweat-box above a 12th-century prison alongside the Thames. As word spread, the Project grew into the f larger Future club while Shoom, in a south London fitness centre, quickly became an institution.

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Oakenfold and St Paul moved into bigger premises at Richard Branson's club Heaven, showing their chutzpah by packing the place on a Monday. Their night was called Spectrum and the flyers, bearing an all-seeing eye and the words 'Heaven on Earth' have become part of acid house iconography. Little's design was inspired by Sixties influences such as Grateful Dead albums and Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. 'You Have Passed the Acid Test' was the message on the back of the flyer. "I believed what I was witnessing in '87 was an almost exact replica of the Sixties 'happenings' in San Francisco," says Little. "I don't think many ravers saw the link, though."

The 'Smiley' logo T-shirts and dungarees that were an unofficial uniform for many Ibiza bar workers in the summer of 1987 were adopted by some ravers in London, but would become an embarrassing cliché. As acid went overground, The Sun picked up on the scene and ran a story, 'Fiver for a drug trip to Heaven in Branson club', which drove Spectrum out of its home and, ironically, provided the mass publicity which helped create the rave nation.

Some acid house pioneers still travel the world as DJs. Spectrum's ever-present Anton the Pirate went off to set up a yoga retreat. Hobbs, a set designer at early raves, now does the same for major feature films. Anthony and Christopher Donnelly, promoters of the legendary Joy party in the Lancashire hills, went on to found the Gio-Goi clothing label. Among that crowd at Joy was Noel Gallagher, who lived on the same Manchester street as the Hacienda and was a regular in those heady days that changed British clubs forever. "It was the last social musical revolution there has been," he said. "I think it was our answer to punk."

'A Little Summer of Love' is at Westbourne Studios, London W10, tonight

Rave: movers and shakers

DJ Trevor Fung on Ibiza, summer 1987

"One summer you just turned up and everything was completely different, everyone was dancing on tables, anywhere they could dance really – it was just amazing. What's going on, why is everyone so happy?"

Promoter Nicky Holloway on Ibiza

"Before ecstasy you would go to a club and everybody would be standing round the edge; it was almost like the school disco, waiting for somebody to go out and start dancing and they'd have to have a good few beers in them before they would start dancing. All of a sudden, when the ecstasy thing came along and they would neck their pills in the queue, they would be gagging to get in there and they'd go straight on the dance floor."

Club promoter Paul Oakenfold on Paradise Garage, New York, 1987

"The inspiration came from looking up at Larry Levan and thinking, why haven't we got this in the UK? All of a sudden we figured out that they were on drugs."

House music DJ Noel Watson on Delirium (London), 1987

"We started to play house music which at first cleared the floor – we took a lot of abuse from people who came to the club. We were trying to steer away from the violent element."

Partygoer Sacha on Future (London)

"It was something fresh, it was something new. Nothing had tapped into my inner self like the combination of the music, the people and that drug. And I found that refreshing and I was instantly interested."

Partygoer Charlie Colston-Hayter on Shoom (London)

"It was completely different to everything we had known, it was different music, different people, it was smiling faces, I just walked in and felt I want to live this – and we did."

DJ Mike Pickering on the Hacienda (Manchester)

"You didn't need smoke machines in the Hacienda pre-1988 because of weed – everyone was smoking. It changed, from the top of the Hacienda, like a Mexican wave coming down, over about four or five weeks. It was quite weird, you could see it. It just changed the whole thing."

DJ Anton The Pirate on Spectrum (London)

"The laser would cut in with the record and you would literally see 2,500 hands in the air all facing the same direction, all doing the same thing. That would never have happened before – no one even bothered looking at the DJ. You had a laser show, a crowd chanting and screaming – that was never seen before. The energy in the room was electric."

Partygoer Scully on Joy, a rave in the Lancashire countryside

"I was dancing away on a wall, having a good old time, and I remember what clothes I had on and who I was with. As I was growing up I was well aware of the mod scene, the punk scene, rock'n'roll, teddy boys and as I was getting to about 15 or 16 years old, I was thinking: 'Where's our scene? When is it time for us to shine?'. And that was it. I was 16 years old and it just hit you right between the eyes. That was it, this is our time, this is our period, this is us."

Partygoer Hobbs on outdoor raves

"You would have that morning chill and then when the sun came over the horizon and you first have the warmth of that, you emotionally felt the place notch up. It was like 'We made it through the night'."

Noel Gallagher on dancing all night

"I don't think I ever batted an eyelid about standing in a field all night for 18 hours dancing, it seemed the most normal thing in the world. You didn't want to go home, you had nothing to go home to. Thinking about it now gives me goosebumps."

Chief Superintendent Ken Tappenden, Kent Police, Pay Party Unit, on rave culture

"We were logging something like 300 or 400 parties per month at the height of that summer, 1989... There was movement of traffic, movement of people and we were losing a little bit of control."

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