House, techno and rave culture: The social and political ramifications

From the beginning of the modern pop era in the 1950s, youth culture has found a means of expressing itself by way of attachment to contemporary musical styles, often being regarded by the mainstream as subversive, rebellious and reactionary. From the rock n roll Teddy Boys of the ‘50s, through the mods of the ‘60s via the punks of the ‘70s, and the New Romantics of the early ‘80s; each decade has seen a movement whose legacy has provided a revealing look at the times that spawned them and the social, cultural and fashionable trends that stemmed from them.

In the late 1980s, a subculture emerged that sent shockwaves throughout Thatcherite Britain and beyond, and was the seed from which grew a multi-billion pound industry and the enduring alteration of the sound and aesthetic of popular music. It became known as ‘Acid House’ or ‘Rave’, and has been regarded as both the ‘biggest youth revolution for decades’ and ‘the last time that such large groups came together under one unified style of music and belief.’


In the late 1970s, disco music – having been rampantly and rapidly commercialised and bastardised – found itself at the receiving end of the wrath and invective of mainstream musical discourse. The culmination of this increasingly abusive narrative was the infamous ‘Disco Sucks!’ campaign, headed by Detroit rock radio DJ Steve Dahl, and which reached its zenith/nadir in 1979 when 59,000 people participated in a massive gathering at the home of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. With overtones of the notorious book-burning rallies held in Nazi Germany, thousands of disco records were gleefully smashed, burned and blown-up.

According to Ben Myers, homophobia and racism lay at the root of this disturbing show of strength; ‘The unspoken subtext was obvious: disco music was for homosexuals and black people’. Ironically, it would prove to be those very people – members of the black, gay communities of New York and Chicago – who would lay the foundations for the seismic cultural changes to come.

With disco being unceremoniously pushed underground, but with the desire to dance still very much alive, DJs in places like the Paradise Garage in New York attracted notice for their experimental cross-pollination of musical genres, freed, as they were, from the constraints of having to appeal to a mainstream audience. Paradise resident DJ Larry Levan’s sets were noted for his blend of a heavily soul-influenced disco subgenre known as Salsoul; the emerging, mechanical, robotic sounds of a German band named Kraftwerk; and the work of Italian electronic producer Giorgio Moroder. Another characteristic of these clubs was the absence of alcohol, which meant that without a drinks license they could open all night, and this in turn led revelers to seek out other forms of stimulation, like cocaine and cannabis.

Frankie Knuckles, an old friend of Levan and DJ contemporary, plied his trade in Chicago’s Warehouse club – opened by fellow New-Yorker Robert Williams – and played a similar mix of US and European disco and electro rarities. Knuckles’ unique method of using reel-to-reel tape to edit and extend tracks soon garnered the club some local fame, and clubbers on the Chicago scene began to refer to his style as ‘house’ music, an abbreviation of ‘Warehouse’. Knuckles left the club in 1983, opening the Power Plant, though the audience and the name associated with the music he played followed him. The Warehouse was initially a members-only club for black, gay patrons, but its reputation attracted the attention of white, heterosexual youths, who wanted to sample some of the hedonism for themselves.

After Knuckles’ departure, Williams shut the venue down and opened the Music Box, hiring Ron Hardy as its resident, and the new club would cater for a much more diverse and sybaritic audience than its predecessor, as would Knuckles’ Power Plant. Williams’ decision to hire Hardy was a competitive one, but Hardy and Knuckles were good friends and there was a mutual respect for each other’s clubs, though Hardy’s more energetic and highly innovative style of DJing at the Music Box would help to propel the new genre of music to new heights and influenced one of its first major stars, Marshall Jefferson; ‘For somebody to follow Frankie Knuckles was quite a feat.

They were calling it house music now, and that was because of Frankie. And for Ron Hardy to come in there and steal Frankie’s thunder, it’s really something’. Hardy also made an impression on a young DJ from Detroit who was living in Chicago with his mother. Derrick May – who would, along with Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, be credited with conceiving house music’s angrier cousin, techno, which was influenced by the bleak economic situation in 80s Detroit – recalled a visit to the Music Box: ‘I had never experienced anything like it. It was as if [the audience] had gone to church, like they’d just been possessed’.

