I was asked by Paprika!, a zine created out of the Schools of Architecture and Art at Yale, to write something about Thatcherism and the history of acid house/rave culture. It ended up being a combination of an older blog post and a review of Jeremy Deller’s recent documentary. A shorter version was published by the zine here, but I thought I’d post the longer version below.
Thirty years on from the ‘second summer of love’, when acid house entered the mainstream in Britain in 1988-89, there is increasing interest in this period of British political and cultural history. Jeremy Deller’s recent documentary for BBC Four, Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain, 1984-1992, is evidence of this. Deller’s documentary situates acid house and rave culture in the socio-political context of late Thatcherism, defined by the period following the Miners’ Strike that lasted for 9 months in 1984-85 through to the Poll Tax riots in March 1990 and then onto the John Major years, which saw a crackdown on rave culture via the Criminal Justice Act 1994.
Exported from the gay and African-American clubs in the United States, house music made its way into the UK club scene in the mid-1980s via the sound systems of the Afro-Caribbean communities. Acid house became a phenomenon from around 1987 to 1992, morphing into various strains of dance music in the early 1990s (excellently outlined by Simon Reynolds in his 1998 book, Energy Flash). The rise of acid house coincided with the opening of new wave of clubs across the UK and beginnings of the warehouse and open air ‘raves’. This was situated against a backdrop of high Thatcherism, which included heightened deindustrialisation and the growth of the high finance capitalism in the City of London.
Thatcher was returned to office in 1987 after her third electoral victory and this could be considered the high point of Thatcherism as a hegemonic project. After defeating the trade unions during the Miners’ Strike in 1985, Thatcher unleashed a wave of privatisation and deindustrialisation across the country. Already under pressure, many heavy industries in the north of England, as well as Scotland and Wales, collapsed, leaving to massive unemployment in these regions. Where jobs were available to replace the traditional heavy industries, they were usually unskilled, low paid and short-term, leaving many without the stability of employment enjoyed by the previous generations.
Meanwhile in the south-east of England, especially in London, the economy boomed, fuelled by the deregulation of the finance industry in 1986. Heavy industry, especially around the East End of London and the docks, also dried up and the inner city began its path towards gentrification. The story since the mid-1980s was that London became too expensive for many workers and those who benefited from the boom in the finance industry moved in. As Rupa Huq and Lauren Pikó have shown, a suburban commuter belt developed outside of the M25 motorway that circled London (completed in the mid-1980s) that allowed white collar workers into the city to work, but also dotted the landscape in the south with post-industrial business parks and burgeoning new towns, like Milton Keynes.
As the north and parts of the south of England diverged upon two parallel roads – one towards a post-industrial decline and one towards a post-industrial regeneration – the emerging youth subculture that rose to prominence at this time was acid house and rave culture. In many ways, the subculture surrounding acid house and the early rave scene reflected this north/south divide and reflected the two Britains that were developing under Thatcher.
Coinciding with the emergence of MDMA (or ecstasy), the acid house and early rave scene became the focus of a moral panic about out of control youth on drugs and gathering en masse to celebrate this fusion of drugs and music. Many viewed acid house and early rave culture as hedonistic and the pretext to (publicly) waste a lot of money of partying. This was true to some degree in the south, where the more affluent young people could indulge in this hedonism and spend a considerable amount of money on weekend activities. As Deller’s documentary points out, young entrepreneurs, including a lot of youthful Tories, flocked to rave culture, seeing a chance to make money by organising events – usually taking place outside of traditional nightclubs. At the same time, organised crime gangs moved in to profit on the increased demand for class A drugs.
In the north, acid house also exploded – in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and other cities. In the northern acid house scene, it was not just hedonism, fuelled by a large disposable income, but a chance to escape from dreary post-industrial world that had been delivered by nearly a decade of Thatcherism. Raves were not just sites of resistance to Thatcherism and mainstream culture in 1980s Britain, but also served as a withdrawal from engagement with it.
With the decline of heavy industry in the north, factories and fields, once the sites of a booming industrial sector, were transformed from empty spaces into potential venues for clubs and raves – the economics of putting on a show was merely finding a suitable sound system. An enterprising person, the kind of whom would usually be praised under Thatcherism, could hire (or buy) a large PA system, bring in some local DJs and with a little promotion, make a lot of money from those entering (and possibly the selling of illicit drugs).
Deller’s documentary shows that just as the authorities were concerned with the drugs that were present in rave culture, but also about the congregation of youth in public places, particularly at the illegal and semi-legal raves which took place in abandoned factories and outside in the fields. Archival documents show that in the early years of acid house parties, the police, councils and the Thatcher government were just as worried about the noise and public order issues that were thrown up by these parties as the concern about drugs.
Unlike punk, reggae or folk music, acid house and early rave culture has been characterised by many as an apolitical rejection of the Thatcherite status quo, using music (and the drugs) to collectively cast off the burden that Thatcherism brought down on young people in the late 1980s. But these parties and the congregation of young people in public spaces were infused with politics. Deller shows that rave culture meshed with the growth of New Age travellers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, whose post-industrial nomadism challenged the socio-political hegemony of Thatcherism and brought the ire of the police in a series of confrontations, such as the Battle of Beanfield in 1985 and Castlemorton Common Festival in 1992.
Acid house was also given a political edge by its crossover with the gay scene in Britain in the 1980s. Under Thatcher, gay men and women were persecuted for their sexuality and the moral panic generated by the AIDS epidemic. Clause 28, a law introduced in 1988 to ban the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities, was used by those in power to publicly harass gay men and women, arguing that their lifestyles were deviant. Acid house became the dominant sound in many of Britain’s gay clubs and this deviancy and portrayal as the ‘folk devils’ of the 1980s was transformed into a particular subcultural identity, combining the hedonism of acid house culture with the ‘deviancy’ of being gay in Thatcherite Britain.
The increasing mainstream appeal of rave culture brought increased media, political and police attention in the early 1990s. Concerned about the amount of illicit drugs being allegedly sold and used in the scene, as well as the public spaces being used for raves, the Conservative government and the police cracked down on raves and dance clubs, using the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and a revised version of the Public Order Act from 1986 (amongst other laws concerning the regulation of clubs) to shut down underground raves and strictly monitor licensed clubs. In 1992, the Major government started to draft the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill (which eventually became law in 1994), which included an entire section dedicated to the policing of raves. This led to significant political resistance and raves became part of a political battle over the use of public space. Taking some inspiration from the anarchist ‘Stop the City’ protests of the 1980s and the New Age travellers, a serious protest movement developed, using the method of occupying public spaces and putting on ‘free parties’. This crossed over at stages with the rise of the Reclaim the Streets movement and other green/anarchist protests.
The Criminal Justice Act 1994 is seen, in many ways, as signalling an end of an era for rave culture in Britain and the socio-political landscape had shifted since the days of high Thatcherism in the mid-to-late 1980s. The opening of the archival records from this period and the popular memory being explored by documentaries such as Deller’s are like siren songs for contemporary historians, keen to investigate this time in the not too distant past. Acid house and rave culture reinvented British youth culture in a time of great social, economic and political upheaval and helped alter British attitudes towards public space, policing and drugs which reverberate through to the present. They called it acid, but we now call it history.