Thatcher's War on Acid House
She may have got the Falklands, but she couldn't get the pillheads.
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 football fans arranging recreational punch ups and acid house.
It might sound unlikely in an age where there are a pair of decks and TV screens showing Sky Sports in every pub, 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 filled in by the police was to watch football 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 – football 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, football 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 anyone younger, and especially anyone younger and southern, the harshness of the establishment’s war on the twin evils of football and dance music came as something of a surprise.
Photo by Gavin Watson.
It wasn’t till I fled a party in Dalston (yes, we had Dalston back then, too) 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 local area for their thuggery. They'd come in, take the numbers off their uniforms and break things up about as violently as you can without firearms, swinging for male and female alike. Say what you like about violence – and this is what the state often forgets when it chooses to apply it – but it doesn’t half focus 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 strong, euphoric drugs, in my case) then sending the Territorial Support Group onto the dancefloor was an efficient way to go about it.
However, until the law actually turned up to do the truncheon two-step, you'd be hard pressed to find many people who genuinely cared about the government despatching them. The photographer Gavin Watson – whose book Raving '89 documented, funnily enough, acid house raves in the late 80s and early 90s – agreed: "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 iconic acid house and football casual culture fanzine, Boy's Own, has similar thoughts to Gavin. "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."
Either way, what followed was an object lesson in how to turn hedonists into heretics. "Because a few people had the power to assemble thousands of young people with a phonecall, the government thought there was a political angle to it when there wasn't," says Andrew Weatherall, another co-founder of Boy's Own and now one of the most pivotal figures of British dance music history. "The government, rather than the people actually involved, started to politicise it by having the police follow them and film them, and by asking questions about it in Parliament."
Photo by Gavin Watson.
The Conservatives and the media propagating their 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 media were when it came to rave and acid house, one paper reported finding "ecstasy wrappers" littering one post-party dancefloor. 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'."
The writers giving the rave scene a hard time in the press weren't averse to the lure of the assignment either: "Yeah, course there were journalists there!" laughs 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 seating, football – like acid house – could pitch 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 football and spurious narratives spun through the media suggesting the victims had only themselves to blame, so acid house and its associated pastimes were painted as activities whose participants must be protected from themselves. Or, failing that, clobbered.
I appreciate that this might be tough to imagine in an age when Stewart Downing is permitted to DJ in his 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, in their own warped way they had a point. It was dangerous.
Before “repetitive beats” – as the 1994 Criminal Justice Act would come to define them – went mainstream, the shortage of places to hear that music meant that, when people did gather, you had people of every kind listening to music of no fixed genre, under the influence of drugs that dis-inhibited them without recourse to violence. Serial football heads of the day often talk of their dilated 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 120bpm as the decade drew to a close.
Photo by Gavin Watson.
I’m not one for elaborate conspiracy theories, but even the most simplistic divide and conquer analysis suggests that, from a ruling class point of view, everyone – people of all races, backgrounds or football allegiance – getting along like that wasn’t something that could be entertained for too long. At least 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 undoubtedly a downer, 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 agrees, citing the politicisation 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’. 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, things happened fast, and the forces of darkness got fiendish. More effective than any legislation would be assimilation. First came the 1990 World Cup, New Order’s England theme and soon the terraces and the Technics would be safe for everyone. Now, Manchester City 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 forces. It seemed at the time that any resistance offered to Thatcher's political scene-smashing was transforming what might otherwise have been a matter of mere musical taste into something tangible and strong.
As the figurehead of that era passes, it seems that even if you aren't having the best time of your life every weekend in a field with thousands of other people, your right to party remains intact – over and above even some of the more ancient civil liberties that have been steadily eroded since the battle of the beats was apparently won.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @thewrongwriter