In the first part of this series we looked at the genesis of modern dance music and its interplay with an audience of millions at home. Disco swept living room after living room off its feet and brightened the soupey greens, greys, and browns of the 70s suburbia of the imagination.
Our run through those early days — the start of everything that has and will follow — took us on a journey from the Hues Corporation's soft shoe sort-of disco shuffle up to the anarchic antics of The Hitman and Her's post-club debauchery. With that program, we touched on something pivotal, radical, and revolutionary: acid house.
This time around we'll focus on how television — the most mainstream of mediums — reacted to and reflected an epochal shift in youth culture, a change in attitudes and values that's as powerful and important now, in drab, dismal 2015, as it was in 1988.
The story of acid house itself doesn't need retelling, really. By now the route from Chicago to London via Ibiza is engrained in the memory. You don't need me, a writer born in 1990, to tell you what you already (hopefully) now. I want to look at acid and its permutations through the cathode ray prism of British television.
Before the advent of the multi-channel sensory overload offered by Sky made good old Top of the Pops an embarrassing irrelevance that clung desperately to whatever goodwill it had left before finally imploding and fucking off forever, largely taking chart music away from the country's state broadcaster, it was — or so I'm led to believe by the hazy combination of memorial retrieval and YouTube — quite good. It was, in the words of Silver Jews' David Berman, democratic and cool, reflecting as it did the tastes of a nation in flux.
The deeply strange, deeply disorienting sounds of acid house — actual acid house, acid house as it was before it mutated into circuit bent and whistle friendly hardcore — didn't really translate to the oddly stilted "as live" performances that were TOTP's bread and butter. After all, records like "Where's Your Child" barely dented the chart, so the chances of seeing Bam Bam on the Beeb were always going to be pretty slim. It was a blessing, then, for producers and directors alike when acid paved the way for the resurgence of the large scale outdoor party. Raving had arrived. But we'll come back to that.
There were, of course, TV moments that touched on the coattails of the sublime, even if they lacked the total authenticity of the real acid experience. New Order — early British champions of US club music in a period before every shit indie band clogging up the backrooms of pubs nationwide began to "have a dance element to their sound" — chugging, churning, and nearly gurning their way through "Fine Time" is, well, a fine time.
But as we saw with house and disco, the cool tunes that dominate clubland eventually either trickle through the machinations of the major label system and find themselves made available for public consumption, or inspire crap copycats and immeasurably dreadful imitations. This is how things work. That's just the way it is.
The rise of the rave changed British youth culture indefinitely and it's effects are still being felt today. These gargantuan paeans to the pleasure of drugs and dancing were defiant fuck you's to the baby boomers, raised on a diet of Steely Dan and cultural conservatism. This was British youth reacting to political conservatism. It was a reclamation of the self, a bold redefinition of identity, and, let's be honest, good excuse to take amazing drugs with your friends while you listened to amazing music. So enough of the socio-cultural bollocks from me, and back to the telly.
Rave music, hardcore, whatever you want to call it, was slightly more palatable to mainstream tastes and as such there's a far bigger archive of material to draw and reflect on. Aside from the documentaries and the scaremongering news reports — which, again, we will come back to — what we got, then, was an odd mishmash of the credible and the terrible, the culturally significant and the flash in the pan. What we got was a youth movement that lived and breathed in clubs and community centres and country estates the country over, transported to atmosphere-less recording studios, beamed into the living rooms of parents unaware that their children were willing and active participants in all sorts of nocturnal naughtiness.
Given that, as we've already established, the dance music that ends up in the charts is often — but crucially not always — a watered down take on current and future club classics, it's unsurprising that the hardcore the nation placidly consumed over their spag bol of a Thursday night, was often less than stellar. From the cod mystical bollocks of Guru Josh and his wailing saxophone and his incanting keyboard player who looks like a really sleazy Eddie Guerrero and the nudge nudge wink wink trudgery of the Shamen's "Ebeneezer Goode" to The Time Frequency robot-assisted toss, viewers were subjected to the kind of records (and performances) that were more high street wine bar than massive fuck off party in an air hanger.
There were delights galore, though, moments of Thursday night magic that offer a sneak peak into a period when it looked, and presumably felt, like dance music, and dancing, was going to change the world, or at least society, for the better. There's the imperial KLF doing "3am Eternal", Bizarre Inc absolutely smashing the genuinely euphoric and ecstatic "Such a Feeling", the glorious sight of Xpansions bringing the all time classic "Move Your Body (Elevation)" to the small screen. You've got Altern-8 blowing speakers and minds with "Come With Me", 808 State gamely miming through the terrifying "In Yer Face" and Shades of Rhythm's terrible/terribly entertaining "Extacy". None of them are true translations of the power of the rave but, then again, you don't expect that from early evening television. Especially not on a show that was likely to be hosted by Nicky Campbell or Tony Blackburn. Any reports that the pair of them were renowned for necking pills like they were Smarties and spending lost weeks in the woods of Hertfordshire losing their shit to early Carl Cox sets are nothing but hearsay.
