The acid house scene of the late 80s and early 90s has become inextricably linked with ecstasy in the public consciousness. The fact that it's got "acid" in its name almost seems like an accidental detail, with nearly every account of the scene focusing on the role of MDMA. While it's true that the majority of the early ravers were off their heads on pills, a single tablet would set the average punter back £25, so not everyone was able to bosh an E at the drop of a hat. This is where the "acid" in "acid house" came in; those who wanted a cheaper alternative could get their hands on a Strawberry or Windowpane for a fraction of the price.
I wanted to find out more about the union between dance music and acid during this period, so I got in touch with "Mr. A." a dealer from Manchester who was active while the city's Madchester phase was in full swing. I first met him through football hooligan Colin Blaney, who I ghost-wrote two books for, and recalled Colin mentioning him as the go-to guy for club drugs back in those days. Here's what he had to say about the under-represented role of acid in the early 90s rave scene.
THUMP: Why do you think people always seem to forget about acid and only ever talk about ecstasy?
Mr. A: Because the E thing's still going strong. The pills are actually getting back like they used to be again. They're at a similar level of strength. That means that people can relate to what was going on with the Es, even down to the purity of them. They can't relate to the acid thing though, because not many people take acid in clubs anymore.
How popular was acid amongst people at the raves compared to ecstasy?
I'd say around 25% of people at clubs playing acid house were on acid. To put that in perspective, 75% were on ecstasy. People who couldn't afford an ecstasy tablet would take acid instead. There would be people taking Strawberries, Supermen, Ohms, Microdots, and Windowpanes, which was one of the strongest types of acid. Windowpanes were see-through and looked like little pieces of plastic. Some people would stick them on their eyes and absorb the acid through their eyeballs because it went straight to their head that way.
That sounds pretty hardcore.
Yeah, I never did that! All the different types of acid basically did the same thing, but some were stronger than others. You could also buy cheap types of ecstasy that were cut with acid and would produce an effect that was somewhere between the two. A lot of them had heroin in as well, so they'd give you a little bit of the effect of all of those drugs. People would trip a bit off them.
You'd get groups of people in the clubs who all took acid together. They'd make sure they were with people they felt comfortable with, so that it was less likely that someone would go under. You'd always get one person who took the lead in the group, and everyone would follow him so that no one got left behind and ended up stuck in a corner somewhere, not knowing what was going on. Everyone in the group would be dancing together, shouting "Aciiiid! Aciiiid!" blowing whistles and all that. It was important to be with the right people, or else you might have a bad trip.
Would you take any precautions to avoid selling to people who were at risk of a bad trip?
I wouldn't have sold acid to anyone who looked as if they could go under, or who didn't have a group of mates around them. Taking acid was definitely a group activity.
What were the main venues for acid-heads in Manchester at the time?
Conspiracy, the Haçienda, and the Thunderdome. They were all good nights. The Haçienda was a bit more upmarket than the other two, and less of the crowd was made up of grafters [criminals]. Conspiracy was good, but some people might have found it a bit moody, 'cause there were always lots of grafting firms [crime gangs] from different places in Manchester mooching about in there. Nothing ever went off though, 'cause they were all on Es or acid. The Thunderdome was full of thieves, football hooligans, and grafters, which meant I felt at home there. In spite of the people who went there, there was rarely any trouble, although the odd thing did go down from time to time. There was a famous incident where some gangsters turned up and shot up the front of the venue. It was mostly relatively peaceful considering the types of people who were in there, though. A lot of people liked the Thunderdome, because they thought it was a more down-to-earth version of the Haçienda.
Some people held acid parties in their houses as well. They'd just stay at home and play acid house and have a dance with their mates. They'd be tripping all night for a fiver, and wouldn't have to pay in anywhere, so it was a cheap night.
Did selling acid ever put you at risk of getting caught up in any gangland stuff?
No, because there wasn't as much money to be made from it, so no one made as much of a fuss about it. A lot of people would sell it as a sideline to the Es, or even to make enough money to be able to afford an E. You've got to remember that Es were really expensive back in those days; they weren't like they are now. The mark up on each acid tab was only between £2.50 and £3. You could make a lot more from selling Es, which was why there was so much trouble surrounding them.
Which would you say acid house was better suited to, acid or Es?
You could take either to it. The music was a little bit trippy, so it was good for acid, but also energetic, which made it good for Es. Some people found it a bit too fast to take acid to, and preferred to trip whilst listening to something more relaxed, like Bob Dylan or The Doors.
A lot of people have credited acid house with easing the tension between Manchester's football firms, with stories of E'd-up United and City hooligans dancing happily together. Did acid have a part to play in that?
Yeah, definitely. It had the same effect as the Es. You'd get groups from different football firms out at the clubs, but they wouldn't be looking for a fight; they'd all just want to dance. A lot of grafters and hooligans were changed by acid and Es, and the whole scene surrounding them. At the end of the day, you can't just go back to normal from being a happy, smiley person without any lasting effect from being like that. The acid also helped to open people's minds to new experiences.
The acid and the Es obviously didn't kill the violence between City and United altogether, though. Some members of United's firm that I knew would take acid on the train on the way to away games, and then have a row with one of the local firms when they got there. They'd bring a tape player with them and be tripping to acid house during the journey. They'd mostly avoid violence when they were at the Thunderdome or the Haçienda, but still fight with other mobs on match days. I wouldn't say the tension was stopped by either acid or ecstasy; it just meant it wasn't as tense during some nights out.
Why do you think ecstasy has remained popular as a club drug, but not many people take acid on a night out nowadays?
Well, one of the reasons is that Es have come down in price. Now that the quality's improved again, they're good value for money. There are also a lot of other drugs that people take in clubs nowadays that weren't really taken on nights out back then, which means that clubbers are less likely to take acid just because it's available and cheaper than some of the alternatives. People sniff coke all the time in clubs now, which was rare back in the day as well. Coke cost £80 a gram, so not that many people could afford to take it on a night out. The fact that Charlie is a lot cheaper is another reason people have stopped taking acid in clubs as much. A lot of people only took trips 'cause they were cheap.
Do you think acid will ever have a resurgence as a club drug?
Possibly. It's definitely getting more popular in Manchester at the moment.
Thanks, Mr. A.