In the mid-1990s the great British rave was fragmenting. In and around the capital, the dance was developing into something darker and more discerning: the breakbeats of UK hardcore were becoming jungle, soon to be UK garage and drum 'n' bass. As if wringing the colour from the bottom of the country like a flannel, the hinterlands north of London ran in the opposite direction. A sound emerged that flew in the face of trends and conventional pleasure, a sound from the outskirts of acceptability: happy hardcore.
For a handful of years, somewhere over the rainbow and under a dual carriageway, the UK throbbed to 180BPM kick-drums, pitched-up vocal samples and growling MCs. Ravers, from Birkenhead to Bolton, swarmed on industrial scale raves like Bonkers or Helter Skelter, crossing the country to see scene stalwarts like Slipmatt, DJ Sy and Force & Styles. Aerodromes filled with glistening bodies in flight jackets: the gurning faces of 10,000-strong crowds blowing whistles into endless midsummer nights.
Happy hardcore is a genre so violently flamboyant that the very mention of it makes most people grimace or laugh. This reaction is sort of understandable – what started as an answer to drum 'n' bass was quickly devalued by tin-pot remixes of pop-songs, or the influence of euro-trance. But I maintain that, at its core, the genre remains one of the most thrilling and uniquely British chapters in dance music history. Unbreakably naive and punishingly optimistic, it was music for dreams too big to ever come true.
Despite being six when it was in its prime, I feel a strange attachment to happy hardcore – and UK hardcore in general. My fascination isn't just with the music, but the community who were so devoted to it; travelling across the country and even making zines in its honour when the music press refused to pay attention. Based on this curiosity – and a drunken conversation with my editor – a plan came together. When I saw on Facebook that one of the scene's original progenitors, Billy "Daniel" Bunter, was organising a rave in Milton Keynes with fellow icon DJ Sy, I realised the stars had aligned for me to try the unthinkable. I was going to listen to happy hardcore for 48 hours.
The following events were documented in real time.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
From 4AM on Thursday morning, ending at 4AM on Saturday, I will not stop listening to happy hardcore, or UK hardcore of some kind. This can be with headphones or out loud. Happy hardcore in the bathroom, happy hardcore during dinner, happy hardcore when in conversation. In bed it must be played through laptop speakers at a clearly audible volume. No breaks, no cheats: 180BPM uninterrupted.
0400, HOUR 1: My alarm goes off and for a moment I'm unsure why I'm awake so early. It's black and silent outside. My flat is still. Then I remember why, and lean over to the left side of my bed to pull my laptop open. The YouTube playlist is primed, I click down and a Force & Styles set from 1997 begins to play. The Italo-keys and violent kicks smack the back of my head. It's too early to actually get up, so I figure I'll try and sleep some more while it's playing.
What follows is four hours of confused half-sleep as I drift between the bowels of a whistling warehouse and some weird dreams.
0800, HOUR 4: I come to as an MC is yelling: "Listen, we can't have you jumping around on the stage cos the records are jumping." My alarm is also going off. Contending with the nauseating blend of Force & Styles and The Today Programme, I decide to get up and take my laptop to the bathroom. Strangely, I'm not hating this. Yawning and clicking my spine in the shower while my laptop yells "hold tight Terry Turbo" at me. It's obviously a bit grating, but right now there's a novelty. The kick-drum is waking me up.
Back in my room my flatmate briefly pops his head in to ask what the noise is. Catches me listening to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Marusha, in my pants. He laughs nervously and leaves.
0900, HOUR 5: There's something really satisfying about listening to hardcore on a commuter train. I feel like every cyber-goth you've ever overheard listening to hardstyle on the 5AM Megabus. While everybody else leafs through their copies of Swing Time, I'm in Brafield Aerodrome putting my fucking hands in the air. This is going to be great.
1030, HOUR 6.5: I'm at work now. I can't really write with 180BPM ricocheting off the walls of my head like a marble rattling round a toilet. I just watched a video of Philip Hammond talking about WTO rules, which – paired with the hardcore – left me quite gassed for the prospect of a hard Brexit.
