We Call it Hiiiistory: Thinking Historically about Acid House, Rave Culture and Late Thatcherism
Thirty years on from the ‘second summer of love’, when acid house entered the mainstream in Britain in 1988-89, there is increasing interest in this period of British political and cultural history. Jeremy Deller’s recent documentary for BBC Four, Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain, 1984-1992, is evidence of this. Deller’s documentary situates acid house and rave culture in the socio-political context of late Thatcherism, defined by the period following the Miners’ Strike that lasted for 9 months in 1984-85 through to the Poll Tax riots in March 1990 and then onto the John Major years, which saw a crackdown on rave culture via the Criminal Justice Act of 1994.
Thatcher was returned to office in 1987 after her third electoral victory and this could be considered the high point of Thatcherism as a hegemonic project. After defeating the trade unions during the Miners’ Strike in 1985, Thatcher unleashed a wave of privatisation and deindustrialisation across the country. Already under pressure, many heavy industries in the north of England, as well as Scotland and Wales, collapsed, leaving massive unemployment in these regions.
Meanwhile in the south-east of England, especially in London, the economy boomed, fuelled by the deregulation of the finance industry in 1986. Heavy industry, especially around the East End of London and the docks, also dried up and the inner city began its path towards gentrification. As the north and parts of the south of England diverged upon two parallel roads – one towards a post-industrial decline and one towards a post-industrial regeneration – the emerging youth subculture that rose to prominence at this time was acid house and rave culture. In many ways, the subculture surrounding acid house and the early rave scene reflected this north/south divide and reflected the two Britains that were developing under Thatcher.
Coinciding with the emergence of MDMA (or ecstasy), the acid house and early rave scene became the focus of a moral panic about out of control youth on drugs, gathering en masse to celebrate this fusion of drugs and music. Many viewed acid house and early rave culture as hedonistic, a pretext to (publicly) waste a lot of money on partying. This was true to some degree in the south, where the more affluent young people could indulge in this hedonism. As Deller’s documentary points out, young entrepreneurs, including a lot of youthful Tories, flocked to rave culture, seeing a chance to make money by organising events – usually taking place outside of traditional nightclubs. At the same time, organised crime gangs moved in to profit on the increased demand for class A drugs.
In the north, acid house also exploded – in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and other cities. In the northern acid house scene, it was not just hedonism, fuelled by a large disposable income, but a chance to escape from the dreary post-industrial world that had been delivered by nearly a decade of Thatcherism. Raves were not just sites of resistance to Thatcherism and mainstream culture in 1980s Britain, but also served as a withdrawal from engagement with it.
With the decline of heavy industry in the north, factories and fields, once the sites of a booming industrial sector, were transformed from empty spaces into potential venues for clubs and raves – the economics of putting on a show was merely finding a suitable sound system. An enterprising person, the kind of whom would usually be praised under Thatcherism, could hire (or buy) a large PA system, bring in some local DJs and with a little promotion, make a lot of money from those entering (and possibly from the sale of illicit drugs).
The Criminal Justice Act of 1994 is seen, in many ways, as signalling an end of an era for rave culture in Britain and the socio-political landscape had shifted since the days of high Thatcherism in the mid-to-late 1980s. The opening of the archival records from this period and the popular memory being explored by documentaries such as Deller’s are like siren songs for contemporary historians, keen to investigate this time in the not too distant past. Acid house and rave culture reinvented British youth culture in a time of great social, economic and political upheaval and helped alter British attitudes towards public space, policing and drugs which reverberate through to the present. They called it acid, but we now call it history.
Evan Smith, PhD. Flinders University, South Australia