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Sun 18 August 2019
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DJ and writer Chris Sullivan on the debate about where Rave culture first took hold in Britain.


The Saatchi Gallery’s exhibition Sweet Harmony: Rave | Today is a fair effort that aims to tell the story of Rave culture in this, the 30th anniversary year of the so-called Second Summer of Love. The year was 1989, when House music and its offspring Rave culture kicked in.

The gallery describes the exhibit as “an immersive retrospective exhibition devoted to presenting a revolutionary survey of rave culture through the voices and lenses of those who experienced it”. It says it captures “the new world that emerged from the acid house scene and narrates the ascendancy of rave culture with the youth of today”.

I’d day they have captured it well. The photographs by the likes of Derek Ridgers and Dave Swindell are cracking, while the collection of flyers – although from events a little later – are lovingly compiled. But, like all exhibitions whose list of curators lacks the movers and shakers who were there at the movement’s earliest beginnings, the event lacks a certain authenticity. Call me old-fashioned, but whenever I see such a show I want to know where it came from and, especially in this case, just how did so many former football fans end up in a field off their nuts dancing to music that had been the fruit of US gay culture ?

Of course, there has been a heated dispute over which part of the UK got into the whole notion first – was it the north or the south? I have seen near fistfights over such an argument so, for the record, here’s exactly how it occurred and where.

In the north of England and the Midlands, pioneers such as Mike Pickering at The Hacienda and Nottingham’s Graeme Park had injected more and more pure Chicago and Detroit House into their sets.

“House records began filtering through to me as early as 1986, J M Silk, Dhar Braxton, Wally Jump Jnr, Colonel Abrahams and Steve Silk Hurley to name a few,” says Mike Pickering. “Then in 1987, a young guy gave me Adonis’ No Way Back and I flipped, thought it was amazing like a modern punk record in its simplicity. It was then that I started playing pure house sets. The only other DJ I knew playing house was Graeme Park in Nottingham. I played Fever at the Astoria in London early in 1988 and was booed off as the crowd hated House and wanted Rare Groove, which was big in London at the time. Six months later, I played The Trip in the same venue and everything had changed completely, London took a lot longer to come on board.”

“Mike Pickering and I met at an ID photo shoot in London in late 1987,” says Graeme Park. “The subject was about new, up-and-coming underground DJs. We were the only two non-southern DJs and were surprised and appalled at the ignorance of what was going on outside the M25. House was already huge up north, on a big scale, but this was completely overlooked by London. Mike and I decided to address this and put on a Northern House Review at The Hacienda on a midweek night in February 1988. We invited the southern press who were blown away by what they witnessed. Of course, this was the case in Sheffield and Nottingham too. The UK House music scene was absolutely massive across the north and the Midlands many, many months before certain DJs went to Ibiza and allegedly discovered acid house. Fact.”

But, of course, the beginnings of the House scene down south were not after “certain DJs went to Ibiza and allegedly discovered acid house”, but a good while – perhaps over a year – earlier in one-nighter weekday mixed gay clubs that few out-of-towners ever visited.

Indeed, London at the time was in the grip of Rare Groove fever but, there were quite a few quite underground one-nighters in the likes of The Camden Palace, Heaven, Busby’s and The Wag, whose DJs – such as Mark Moore, Queen Maxine, Rachel Auburn, Fat Tony, Jeremy Healey, Robin King and Colin Faver (whose roots were in mixed gay/electro clubs) – played this new House music as a continuum of European Electro Disco from the likes of Giorgio Moroder and Telex.

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It was the patrons of such nights who visited the Ku Club in Ibiza before Balearic music was even christened. In such clubs, Love Can’t Turn Around, by Farley Jackmaster Funk and Darryl Pandy and No Way Back were virtual anthems in the fall of 1986 as they fitted nicely into the Electro/Disco ethic and, as such, were the soundtrack for rather groovy, dressed-up fashion college, ‘gender bending’ clubs.

Back then, these nights came and went all too frequently. Some club owners changed their nights more often than their underpants. The aforementioned DJs and regulars at these nights hated Rare Groove (Fat Tony thought it naff and for old men), but loved Disco and anything new, electronic and everything camp and this was exactly that. The mixed gay trendy London crowd was on this at the same time and exactly in tandem with the northern DJs who simply tapped into the straight crowd sooner.

Others such as Noel and Morris Watson (who had modelled for Comme Des Garcons in New York) and Dave Dorrell (who also emanated from London’s left-of-field club scene and played The Wag and Raw) saw this new Electro wave as a natural progression from the likes of Clear by Cybotron (Juan Atkins and Richard Davies Detroit 1983) Set It Off by Strafe (1984) and the Jam on it Instrumental by Newcleus also in 1984. Adonis, Mr Fingers and Derrick May mixed seamlessly into all of the above. Undeniably, whether it was called House or not, in the mid-1980s, Electro became faster and somewhat edgier.