The sounds that defined the new brand of music could only be heard at these nightclubs in the absence of any recordings being made, but in 1984, a local DJ called Jesse Saunders created what would become regarded as the first house record. Like Knuckles and Hardy, Saunders would play an eclectic range of music, however, he gradually incorporated the use of a Roland TR-808 drum machine into his sets and ‘remixed’ the songs he was playing, creating a danceable rhythm for any track he played. One of the pieces he constructed live was a wildly popular aggregation of Player 1’s ‘Space Invaders’, Donna Summer’s ‘Bad Girls’ and Lipps Inc’s ‘Funky Town’, and in response to repeated enquiries, Saunders decided to cut a version at home, using a Roland TB-303 bassline synth – which had previously been the preserve of pub musicians and which were not selling well among rock musicians, thus making them affordable – which for him, helped emulate the pulsating sounds of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder.

He christened the new piece, ‘On & On’, and its popularity spread rapidly around Chicago, particularly over the airwaves through WBMX radio, which served as a crucial outlet for early house music, bringing the fledgling genre to new audiences. It also encouraged other DJs to create their own tracks, and for the first time, they were able to bring ‘house’ records with them to play out at clubs. House quickly found its way to its ancestral home in New York and whilst there in 1986 a young A&R manager from London Records heard this exciting new music from Chicago and decided to travel to the Windy City to get closer to its origins.

Alongside his career at London Records, Pete Tong was also a club and radio DJ and had an intrinsic feel for potentially popular music. He licensed a number of the house tracks he had heard and brought them back to the UK, with ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ proving to be the first house record to reach the UK singles chart, climbing as high as number 10. Tong’s initial curiosity would ultimately, in the space of just 2 years, completely change the look and sound of British popular music and its associated culture. As Frankie Knuckles observed, ‘with Pete at the reins of his own house crusade, the music took over the UK airwaves almost overnight’.

Within a year, house would have its first number 1 hit single, with Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s, ‘Jack Your Body’ certifying the music’s instant impact on UK audiences. In many ways, the UK was the perfect fit for the Chicago export, as in the 1970s, a British clubbing subculture was centred around dancing through the night in unlicensed clubs to obscure black US dance music, in reaction to or ignorance of the racial tensions which were building on the streets. Northern Soul was a movement with its heartland in the northern working class towns and cities of England, and youths would – like the Paradise Garage – make amends for the lack of alcohol by using other means (in this case amphetamines) to fuel their nocturnal shape-throwing.

House music would follow neatly behind, taking root quickly in places like Manchester’s Haçienda and Nottingham’s Garage; and in London, where promoters and DJs took inspiration from the unrestrained indulgence and decadence of nightclubs on the glamorous holiday island of Ibiza. Fans of house music would soon find their own way of sustaining a night of relentless dancing, and it would become synonymous with the new, emerging culture.

MDMA, ecstasy, or ‘E’ is a drug that produces strong feelings of empathy, euphoria and energy, and was praised in the 1970s by US chemist Alexander Shulgin for its favourable effects on mental health patients. It was declared illegal by the US Drug Enforcement Administration in 1985, however, by this time it had found its way onto the club scenes of Chicago and New York, and quickly became associated with house music’s repetitive, driving rhythms and the sense of unity found in venues where it was heard.

One of the most striking aspects of ecstasy and what it brought to house culture was its breaking down of class, political and racial barriers. The 1980s was imbued with a highly charged political atmosphere, with Margaret Thatcher’s rightwing neoliberal agenda pitted firmly against working class industrial communities, and movements like Red Wedge used music as the vehicle for engaging youth in political protest and organisation. But in the clubs, with this new music and its accompanying drug, none of these issues seemed to matter. Mr. C recalled the atmosphere in London’s Clink Street: ‘It was all walks of life, really poor working classes, middle classes and upper middle classes…every sort of racial denomination; just a complete mishmash of people. You’d have a guy in a suit standing next to a guy in a boiler suit’. However, as the new ‘rave’ movement’s popularity spread further and faster, it would find itself on a collision course with the political establishment and mainstream media.

