“Finding liberation somewhere else”: acid house, Thatcherism and the present-day parallels

The ecstasy-fuelled, acid house-soundtracked Second Summer of Love and police clashing with striking miners remain two of the enduring images of the 80s and the mood of society. For different reasons, they were symbols of divided communities, socioeconomic hardships, police brutality and a disillusionment with a neglectful ruling class. Is there a valid relationship to be made between the two at the time, and is there a comparison to be made with the difficult times we now find ourselves in? We speak to journalist, broadcaster and DJ History co-founder Bill Brewster to discuss some answers.

Bill Brewster, A Guy Called Gerald and Greg Wilson discuss how nightlife saved the world at Eventbrite & Mixcloud present Nightlab on 28th Nov in London. Register for free tickets

While Thatcherism aimed to be less interventionalist for businesses and everyday life, the opposite can be said for their approach to dance music and raves. Why did a bunch of young people taking drugs and dancing in fields pose such a threat to British society? 

It actually took the authorities a while to cotton on to what was happening. I’ve heard – and seen – examples of the police being very friendly in the early period, because they simply had no idea what was really going on. Once they did, it posed two threats. The first was hundreds of thousands of young people gathering in what they perceived as slightly anarchic circumstances, outside of the confines of decent society. In some ways, I think they were correct to fear it, because it was a rejection of mainstream society in favour of a new and untried way of living, even if only for a short period. Second, and perhaps more dangerous from a free market perspective, it was a rejection of alcohol and pubs. A whole generation of kids stopped drinking alcohol in favour or taking recreational drugs. That’s what much of the legislation was about, really; it was driven by panicked breweries and their pals in Parliament. The invention of alcopops was specifically aimed at this ‘lost’ generation: day-glo drinks for the day-glo generation.

Source: Vice

Many of America’s house and techno originators have talked about the UK catching onto their music in big numbers long before their local crowds. Do you think the rise of this counter-culture can be accredited at all to the social conditions that Thatcherism created? 

It’s more complex than that, but Thatcher’s policies certainly created a fertile breeding ground for what happened and I’m not sure it would have happened in the way it did without that. However, we also did have a strong club culture in the UK long before acid house that stretched back to jazz clubs in the ’50s and the Mods in the ’60s dancing to ska and R&B. Acid house happened quickly in the UK precisely because there was an infrastructure in place already – plus the size of the UK made it simpler than parallel movements in the US.

With hindsight, the sentiments of the Summer of Love in Thatcher’s final years as PM runs in direct contrast to her desertion of the working class and division between rich and poor. At the time, did people make the connection and consciously rebel against it through dance music? 

Thatcher never deserted the working class. She was never with them in the first place. There’s a strange contradiction at the heart of acid house in that it was simultaneously both entrepreneurial and anti-authoritarian. At one end of the scale you had sub-Thatcherites like Tony Colston-Hayter, throwing huge parties for great profit, but then there were people like DJ Fabio who absolutely saw it as a rebellion. “We were like, ‘Fuck Thatcher! Fuck the Tories!’” he told me. “So you really did feel like an outsider. We felt glad to be not part of Thatcher’s Britain. We’re nothing to do with you. We don’t do nine-to-five, man. We’re fucking outlaws. It was a secret fucking society.” I’m not convinced that everyone felt like Fabio, though. But I certainly did. I was going raving in Troll at the Soundshaft on a Saturday night and then standing on a picket line at News International in Wapping on a Sunday. In a lot of ways it was much more revolutionary than punk, but it never really had a manifesto like punk did.

Gavin Watson, Raving 1989

What do you see as some of the key protest songs of that era? 

Protest is not the right word, because it was expressed in a completely different way. So, similar to disco, it was often about creating an alternative society away from the mainstream. Many of the most popular songs in the Loft in New York, for instance, were about leaving this world for a better place, which is a secular expression of a gospel sentiment: Charles Earland’s ‘Leaving This Planet’ and ‘Life On Mars’ by Dexter Wansel, being two relevant songs. The best example I can give is ‘Promised Land’ by Joe Smooth, because it was all about finding liberation somewhere else, which summed up perfectly what was going on with acid house.