1330, HOUR 9.5: "Pacific Sun" by Force & Styles is my favourite hardcore tune. It's cheesy, yes, but it's also got that saccharine sadness to it. This is definitely the closest the UK has ever come to doing EDM, and it's a very British take on euphoria. Heartfelt and overblown, but tacky and tongue in cheek – unable to take itself too seriously. I am eating my lunch very quickly today.
1600, HOUR 12: Hitting the keys on my keyboard really hard, the screen is shaking as I type. It's quite an invigorating experience; feels as though I'm hammering out a really important novel when actually I'm just writing this pretty banal sentence about listening to happy hardcore. I am also starting to exhibit flu-like symptoms. Clammy hands. Got the shakes.
1700, HOUR 13: Things I think about when I listen to happy hardcore: waltzers, lucid dreaming, Steps, massive pingers, strobes, drawings of the solar system, boiled sweets, the M6, ponytails, astral projection, Vauxhall Astras. Just got caught punching my fist into my palm in time to the beat.
1800, HOUR 14: I went for dinner with my uncle the other day. I don't see very much of him, and halfway through his third glass of red he asked: "What exactly is your job?" He said he never knew how to explain it to people when they asked. That I wasn't a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer. He said he wasn't even sure if I was a journalist. "What do you do?"
1900, HOUR 15: The final chunk of the day has basically been spent shaking my leg and grinding my teeth. I feel very tired; tired right in the very centre of my being. Sometimes the wave crashes back around and I enjoy the music again, but mostly it's like being punched in the face over and over again by a cartoon character. I slump straight from the office into the nearest Wetherspoons to take the edge off. I can't read, I can't think. There is no space for anything else in my brain.
2000, HOUR 16: I forgot I'd said I'd go for dinner with my girlfriend this evening. Shit.
2100, HOUR 17: We sit in relative silence while I turn spring rolls into mulch and stare into the middle-distance. On one level I'm glad she's had a chance to see what my job is all about and get a glimpse into my creative process. On the other hand, we've only said about three words to each other. She's decided she doesn't want to stay over tonight. We've been talking about moving in together. Hope this doesn't change things.
2300, HOUR 19: I am going to go on a walk after this. I'm going to go to a forest. I am going to walk into the trees and be with them for a while. I am going to lie on the grass and breathe the earth in. I am going to find peace.
0800, HOUR 28: Left the music running through the night. To the best of my knowledge I got about four hours of patchy sleep, mostly broken by particularly egregious samples or MCs asking where the whistle crew are. Tonight our plan is to hop on a train and go to a hardcore rave in Milton Keynes with Billy Bunter, but I don't want to go any more. I'm scared my brain is going to dribble out of my ears.
1000, HOUR 30: Ran into some confusion trying to buy a coffee on the way to work. The person serving me was asking "cash or card", but I could only hear the hardcore, so kept replying, "Sorry, what?" Eventually they got fed up and told me to turn my music off when someone is talking to me. I stuttered for a second and just said "can't", like I'd seen a ghost.
Nobody in the office seems very impressed by my progress. May well have quit by lunch. Stupid job anyway.
1230, HOUR 32.5: I've decided to turn the volume up. I'm fucking blasting it out and I'm fully loving it, mate. I've broken through. This is fucking amazing. I'm actually flying now, lads. Yes, like a bird. I am flying like a big bird.
1500, HOUR 35: We have decided to go to an amusement arcade now. Not 100 percent sure why. Chris (VICE photographer) had wanted us to find a fairground to take some photos in, because fairgrounds have basically become the spiritual home of happy hardcore in the post-rave slump years. The best we could manage was some slot machines near the train station. I'm pretty much down to one-word answers now. A technicolour film has descended over the world and my joints are aching.
Had a go on the dance mat. Best I could manage was stamping my feet up and down like a stroppy toddler. Irrepressible urge to take my top off. The manager came and asked why we were taking photos. I crumbled completely; it was like I was being arrested. I just kept saying "journalist" until Chris stepped in and dealt with it.
1600, HOUR 36: I receive a text from longtime VICE nighttime correspondent Josh Baines, who is joining me for this evening's party. Time to go to the pub. The sensation I'm experiencing now is very hard to explain. It's a vivid dread that teeters on full psychosis before dipping back into catatonia. I am very far away from home.
