Photo © Matthew Smith
It’s 1994. The city feels as if it’s at boiling point. It’s been a tumultuous year so far, one marked by recession, political upset and violent clashes. Now, as the summer months roll in, a blanket of oppressive heat settles on the nation, stifling breaths and shortening tempers. In Autumn 1994, after 18 years of Conservative rule, the arrival of the Criminal Justice Act finally pushes people over the edge. A vindictive response to UK’s burgeoning illegal rave scene, section 63 of the bill set out to ban parties featuring music ‘characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. This bizarre act aimed to stamp out drug-fuelled youth gatherings, like those culminating in the 30,000-strong crowd assembled at the Castlemorton Common Festival in May 1992. More than that, the clause sought to suppress the solidarity which these spaces represented.
Brian Welsh’s 2019 film Beats shows us a defiance of this rigid order, mirrored in the film’s monochrome cityscapes, revealing two working-class Scottish lads freed by dance music, and its power to ignite communal euphoria. The film not only looks back at a defining moment in the UK’s clubbing heritage, but also asks deeper questions about what ‘rave’ means today. With the dawn of the New Labour regime in the backdrop, the storyline of Beats tracks a sudden turning point in public political action in the 90s. The Criminal Justice Act sparked outrage and there were ‘Kill the Bill’ protests across the nation, including one on Downing Street in October 1994 that had to be broken up by mounted riot police. Set in the months before the CJA’s enforcement, Beats chronicles the trials of seemingly incompatible best friends Johnno and Spanner in their struggle against the law and class expectations. While Johnno’s middle-class parents strive to shelter their son from certain ‘anti-social’ influences, Spanner’s future prospects look hopeless under the shackles of his abusive criminal brother. Attempts are made to pull Johnno away from Spanner so that he can start a better life in a shiny new-build estate – a stark contrast to the blighted tenements which impound people like Spanner.
But rave music offers both friends liberation. Banding together in a rally against authority, the pals leave everything behind so that they can reach the ultimate point of transcendence. We’re simultaneously thrown into a revolutionary protest as we follow Johnno and Spanner on their quest for a night of hedonism at an off-the-motorway rave. Joining up with their rave comrades Wendy, Alison and Laura for one special night, the pair brazenly embrace the mantra that “the only good system is a sound system, and if I can’t dance then it’s not my revolution”. This echoes the political slogan wielded by the anarchist Emma Goldman, which affirms how, even a century ago, when Goldman was seeking free self-expression in Russian ballrooms, dance and anarchist politics could collude in a radical synergy. Windows down as the glow comes up over a hill, tail lights glittering behind them, the pair drop a pill before stumbling towards the beats in the distance.
A dingy corridor leads to a crowded basement where graffiti and sound systems vein the walls. Butterflies revolt in their stomachs as they lose themselves to the smoky fug of sweat and the throbbing bassline of ‘Dominator’ by Human Resource. The venue dissolves into a seething mass of bodies and MDMA-enhanced euphoria. It’s electric. That dancefloor experience is simulated in the film by glitchy full-colour visuals by Weirdcore, the music video director perhaps most famous for the Aphex Twin videos. “That was pure magic back there, Johnno”, yells Spanner emerging from the mayhem, a can of cheap lager in one hand. They are locked together by bonds of love and understanding. Suddenly, the law-enforced crack-down feels distinctly assailable. Suddenly, anything seems achievable.
The way rave culture is portrayed in the film traces a lineage of radicalism relevant to today. Welsh explains to the British Film Institute how the screenplay had been adapted from Kieran Hurley’s acclaimed stage play: “[t]he biggest thing I was taken with was how Kieran had managed to elevate the story from not just being about two boys going to a party. It was about much bigger ideas of what was happening in post-industrial Scotland and how, almost subconsciously, the rave movement was some reaction to that.” Beats not only captures the hedonistic exuberance of early 1990s rave culture, and how it signified as protest, but also raises questions about changes to public spaces and rave culture today. Shot in nostalgic black-and-white, there’s an end of an era quality to the film’s portrayal of Glasgow’s 90s rave scene. While raving didn’t disappear after 1994, from the second half of the 90s onwards, this form of dance culture inhabits a more corporate clubland, where the experience, as influenced by those legal changes, became more homogenised. Back in the early 90s, being part of a rave was a radical political act – the youth’s ecstasy-fuelled rebellion against Thatcherite ideals about profit and privatisation. The whole scene was very raw.
Whereas 90s raves fled to the wilderness, a rave today is more likely to take place at a festival or an abandoned warehouse heavily padded with sponsorship and branding. There’s fewer spontaneous mass gatherings and a more restrained DIY infiltration of public spaces. Today, tickets are sold out months in advance, with clubs charging high prices for everything from drinks to the cloakroom. The selling-off of public spaces has left its marks on London’s cultural fabric too; the closure of the DIY music venue Total Refreshment Centre in Dalston last year acted as a symbol for the city’s increasing exclusivity. Once a grotty hub for illegal raves, the Kings Cross area is now under a massive clean-up through a regeneration project set to be complete in 2023.
It’s strange to think that the corporate new builds, upmarket soap stores and pricey tapas restaurants in Coal Drops Yard were once dirty warehouses packed with sweaty punters dancing to acid house until the morning. But nostalgia for the bygone days of illegality shouldn’t stop us from envisioning new musical futures. The last few years have seen a counter-cultural pushback against this commercialised underground and gentrification; illegal parties are on the rise, and with it, a defiant sense of creativity. It is the physical spaces in these nights that have enabled the experimentation with and cross-pollination of subgenres to exist. Though it’s a hard truth to swallow – that young people are being priced out of rave culture – if even just one of these raves generates a new scene or genre, then perhaps there’s hope for the future, especially in the UK, where Brexit is positioned to hit the youngest and poorest the hardest.
