It was 20 years ago today: the year British dance music went wild

Yes, Britpop hit the headlines, but that was only part of the story. In 1995 dance music came of age, and a wave of hedonism hit the fields and clubs of Britain. Here some of the major musicians and DJs involved share their memories of an explosive year

The 90s: how were they for you? Judging by Channel 4’s TFI Friday revival and attendant retro special, we’ve remade the entire decade as an all-lads-all-the-time pub lock-in of car chat and bloke rock — the genetic cradle of Bantersaurus Rex. Watch any 90s documentary and you get the same garbled precis: Kurt Cobain shot himself, then Blur and Oasis had a punch-up at No 10 while Tony Blair drank Hooch and read Loaded.

August 1995’s “Battle of Britpop” – when Blur and Oasis chose the same day to release Country House and Roll With It, Blur “winning” this overhyped run-off between two mediocre singles — is the money shot in this retelling. History rewritten by the TV researchers. But there was so much more to the decade. There was another 90s – a bigger, broader, more exciting time – and its zenith was the miraculous summer of 1995. Britpop had revitalised rock, and an unprecedented explosion in dance music – sparked off by a second consecutive sunny and idyllic Glastonbury – transformed how Britain thought, listened, partied and came down afterwards.

This was the year of Leftfield’s Leftism, Tricky’s Maxinquaye, Goldie’s Inner City Life and Coldcut’s Journeys By DJ: 70 Minutes of Madness, of Hideaway by De’Lacy, Born Slippy’and Da Funk. After Tribal Gathering and Orbital at Glastonbury, dance became the main event at any festival. The DJ mixtape was supplanting the compilation CD. The independent Mixmag crept up on the indie mags and would soon outsell them. The demarcation between serious music fans and hedonist clubbers melted away. The best new rock stars (Pulp, Blur, PJ Harvey, Elastica, Supergrass) acted like pop stars, phobic of boredom and of being boring. Fashionable aloofness became unfashionable. The reason why 1995 sits with 1967, 1977 and 1988 among pop culture’s true glory years is that it was democratic. Everyone was into everything. And, for a very short moment, everything was amazing.

Orbital at Glastonbury in 1995.

Paul Hartnoll, Orbital

Torch-wearing brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll converted an entire new audience to dance music with Orbital’s 1994 Glastonbury appearance, and by 1995 their electrifying show was a must for festival-goers. Paul now records solo under the name 8:58, and his album of the same name is out now on ACP.

I loved 1995. I was living the life of Riley. I’d bought a warehouse in Shoreditch near Orbital’s studio, the Strongroom – for £155,000, can you imagine? – and it was a real little artists’ community. We hung out with Spring Heel Jack, Spiritualized, Future Sound of London, Jamiroquai, Republica… We had Robbie Williams falling down in his own vomit outside the pub where we played pinball. It was great fun. The Spice Girls were just starting their records in the Strongroom too. I used to watch Neighbours with the two Mels.

East London was pretty Dickensian back then. One Sunday morning I was woken up by a parade of ravers in mad hats crunching across my roof in search of some warehouse party. Here’s me, bollock-naked in a full-length window, screaming “Get off my fucking roof, it’s going to fall in.” That’s how I became friends with Tim “Love” Lee of Tummy Touch Records.

Playing Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage is a big step from the Other stage. We’d had our breakthrough in 1994 and suddenly we’re second on the bill to the actual headliners, Pulp. Terrifying. Though the Pyramid is better for big communal singalong bands, there’s a sharper sound at the Other stage that suits dance music better. We really noticed that. But they were two brilliant, hot, sunny Glastonburys and they kind of summed up the moment.

It annoys me that people still talk about 1995 as if it was only Blur and Oasis. Britpop was just a parallel to the massive outpouring of brilliant dance music at the time. It was a real youth culture revolution, the last big one really. Britpop? What was that? Just a load of blokes getting back into the 60s with a Union Jack guitar. I thought it was deathly boring, and I still do. The best thing to come out of Oasis was the Mike Flowers Pops version of Wonderwall. We got a whole easy listening revival in the 90s. There’s only so many times you can play the Orb or Chill Out by the KLF at 6am. AH

Leftfield’s 1995 debut, Leftism.

Neil Barnes, Leftfield

As half of London duo Leftfield, Neil Barnes helped forge a bass-heavy, dubbed-up sound that Mixmag christened “progressive house”. With ex-collaborator Paul Daley now working solo, Barnes has just released the first Leftfield album in 16 years, Alternative Light Source, on Infectious Records.

