Sugar Sweet: the pilled-up rave that united Belfast during the Troubles

Thirty years ago, David Holmes and Iain McCready’s event brought together communities who hated each other but needed to vent their fear: ‘Religion wasn’t a barrier any more’

‘Doing music as a career didn’t even register as something that was possible,” recalls DJ, producer and composer David Holmes. “Growing up in the Troubles, you just never felt things like that happened to people like you.”

Thirty years ago, Holmes was working as a hairdresser in a Belfast salon with fellow music obsessive Iain McCready. Holmes had been booking bands since the age of 15 and McCready was running underground hip-hop nights in the city. “We’re both blessed with a personality of not waiting around for things to happen,” says Holmes. “So we put on our own nights.” On 23 December 1989, the pair launched Sugar Sweet – initially called Base and then briefly The Face – a night that brought acid house and rave culture to Belfast with a mighty thump. Earlier this month, the pair threw a one-off 30th anniversary party to celebrate.

Throwing such parties wasn’t straightforward, given the Troubles were still ongoing. Holmes was born in 1969, the same year British troops were first deployed in Northern Ireland (in an operation that lasted until 2007). “We were a Catholic family living in a majority Protestant neighbourhood so we were open targets,” he recalls. “My house was pipe-bombed when I was four. I was in the bath. The Troubles was just a fucking lottery of death – people dying because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

While there had been a small and committed community of “freaks” running underground nights before this, things escalated with Sugar Sweet. “When acid house came in, things really [changed],” says McCready. Like everywhere else in the UK, the musical explosion came with a spike in ecstasy consumption. “When the ecstasy boom hit, that turned so many people on to the music for the very first time,” Holmes says.

Children playing among debris from hijacked burning vehicles after riots in west Belfast, August 1976.
Children playing among debris from hijacked burning vehicles after riots in west Belfast, August 1976. Photograph: Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

The combination of political tension, exhilarating new music, euphoric new drugs and a brand new place to experience them was a potent concoction. “Everything was so fresh and raw,” says Holmes. “All week you’re getting searched, there’s roadblocks, it takes three hours to get home – people are being shot on your fucking doorstep. But when you’re living in that moment, you don’t feel that you’re being affected by it.”

Holmes and McCready could immediately sense the crowd letting go. “If you spend Monday to Saturday living in fear and paranoia, once you cross into that club and you’re hearing this music from all over the world, while being psychedelically intoxicated, all that shit just disappears,” Holmes says.

“The Troubles manifests itself in your psyche in ways that you cannot even understand, so when you’re on that dancefloor and religion isn’t a barrier any more – the atmosphere was just beautiful. There was all this energy released. These communities fucking hated each other but among them you had groups of people whose religion was music.”

Many DJs were too scared to come and perform but the likes of Andrew Weatherall and the Dust Brothers (before they became the Chemical Brothers) played. Orbital named their track Belfast in homage. “The Orbital night was insane,” Holmes remembers. “Chime was the anthem at the time and people were crying on the dancefloor – literal tears of happiness. People were becoming incredibly enlightened and having a really serious emotional reaction because of what was going on politically.”

Paul Hartnoll of Orbital remembers it as being special. “It was incredible,” he says. “We’d play tracks like Satan and it used to clear dancefloors the length and breadth of the UK. In Belfast everybody stood there with their hands in the air and just roared with excitement.”

Hartnoll not only remembers a surging intensity to the crowd but also deep gratitude. “We did our set and we could not leave the stage. People were clambering on to shake our hands and say thanks.” A demo track they had at the time needed a name and the city provided it. “It was to try and give something back to Belfast that reminds us of our lovely time there and the warmth of the people.”

The night grew steadily until it filled its 500-odd capacity each month and queues formed to get in. The sound quality was a big pull. “We always had the most amazing soundsystems,” McCready says. “In 1989 to spend over a grand to hire a system was a lot of money. It had to be brought in via an 18-wheeler truck.”

Another ace that Sugar Sweet held was access to acid house’s Chicago heartland, thanks to Holmes’s mum. “Due to the Troubles I had a brother who left Belfast for Chicago because his best friend was shot dead on the corner of our street,” Holmes says. “My mum would go and visit him, which was like winning the lottery. She found Gramaphone Records, the best dance music record shop, and she’d bring back all these white labels. I didn’t have a fucking clue what they were – it was proper raw dance music fresh out of Chicago.”

Aesthetically, the night was aiming for something like a psychedelic 1960s party. Projections of 16mm films were screened on to the walls, alongside giant weather balloons, and giant custom-made flags. “Although they did end up accidentally looking a bit fascist,” recalls Holmes. “Because of the colour scheme and the SS for Sugar Sweet.”

So much love in the room ... ravers embrace at Sugar Sweet.
So much love in the room ... ravers embrace at Sugar Sweet. Photograph: Sugar Sweet

The close-knit music community in Belfast, along with reliable doormen, meant violence was unusual in the club. Nor did it become a magnet for police. “The police were aware and I’m sure they had a few undercover boys in,” McCready recalls. “But the people that were dealing were not operating along sectarian lines. It was people flying to London and buying a few pills to bring back. There was nothing dark or sinister going on in the background – it wasn’t like paramilitaries were running drugs in the place.”

Holmes also suggests that while acid house might have been front-page tabloid fodder in England, it was less of a focus in Belfast. “The police had bigger issues on their hands,” he says. “It went largely unnoticed here for a few years because of all the other distractions.”

Holmes recalls kick-out time for the club leading to some unusual scenarios. “The lead singer of the Sandals was last seen wandering through Sandy Row, which is a real serious loyalist neighbourhood, wearing a woman’s dress with a lampshade on his head saying ‘peace and love’ to everybody on the street.”

The success of the club even led to a record shop of the same name. “A beautiful example of mismanagement and naivety,” laughs Holmes. “It was such a badly run record shop. We’d have all these amazing records under the counter but wouldn’t sell them to anybody until we [played them in the club].”

The club’s cultural impact went further than the music, says Holmes, who went on to score films by Steven Soderbergh and Michael Winterbottom alongside a string of solo albums. “It inspired so many people who didn’t want to have a real job,” he suggests. “There’s something about that sense of togetherness, especially when you’re staring down the barrel of a gun, that gives you that extra bit of inspiration to think, ‘I want this to be more than once a month – I want it to be my fucking life.’ You can go down a very dark path in Belfast growing up during that time and I think the majority of people who came to this club chose something else.”

It had the same impact on Holmes and McCready themselves. “We were going through the same experiences,” Holmes says during a one-off anniversary party to celebrate. “We were having the best nights of our lives. I’ve DJ’d all across the world and none of them have come close to some of those nights at Sugar Sweet.”


Daniel Dylan Wray

The GuardianTramp

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