Photo © Matthew Smith
Two decades on, oppressive governmental measures like the CJA ironically remain the key drive behind the activism at the heart of rave culture. In an interview with the Guardian this year, Hurley compares the protests around the 1994 bill and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists of today: “[t]here’s something about the aesthetic of celebratory protest, claiming space and shutting it down, that you can draw directly back to Reclaim the Streets and the party protest moment, and that all comes out of the Kill the Bill protests. There’s a direct lineage.”
But although both groups share an aesthetic of celebratory protest, the riots of 1994 had embodied an anarchic spirit that went further than the climate change activists’ tamer modes of rebellion: XR campaigners today are known to be co-operative with police, whilst the 1994 protestors had been staunchly anti-police and anti-authoritarian. Back in April, XR tweeted a video of an activist talking about having a chat with the police whilst in custody - something which the Kill the Bill marchers would have explicitly discouraged. More troublingly, reports of XR protestors calling the police on two young people of colour had also emerged. The two were suspected of pickpocketing, and once searched by the police – who discovered nothing – were then subjected to immigration checks. Incidents like this reveal the messiness, ideological incoherence, and underlying tensions that inevitably come with such a rapidly expanding movement: one that grew from a select set of activists to thousands of supporters.
Rave spaces are in their very nature liminal – perhaps even utopian – spaces, which seem to transcend distinctions of race and class. In locations strategically remote from the watchful eyes of the police, it’s possible to imagine and enact open-minded visions of what society could be. But the reality is that, with gentrification disproportionately spreading to poorer London boroughs, not everyone can partake in the euphoria. Until it was scrapped two years ago, the controversial risk assessment form for events, Form 696, was seen by many as a tool by which the police targeted and excluded certain ethnic groups. Nights platforming genres like R&B and Grime were shut down by police, out of fear of safety hazards and even terrorism. Despite the end of this racially biased piece of bureaucracy, black promoters in London still struggle to put on big nights, with some black clientele facing exclusion from certain clubs due to dress codes and overpriced alcohol – symptoms of systemic discrimination that has led to the creation of Touching Bass and Recess, nights aimed at young black clubbers.
“You often have to go to quite a few venues before you even have a shortlist”, says Jojo Sonubi, founder of Recess. “Even after that, there’s a sense that you still have to convince owners that you’re not going to be a rowdy bunch”. Touching Bass – the South London-based collective, monthly dance, record label and biweekly NTS Radio show – shows that these communities are still finding ways to take up space and celebrate the cross-cultural creative energy that springs from physical encounters. Inhabiting temporary dance spaces like Peckham’s Tasty Bakery and Japanese restaurant Brilliant Corners, they use a text messaging service akin to the 90s rave era to share the night location.
The political power of rave was highlighted in an exhibition I attended in Berlin a few weeks ago, which told the story of Berlin’s own dance demonstration: Loveparade. In the summer of 1989, hundreds of people lined Berlin’s streets, united by the parade’s leader – Dr Motte – and a mind-bending techno soundtrack. With the opening of the Berlin wall and Germany’s reunification on the horizon, the capital’s club scene took advantage of the situation to celebrate a new zeitgeist of creativity as well as its new electronic music. Though not free from commercialisation and the problematics of drug abuse, the dance festival appeared as an injection of a fresh and ground-breaking culture – a feeling of freedom summoned up in Dr Motte’s prayer:
To the spirit of the rave,
To party people everywhere,
To all musicians who create this music,
And to those who play it at the parties,
To our special earth,
To music itself,
And to the highest spirit –
May all people be happy
Adopting the motto Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen (‘Peace, Joy, Pancakes’), the Loveparade united dance with philanthropic sentiments – a community of ravers tied together under the banner of love. But the parade soon came under fire when this very community also began to see how the event organisers reaped profits from licensing, advertising and merchandise sales. The popular Loveparade was at risk of losing its distinctive political dimension. This drove many hardcore techno heads to distance themselves from the event, with some even forming an annual counter-festival in 1997 known as Fuckparade, which turned towards a darker and more aggressive sonic universe with music north of 180 BPM: gabber and terrorcore. The countermovement sought to return the rave to its original discomforting underworld – dank basements, decrepit former theatres and industrial warehouses – and circulate countless slogans like ‘Terror Worldwide’ and ‘Terror for Fun and Profit’ printed on extreme sportswear. That the Fuckparade brings together multiple fringe groups in protest against the gentrification of German clubs demonstrates the fluidity and all-encompassing spirit of the movement.
Stripped down to ‘music itself / And to the highest spirit’, Beats too stands as a timely reminder of the sacred space of rave in the 1990s and the current socio-political moment. For millions born in the 80s, acid house and rave united myriad causes through a passion for electronic music, regardless of race and class. The Prodigy’s ‘Wind It Up’, featured on the film’s soundtrack, samples Anthony Johnson’s ‘Equal Rights’ – capturing the ethos of rave that still seeps into people’s lives today. But it’s also important to address the factors that are pushing marginalised communities out of this vibrant club culture – to embolden the movement with our shared wisdom, to learn from the energy, the ideas and the excitement of those involved; to work together to make a more inclusive, stronger movement. In that way, rave becomes as much a form of escapism as a means of sparking real change.