2020 and 2021 have been long years. Locked up for some of it, or meeting up under government restrictions for the rest. We know we have to do our bit and make sure that we act responsibly to save lives, but it’s hard not to miss a more social time…. And there were few scenes more different to today than the 90’s rave scene that swept the UK and the rest of the world in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Drugs, sweat, warehouses, bucket hats and pulsating music, hundreds of people swaying in a mass ecstasy. Though there are still the odd raves here and there, nothing quite matched the 90’s scene and the music that came from it. In this article, I’ll be looking at the history of the rave scene and where it all started, with special focus on the music that made it special, the drugs that fueled it and the current state of the rave scene in today’s club scene. The so-called ‘second summer of love’ left an impact on drug and music culture that’s hard to ignore, so let’s dive right in.
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The History of the Rave Scene
In general the word rave is just the name for a large gathering of people but the term has now become synonymous with an entire subculture. Rave culture has its origins in the bohemian parties at the Jazz clubs of Soho, who in the 1950s and 60’s would host what they called all night raves, decedent parties with music and lots of drink. With the introduction of Disco music in the 70’s, the music people danced to and the way they danced took the center stage. Music became more focused on the beats rather than melodies. This leads us to the 80’s where dancing slowly shifted from DJ centered clubs where each person would face the front, but into nightclubs where the DJ was only there to play music and blend in with the crowd.
Nightclubs like the Hacienda in Manchester and The Love Club in London were some of the originators of often drug heavy parties. The Arrival of Acid House music from Chicago, with repetitive looped music and the increase in the popularity of the drug ecstasy can be seen as two of the biggest moments in rave culture. Raves started to pop up around the UK, in London often around the M25 a motorway around the city, nicknamed the magic roundabout by ravers. Raves would be organized on pirate radios and people would convene in abandoned warehouses, seed farms and any big buildings people could squat in. This was the essence of the late 80’s, early 90’s rave culture. Converging in abandoned buildings, listening to music, being together and sharing the love.
Rave culture began to soar and large parties started to crop up in various places around the UK. One of the most infamous being the Castlemorton Common Festival. In a quiet unassuming part of Rural England, called Malvern, a party was planned. Initially meant to be a small free festival, it exploded into what became a week long rave attracting over 40,000 people. This led to the police getting involved and the party was shut down, but with some consequences.
Due to the increasing safety issues surrounding raves and also due to their increasing publicity, the government implemented the Criminal Justice and Public Order act in 1994. This meant that the police had much more power to stop any unplanned or open air raves with a hundred or more people. Raves moved from Underground and outdoor venues into clubs with tickets and bouncers, eventually leading to the reduction in raves around the UK and indeed later the world. Raves still exist and indeed even outdoor and underground raves, if they’re not shut down and the culture around these raves and the raves of the 90’s will never die.
Drugs made rave culture what it was. The music, the people, the dancing a lot of it was influenced by the drugs that were becoming popular at the time. When you look at the way raves are set up you can see how much they are also tailored towards drugs, with the lights, the lasers, the smoke. Let’s have a look at some of the drugs that were influential during the 90’s rave scene and examine how they made a lasting impression on some of the people at these raves.
Ecstasy and MDMA
Where would the 90’s rave scene be without MDMA and ecstasy? The entire dance scene changed with the introduction of some little pills which started becoming popular in the late 80’s. Ecstasy gave people the energy and euphoria that allowed the raves to go on for days. Ecstasy is a synthetic stimulant that was actually synthesized in the early 20th Century, but only became readily producible in the 80’s. Mark Moore from S’Express explains the effects ecstasy had on the rave scene in this quote from the Guardian’s interviews on the Second Summer of Love.: ‘It definitely took ecstasy to change things. People would take their first ecstasy and it was almost as if they were born again. They suddenly got it: ‘Oh my God, this is amazing!’ You could watch these people walk into the club as one person and walk out as a different person at the end of the night.’
LSD was also used as one of the first drugs at many of the raves. Before Ecstasy became the rave icon it is today, many people used LSD at the early parties allowing for a more spiritual connection to the music and the others dancing around. In fact in a study of ravers in Australia in the 90’s over 90% of them had used LSD at a rave.
Speed is another name for methamphetamine, a potent stimulant that was making the rounds in the 90’s rave scene. A partner in crime with Ecstacy, it kept people ‘up’, but without many of the euphoric highs. It was used to keep parties going, and going. It makes you feel awake and energized, often allowing you to dance for ages. Having taken it before I must warn you… it does terrible things to your bowels.
A more modern addition to the drugs used at raves, Ketamine is a tranquilizing drug that creates a dissociative effect when taken. It has started becoming one of the choice drugs for British club goers in fact overtaking some other famous party drugs,
The music is also a crucial part of the 90’s rave scene. Rave music arguably has its origins in Disco music, which made the beat the core element instead of melody and lyrics. Beats became currency for DJ’s in the 80’s and people started using drum machines to find new ways of looping sounds and rhythms.
From this beat centered music came House. In the mid to late 80’s in Chicago a new sound was found, what is now known as Acid House music Acid House is famous for its repeating, rather mellow beats. Some famous Acid House artists to listen to are: Phuture, a Chicago based band who were some of the founders of the genre. 808 State, a Manchester band who took there name from their drum machine. Lords of Acid, A Belgian-American group who started making more industrial music.
Acid house music made a huge impact in the UK. As Chicago DJ, DJ Pierre is quoted saying: ‘The scene took off in Europe and Acid House is credited for the start of the rave scene in London. It was so big and filled with so much energy that the Queen herself called acid house by name and banned it.’ It then morphed into more intense forms of dance music including Jungle and Hardcore house like DJ Eruption’s Jeopardy. The next stage of the rave music evolution was the big beat music and more electronic dance music, including artists like The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy. Perhaps these are the artists most commonly associated with the rave scene, but they still owe a lot to the original pioneers.
The Resurgence of Rave
Underground raves will always be a part of party culture. They represent an anti authority and anti rule mentality that will never die. After lockdowns across the world started to relax, there was a spate of illegal raves across both the UK and the US. This behavior at the time of a pandemic was not appropriate and selfish, but still represents the elements of rave culture that was always central, breaking the rules. It was argued that this venting of lockdown frustration was a return to the spirit of the 90’s rave culture, where people would meet up in illegal places and party until they got shut down. Older ravers though have argued that there are always free and illegal parties going on, these modern day ones just got more media attention.
The Rave culture of the 90’s was unique. It came out of a culmination of good music, good drugs and good vibes. A reaction to the authoritarian Thatcherite government in the UK and a celebration of individuality and fighting against the establishment. It’s hard to imagine that raving today will ever be as good as it was in the 90’s (There are some people who’ve spent their whole lives trying to match it), but it’s always good to look back at pictures, videos and memories of a time that for many symbolized what it was to truly party.