Thatcher’s privatisation of businesses particular hit the coal industry in the North and Wales. Do you think dance culture in those regions had a unique reaction (compared to London) as a result? 

It’s a bit reductive to suggest that. I don’t think you can say Barnsley had loads of mines shut down, so they were more into acid house than, say, Reading. There are so many factors in making it happen in a particular area, from having DJs or promoters with the ability or vision to throw parties, venue availability etc. I think Thatcher’s policies had a generalised oppressive effect on people – especially young people – that was expressed in a variety of ways, from the rise of Red Wedge and other youth organisations, Poll Tax protests, Miner’s strike, and acid house was a product of it, too, but in a much more nuanced way.

Jive Turkey, Sheffield

After Thatcher left office, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 put an end to a lot of the outdoor raves and pushed dance music into the clubs. Everyone knows about London’s Mud Club and Manchester’s Hacienda, and parties like Shoom. What were some of the lesser-celebrated but vital clubs and parties around Britain during that time?

Graeme Park, who’s maybe better known for his Haçienda residency, originally started out at the Garage in Nottingham, which was a brilliant little club. DJ Parrot (aka Crooked Man) and Winston at Jive Turkey in Sheffield, The State in Liverpool, Konspiracy in Manchester, Slam parties in Glasgow. One of the best of the lesser known parties was one in Bletchley (suburb of Milton Keynes), run by Evil Eddie Richards called Outer Limits. “I was the first person to bring over Louie Vega, Jeff Mills, Todd Terry, Richie Hawtin,” Eddie told me. “All the guys from Detroit I brought over. They stayed in my house! I’ve got pictures of Moby and me in my back garden…in Bletchley.”

With greater hardship, comes greater assertion of identity, creativity and self-expression. Focussing on the underground music reaction to socioeconomic conditions, do you think there’s a comparison to be made between the 80s/90s and what we’re going through now with Brexit, austerity, populism, Trump and all that good stuff? 

Well, there are historic parallels between creativity flowering amid economic hardships, whether it’s punk in the 1970s or jazz during the 1920s, and certainly acid house fits into that continuum. Obviously we are right in the middle of a potentially sustained period of political instability, so the conditions are certainly ripe for a new movement of some description, but given we’ve not had one of those for 30 years it’s hard to see where it will come from. Though I suspect if it does, it may well be from somewhere completely unlikely.

Gavin Watson, Raving 1989

In a music context, what are some of the most positive initiatives you’ve seen in response to these difficult and divisive times?

The most refreshing thing currently happening is the amount of women DJs suddenly coming up. It’s been long overdue, but still nice to see. At ground level, but equally valid, is the charitable outlook of the guys behind The Cause in Tottenham and also another party in Leeds called Cosmic Slop; both great initiatives, but also, as important, musically interesting too.

Dance music certainly isn’t the answer to all our problems but, taking lessons from the past that we’ve been discussing, do you think it can play a role in healing the divisions and inequalities in our society at the minute? 

I think it would be a bit mental to suggest that dance music is a great healer, as if it was an alternative form of acupuncture. But the desire among young people to go out on a weekend or whenever and forget their problems for a few hours is something humans have been doing for millennia, from drinking reindeer piss in the winter darkness to raving in a warehouse in the East End. The need for us to come together and dance is, I think, innate. It may not be DJs leading the dance in a thousand years, but if we’ve still got a functioning planet left by then, you can guarantee that people will still be gathering, dancing and, for a few hours at least, forgetting how shit the world is around them.

Bill Brewster, A Guy Called Gerald and Greg Wilson discuss how nightlife saved the world at Eventbrite & Mixcloud present Nightlab on 28th Nov in London. Register for free tickets


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