We put a lifetime of dance ideas into our debut album, Leftism [January 1995] but the massive success was totally unexpected. We’d have been happy selling 20,000 copies but it just exploded. And it just kept growing. It felt like this was music that had found its time. We’d been testing these tracks in clubs for years. Then suddenly it’s on the radio and we’re on Top of the Pops. It was mental.

You could never get away with an album launch like ours now. We hired the GLC chambers and told them it was a film event. Instead we threw a massive free party with DJs, people dancing in the council chamber, and a huge sound system. We spent the whole evening trying to avoid security. In the end they pulled the power at 4am. They found someone still in there on the Monday morning, lost in the corridors. I didn’t mind losing the Mercury prize that year to Portishead. Dummy was an amazing record, and we had a great night with Tricky and Oasis.

You can’t have that feeling of breakthrough again. All you can do is push the bar up. With the new album I wanted to make sure we’re part of what’s happening now. All you can ever do is reach forward. AH

Underworld’s Born Slippy as featured in Trainspotting.

Karl Hyde, Underworld

Karl Hyde formed Underworld in 1988 with Rick Smith. Darren Emerson joined in 1991, and in 1995, they released Born Slippy, the B-side of which, Born Slippy.nuxx, became ubiquitous thanks to featuring on the Trainspotting soundtrack.

It’s curious how history is being completely rewritten. I watched a BBC show about the 90s recently, and it was all guitar music, with a fleeting reference to the Prodigy. It wasn’t like that at all. It was an extraordinary, exciting time. There was a whole fusion of things going on between genres, with nobody looking down their noses at each other. We all grew up listening to John Peel, and always heard everything, side by side: Brian Eno, reggae, Be Bop Deluxe, Elvis Costello. We just took that attitude on.

Indie bands were going to raves and dance events all the time. Jarvis [Cocker] was always around, we became good friends with the Manics. The Heavenly Social [Central London bar and venue] was great for mixing. Noel Gallagher collaborating with the Chems says it all.

We worked above a record shop in Soho, and had also formed [design collective] Tomato. We were setting up clubs, spoken word nights, art events, publishing books. DJs would come in all the time, but also people like Bob Mortimer and The Fast Show cast. You felt like you could do anything. We’d go to the Drum Club at Soundshaft at Heaven every week, and meet up with people like Björk and Orbital, just to talk about what we were doing in the studio. Everyone would give freely of their secrets.

Born Slippy was huge for us. We’d released four albums in the 80s [as synthpop band Freur, and Underworld Mk 1] and sold nothing; now we had a 12in selling, on a label we loved [Junior Boy’s Own]. I spent the rest of the year trawling the streets for lyrics for our next record [1996’s Second Toughest in the Infants]. Revisiting that time recently on tour, we’ve been reunited with the attitude from back then, which has been amazing. JR

Kemistry & Storm with Goldie in 1996.

DJ Storm

The DJ duo Kemistry & Storm (Kemi Olusanya and Jayne Conneely) played a key role in the rise of drum’n’bass in the mid 90s, co-founding the influential Metalheadz label with Goldie in 1994 and launching the legendary Metalheadz Sunday Sessions club night in east London a year later. Olusanya died in a road accident in 1999. Conneely continues to DJ as Storm.

We were working too hard in 1995 to pay much attention to what was going on in the mainstream. Myself and Kemistry had just taken over the running of Metalheadz. People thought we had this big office but in fact we were running the label out of a one-bedroom flat with my mattress propped up in the corridor during the day. It was pretty underground.

Goldie’s dream was to have a label and a club. He said: “I’ll make the music, you’ll play it.” People were saying, “Who is this crazy guy with gold teeth from Wolverhampton trying to get me to play his dubplate?” We were a bit naive – we weren’t from London [the pair met at college in Northampton] so we didn’t know the score – but if you told Goldie he couldn’t do something, he was like, why not?

The music coming out of Metalheadz wasn’t seen as jungle. That seemed silly to me. We were like, hang on, we are making jungle but it’s 21st-century jungle. It’s moved on, it has much more drama and format.

In July 1995 we started running our club night at Blue Note in Hoxton, which back then was a rundown part of town. It took a few weeks but then it just exploded. By the end of 95 you could hardly get in. We had all these famous people coming down on a Sunday evening: Björk, Billy Zane, Robbie Williams. It was a heady place to be. We were all about pushing the music forward but the media were portraying us in a very bad light. Some guy was found smoking crack at Rage [a seminal drum’n’bass night at Heaven] and that was the end of Rage. I was never aware of any of that. It was a very minor part of the scene.

