Feb 29, 2024, 06:28AM

Rave On In Ecstasy

How house music (almost) changed the world.

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Dave Hendley. “Trafalgar Square, May Day, 1994.”

I’m one of those people. I’ve managed to miss out on every post-war youth movement there was.

I was born in 1953 and witnessed the rock ‘n’ roll explosion of the 1950s, but as a child, without any direct involvement. I was more aware of what was going on in the 1960s, as a teenager, but still too immature to participate. I was 14 in 1967 when the West Coast music scene began to infiltrate the British psyche, mainly through John Peel’s Sunday afternoon program on the BBC, Top Gear. Listening to Top Gear on our old valve radio in the kitchen, while doing my homework, became something of a religion for me. I first heard Captain Beefheart and the Mothers of Invention, along with British underground groups like the Soft Machine and Pink Floyd, and recognized the evolutionary potential of such advanced musical forms.

I was in my mid-20s when punk hit. I was a belated hippie, just back from the obligatory journey to the East, having travelled to India in 1975-76. Punk was such a relief after the dreary seriousness of progressive rock, with its rock operas and classical pretensions. Punk brought everything back to basics, simple repetitive chord structures and down-to-earth lyrics. It was music that anyone could play and allowed aspiring artistic types such as myself the opportunity to dream, that we too could find our own form of expression one day.

I loved the first Clash album. I remember dancing to it with a girl I fancied. We invented a dance to go with it: the straitjacket. You had to wrap your arms around yourself as if trapped in a restraining garment, but leap around joyously to the music as if trying to escape. On reflection that seems a perfect metaphor for my life at the time: straitjacketed by convention, trying to release myself using punk energy. I liked punk music, but didn’t feel able to dress the part, being too old and staid by now.

Music tends to go in 10-year cycles. It was rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, psychedelia in the 60s, punk in the 70s and rave in the 80s. I was a single father by then, living in a shared house with a bunch of disgruntled freaks like myself, disengaged from the conventional world, still trying to find my role in life. I started going out with a woman a little younger than myself and, not long into our relationship, we discovered Ecstasy. That’s a wondrous drug, an empathogen that opens up the possibility of emotional and spiritual engagement with other human beings: a fellowship of being. I’d recommend it to anyone, assuming you can get nice clean, unadulterated MDMA, that is, and aren’t palmed off with an inferior or dangerous substitute. That’s the trouble with the drug laws. We hand over distribution of such potent and psychologically useful medicines to the criminal fraternity, who rip us off and sell us something that might cause us harm.

The reason Ecstasy’s illegal has nothing to do with any danger that it might pose to the user. Rather it’s dangerous to the status quo, to the sense we have that we’re isolated and powerless in a meaningless universe. Ecstasy makes it clear that none of this is true. We’re not isolated as long as we have our friends about, and every human being is a friend on Ecstasy. Likewise, we’re not powerless as long as we have allies and comrades, people with love in their hearts, which is also true of everyone on Ecstasy. Finally it reminds us that the universe is anything but meaningless: that it’s vibrant with the meaning we find in relationships, in the love we share with our fellow creatures, human and non-human, upon God’s good earth.

Acid house started in the late-1980s in Chicago. It was a development of disco, music designed to dance to. It was cheaper to produce than disco, which depended upon orchestration and trained musicians able to read music. House is mainly computer-generated so can be shaped in the studio by anyone with a musical ear and a knowledge of computers. It shares one characteristic with disco, however, the “four-to-the-floor” beat, where every thud of the bass drum is given equal emphasis: the difference is that in disco the four-to-the-floor is provided by a live musician, who may quickly grow tired. House music, on the other hand, uses drum machines that will never get tired and are always perfectly in time.

It’s that thud-thud-thud-thud electronic underpinning that defines house music and which makes it so powerful. It’s like the heartbeat of the Primal Mother. Combine that with Ecstasy, which opens up your heart, and synchronizes it with everyone else in the space, and you have a perfect medium for Ecstatic union on a cosmic scale. One of the early pioneers of house, Frankie Knuckles, said of the Warehouse club in Chicago, where the music was born, that it was like “church for people who have fallen from grace.” That describes the atmosphere at a rave or a free party: the gift of grace, a beckoning from the conscious universe to all us lost and isolated humans to embrace each other and return to our source.

I went to my first rave sometime in 1991. I wrote about it in the first chapter of my first book, Fierce Dancing. You can read that here. I used a quote from the I-Ching as an epigraph:

“The sacred music and the splendour of the ceremonies aroused a strong tide of emotion that was shared by all hearts in unison and that awakened a consciousness of the common origin of all creatures.” I-Ching 59: Dispersion (Wilhelm/Baynes 1967).

