Why is 2019 so nostalgic for 80s rave?

Once the subject of tabloid moral panics, dance music’s early days are now being celebrated in books and galleries. What can 21st-century Britain learn from the ‘second summer of love’?

Visitors entered this summer’s Sweet Harmony exhibition through a tangle of ripped-up fencing, as if stealthily gaining access to a forbidden ritual. Inside, old-skool rave anthems rattled the Saatchi Gallery’s window frames. On the walls were hundreds of flyers alongside photographs of saucer-eyed youngsters waving air-horns and wearing T-shirts adorned with amusingly brazen drug references.

Dave Swindells, the man responsible for many of these classic photographs – and, indeed, many of the most memorable visual documentations of 1988’s summer of love – was struck by how much his images meant to strangers whose reckless youth he captured. “It’s emotional. I was getting messages from people saying how amazing it was that they were on the walls of the Saatchi!”

These ravers will be deep into middle age by now, so it is easy to forget that today’s gallery-fodder was yesterday’s tabloid terror. “Shoot These Evil Acid Barons!” screamed a Sun headline in November 1988. But perhaps the fear and fury generated by rave’s first wave is why this year’s significant flurry of interest in the UK’s last great pop-cultural sea change feels like more than simple nostalgia. Alongside Sweet Harmony, Joe Muggs’s book, Bass, Mids, Tops explores a wider continuum of British sound system culture that encompasses everything from lovers rock to grime. There are also forthcoming books on London rare groove (by Caspar Melville) and Yorkshire bleep and bass (Matt Anniss). Meanwhile, Jeremy Deller’s documentary Everybody in the Place, which aired on BBC Four in August, traced the roots of rave, locating its importance in terms of both folk memory and cultural subversion.

Megadog nightclub at the Rocket, 1994
Megadog nightclub at the Rocket, 1994. Photograph: Neil Stevenson/Rex/Shutterstock

But why has our desire to explore the breadth and depth of rave’s wider implications surfaced now? Have we simply reached the inevitable moment when the nation’s editors, curators and controllers are drawn from the rave generation? Or is our troubled present finding an echo in the late 1980s? Everybody in the Place, with its classroom setup and audience of modern teens, could easily have been the 2019 equivalent of a middle-aged man in 1988 expecting the original rave kids to be wowed by footage of Bill Haley and the Comets. But, somehow, it felt altogether more vital than that.

The distinct but intersecting scenes played out in the 1980s and 90s and documented this year shared an unmediated, self-generated quality. These events were communal and often lawless. They were not happening with anyone’s permission but instead were reactions to the prevailing currents of their time. Deller’s film analyses rave’s role in the traumatised aftermath of the miners’ strike. Rave, he proposed, was “a death ritual marking the transition of Britain from an industrial to a service economy”.

Swindells – who also took photos at the 1984 battle of Orgreave – agrees that “there was a strong anti-Thatcher thing going on” in early rave. His Sweet Harmony images and archive film in Everybody in the Place feel simultaneously distant and recognisable; familiar faces waving (and gurning) to us across an unbridgeable chasm. Maybe this explains its resonance in 2019. We have no shortage of things to be furious about. After years of fragmentation and polarisation, the joyful militancy of early rave feels poignant; the kind of unified response to political strife that this era is yet to produce.

Yet the potential for this kind of unity feels stifled by changes that can never be reversed. There is a moment in Deller’s film when one student has a realisation. “There’s no technology or nothing,” she says. “So everyone’s just in their own space.” This speaks to a modern fear concerning a loss of freedom, in the context of both state surveillance (pertinent given the regularity with which original rave culture involved breaking the law) and a more personal issue related to the self-curation of social media.

However, Muggs senses change in the air: “There will never be another acid house because it was a reaction to its times. But I think we are entering a period of backlash against this isolation and being in your own bubble.” Muggs’s book Bass, Mids, Tops sidesteps obvious figures, instead celebrating continuity – from production great Dennis Bovell to underrated Bristol breakbeat duo Smith & Mighty. “Bass culture,” writes Muggs in his introductory chapter, “is folk culture.” Perhaps that is what we’ve seen the beginnings of this year. The sudden glut of related writing and film and art is an attempt to place these subcultures in a wider social context.

While books and exhibitions make it easy to get lured into nostalgia about the past, Muggs is optimistic about the present. “There’s so much going on in club culture now. The number of women DJ-ing, non-white women coming through. If you go to places like Manchester and Nottingham, you realise how multiracial the scenes are. Things are cross-fertilising like they did in the 80s.” Nostalgia implies a dead end. But this year’s bracing blast of yesterday’s hardcore is more like a celebration; a reminder that another chapter can always be written.

Bass, Mids, Tops is published on 13 December by Strange Attractor Press


Phil Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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