Kemi and I had started DJing together four years earlier, and by 1994 I was earning enough to give up my day job as a radiographer. As women, sometimes we were seen as a novelty on the drum’n’bass scene, but it soon became insignificant. If you came with a passion for what you were doing, you were accepted. We shared one set of records: I always knew a Kemi tune, she always knew a Storm tune. When she passed away I was lost for a while but the one thing I knew I could do was DJ. It was a complete solace for me. I always felt like she was right behind me waiting to go on.

The drum’n’bass scene still has a lot of energy 20 years on. It’s become a massive global community, and it gives me a lot of contentment to think we played a part in that. Goldie asked me recently if I ever imagined in the early days that it would get this big. I said yes, I never had a doubt. I always believed it would be a huge thing. KF

Mogwai’s debut single, Tuner.

Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai

Stuart Braithwaite is the guitarist with Mogwai, the Glasgow post-rock band he co-founded with Dominic Aitchison and Martin Bulloch in 1995. They have put out eight albums over 20 years: their first, Mogwai Young Team, was released in 1997; their most recent, Rave Tapes, in 2014. Mogwai are curating a series of shows at the Roundhouse until 5 July in association with ATP.

I remember 1995 vividly because it was the year Mogwai got together. By the end of the year we were planning our first seven-inch. It was all pretty hectic – an exciting time. 1995 was a horrendous year for British mainstream music. It seemed as if culture had taken a complete nosedive into real turgid, worthless, TGI Friday, fake-barrow-boy territory. It was very retro and anti-American. There was a falseness to it. Who were the worst offenders? I would say Blur [Mogwai printed “Blur: Are Shite” T-shirts in 1999] but there were a lot of other bands around that you probably can’t remember the name of but were selling half a million records a week because they’d taken coke with the guy from Loaded or something. It was the worst period in British culture I can remember.

But there was good stuff going on in the underground. Bands like Movietone and Flying Saucer Attack in Bristol, Hood in Leeds, Arab Strap and the Delgados in Scotland… The Glasgow music scene was the antithesis of what was going on in London. John Peel was the only person on the radio or down south who really got behind us.

The power has shifted away from the media over the past 20 years. Back in 1995, people really did look to the weekly music press and Radio 1 to find out what to like. Pretty bad bands could at least have the appearance of being popular. I don’t think that can happen so much any more.

Bands get known much quicker now thanks to the internet, but you need to play around for a year or two before you get any good. It took us a while to get good. If someone had said after a few months, go and record an album, it would have been really terrible and we might not have made a second one. We had time to find our feet. KF

Elastica live at Glastonbury in 1995.

Justine Frischmann, Elastica

Justine Frischmann co-founded Suede with Brett Anderson in 1989 but left two years later to form her own band, Elastica. They released their self-titled, Mercury-nominated debut in 1995. After the band split in 2001, Frischmann collaborated with MIA on the album Arular. She then moved to San Fransisco, where she now works as an artist.

When I first heard the term Britpop it filled me with dread: it felt too trite and like an over-simplification. The bands didn’t all go together. But there was a core gang of people who had known each other for a long time: we’d dated, been flatmates, played gigs together. All of us had our roots in British music and culture, and an interest in what it meant to be British. And everybody was sick of hearing about Seattle bands: Nirvana were great but it seemed like they were from a different planet.

Elastica’s musical influences were English, and we loved a lot of the English punk stuff, but we were also influenced by the early 80s new wave stuff from New York. It was irritating to be lumped in with Oasis. None of us liked their music. I remember being confused when I first heard them – it sounded like classic-rock power ballads.

On the tour bus we’d listen to Wire, Happy Mondays, Brian Eno, some krautrock. Clubbing was never really my thing. I couldn’t cope with house music, the beat always made me feel like I was going to have an epileptic fit. But I did have a kind of numinous experience watching New Order live at Reading in 1993 with Donna [Matthews]. There was something about the warmth of those keyboards and the Germanic insistence of the drum machine sounds. After that we were always interested in adding keyboards and sequencing, and talked about that night a lot over the next years.

Peaches supported us on our last tour and she was the person who convinced me to try out writing on a 505 [groovebox], but ultimately that stuff ended up being used for MIA rather than Elastica.

