It's Not Over Yet: Remembering New Rave, 10 Years On
It was once called "a piss-poor youthquake that will soon go out of fashion", but new rave set a precedent for everything that's going on right now.
There are some stories that never stop being told. If you'd taken a huff through one of Altern8's gas masks at Fantasia, or spat at someone at the Sex Pistols 100 Club gig, if you managed to get past Steve Strange at the doors to the Blitz Club, or remember seeing Sonic Youth on their first UK tour, then people will be asking you about it forever. They'll be buying you drinks, asking how tall Thurston Moore is in person, if the pills were really that strong then. You might even be asked to be a talking head on a BBC Four documentary, reminiscing about how brilliant it all was. You'll stare down the lens and say that when you entered the room, every stranger felt like your mate and you'd never seen anything like it before.
But nobody wants to know what new rave was like. Nobody asks you what it was like buying red jeans in the women's section of H&M because nowhere else was stocking them yet. Nobody wants to know the real reason ADHDJs split up. Nobody asks you what it was like getting kicked in the face by Dandi Wind at 333.
This month we should be celebrating new rave's 10-year anniversary. Instead it has been expunged from our cultural consciousness. It's strange knowing that the music scene where you spent your most formative teenage moments has been whitewashed by some kind of totalitarian nostalgia committee for being in bad taste.
To be fair, at the time, people didn't take it seriously either. The Guardian's John Harris called it "a piss-poor youthquake that will soon go out of fashion". Even Klaxons, the band that started it all, later claimed it was just "a joke that got out of hand". Essentially, new rave was something that existed for about eight months in 2006. It started out in New Cross, moved into the fashion world and died when T4 presenters started wearing primary-coloured jeans.
I'm not bitter about new rave's bad reputation, but I do think the scene's influence has been underestimated. I believe it was singularly responsible for extinguishing the dying embers of the Camden indie atrocity, and paving the way for the inclusive, experimental self-aware music scene that we're living through today.
To see how important new rave was, you have to go back to London in the mid-2000s, a time when like The Libertines, The Rakes and The Others weren't just popular, they were sexy. It seems difficult to believe now that being in a guitar band is considered a financially unviable hobby like model trains or World War II reenactments, but back then indie had captured the city's imagination. There were hundreds of bands and hyped gigs every night of the week. The likes of Hot Club de Paris and GoodBooks had young fans queueing up round the block to see them. It was absurd.
The only problem with that period was the music - which was undeniably, unequivocally terrible. It was very male, very white, very concerned with looking clever and very dull.
The indie discos of the time had cottoned on to that. In the grand of palaces of north London and the pre-Crossrail West End, where boys in M&S singlets used to prance about hoping to scouted by Hedi Slimane, the big tunes of the night, the ones they brought out when everyone was at peak-fucked and ready to rut, were never really guitar tracks. It was more stuff like Justice Vs Simian, "Deceptacon" by Le Tigre, the Soulwax version of "Standing In The Way Of Control", the Soulwax version of a lot of tunes.
This realisation that the tracks with synthesisers, big beats and robot voices were infinitely better club fodder than say, Thee Unstrung, was, I think, what birthed new rave. The simple truth is that electronic music is just more fun.
Klaxons, the band who ended up as the scene's leaders, were the embodiment of that indie unease. They met in New Cross, south London, and wanted to bring something into their sound that wasn't just lumpen guitar. So they started reading futurist literature and listening to old rave records. There was never a plan to change the course of music, or even to incorporate a big chunk of rave culture; they were just trying to make something more literary, more colourful, more British, a sound that wasn't just another pastiche of the Ramones.
It was actually Angular Records founder Joe Daniel, the man who released the Klaxons' first few singles and helped engineer their success, who invented the term new rave, and even he believed it was just a subtle adaptation of what was going on in London then. "It was convenient that it looked like a reaction, whereas we were just trying to add ideas to a scene that was less inventive. At the time, a lot of the New Cross scene was into early Rough Trade bands – indie pop, post-punk – whereas Klaxons kind of seemed like a breath of fresh air, a bit of fun. It was a sense of 'let's get wasted and have a good time', rather than argue about whose trousers are tighter."
Daryoush Haj-Nafaji, now fashion editor at Complex, was in the thick of the scene at the time, as a nightlife reporter and a collaborator with the designer du jour of new rave, Cassette Playa. He sees it as a totally necessary swaying of the pendulum from America to the UK. "The coolest night in London back then was called 'Back To New York'. You had this overarching idea that being cool was about recreating late seventies New York. And it was incredibly white, very "rockist", very retro. People were hungry for something British and a bit arty. It was reaction against "indie indie", because only an idiot couldn't like hip-hop, couldn't like grime, dance music. It became impossible to only like indie."
My first experience with the scene came through a MySpace bulletin promoting a warehouse rave hosted by Klaxons and possibly Matthew Stone, somewhere in Shoreditch. There were lights, lazers, smoke, rolling pupils, people telling each other that they shouldn't worry about their A-Levels because they were beautiful. The DJs were playing old piano hardcore tracks and nobody seemed like they were there to sleaze. It was the night I took my first pill. The police kicked us all out after about 15 minutes and it was superb. Everyone was dressing in unity, consuming as one, but unlike previous incarnations of youth culture, there was an implicit understanding that it was a bit ridiculous. We knew that what we were getting up to was never going to earn much reverence in the annals of British music history.
"Everybody knew it was a joke," says Haj-Najafi. "There was a seriousness to it, Klaxons definitely liked rave, but the whole point is that the term 'new rave' was a joke."
