How the 90s rave scene formed underground clubbing of today.
It might seem unlikely today as you'll find a pair of decks in just about every Stockholm bar, but nightclubs in the early 90s were rare. And hosting underground raves used to be a real hassle. As a result, they were few, but many of those that worked well eventually grew to become legendary – until a series of unfortunate events and legalisations suffocated Stockholm's underground club scene in the late 90s.
One of the most infamous underground clubs of that time was Docklands. In December, it's been 13 years since Docklands closed after years of battles with the authorities. This weekend, Docklands was supposed to resurrect for three days and nights as it celebrates 20 years since it opened. However, it was announced today that Docklands has to cancel – only three days ahead – as Nacka council has refused to grant permission for the three-day celebration. Parties that the kids of today refer to as 'underground clubs' and 'open airs', were, 20 years ago, not only referred to as underground clubs but most commonly as 'raves.' These raves of the 90s faced issues not entirely unlike Docklands's anniversary party.
"I went to the first ever rave in Stockholm in 1990. It was called True London Style Rave," Michael Elmenbeck tells VICE. He founded Bon Magazine after years of working as a journalist and nightclub editor for various newspapers and fanzines. Before pursuing a career in publishing, however, Elmenbeck was one of the key people who made sure raving even became a thing in Stockholm.
"At that rave, there were members of the Moderate Party's youth organisation even though they weren't politically involved at all. Someone had joined [the party] for the sake of renting the venue, lying about it being a political youth gathering. The mixture of people was unbelievably crazy with only around 30 proper ravers. But it was the coolest thing I had ever experienced – just because it was so underground and in the middle of nowhere in Kungsängen."
As with most youth cultures, it was the UK scene that inspired organisers in Sweden. Kids who had travelled to Britain in the late 80s where they experienced raves first-hand or read about them in magazines such as i-D and the Face brought their experiences back home. Photographer Gavin Watson documented the early days of the British rave scene. In his book Raving '89 (published by DJhistory.com) he recalls that "When raving came along there was no choice: going up the pub pretending to be hard, or standing in a field with thousands of beautiful people watching the sun come up? There was no choice." Pretty much the same limited amounts of options were soon to be found in Stockholm in 1990. And we can partly thank Elmenbeck's rave enthusiasm that the scene became a thing in Stockholm in the first place.
After experiencing the True London Style Rave (which was promoted to the public on tiny two-centimetre-small flyers) Elmenbeck decided to start organising underground raves on his own. The first rave he put his head into was together with Mårten Attling who had organised the True London Style Rave. "We managed to get the biggest venue we could possibly get our hands on. We rented it from Järfälla council and we had to lie and tell them that it was to shoot a movie, have a concert, and host a youth event [laughs]. That wasn't really true. We just wanted to have a crazy rave."
Things had to be set up in complete secrecy. Elmenbeck installed an answering machine connected to his mum's landline. When people called there, an automatic message informed them about a location and time for busses that were mainly booked for the occasion. These would bring the guests to the party. "Everything was very complicated before the internet and mass emails," says Elmenbeck. To limit the risks of the event leaking out to the wrong people, guests wouldn't find out about the location of the rave until about a day before.
Attling and Elmenbeck's first rave was held in Kallhäll's trading estate outside of Stockholm. The venue was huge. They managed to get sponsors, and allegedly the most advanced laser in Scandinavia was installed at the place. It was the kind of laser that can cause people to go blind. "It had never been used before... We had shooting laser on the dance floor during the entire rave, which, when I think about it now, probably wasn't the smartest thing," says Elmenbeck.
Laser was something completely new at the time – many of the attendees had never seen such a thing before. It obviously caused a stir. Elmenbeck had booked DJ mda who put on an acid house set with around 700 raving kids, accompanied by a laser show out of this world (most probably fucking up the eyesight of several kids), and the best sound system available at the time. Elmenbeck was 16 years old.
The most common way to get people to notice your rave at this time was through the making and distribution of flyers. These were distributed at clothing shops and record stores that were considered "cool." They were also to be found at Swaj Café, which was a coffee shop in Södermalm where the techno crowd hung out and talked about the latest releases they had purchased – often at record stores such as Mega Store in the city-centre. At Mega Store, you could have 20 DJs fighting over the latest releases, which could be limited to only five units. Another store was Glenn Wilson's Planet Rhythm where you'd be taken care of by techno legends Adam Beyer, Cari Lekebusch and Jesper Dahlbäck, who worked there at the time.