While Mike Pickering cleared the decks in 1987 in favour of House in Manchester, another pioneer, former Central St. Martins art student, Robin King, who had also been the DJ at Leigh Bowery’s Taboo, was also surging ahead. 

“Morris Watson was obsessed about the Paradise Garage and the Loft,” explains King. “Residing half the time in New York, Morris lived the Garage life to the full. Noel was more hip-hop orientated, still very New York. The three of us discussed how, ‘London was years behind’, ‘Disco’s revenge’ and that dance music was ‘a culture – black, gay and very peaceful’. We wanted Disco to unite people from all walks of life, intelligently. Delirium was to be generous, giving as much as possible for a decent price.”

Delirium began on 15 September 1986 and was a fiver entrance. This first night featured The Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Run DMC and Whodini live – not exactly Disco or House, but the Brothers Watson stood their ground.

“At one point, a jealous punter lobbed a can of beer at Noel and Morris when they dropped an extended version of Love is the Message so, the following week, we built a cage around the DJ booth,” chuckles King. “One weekend, on stage, we had a 40-foot Helter Skelter, Dodgems and other fairground attractions. Another time, there were mud wrestlers and my sisters Josephine and Rosa dressed as Pink Panthers on high trapezes above the delirious crowd.”

King was also involved with the record label Jack Trax, owned by Damon D’Cruz and his brother Perry, from Luton.

“They brought Robert Owens and Larry Heard to London and I designed the cover for Can You Feel It by Fingers Inc.,” adds King. “At the time, with its gay and liberating connotations, House music had very few believers. But, strangely, Damon was one of them and he employed me to boost the label. I was 23 years old. Jack Trax was my second job because Delirium had difficulty making money, especially when you pay yourself last.”

Delirium moved to a Thursday at Heaven in March 1987 and embarked on a pure House music policy as orchestrated by the Watsons against a backdrop of strobes, lasers and smoke machine. “You’d hear Frankie Knuckles and me,” explains Noel Watson. “It was the early beginnings of that whole ‘Acid House’ culture in London. The crowd was gay, mixed in with our regulars, West End clubbers and early Boys Own crew.”

“Frankie Knuckles turned the whole club into a locomotive,” smiles King. “He decided to stay on for a couple of months. One day, we drove him up to Manchester for a gig at The Hacienda that wasn’t very crowded. Only Mike Pickering had heard of Frankie Knuckles before and he apologised for the lack of interest. He was one of the few on the same wavelength as us back then.”

By December 1987, Jack Trax had released a brace of House classics (such as Ralph Rosario’s You Used to Hold Me and Let The Music Use You by The Nightwriters) and three classic Jack Trax compilation albums.

“At the time, it was hard to convince people that House/Techno was the future,” laments King. “I remember, early in 1987, I bought a record that I knew would change everything – Acid Trax by Phuture [a tune whose repetitive, hypnotic, squidgy Roland TB-303 bass sound set both the name and the tone for the milieu] – but the record store guy was very condescending.”

In this discussion of whether it was the north or south that took to House Music first, I’d say that, as we were all buying ‘ imports’ from the same black music distributors (who would often drive around the country in an estate car supplying specialist dance music shops such as Groove Records or City Sounds in London, Spinn Inn in Manchester or Selectadisc in Nottingham), it happened in tandem as pioneered by a few of the aforementioned DJs both north and south of Watford.

By 1987, I was 27 and had ran The Wag club for five years and was always looking for something new. The talk of London clubland throughout that year was this new House Music from Chicago that was seeping over on import and there were discussions as to whether it would ever take off here.

As Robin King explains: “Any type of music is an evolution so no one can really claim to be first. In those days, there weren’t enough decent House records to last all night. So it depended more on the rest of the DJ’s repertoire. And like Trade or Heaven, Taboo was full of drugs.”

Unfortunately, Delirium closed its doors in December 1987, just as the scene started to take-off. “It was when Delirium stopped, that the floodgates opened,” exhales King. “Drugs hugely helped this along.”

In 1987, I opened a club called Afters in Clink Street, near London Bridge station, that started at 4am and finished at noon. The music was a couple of 90-minute 100% Acid House cassette tapes mixed by a bloke called Ron Hardy of Chicago’s Music Box, played on a boom box. Afters only lasted a few months as it was free to get in and we didn’t sell any drinks and most people were on Ecstasy. But, that’s why they were up all night dancing. Swings and roundabouts. Cest la vie.

Danny Ramping’s Shoom, running on Saturdays in the basement of the Fitness Centre in Southwark, had opened in December 1987, while Paul Oakenfold had opened and closed The Project and then moved onto Future at the Soundshaft at the back of Heaven in January 1988.

It was Shoom and another event, aptly named Hedonism, in a run-down furniture warehouse in Hanger Lane, that created the blueprint for the coming Acid House tsunami. 

Sweet Harmony: Rave | Today is at London’s Saatchi Gallery until 19 September.

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