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The return of rave culture

The spirit of rave is back in music, film, art and even political protest. Could it be not just a re-enactment of the past, but a roadmap for the future?

Londoners of a certain age might have experienced déjà vu when exiting Oxford Circus Tube station in April. It wasn’t just Extinction Rebellion’s pink tugboat parked at the centre of the traffic junction, or the sound system, or the crowd – the tie-dye and the blue hair, the Lennon sunglasses and dungarees. Above all it was the atmosphere: the illicit thrill of breaking the law en masse in the sun, to the sound of repetitive beats.

Extinction Rebellion’s climate emergency has captured the imagination of one generation, but to another its sustaining rebel energy might be familiar. Not for the first time, rave culture is back in all its messy, diverse, homegrown glory. In times eerily reminiscent of the movement’s first flowering at the end of the Eighties – with another authoritarian, gerontophile far-right government in power, a bleak economic outlook for young people, and mass pop culture increasingly corporate and banal – free parties and grass-roots hedonism are back in focus. A new generation has rediscovered the DIY liberation of partying without permission, and remade it in their own image.

This iteration of raving comes with the approval of the arts establishment, whose influential figures now include those for whom waving their arms about in a field to the sounds of Altern-8 was a formative experience. Throughout the summer, London’s Saatchi Gallery has played host to “Sweet Harmony: Rave Today”, one of the first exhibitions on rave culture in a major gallery. Meanwhile the BBC Four documentary Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992 by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller became a word-of-mouth iPlayer hit.

The cliché here is to imagine that we are experiencing another summer of love (third, fourth or fifth – no one can count any more). But this is less a one-off resurgence than the reassertion of the new normal in Britain’s counterculture. While rising commercial rents and health-conscious millennials might be closing conventional city centre nightclubs at an alarming rate – the value of the UK clubbing industry is estimated by Mintel to have dropped by more than £200m since 2013 – committed ravers are undeterred. They never went away.

Across the country, news reports confirm illegal raves every weekend over the past few months, from Abergavenny to Newmarket to Dorset to the Lea Valley, all enabled by social media and encrypted messaging. Glastonbury’s transformation into a rave event seems complete, with rock bands now a pleasant hors d’oeuvre before festival-goers get down to the main business of dancing until sunrise at dedicated rave sites Block9 and Silver Hayes. The music at the centre of the scene is diversifying too, reconnecting house music’s black and gay roots to the centre of contemporary conversations about identity and representation. Women such as the Black Madonna, Charlotte de Witte and Peggy Gou are among the most in-demand DJs in the world.

Meanwhile grime, black Britain’s great reinvention of hip hop, is reasserting its ownership of a term whose meaning was never truly restricted to 20,000 people dancing in a field. The grime artist Skepta’s “DYSTOPIA987” performance at the 2019 Manchester International Festival used the mystery of a pre-internet illegal rave to break his crowd out of its digital bubble. Venue details were communicated at the last minute and only by text message, and when you arrived, your phone was confiscated. What followed was a combination of contemporary mixed-reality technology, hip hop, The Drowned Man-style immersive theatre and straight-up DJing: not just a re-enactment of the past but a roadmap for the future.

“I was sick of being in the rave with everyone on the phone telling everybody who wasn’t there how good it is,” Skepta told his crowd at the end of the show. It’s a thought that anyone in our overconnected, image-crafting world can sympathise with. “DYSTOPIA987” happened, and then it was gone. Like the original raves, you were either there or you weren’t. Experienced directly, unmediated by iPhone or Instagram or tweet, it achieved that state of grace that’s so elusive in the digital age – the one that raving always excelled at. It was real.

“You had to be there,” say all the veteran ravers, but with the illegal party moment – thrown together by the professionally publicity-shy, uncommemorated by camera-phones or digital media – it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where “there” was.

I vividly recall squeezing through gaps in a factory wall to hear a mix of rare groove and acid house somewhere in London in 1988, but where? When we rammed six people into my VW Beetle (the “rave snail”) and trundled up the M1, was it to some legendary six-arena turbo-rave, or to join 50 people doing the Bez dance around a car stereo? It’s hard to remember. It’s also difficult for senior ravers to avoid the self-mythologising tendency that makes the worst hippies and punks so insufferable. With these exhibitions and documentaries, are we simply seeing dance culture succumbing to the same deadening nostalgia that turned rock music into a stale heritage exhibition, always reflecting and imitating its past?

The product of Saatchi director and “original raver” Philly Adams and curator Kobi Prempeh, with input from aficionados including former Face magazine editor Sheryl Garratt and Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey co-author Bill Brewster, the Saatchi exhibition understands that rave culture always contained its own anti-elitist get-out clause. Acid house and all that followed created places where the stars were on the dance-floor – and floating in inner space – not on a stage.