After the success of his first rave, Elmenbeck went on and hosted a few UK-inspired raves in Stockholm's Slakthushområdet [Swedish for the Meatpacking district]. But due to unwanted guests messing with the vibe, the search for a better place began. He heard about some crazy people hosting an underground club called Tritnaha in Vasastan, which was mainly a rock club at first. Attling and Elmenbeck got in touch and founded the infamous Deep in Bleep club at Tritnaha.
"My aim with Deep in Bleep was to play the loudest electronic music possible and invite the loudest people around," says Elmenbeck and continues, "a new music genre turned up from Warp Records with acts such as LFO and the Orb. They used these new unique bass sounds, which someone referred to as 'bleep' and I thought that sounded kind of cool. I wanted to start a club that only focused on this new music genre." Elmenbeck describes this new style of bass as something you'd only feel like vibrations within the body, which is common today but at the time it was barely heard of. 'Bleep' was, in fact Intelligent Dance Music, or IDM, which shaped electronic music to what people associate as techno today. Deep in Bleep was born and IDM started to persuade Swedish ravers.
Behind Tritnaha were Anders Varveus and Mats Hinze. Founded in 1990, it was Sweden's first underground nightclub. Varveus and Hinze were two students who were active in the Freedom Front – a political network founded by young libertarians. Rather than being music fans, Hinze and Varveus were firm believers in liberal freedom and were fed up with Sweden's laws and legislations on parties and booze. At this time, the choice was limited in Stockholm as all clubs closed at midnight, and the only place where you could get hold of decent alcohol was at Sweden's state-owned liquor store, Systembolaget.
Tritnaha was in a way a metaphorical erected middle finger to the authorities. They illegally sold booze and didn't close until the last person standing. It eventually turned into Freedom Front's tool to rebel against what they considered to be idiotic laws. And so, this new rebellious nightclub with its Berlin-inspired-all-black-painted-raw-industrial-interior turned into something of a hotspot.
"There were like five-room flats for sale in the house [where Tritnaha was located] for around 150,000 kronor [€16,000] but nobody wanted to buy them. Everyone knew that there were fucked up parties all night, at least three times a week at this location. It was like a madhouse and our parties were the sickest, with the sickest music, and sickest sound," Elmenbeck recalls. In comparison, today, on that very same address – Sankt Eriksgatan 89 – a three-room apartment costs 5.4 million kronor [€450,000]. Today, the Tritnaha venue houses a mosque.
[Tritnaha] attracted a wide mix of criminals, models, celebrities, and people who just wanted to experience a good adventure.
To further understand what Tritnaha was like, I called up Carl Martini who used to work there. "You know, one night, a wasted J.O Waldner [the legendary table tennis player] could show up with two models under his arms," says Martini. Other famous people who allegedly visited the club were Anna Book, Björn Borg, and Sweden's former Minister of Finance, Anders Borg. "The club attracted a wide mix of criminals, models, celebrities, and people who just wanted to experience a good adventure," Martini continues.
But Tritnaha's staggering popularity in illegal clubbing alongside their nonconformist attitudes apparently drew unwanted attention from the police. One of their first encounters with the authorities – but certainly not the last – was when Attling and Elmenbeck's Deep in Bleep had installed smoke machines. The smoke was so thick that it leaked through the venue's vents, out on the streets. A handful of police officers stormed the party assuming that something was on fire. But instead of finding people covered in flames, the police were introduced to a brand new youth culture. This was the high-energy, laser-shooting, electronic-music-blasting, smoke-filled, whistle-blowing, jumping-kids-culture, referred to as rave. As they didn't know how to respond to the situation, the police officers left in confusion.
The success of Tritnaha got more people interested in the business of underground clubs. This resulted in somewhat of a boom of underground nightclubs popping up in Stockholm in the early 90s. Sweden's politicians at the time had pretty narrow-minded ideas. But in an attempt to push the underground scene over ground, they changed the law for opening hours at Stockholm clubs, from 1 AM to 5 AM. This was also an attempt to manage this new emerging demand from Sweden's youth.
