Thatcher's War on Acid House
Apr 9 2013
First she came for the milk. Then she came for the mines. Then she ran out of things to come for, so she went after the soccer fans and acid house.
It might sound unlikely in an age where there are a pair of TV screens showing Sky Sports in every pub in the UK, but if you wanted to go toe-to-toe with the establishment at the tail end of the Thatcher years, the fast track to getting a beat down from the police was to watch soccer or listen to a series of repetitive records with the intention of dancing.
If you were looking for a measure of how the country has adjusted since Thatcher's reign, you could do worse than consider how two constants of the modern mainstream—soccer and electronic music—were once painted as folk devils by a regime fast running out of new things to point its police horses at.
Granted, soccer fans had been under few illusions about where they stood in the perceived scheme of things since the 70s, and anyone with industrial or union connections would have been aware of Tory policy well before Thatcher came to power in '79. But for young people, the harshness of the establishment’s war on the twin evils of soccer and dance music came as something of a surprise.
Photo by Gavin Watson
It wasn’t till I fled a party in Dalston in 1989 that I felt it firsthand. The motivation for my hasty departure was the sudden entrance of a group of cops based at Stoke Newington Police Station who were notorious in the area for their thuggery. They'd come in, take the numbers off their uniforms, and break things up about as violently as they could without firearms, swinging at male and female ravers alike. Say what you like about violence—and this is what the state often forgets when it chooses to apply it—but it sure focuses the mind. If you were looking for a way to galvanise some of the last non-pissed off people in the country (white, middle-class men on euphoric drugs, in my case) then sending the Territorial Support Group onto the dance floor was an efficient way to go about it.
However, until the boys in blue actually turned up to do the truncheon dance, you'd be hard-pressed to find many ravers in attendance who genuinely cared about the government's policies towards dance music (there's little time to talk about politics when there's sweating and jerking to get done). The photographer Gavin Watson—whose book Raving '89 documented acid-house raves in the late 80s and early 90s—agreed, telling me, "Politics became superfluous during rave. All of the bullshit that Thatcher was coming out with started to fall on deaf ears, because we were so wrapped up in the culture that we just didn't have time to care about politics."
A collection of Boy's Own covers.
Cymon Eckel, a co-founder of the iconic acid-house and soccer-culture fanzine, Boy's Own, agreed. "The kind of tragic thing about rave was that, unlike many other musical scenes, it was completely depoliticised," he explained. "I suppose you could say that people maybe wanted to escape the negativity of politics at the time, or that they'd just fucking given up."
Unfortunately, that's not how Thatcher's government saw it. "Because a few people had the power to assemble thousands of young people with a phone call, the government thought there was a political angle to it when there wasn't," said Andrew Weatherall, another co-founder of Boy's Own and an important figure in British dance-music history. "The government, rather than the people actually involved, started to politicize it by having the police follow them and film them, and by asking questions about it in Parliament."
Photo by Gavin Watson
The politicians and the media propagating this sense of outrage were, in Gavin Watson's words, "caught with their pants down—they were five years behind when they first even started to address it." In what was arguably the best example of how uninformed—and, apparently, averse to basic research—the press was when it came to rave and acid-house culture, one paper reported finding "ecstasy wrappers" littering one postparty dance floor. Watson elaborated: "Their attempts at propaganda were just laughable—that total sense of powerlessness. We ended up going to raves and just laughing at the government and their 'ecstasy wrappers.'"
And the hacks giving the scene a hard time in the press weren't averse to the lure of the rave scene, either. "Yeah, course there were journalists there!" laughed Weatherall. "There were people working on those tabloids, we knew who they were. Some of them would come to the parties."
Photo by Stuart Griffiths
Prior to the introduction of assigned seating at matches, soccer—like acid house—could thrust you into a crowd that might seem to be out of control from the outside. But what could feel euphoric to participate in became a spectacle to be feared. As people died at soccer matches and spurious narratives spun through the media suggesting the victims had only themselves to blame, so were acid house and its associated pastimes painted as activities whose participants must be protected from themselves. Or, failing that, clobbered.
I realize that this might be tough to imagine in an age when soccer players like Stewart Downing DJ in their spare time, but there was a time when plugging in a record player in an abandoned building brought a police response more appropriate to the assembly of a nuclear device. Whatever rattled the establishment about rave culture, in their own warped way they had a point. It was dangerous.
Before “repetitive beats”—as the 1994 Criminal Justice Act defined them—went mainstream, the shortage of places to hear that type of music meant that when ravers gathered, you had people of every kind listening to music of no particular genre under the influence of drugs that lowered their inhibitions. Soccer hooligans who attended those parties often talk of their amazement as men who would have fought one another for pleasure in the mid-80s bound each other up in loving, fraternal embraces and dissolved into the great perspiring mass of possibilities that unfolded at around 120 BPM.
Photo by Gavin Watson
I’m not one for elaborate conspiracy theories, but even the most simplistic divide-and-conquer analysis suggests that, from the ruling class's point of view, everyone—people of all races, backgrounds, and soccer-club allegiances—getting along like that wasn’t something that could be entertained for too long. At least not without sponsorship.
"Rave was more about unity," explained Watson. "And, unlike other scenes, there weren't really any faces from the scene for society to grab on to and scapegoat, which must have been frustrating for the government and media at the time. Because it was kind of this big, inclusive faceless mass, I also feel like the social pressures that got people seeking a release from rave did a lot of good things to make the racial divide less of a divide."
Although having to deal with police relentlessly busting up the fun was a buzzkill, looking back, Eckel can see the positives in the Thatcher government's war on youth culture. "Where Thatcher created that dearth of culture with her policies, and filled the high streets with brands, conformity, and mundanity, what you got is young kids looking to fill that void, which can only be a good thing."
Weatherall agreed, citing the politicization of the acid-house rave scene as something that, in many ways, actually helped it. "When politicians act like they're morally outraged and ask questions in Parliament, they get kudos by being seen to be ‘upholders of morals,’" he said. "But the people that are breaking the morals, the youth cult, they also get kudos, because young people like to shock. Shock sells records and sells tickets to acid-house parties. Youth culture is very symbiotic; the man and youth cult are two sides of the same coin, really."
Photo by Gavin Watson
And what happened next? Well, the forces of darkness got fiendish—more effective than any legislation was assimilation. First came the 1990 World Cup and New Order’s song written for England's national team. Now, city councils are doing the "Harlem Shake" for Comic Relief.
But I am happy, proud even, to say that many of the good things I’ve been involved with since—numerous relationships that abide to this day and much of what I consider to be the better side of my nature—were formed under those culture-crushing forces. It seemed at the time that any resistance we offered to Thatcher's political party pooping was transforming what might otherwise have been a matter of mere musical taste into something important and powerful.
As the woman who was the symbol of that era passes, we can say that even if you aren't having the best time of your life every weekend in a field near the M25 with thousands of other people, your right to party remains intact.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @thewrongwriter
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