But regardless of how silly it was, a wider scene soon sprung up. The internet seems to remember new rave as bands like Shitdisco and New Young Pony Club, who signed to major labels and released proper albums. The NME even put on a "rave" tour which featured Klaxons, CSS and The Sunshine Underground. This side of the scene was basically indie bands who had the odd synth player and fans who covered themselves in glowstick juice.
But for me it was something much more nebulous and niche than that. It was a general movement towards dance music and colourful streetwear which is mostly unrepresented on the internet now, bleached from the earth in Justin Timberlake's great MySpace purge.
New rave lived in the Sodom and Gomorrah of the underage Hackney Wick warehouse raves, lawless parties where feral teenagers cried tears of glitter and ketamine.
To me the scene was personified by young DJ collectives like Teens Of Thailand, Silvelink, Faggatronix, Cleft Palettes and Str8 Necklin who moved away from the "Ferry Corsten in a white linen shirt" clichés of dance music at that time and presented an eclectic, anarchic take on club selecting, bumping grime, 8-Bit, Baltimore, house and crunk tunes from beneath the brims of their fitted caps.
It was a scene that had its superstars, MySpace versions of the Warhol crowd, in the shape of ad-hoc fashionistas like Molaroid, Niyi, Carri Munden, Namalee and Matthew WOWOW. All of them DJed, all of them designed, all of them partied, but none of them really did that much. It even had its own unofficial magazine in the shape of SuperSuper, which became the scene's equivalent of punk zineSniffin' Glue, a near-definitive guide to the scene's character and aesthetics which never really referenced the name of the scene it was covering.
New rave never had its own nightclub. Instead it lived in the outlandish east London fashion night Foreign and later the Sodom and Gomorrah of the underage Hackney Wick warehouse raves, lawless parties where feral teenagers cried tears of glitter and ketamine. There were also regular clubnights like Chalk, Troubled Minds and Transparent, which played mostly Soulwax remixes of indie tunes downloaded off Palms Out Sounds and were filled with kids in ludicrous clobber, desperately trying to turn anything into a party.
Much like the New Romantics, it was a scene without a real sound, but with a definite look. It marked its territory with its visual identity, in the way kids were trying to out-do each other by looking more weird and ad-hoc and cartoony. At one point, my look was as follows: purple and yellow Air Force ones, red girls' jeans from H&M, a vest, a plaid shirt and a lop-sided haircut. It was perfect teenage experimentation, a way of finding a cohesive identity through sartorial competitiveness. Throughout the new rave years, a friend of mine was wearing an intact tea-pot around his neck. He's never really lived it down.
It was only natural that the fashion world would take notice. It began with a few in the know designers like Cassette Playa, Kim Jones, Nicola Formachetti and Gareth Pugh. But once new rave reached the fashion world, it went global. "It was really weird but somehow, by some ether, all the Paris shows in 2006 were doing new rave," says Haj-Nafaji.
Soon after, a diluted, reduced version of the scene was in action. TopShop and H&M started making boys' versions of coloured jeans. Lesser acts with little of the original idealism - remember Does It Offend You Yeah? - started to self-identify with the scene. The outrageous looks of the early months had been co-opted by the norms. At sixth forms across the land, Cassette Playa hoodies and neck-crockery had became close to uniform.
"I remember Klaxons playing Liverpool, and then Coventry, noticing that people had started to copy the looks that were on their MySpace, almost exactly," says Daniel. "Another massive moment was Reading 2006, where Klaxons were playing the new bands tent, which was rammed. Afterwards there were countless kids running up to them, telling them how amazing they were, and they were all dressed like Klaxons."
By the time E4 youth series Skins came along the year after, it was clear that the whole thing was now just a series of clichés, a bunch of glowsticks and coloured Wayfarers. This was a Madame Tussaud's imitation of the new rave I knew.
But even as a series of day-glo formulae, it's easy to look into new rave and see that it helped lay the foundations for a lot of what's around today. For my generation, it helped us move away from guitars and towards producers, teaching us that house, techno, jungle and garage weren't just for people that wore silky black trousers and Paco Rabanne aftershave. It got us into things that weren't just hash or Carhartt. It formed the basis of our future nightlife experiences.
It saw what was going on in the grime scene at the time, for example, and presented it to a wider audience, nearly a decade before Cottweiler or Kanye did. "Casette Playa was putting JME in shows, nights like Troubled Minds were putting grime artists on when no one else would. So grime was definitely a part of it. Obviously it's a futuristic sound, so people appreciated it, especially as there was no real 'new rave' music," says Haj-Nafaji.
Grime wasn't the only genre embraced by the scene - house, electroclash, queer-punk and the new wave of disco all found a home within new rave. Compared to the indie gigs of a few years earlier, the new rave scene felt diverse and open, just as accessible to kids who grew up on UK hip-hop as it was to Cajun Dance Party fans. "It stopped England becoming a vessel of New York - it helped us embrace the beautiful productive reality of London life, which incorporates all classes and races," says Haj-Nafaji.
It seems to me that through its inherent ridiculousness, its total disregard for considering what might look or sound good in years to come, its flagrant disposability, new rave opened up a generation of kids to a much wider culture. Because nobody knew what it was, anything could be part of it, and it probably was, at some point or another. It introduced a lot of people who were blinkered by the dominance of the indie scene to more culturally grounded musical movements like grime and dubstep. It stopped people dressing the same, and encouraged outrageous lawless fashion. It took away that useless sense of seriousness from youth culture, a feeling that had dogged it since the Strokes stopped smiling back in 2001. It stopped people using the phrase "Albion" and it took club culture away from the heads. In a way, it set the precedent for everything going on right now. Young people are obsessed with Skepta and Nazir streetwear and illegal parties and, alas, ketamine. It's almost as if nothing has changed.
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