Feature – UK Rave: A History Revisited

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For the fervent politicians & terrified parents of the early 1990s, the demise of illegal raves was a cause for celebration. For those immersed in the subculture, it was the destruction of an important part of many youths’ lives; a haven from the cut-throat politics of Thatcher’s Britain. This Saturday, November 21st, Red Bull Music Academy will seek to reopen the book of UK dance history, offering Leeds a free party drawn straight from the golden age of rave…

The foundations of UK illegal raves were established in the mid-80s, when tales of the famous all-nighters at Paradise Garage crossed the Atlantic, with cutting edge productions by the likes of Ron Hardy, Juan Atkins and Frankie Knuckles making their way into the hands of pioneering British DJs and the ears of a generation of youths feeling the full force of Thatcher’s government. Fuelling these parties was a magical fairy dust powder, MDA, which had come to replace alcohol as the poison of choice for many in New York, and which would change the face of dance music over the next decade.

Returning from Ibiza in late 1987, Danny Rampling set up London’s Shoom in Bermondsey, playing out a wide mix of Balearic, Italian and American house to south-London crowds for the first time. Soon joined by Paul Oakenfold’s Future In Heaven and Chris Sullivan’s Afters, Shoom became one of the chief proponents for acid house music in the UK, and it was not long before the music became a movement. Aligned with the famed yellow smiley icon that Rampling adopted for his posters, acid house became synonymous with the in-vogue pill that the icon was based on, and party culture started to seek a cosmic platform, spilling out from clubs and into more makeshift settings in 1989. The era of free parties had arrived, and with it a movement that would fill warehouses all along the M25 and seep out into rural areas across the country.

The significance of the rave movement was to be found in the community that it engineered. Although the music being played came with its own context, removal from Bronx ghettos and the gay clubs of New York and Chicago meant that it took on a new functionality. Played in long, winding sets, records surrender individuality, lacking clear start or end points as they are liberally pitched up and down to create a seamless and unbroken piece. In deployment, each track is recontextualised, mirroring the way in which most producers had themselves reframed samples in the process of making this new form of dance music. In the context of a rave, tracks were part of something bigger. Attendees were the same.

In the wake of Thatcher’s war cry of “there’s no such thing as society”, raves transcended simple hedonism and arrived at spiritual territory. Whilst a political presence stood ugly in every home, free parties became a form of escapism not just from the normal world and its usual pressures, but from the ruthless individualism being promoted outside. With DJs offering little in terms of aesthetic interest in comparison to live music, the cyclical rhythms that drove raves acted as a backdrop, with those on the dancefloor taking up position as the foremost subjects. Social boundaries which kept people apart in the world outside had no place at raves, where the constant beats led people on what many termed an almost ‘religious’ journey. For many, the addition of euphoria inducing drugs strengthened this feeling, but whether chemically enhanced or derived purely from the congregational atmosphere, the rave became a centre for the deconstruction of social barriers – an apolitical shelter from the tension building in wider society.

Ironically, whilst raves themselves carried no political message, operating in the space between laws rather than attempting to challenge them, rave culture was politicised by a government fearful of any forces that could bring together such a large and diverse mass. Tabloid press sensationalised free parties and cried loudly the dangers of drugs, stigmatising the youth participants as an uncontrollable and unsavoury part of society, threatening to lead a generation into the clutches of a dangerous and deplorable lifestyle.


A combination of legislation and the commercialisation of raves meant that parties were increasingly forced back into clubs, where they could be branded, marketed and controlled. The 90s saw pills and powders grow stronger, tempos grow quicker and crowds become more insular, and though the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 drew strong resistance for its attack on UK subcultures, in truth the face of rave music had by this time already changed considerably. No longer were raves an amalgamation of people, genres and backgrounds as they had once been considered, but were increasingly divided by musical taste and social background as ticketing led to greater need for brand identification.

That said, the remnants of rave culture are still highly visible even today. Though outdoor free parties of the scale of the early 90s are few and far between, authorities across the country still wince at the thought of being called to knock upon the door of a full-swing student house party, whilst clubbing culture thrives in most of the larger cities despite the gentrification of many formerly noise-friendly districts. For many, dance music is still a prime vessel for escapism, but it is hard to deny that although perhaps not yet lost, the spirituality of the movement has certainly become a rarer phenomenon.

It is this that Red Bull Music Academy will seek to stir from its dormancy this Saturday, with a party that will transport the mystery and intrigue of old school raves into the modern day. Just like days gone past, location and line up will stay secret until the day, with the party’s hosts guaranteeing nothing but a top-class line up and a memorable venue. The days of driving into the countryside to pick up details from a petrol station might be gone, but the free party spirit need not be.

Tweet #0800R1NG2RAV3 on the 21st November and all will be revealed. The free party must go on.


Andrew Kemp


(Photo credits: MagneticMag; RBMA)

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