1995 was a challenging year. Even though Blur v Oasis getting on News at Ten felt triumphant in a way, it was also sad. Both the records were crap. The Great Escape [Blur’s 1995 album] felt like a sell-out, a parody. There were tabloid journalists following us around and kids camping outside our door. Graham (Coxon) was suicidal. He hid behind his amp at the Blur Ally Pally gig because he was so embarrassed to be part of it. Annie (our bass player) had walked out in the middle of the Lollapalooza, which was basically a US stadium tour. She couldn’t take it. We were all playing massive gigs and had so many crew we didn’t know all of them. The people in my band were all partying so hard that I was scared someone was going to die. Damon [of Blur, her partner at the time] had a stalker who poured petrol through our letterbox and set it alight while I was upstairs. I came downstairs to find the front hall on fire. We were both on tour for most of the year; I think we saw each other for a total of a few weeks.

It felt like it had all happened so quickly. It had gone from really exciting to tabloids and sell-out in just a couple of years. Some of it was really fun: 93-94 were two of the best years of my life, surrounded by smart, talented, optimistic people. By the end of 95 it was obvious to us all that it was over. It felt too quick. It was sad. But looking back on it, it was a rare opportunity to have witnessed something like that from the inside, and I’m grateful for it. KB

Liverpool’s Cream club makes the Granada TV news in 1995.

James Barton, Cream co-founder

James Barton co-founded Cream in 1992. A weekly club night at Nation in Liverpool, it expanded to Ibiza in 1994 and has since become a global dance music brand. Cream was acquired by Live Nation in 2012 and Barton is now the US events company’s president of electronic music. Last year Rolling Stone named him the most important person in electronic dance music (EDM).

1995 was a big year for electronic music. Dance was dominating the charts, Cream and Ministry of Sound were being described as superclubs. It was the era of the DJ. It was a crazy, hedonistic time. There was nowhere more hedonistic than Ibiza in 95. Cream has launched a night the year before. Manumission was huge. The island was full of DJs, promoters and TV crews. The club scene there had gone overground in a big way. If you were British and into dance music, you were going to Ibiza at some point between June and September, no question about it.

There was lots of money to be made from club culture. Not that we were great businessmen at the time. We were extremely ambitious in how we marketed Cream but unfortunately we weren’t very good at managing the finances, in some cases blowing tens of thousands of pounds on expensive photographers, designers and private jets for DJs. That period was very large, as we say.

There was a really intense rivalry between Ministry of Sound, the big superclub in London owned by James Palumbo, and Cream, owned by a few young guys from Liverpool. And we had a fan base. Kids were getting Cream tattoos. It was like a religion.

We started Cream in a dingy nightclub in Liverpool. Now I live in LA and work for a major events company. I’m still doing today what I did back then, but on a global scale. Electronic music is a huge industry now worth billions and billions of dollars. Electronic music has exploded in the States in the past five years.

I pulled all my inspiration from Tony Wilson at the Hacienda and the way Factory Records used to sell their brand. No one really remembers nightclubs from way back, apart from Studio 54, but everyone can remember the big names from the 90s.

Dance music travels better than rock and pop. We were taking our business to South America, the Middle East and across the US when a lot of rock bands were struggling to find audiences outside Britain. If you’re a teenager getting into dance music, I think you’re better served now than 20 years ago. Yes, there was an element of excitement with raves, but they were badly organised, kids got ripped off, the police would be turning up with dogs. Now events are more professional, the sound is much better, there are more options, more shows. It’s just better all round. KF

Skunk Anansie join Björk on Top of the Pops in 1995.

Skin, Skunk Anansie

The frontwoman of rock band Skunk Anansie, Skin (real name Deborah Dyer), started out singing jazz before signing with the band, aged 26, in 1994. She went solo in 2003 and is now an electro DJ.

In 1995 Skunk Anansie were part of this scene of bands that were playing the Splash club in King’s Cross. We were all friends – Oasis, Echobelly, Skunk Anansie. King’s Cross at that time was really sleazy, so if you wanted to be in a cool place you’d go to Camden. The clubs then were sweaty, really hot, and everyone smoked. Everyone drank beer and cider – this was pre-white wine…

House music was really taking off so I’d hang out with all of these rock dudes and then go to Trade in Farringdon, a really crazy gay club, and DTPM or Heaven. I liked the dance music scene – I was raving non-stop – but I never wanted to make it [the music].

People forget there was this massive underground club scene because it didn’t produce No1 singles. I suppose because I was black and from Brixton I felt like I could dip my toes in all different things – I could go to gay clubs, funky soul clubs, reggae clubs, but I was in a rock band.