Tritnaha's founders, Varveus and Hinze, saw the law-change as a step in the right direction. To celebrate their victory they hosted a party called "The Victory Party" with free booze all night. That was the last party at Tritnaha in Vasastan.
Tritnaha moved to Nackagatan in Södermalm in 1992. To the disgrace of the authorities, Varveus and Hinze opened yet another nightclub in 1994, called Le Garage. It was located on Herkulesgatan in the city-centre. Although it was licensed to be open to 5 AM for members-only, its organisers continued to host parties until the last man standing. Martini, who at this time worked as the pointer at Le Garage says that "it's still to this day Stockholm's best club venue. The interior was concrete and steel."
Le Garage soon became a prototype of Docklands, which eventually became Varveus and Hinze's ultimate goal of a club venue. The inspiration came from techno churches such as E-Werk in Berlin. They wanted huge rooms, high ceilings, concrete, steel, and filth. Basically everything you associate with today's Berghain. They also had the DJ standing in the centre, similar to a god.
Le Garage was Stockholm's first house music club. It quickly grew and became an IT-venue. Elmenbeck was brilliant in mixing house nerds with regulars, alongside the IT-people. "He even hosted fashion shows for brands such as Diesel," Martini says. "I remember when Leila K had a release party for her second album [laughs]. She got so shitfaced that Mats Hinze had to throw her out." Elmenbeck continues, "Le Garage was designed to be a real club venue, which Tritnaha hadn't been. That was only a big empty room where we managed to play sick music. With Le Garage, on the other hand, Varveus and his crew had spent plenty of time making an insane club venue."
Elmenbeck put plenty of effort into making Le Garage a place that attracted other people than electronic music nerds who had previously been the majority of the crowd at Deep in Bleep. By hosting fashion events and exploring creative ways to market and host parties at Le Garage, Elmenbeck managed to attract a new kind of crowd to electronic music: the cool fashion people.
The venue where Le Garage was located was also a meeting point for liberals, with a – before it was cool – hipster-styled bookstore coffee shop. In 1995, it was visited by some of the leading experts in drug-legalisation for a seminar on the topic. Le Garage was before its time in many ways. For example, Elmenbeck made a VHS party-invitation for their Diesel party that was sent out to their guests.
Le Garage grew to become yet another legendary nightclub in the 90s, which looked legal on the surface but was in fact underground. It was in a way a miniature of Sweden's biggest venue for regular raves throughout all times, Docklands, which was set up by the very same people in 1995, minus Elmenbeck. He decided to quit the underground club scene with the arrival of Docklands as he considered it to be too commercial.
Anders Varveus recalls the day when the entire club scene in Stockholm supposedly almost changed over night. "We had Tritnaha at Sankt Eriksplan between 90 and 92. We then moved to Nackagatan in Södermalm. That's when something magnificent happens. I witnessed the change of an era and we experienced something of a paradigm change. We had a small techno dance floor and a large dance floor where we played rock music. At the three first parties, the rock floor was the popular one. But within a few weeks, it was suddenly empty on the rock-floor and overcrowded on the small techno floor. So we basically had to switch places on the two dance floors, and when we did, I sensed this massive change happening within Stockholm's party scene. This had already happened in London and Berlin. But to stand there, in the centre of all this, and see how people were literally marching from rock 'n' roll to techno was fucking huge. This was in 1993."
To stand there, in the centre of all this, and see how people were literally marching from rock 'n' roll to techno was fucking huge. This was in 1993. – Anders Varveus
One night at Le Garage, a heated debate took place between Varveus, Hinze and the others in the Freedom Front. This was mainly due to Varveus's and Hinze's controversial ideas around drugs. Not only did the two argue for the legalisation of drugs (which some members of the Freedom Front were behind), they also wanted to further normalise the use of drugs. That was something that wasn't particularly well received. As a result, Varveus and Hinze decided to leave both the Freedom Front and the politics behind. With Le Garage, their focus had shifted from politics to music. Now they wanted to put all their effort in a brand new club concept, known to the world as Docklands.
Docklands became a sustainable, mega-club and the wet dream of each and every party kid. It was a rave temple located in a huge shipyard just outside of Stockholm. No one had seen a club like Docklands before in Sweden. The organisers put plenty of effort in setting the mood. The venue had a capacity for 1,000 people. The ceiling was 11 metres high. One of the best sound systems in the world and mushroom-shaped tables were installed, too.