After that I started going to raves on a regular basis. Only we didn’t call them “raves,” we called them free parties. I got involved with a group of people who I thought of as my tribe. Paul Anderson, Nicky Wilson, Jenny Pitt. Those were such expansive days. It felt like the whole world was about to change. And indeed it was, but not entirely for the better.

The free party scene began to get big in the UK in the early-1990s. Initially parties took place in private clubs or in urban venues such as warehouses and squats. Later they moved into the open air, absorbing the remnants of the hippie festivals that survived from the 70s. A number of colossal sound systems, called rigs, began to circulate around the British landscape, setting up free parties on squatted land in quarries, woods and fields. The most famous of these were DiY and Spiral Tribe.

Inevitably this caught the attention of the establishment. One particularly large-scale free festival, on Castlemorton Common in Worcestershire, became the turning point. It lasted for five days, from  May 22nd-29th 1992 and caused outrage in the press. All of the major sound systems turned up and the music was continuous, causing much annoyance in the sleepy English countryside.

Questions were asked in Parliament. The local MP at the time, Michael Spicer, made a speech: "New age travellers, ravers and drugs racketeers arrived at a strength of two motorised army divisions, complete with several massed bands and, above all, a highly sophisticated command and signals system. However, they failed to bring latrines. The numbers, speed and efficiency with which they arrived—amounting at one time to as many as 30,000 people—combined to terrorise the local community to the extent that some residents had to undergo psychiatric treatment in the days that followed. Such an incident must never happen again."

The establishment response was the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 with its provisions against squatters, ravers, road protesters and hunt saboteurs. What all four groups had in common (aside from their youth) was they utilized ancient squatting rights as part of their lifestyle. Trespass had never been a criminal offense under British law. This is because there had always been a dispute over the ownership of land. How did the landed gentry acquire their property? By being descendants of the marauders and mercenaries who came over with William the Conqueror. They stole it.

So the Criminal Justice Act made trespass illegal for the first time in British history, under certain specific circumstances, as it applied to its targets. For example, there were provisions against so-called “trespassory assemblies”: assemblies of more than 20 people held on a piece of land that might cause “serious disruption to the life of the community,” a clear reference to Castlemorton. There was even a definition of rave music, almost certainly the first and only time that a musical form has been outlined in legal terms in an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom. Section 63(1)(b) defined “music” as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”

A number of groups came together to oppose the Act. There were three marches. The first, called in the name of the Advance Party, took place on May Day 1994. I was one of three names registered with the Metropolitan Police as the official organizers of the march. The other two were Debby Staunton and Michelle Poole. It was a lovely sunny day as we set off on our way to Trafalgar Square from Hyde Park. About 20,000 people joined us. We had a mobile, bicycle-powered sound system with us, called Rinky Dink. Once we got to the square there was a party. People danced on the monuments and bathed in the fountains. A wonderful time was had by all.

I became an unofficial spokesman for the movement. I was writing for the Guardian by then, and used my column to promote the cause. There was a TV program, Let’s Face The Music And Dance, which aired on June 15th, 1994. It was written and narrated by me. You can see that here. After that there was front-page piece in the New Statesman, Party Politics, which came out in July 1994. I was, very briefly, famous.

There were two more marches, on July 24th and October 9th. The last one ended in a riot as some of the protesters attempted to get two sound systems into Hyde Park on the back of articulated lorries. They wanted to carry on partying, as they had in May, but with bigger rigs. The police blocked their way. People climbed up on top of bus shelters and police horses were brought in to disperse the crowd.

The marches failed to stop the Act, which passed into law on November 3rd, 1994. However, they created the beginnings of an anti-capitalist alliance that continued to hold demonstrations in the UK for much of the 1990s. New organizations arose, such as Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass. Protests continued, against road building and other desecrations of the countryside. Mass trespass and rave remained common tactics, often in combination. For instance there was one famous protest held on the M41 motorway in Shepherd’s Bush in London. Six thousand people took over the motorway for about eight hours on July 13th, 1996 and held a party. There was a banner which read, "The Society That Abolishes Every Adventure Makes Its Own Abolition the Only Possible Adventure," a Situationist slogan. There were dancers on stilts wearing huge, wire-supported dresses, strutting to the pounding beats of the sound systems. It was only after the motorway had been cleared that it was discovered that, hidden beneath the dresses they had placed pneumatic drills, with which they punched holes in the motorway and planted trees.

The movement became a global one. Environmental groups proliferated around the world, protesting against the globalist agenda, culminating in the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Such protests often employed tactics first used in the UK by the rave-inspired organisations of the early-90s. Protests stopped being a serious business and became, temporarily, expressions of joyousness and liberation, often referred to as “festivals of resistance.” And underneath it all the thudding 4/4 beat of house music continued to sound, like the primal heartbeat of the universal mother.

Follow Chris Stone on X: @ChrisJamesStone


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