1800, HOUR 38: The Old King's Head isn't the kind of pub you eulogise. It is busy, expensive, strangely located. But it is a literal stone's throw from the VICE office, so that's where I joined Angus on his odyssey.
As I wind down the alley way that brings you out to a perturbingly busy part of Shoreditch, I spy our man. Angus usually greets me with a "Hell-ooo, mate." That elongated "hello" has become a kind of social calling card; I hear that, relax and know that for the next two to four beers I am going to have a good time. It is usually a hello that's accompanied by a warm embrace. Tonight, there is no hug. There's barely a hello.
I make my way inside the pub and then out again, clutching two crisp, cold pints. Even under the streetlights and dimming evening sky, Angus looks grey. Ashen, almost. His jaw is clenched. I notice the tendrils of his headphones snaking down into his pocket, and I hear the hiss and stomp of hardcore. He is evidently, and understandably, anxious. JB
2000, HOUR 40: The journey to the rave doesn't help on that front. A few pints followed by a panicked run for packed train aren't, perhaps, the best way to start a big night out. Headphones firmly in, Angus looks like a man cast adrift. I can't help but wonder what exactly is going through his head at this point – where the hardcore is taking him, mentally.
Physically, it's brought him, and me, and Chris, to Milton Keynes train station. We stock up on ibuprofen, cigarettes and lager, admiring the station's strangely un-British scale. It looks like a Lego version of some imagined eastern European construction: blocky, bulbous and beautifully bland.
As we board the 20:54 to Wolverton, our final destination, I sense that somewhere deep in his exhausted state, Angus is getting something of a second wind. Two hours ago, words had become a commodity he could ill afford, his communication strained like a drunk bloke trying to translate Farsi into French into Finnish in the streets of Farringdon. Perhaps it was the atmosphere a Friday night engenders, perhaps it was the thought of spending six hours in the company of Billy Bunter. Whatever it was, the colour was back in his cheeks. Just about. JB
2100, HOUR 42: So the journey has brought us here: to an industrial estate on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. I can feel the kicks slamming against the plate of my sternum and I know it's time to finally take off my headphones. For the first time in two days everybody is listening to happy hardcore, not just me. I suddenly realise how isolated I've been during the past two days – how distant the rest of the world has seemed. Entering the space feels like falling into the mushy goo of my own brain. A wild grin spreads across my face.
Around us in the queue, middle-aged ravers are fizzing with excitement. The talk quickly turns to '96, to Helter Skelter, to Bonkers, memories of parties past. Billy Bunter comes over to greet us at the door. He's surrounded by devotees who yelp "it's Bunter!" as soon as they see him. He ushers us through to a room behind the stage for a quick chat with him and DJ Sy.
2130, HOUR 42.5: We sit on plastic chairs in a green room, a wooden door separating us from the muffled drubbing of the music behind it. Bunter tells us why tonight means so much to everyone in the queue. "For the kind of music we're playing tonight, Milton Keynes was the epicentre of that," he says. "People have come down from Leicester, Scotland and Bristol for this."
As a DJ starting in 1990, Bunter's career has followed rave through its various peaks and permutations, starting with house, through old school hardcore, jungle and happy hardcore. As he puts it: "When I started it was 118BPM, by 1994 it was 160BPM, by 1998 it was 180BPM."
When the music started getting fast and happy hardcore emerged, Billy tells me, the tastemakers didn't want to know. "Mixmag, DJ Mag – everyone was taking the piss out of it, but we didn't give a fuck. We drove into Sanctuary, Milton Keynes to play to 10,000 people in two warehouses. Fusion at Wembley arena, 10,000 people come out to hear us. Fashions come and go. We weren't a fashion. We were a way of life."
2200, HOUR 43: You always hear people say things like that about the rave days – it was a way of life, we were a family – but it's hard to know exactly what they mean until you see the scene reunited. There's something almost hysterical in the room: like the survivors of a great war reliving their trauma together. It's as though the MDMA-soaked days of stadium raves were so hyper-real and euphoric, they only really understand each other. You weren't there. You didn't see it.