We played Glastonbury for the first time that year but ended up only playing four songs. We didn’t know where we were going – we ran on to the stage, played our songs and ran off again. We thought nobody knew about Skunk Anansie but there were about 2,000 people in front of us on a tiny stage. We named our first album after Glastonbury – Paranoid and Sunburnt – because that’s what we were all weekend. We always wanted to be on tour: in the UK, Europe, north America… The crowds were mad as hell; it was all moshpits and stage-diving. I was one of the first girls who stage-dived non-stop. I remember one gig when I could see more stage-divers than actual audience. CJ

Spiral Tribe epitomised the free party scene in 1995.

Tom Hunter, artist

Tom Hunter was born in Dorset in 1965. He has won numerous awards, including the 1998 John Kobal photographic portrait award for “Woman Reading a Possession Order”, and was the first photographer to have a solo show at the National Gallery. He lives in east London.

I was living in a squat in Hackney in 1995: we were putting on raves or going to squat parties every weekend. Some nights you couldn’t even get down Mare Street, there were so many people. In the basement we’d have a big sound system pumping out dance music, upstairs there’d be a dub reggae sound system for all the stoners, and in the garden there’d be a live traditional punk or folk band – fiddles, guitars, bongos.

It’s quite hard now convincing my students I wasn’t a drug-crazed lunatic anarchist. I moved to Hackney as a tree surgeon and ended up in a squat because it was convenient. There were thousands of empty properties. It was such a different atmosphere – neighbours would say, “Thank god you’ve moved in and it’s not being used as a crack den.”

We never had any trouble with the police. They knew there were drugs involved: most of them would go off duty and come to the party. It wasn’t an alien world to them. But they had better things to deal with than this – muggings and robberies rather than a bunch of kids having a nice time.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 [which targeted gatherings with “repetitive beats”] didn’t eradicate raves, but it did mean they were on a smaller scale compared to huge events like Castlemorton. My friends from Dorset would take two speakers, a couple of decks, and go into the woods with 40, 50 people. Then people realised that there were huge amounts of money to be made in this, but to make money you have to go legitimate.

The techno did get quite tribal: everyone in groups like Spiral Tribe had short haircuts, wore minimal black clothes. It was very downbeat. I loved both rock and techno: on a Saturday night we might go to a rave in a warehouse in Hackney Wick but on a Friday I might go up to an old Irish pub and listen to some traditional folk-punk band, like the Tofu Love Frogs, and the whole audience was completely engaged. KB

Paul Oakenfold at Ku Club Ibiza in 1995

Paul Oakenfold, DJ

Paul Oakenfold is a producer, DJ and the founder of the trance record label Perfecto. In 1995 he became to first dance music DJ to play on the main stage at Glastonbury. Oakenfold was twice voted no 1 DJ in the world by DJ magazine. He now lives in Los Angeles.

Electronic music was becoming mainstream in 1995. I was being asked to support U2 on tour and DJ on the main stage in Glastonbury, and my record company Perfecto had started having big pop records. Doors were opening and we were stepping through them. It was a real whirlwind moment. Britain was a force to be reckoned with back then. For such a tiny country, we were putting out some of the best music. We still are.

When I go abroad, I realise how lucky we are in Britain to have Radio 1, because they play all kinds of music. When I first went to America, if you wanted to hear rock you had to tune into a rock station. On Radio 1, back then, you’d hear Public Enemy next to U2 next to an acid house record. It was great. By 1995, raves had developed into electronic festivals, which then started to bleed into the traditional rock festivals. That format, with all different kinds of music coming together under one roof – it came out of Britain. DJing has become a lot easier in the past 20 years. I used to carry two boxes of records and I had records stolen on a flight. It was stressful. Now I use a USB stick. It’s great but the sound is different. I loved the sound of vinyl.

Am I nostalgic about it all? No, I’m not. To stay in the game, you have to be in the moment. You have to move forwards, embrace technology, embrace change. You don’t have to like it but you have to be aware of it.

I never thought I’d see the world through a box of records. I’ve played in China, Vietnam, Alaska and Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city. It’s a long way from where I started off, playing with three friends at a club in Streatham. KF

Interviews by Kathryn Bromwich, Killian Fox, Andrew Harrison, Corinne Jones, Jude Rogers


Andrew Harrison, Kathryn Bromwich, Killian Fox, Corinne Jones, Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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