Varveus recalls their 1996 New Years Eve party. The Docklands crew had worked several months on the construction of a three-times-three-metre mechanic disco ball. "We had a specially composed piece of music to this thing. It was Wagner's "Valkyria" mixed with a track from Cari Lekebusch's label Code Red, I think. The ball was slowly filled with smoke. There was a light installation inside of it that first pulsated and then began shooting out light beams during the crescendo as it opened completely, almost like a pole of light in the middle of the dance floor. [My friend Damien] Eie was so stoked that he fell to the ground in amazement," Varveus tells VICE.
Other than attending that special moment in 1996, Damien Eie was at the grand opening of Docklands on September 2 in 1995. He DJed there many times, too. He explains that the first six months were so special and magical that it evoked feelings he didn't even know existed. "It was a sense of total freedom. You've had to be there to understand," he says.
Stockholm saw an era of warehouse raves blossom between 1991 and 95. In the spirit of these were the three legendary Age of Love raves between 1993 and 94. These were organised by Eie together with Danne Alpha and Erik Shield. In one night, up to 4,200 people allegedly attended. Eie says that it was probably during this time that raving had its peak in Stockholm.
However, raves were soon labelled "drug parties" by the media, and in 1996, Stockholm saw the dawn of Ungdomssektionen [the Youth Section in Swedish], commonly known as Ravekommissionen [the Rave Commission]. The Youth Section were a group within the police force. The purpose was to shut down raves and counteract drug use among the youth. There wasn't any alcohol available at Docklands and hence no age limit. However, this drew more attention from the authorities, and at 05.35 AM on February 11, 1996, the Swedish police raided Docklands for the first time.
Gudrun Schyman (leader of Sweden's current political party Feminist Initiative and then-party leader of the Left Party) was invited to attend Docklands during the peak of the authorities' war on raves. As it happened, police raided the venue on that night, too. Schyman told the media that the police had used unnecessary force on people who were arrested.
"They raided us almost every weekend for a couple of months. So we started having meetings about how we could make it harder for the police to close the parties," says Varveus. "The decks were located on a platform, which was attached with chains to the ceiling. We put generators in the ceiling and connected lights, smoke machines and sound to [the generators]. When the police arrived we pulled the DJ up to the ceiling, turned on full smoke and strobed the shit out of them. The police pulled out all sorts of cables but nothing happened. In that way, the party could continue for about two hours."
Between November 1996 and December 1997, the Rave Commission gathered 658 urine and blood samples from rave attendees. 1,329 people were arrested in total. The Rave Commission was regarded a success within the police force. As a result, organisers had a hard time hosting big parties. Hand in hand with the police's success was yet another change of an era about to happen. "We were forced into secrecy with small gatherings, limited to venues that could only take about 100 people, so the police wouldn't be alarmed. It sucked," says Eie.
The success of the Rave Commission led to what's been dubbed the "raving middle-ages" in Stockholm between 1996 and 2002. This was when the Rave Commission was mostly active. "You couldn't even play techno at normal clubs, more or less", says Eie.
On December 22, 2002, after a series of raids and conflicts between the morals of the adults and Stockholm's youth, Docklands held its last ever rave. Today, the building that changed an entire generation has been turned into a block of flats.
Since Docklands shut down, Stockholm's house and techno scene has managed to get back on its feet. While many festivals are forced to shut down, underground clubs continue to attract raving kids. This Thursday, in an old warehouse about 100 metres away from its original location, Docklands was supposed to be resurrected. With DJs such as Adam Beyer, Pan-Pot, John Digweed, Cari Lekebusch, Damien Eie, Jessie Granqvist and Kenuna & Wolf, Varveus had hoped to bring back elements from the scene that changed Stockholm clubbing.
"We've been forced to cancel. It's a fact. But it's equally as certain that something new is born out of every disappointment and failure," Varveus writes on Facebook. "The enemies of the techno scene has still not managed to put an end to our loving culture. It won't work this time either."
Thanks to Andreas Franzén, Ullix Rengholt, Noah Gibson and Caisa Ederyd.
An earlier version of this article stated that Adam Beyer owned Planet Rhythm. It was, in fact, Glenn Wilson. We regret the error.
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