Combining evocative rave artefacts (flyers, posters, photos and an actual functioning record shop) with new artworks, “Sweet Harmony” celebrates the joy of dissolving yourself in those egalitarian crowds. It’s a poignant thought, given that the contemporary technology that claims to connect us often leaves us feeling more isolated. But while the show is heavy on protest images, from those opposing the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill to “Ravers for Remain”, it’s also warm, humorous and exciting.

The installation “Getting to the Rave” by Colin Nightingale and Stephen Dobbie presents an old-fashioned petrol pump, the starting point for many a motorway rave quest, remade in neon, lighting up a darkened room as muffled bass-lines play. Elsewhere, artist Conrad Shawcross and Mylo fill a battered old Lotus with lights and suspend it, upside down and revolving, as a comic détournement of every raver’s sputtering chariot. In the “rave room” the London creative duo Project Zoltar have built a breathtaking ziggurat out of Eighties ephemera, from British Sky Broadcasting squarials to M25 hieroglyphics. It’s as if William Blake had gone to Raindance in Beckton and then rushed home to capture his ecstatic visions in clay. The unifying idea here is that we were once surrounded by genuine magic and perhaps did not notice it. Or maybe it’s just rank, dazzled astonishment that such things could be allowed to happen at all.

Jeremy Deller’s documentary deals with the issue of old-guy didacticism simply by owning it. In Everybody in the Place, the artist visits an A-level politics class in a London school and presents the story of dance music culture as socio-political history, framing the emergence of raves as a response to the troubled politics of the Eighties and Nineties and the violence of the miners’ strike, with their own enormous cultural and political impact.

The pupils’ progression from blank incredulity to fascination to enthusiasm for this bizarre and seldom-discussed episode in British history is heartening. The final scene will have even the hardest-hearted cynic throwing shapes on the sofa.

“I didn’t want it to be nostalgic,” Deller told me of his approach to the documentary. “I didn’t want a group of men sitting in front of their record collections reminiscing about the good old days, as if it’s what they did in the war. Talking to young people roots the idea of rave in now. And I was really keen not to make one of those BBC Four clip montage programmes that just uses archive as wallpaper for voice-overs.”

Instead the archive film he uses – featuring impeccably dressed black Americans in Detroit breaking and locking to Kraftwerk, baggily dressed ravers doing the “big fish, little fish, cardboard box” dance in front of a stately home they’ve commandeered in the British countryside – is more than merely illustrative. It is given space to breathe and come alive, uninterrupted, before Deller thoughtfully explains context and impact.

Nor is there much mention of that staple of the dance music doc, the transformative power of ecstasy. This was not simply because Deller was speaking to young A-level students. “When you connect drugs to music it immediately devalues the music,” he says. “It enables people to dismiss the entire scene. I think it’s quite an achievement to make an hour-long film about acid house and hardly mention ecstasy.”

By dispensing with those clichés, Everybody in the Place is able to show that the truly strange and thrilling thing that happened between 1984 and 1992 was a social revolution. Among other great moments, we see how Pete Waterman “lost control of the nightclub” on his live late-night ITV show The Hitman and Her: two clips just four years apart show how British nightlife quickly morphed from kitsch entertainment clubs to sweaty, pulsing raves.

“I wanted to give a wider perspective on how the music informed what followed,” says Deller. “That scene was so big because of what had preceded it in politics and society, and we didn’t realise it at the time. When you look back, you realise it is part of history.”

It’s a history that proves complex and still contestable. In one news clip, we encounter a strange young man wearing a suit and a fluorescent “FREEDOM TO PARTY” baseball hat. It’s Paul Staines, the rave organiser who will later found the right-wing gossip site Guido Fawkes. Deller describes him as an “agent of chaos”.

The movement’s chaotic spirit is present in another commemoration of rave culture that didn’t receive the attention of the Saatchi or Deller projects, but is equally worthwhile. The low-budget movie Beats, adapted by Black Mirror director Brian Welsh from a play by Kieran Hurley, tells the story of two Scottish friends and how an illegal rave proves to be a turning point in their lives. Academically gifted Johnno is going places, but scrawny, downtrodden Spanner is going nowhere: Spanner’s pleas that they enjoy just one last big night out leads to a sequence of events that will resonate beyond those who know what it’s like to dance in a field.

Beautifully shot in black and white with a connoisseur soundtrack chosen by JD Twitch of the DJ duo Optimo, Beats distils youth as powerfully as Kes, but with rather better music and more optimistic conclusions. If the Saatchi exhibition is about the crowd and the Deller film about the politics, Beats completes the triptych for armchair ravers and ingénues alike. It’s about the most indelible aspect of all: the feeling. 

“Sweet Harmony: Rave Today” runs until 14 September. “Everybody in the Place” is on iPlayer until 1 September. “Beats” will be released on DVD on 9 September

Andrew Harrison is the producer of the “Remainiacs” podcast

This article appears in the 21 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con