Anyway. The fun wasn't limited to just the BBC. I mentioned it last time, but honestly, there's never a bad time to crack open a tin and enjoy a few episodes of The Hitman and Her and remember a period of history when ITV made a conscious attempt to represent the mores of the contemporary, rather than flatly assuming that everyone aged 8-80 believes that Britain is best represented by dogs with talent and Des O'Connor.
Altern-8! Carl Cox! Phantasy!
Blokes in bike shorts dancing to house! Hip house! Madonna karaoke!
The Pleasuredome! MC Bibbi! Bucket hats!
Wasn't that fun? Not as much as being there, of course, but fun nonetheless. The pharmaceutical fun I'm winking at here was always an implicit part of these broadcasts. Unlike the full-gurns and sweat-soaked spasms you'll see for months on end if you type "rave" into YouTube, it's unlikely that you'll catch a man who might be your dad's best mate's former lover's cousin's barber's nephew's older sister's son giving it the full Sunrise experience on Top of the Pops. Why? Let's turn to the news and investigate.
As you can imagine, the British media, always somewhat prone to sentimentally driven moralizing, didn't necessarily greet the acid revolution with a tongue-out-open-mouth. The tabloid press gorged on scare stories and breathless fear mongering, and the broadcast news wasn't much better. In a way, it was understandable. After all, this was a music and social scene that was heavily druggy and even though the drug in question was, well, ecstasy, broadcasters and newspapers can't be seen to completely condone or worse endorse drug taking. So they didn't.
The video below, taken from a BBC news report from 1988, and reported on just this week by our American THUMP colleagues, is a classic example of what happens when youth culture meets the old guard:
There's talk of "A sinister evil cult which lures young people into drug taking," which probably made sense to the generation who grew up in the war, before drugs became all trendy and fun and cool and acceptable in the free and easy super swinging 60s. Come on granny, it's only a little tablet of chemicals that you swallow and somehow makes you want to hug the fucking ground for six hours and dance like you've never danced before all the while sweating buckets and clenching your fists and watching your jaw swing past your knees, only to spend the next day in a severely depressed heap, crying out for Mini Cheddars, mediocre sitcoms and the warming touch of a human hand!
During the report we meet a bloke known as Acid Ted because back then newspapers were the kind of serious institutions that employed staffers to report on the weird phenomenon of young people enjoying themselves. Something which doesn't happen anymore, obviously. The curious thing about the news item is that such a niche, odd, genuinely strange music managed to infiltrate the mainstream to the point where even staid older gentlemen in milkbottle NHS numbers had some grasp on what acid house was.
ITV got in on the act too — which, oddly, feels more significant. If the BBC represents a kind of aloof authority figure, always striving for impartiality, always sort of quietly, but tangibly, on the side of the concerned, chattering classes, then ITV is a rowdier, dowdier, all together more real proposition. The BBC is warm beer in country pubs, cricket and scones, ITV is alcopops and bunk-ups, Blackpool rock and jogging bottoms. As such, you'd imagine that ITV'd be a bit more open to the idea of youngsters losing their collective (and very much individual) minds. But no.
Truly grim. And truly odd, given that Hitman and Her was about as an explicit endorsement of drug taking as you can get. This World in Action documentary, first broadcast in 1988, is a better watch, if not totally understanding of the innate appeal of taking drugs with your mates and dancing to weird records.
Still, things rarely make sense in their own time and it's often that only when we look back, from the safe perch of the present, that the past is understood. We look back on moments, events, eras, with the kind of clarity that makes the contemporaneous experience of things seem redundant. We'll end this chapter in our story by zooming into the future to see how it used the present to assess the past. Basically, here's a mainstream British TV documentary on acid house and rave culture and a chat with film and TV director Shane Meadows about the recently broadcast This is England 90 on Channel 4.
TV could never replicate the feeling of being at a rave, could never let go on and double drop, could never blow it's whistle as much as it wanted. There are reasons for that — legal ones, mainly. What we have, then, is an odd archive, an archive that tries to demonize and celebrate the last time — Britpop aside — that British youth culture was at the forefront of the world. It's a strange, occasionally dispiriting, often delightful body of work. Things would soon change. Next time around, we'll tune into a TV landscape that looks a lot less colourful.