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THIRTY YEARS OF RAVE: The Police, Ecstasy and Mrs Thatcher

WAG Club founder and DJ Chris Sullivan reminisces and riffs about the rave scene of the late 80s

WAG Club founder and DJ Chris Sullivan reminisces and riffs about the rave scene of the late 80s.

The recently released British film Beats perfectly captured the total ecstasy one felt after imbibing high-grade MDMA as you were dancing to the best Chicago house music amongst a crowd of like-minded souls in an all-night unlicensed gathering. 

The sheer exuberance, overwhelming love and lightly giddy, yet rather mellow, psychedelic experience was captured in this film like no movie before or since. It also portrayed the abject shock and horror that only a large battalion of police thugs cutting through the crowd indiscriminately smashing the heads of peace-loving youngsters with their truncheons can provide. This was a common occurrence. Indeed, sadistic Sun-reading cops were sent off all over the country tooled up in riot squad kit to attack these raves and the ravers. 

This action was sanctioned and legalised by the Tory Government and by Margaret Thatcher herself. Indeed, her successor, John Major, pushed through the 1993 Criminal Justice Act which gave police the power to “remove persons attending or preparing for a rave”. Just imagine armed police hooligans steaming through the crowd at the next Pride or Glastonbury.

John Major, pushed through the 1993 Criminal Justice Act which gave police the power to “remove persons attending or preparing for a rave”.

This outrageous state of affairs was far removed from the origins of both house music and rave culture. Its roots lie in the disco clubs of New York and Chicago. ‘House’ music was named after the Chicago gay club ‘the Warehouse’.

In the early days of the mid 1980s, the only clubs I can recall that played a good chunk of house music (mixed with the likes of Feels Good by Electra and Don’t Make Me Wait by The Peech Boys) were gay clubs like ‘The Pyramid’ at Heaven on a Wednesday with DJs Colin Faver and Mark Moore; Steve Swindell’s ‘The Jungle’ at Busby’s on a Monday with Faver, Vicki Edwards and Fat Tony; and the mixed gay night at The Wag on a Saturday with Fat Tony (again) and DJ Hector.

In 1986, certain promoters who crossed into the London/gay/fashion scene began employing DJs with an eye on the future. Robin King and Nick Trulocke (whose girlfriend at the time was BBC‘s The Clothes Show host Caryn Franklyn) did ‘Delirium’ at the Astoria, beginning in September 1986, with DJs Noel and Maurice Watson, who injected a fair slab of house music into their mix. The latter had lived in New York, frequented ‘Paradise Garage’ and ‘The Power House’, bringing back records then only available in the States.

The Importance of Ecstasy

Ecstasy or MDMA was a big part of the house scene.

First synthesized in 1912 by German chemist Anton Köllisch, the US military used it in experiments in the 1950s and then hippies in the Sixties. It was named ‘ecstasy’ by businessman Michael Clegg in 1981 who manufactured it legally in Texas. He sold it as a “fun drug” that was “good to dance to”. By 1980, MDMA was all over the US and was the number one drug of choice for patrons of the aforementioned gay discotheques. It was legal in the US until 1 July 1985.

From the movie Beats

MDMA also found its way to Ibiza, the playground of naughty jet-setters such as Grace Jones, Terry Thomas, Amanda Lear, Roman Polanski, Steve Strange, Freddy Mercury and Kenny Everett (whose orgies were legendary). It had been the premier destination for Spanish gays and hippies escaping the wrath of Franco (whose fascist regime ended in 1975) and was as camp as a row of tents. 

It was like the Blitz and Studio 54-on-Sea. Transvestites (some on stilts) roamed the streets handing out flyers for its premier nightspot ‘The Ku Club’ that featured a swimming pool, an abundance of extremely beautiful people (many wearing very little) and unbridled hedonism. 

We broke down barriers and we were all about inclusion and bringing people together breaking down race, colour and sexual mores. It was a very special time.

Danny Rampling, founder of Amnesia

At the end of August 1987, four friends – Danny Rampling, Johnny Walker, Nicky Holloway and Paul Oakenfold – went to San Antonio, Ibiza, to celebrate the latter’s 24th birthday and meet up with their old pal DJ Trevor Fung who, working there, informed them of a club on the other side of the island named ‘Amnesia’ – and a new drug called ecstasy. 

“You and I used to go there after the Ku, who used to give out hot chocolate dosed with magic mushrooms at dawn,” reflects Steve Holloway, the first Wag DJ to play on the island. “It was never that busy, but then again we never arrived till after six am.”  

Amnesia took off when DJ Alfredo Fiorito started mixing in New York and Chicago sounds around 1985, after which it started opening at five am and attracted all the local club workers who went bananas. 

“In Amnesia, DJ Alfredo fused all these different types of music including Paradise Garage stuff, ‘Jibaro’, the Woodentops, Cindy Lauper and the Talking Heads,” explains Danny Rampling, the man behind the legendary one-nighter Shoom. “He inspired us all.”  

“I felt very surprised by all this English boys and girls loving the records I was playing,” reflects Argentine Alfredo Fiorito. “In Amnesia, background or social class didn’t matter and it was freer and cheaper than elsewhere.”

Importantly, Rampling, Walker, Holloway and Oakenfold introduced, what had previously been recognised as ‘gay’ music, to a fundamentally very straight, very working-class audience.

Undeniably, a seismic shift occurred in the autumn of 1987.

“We all came back and all started clubs mixing Balearic with Acid House and it went off in a way that we could never imagine,” recalls Rampling. “We had 50 people at Shoom on the first night and queues of 2,000 three months later but the venue only held 300. We broke down barriers and we were all about inclusion and bringing people together breaking down race, colour and sexual mores. It was a very special time.”

Their timing was perfect as that summer quality ecstasy had hit the streets by the truckload.

“The music and attitude was great,” says Gary Haisman, whose record ‘We call it Acieed’ stormed up the charts in 1988. “But this wouldn’t have happened without the ecstasy. It would be like the first Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967 without LSD.”

Without doubt, the shenanigans were on another planet and well deserve to be the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea that celebrates the ethic.

Sweet Harmony: Voice of Youth‘, an immersive retrospective exhibition of 30 years of rave culture, is at London’s Saatchi Gallery until 14 September 2019.

Come meet Chris and other Byline Times writers at the Byline Festival this summer. He’s bringing the WAG Club.

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