Yet strangely – bubbles under my eyelids twitching in time with the music, swinging between exhaustion and elation – I feel like I've come close. I've binged two decades of hardcore decadence in two days, and now, delirious but punching the air, I have more in common with the shellshocked veterans of Generation Rave than I do anybody else in the world.
2300, HOUR 44: The buzz in this place in unreal. I can't remember the last time I experienced this sort of atmosphere on a Friday night. Which sort of makes sense. For a lot of the people here this is a chance to ignore the ordinary existence they slid into somewhere after 2003 and return to their halcyon days. Barely two minutes go by without somebody running over and shouting "I fucking love hardcore!" Horns blare and whistles screech with the same intensity, albeit not in the same numbers, as they did in 1997.
0000, HOUR 45: I'm still going. Forget a second wind, I must be on my 20th by now, but my hardcore-shattered psyche is holding up. In the smoking area we meet people who have travelled to the rave from as far away as Switzerland and Australia – granted, in both cases, to coincide with visiting family, but it's obvious what they're really here for. Next we're introduced to a father and daughter, the former introducing the next generation to the thrills of big room hardcore and Billy Bunter.
Next to the portaloos we're cornered by a younger raver waxing lyrical about hardcore. "It's the fucking best, mate, the fucking best. I love UK hardcore, happy hardcore, breakbeat, powerstomp, I love it all. I proposed to my girlfriend right before this. Was going to do it at the rave but didn't want to lose the ring."
We stop in our tracks. True enough, he calls her over. She's got a blue plaster around her finger to stop the new ring from sliding off, but the engagement story is legit. She never used to be a hardcore fan apparently, but now the pair of them are always raving together.
"She's Spanish… and even she loves it!"
0100, HOUR 46: The deeper we get into the night, the more the mania sets in. It's hard to tell whether everyone is five pills deep or if the wild stares are a physical hangover from a decade of caning it in the 90s. Mostly, when we ask, people assure us they are sober and have been for years.
A cynic might find something sad in the yearning for the past, and there are moments – like an MC shouting "IT'S 1996 AGAIN!" – when the nostalgia verges on melancholy, but the music saves it from itself. This isn't some Best of Rave night, an opportunistic grab for the wallets of gullible punters chasing a trip down memory lane.
This is a scene – the same scene in name and players that it was 20 years ago – which has been kept alive against the odds and against the tide of popular opinion. Everything about hardcore is defiant: from the exuberance of the music to the passion of its followers. Of course it will never die. How could it when there are this many people intent on living its memory out for the rest of their lives?
As our night draws on, the smiles stretch and distort into a blur of teeth and laser-beams. I lose track of how many times someone claps my shoulder and shouts the words "old school". The whistle crew bleed into a constant scream. I'm starting to flag.
0200, HOUR 47: After winding our way onto the stage we get Billy's attention long enough for a photo and a look at the crowd from on high. It's not Wembley Arena, but if you squint your eyes and keep the faith it could be.
Time to call a cab. Not long to go now. The end is in sight. We fall into a taxi which pulls us back into the centre of Milton Keynes via a McDonalds. The headphones are back on and I'm straight back into the Happy Hardcore Top 100 Best Ever playlist on Apple Music. Combined with the nightclub tinnitus, and the glucose crash of a thousand Jägerbombs, I believe my skull might collapse.
0300, HOUR 48: The lights are out in Milton Keynes. Our train clicks away from the platform edge and we slowly return to London. I check the time and realise the final hour is upon me. I'm not going to front in order to give this article some sort of emotional arc: I'm very fucking glad this is over. Happy hardcore isn't music you should listen to for 48 hours. Largely, this was an absolutely terrible idea.
Yet nothing can dent just how much sense it made tonight. It's not music to eat your breakfast to, but when it sparkles in the eyes of the people who were made by it, under the damp cloak of an October night, it's magical.
0500, HOUR 50: I'm home, lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling. I think, given time, I will have come away from this ordeal with an even greater affection for British rave's most maligned genre. For now, I will make do with trying to fall asleep as the pounding kicks of Force & Styles "Heart of Gold" tickle my skull.
Which would be fine, but I took my headphones off two hours ago.
Additional contributions by @bain3z
Photography by @CBethell_Photo