A smiling raver, with her hands in the air, Shoom, London, UK 1988

In 1988, the popularity of house music and its associated culture (now known as ‘acid’ house, taken from the sounds generated by the Roland TB-303) grew at a seemingly breakneck and unrestrained pace. Promoter Cymon Eckel recounted: ‘You’re talking about a trajectory of about 12–16 weeks from being something only a handful of people knew about, to being on the front page of The Sun’. The period associated with the mass movement that swept the UK in mid-1988 became known as the Second Summer of Love, in tribute to the 1967 Summer of Love, where hippies from all over the US congregated in San Francisco to indulge in the freedom and hedonism on offer.

In order to accommodate the speedily growing demand, parties were happening in studio lots, car parks, warehouses and, increasingly, fields. They were illegal, though because crowds were so big, married to the dearth of violence and the absence of alcohol, police were effectively powerless to stop them. The media however, particularly the rightwing Sun, sent reporters to these parties and printed lurid stories of debauched and often barbaric behavior, stirring up moral panic among straight-laced readers.

In the same year, the M25 orbital motorway was completed, which allowed easier access to and from London for the populations of the surrounding Home Counties. It also became the vessel for acid house parties, which would peak in 1989, with secret raves happening all over the thoroughfare. Progressively, criminal elements began to infiltrate these parties, selling dangerous counterfeit drugs and providing security at cut-price fees. Consequences were bound to arise and duly did at the end of September in 1989, when police clashed with a private security firm at a party in Surrey, which left sixteen officers injured. Police began to go undercover, trawling the M25 seeking out the organisers of clandestine raves and arresting them. Raves also attracted the presence of New Age travellers, who spent life on the road, seemingly outside of society, and who organised free festivals such as those held at Stonehenge.

They were no friends of the political establishment, and the poor relations between the two factions erupted in shocking violence in 1985 after police prevented a convoy from reaching Stonehenge in what became known as the Battle of the Beanfield.

The volatile mix of increasing police counter-activity, media hysteria, the influence of the travellers and the growing anti-establishment feelings espoused in particular by collectives like the militant Spiral Tribe reached a head at a week-long free festival on Castlemorton Common in Worcestershire in 1992. Attracting over 20,000 revellers, the mix of hedonistic ravers and travellers who descended on the quiet Malvern Hills caused considerable upset among the locals. Unlike the travellers, ravers had little or no experience living off the land, and their attempts at waste disposal amounted to little more than thoughtless environmental desecration. The press wasted no time in vilifying the entire throng as lawless anarchists and as the travellers moved on and the ravers headed for home, police arrested 13 members of Spiral Tribe, and the end was nigh for free parties.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was introduced in 1994 in the aftermath of Castlemorton and gave police, ‘Powers to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave’, and ‘throughout the period during which amplified music is played at night.’ The “music” was defined as that which ‘includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.’ In essence, this meant that crowds of 20 or more people who gathered outdoors to listen to house, acid house, techno or any other dance music subset were liable for arrest. In spite of a large rally and an ensuing riot in London, when ravers and travellers united again to protest the bill, the rave movement in its current form had taken on the establishment and lost.

In spite of all of this, house music’s place in modern popular culture was secure. Derivative forms of house and techno regularly peppered the pop charts and reached the top on many occasions, most significantly, ‘Ebeneezer Goode’, The Shamen’s paean to ecstacy, which hit number one in 1992; Orbital’s legendary headline appearance at Glastonbury in 1994 transformed the face of the festival, opening the way for a sea change that has seen the participation of dance acts and DJs grow exponentially and become a now-hugely significant part of the festival, and indeed many others; nightclubs like Ministry of Sound and Cream started record labels and became multi million-pound industries; and DJs could command million-dollar salaries. In terms of the socio-political effects, acid house culture was initially steadfastly apolitical, with the only emphasis being upon that of having a good time.

There were issues of racism and homophobia that dictated the inception of the new culture and parallels can be realistically drawn in the UK between Northern Soul and acid house, where cultural and racial barriers were smashed in the name of dancing. Techno’s highly percussive, industrial sound was also a reflection of the economic destitution of post-Motown Detroit. But the growth in the UK of this alternative way of living resulted, perhaps inevitably – particularly with its overt championing of illegal drugs – in a showdown with the Conservative government at the time, who were dismayed enough to pass legislation in parliament that sought to curtail or even destroy rave culture. Acid house became politicized, not by design, but by its intrinsic countercultural constitution.

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About the Author

Mark has been in love with electronic music since hearing Jean Michel Jarre's "Oxegene" at an early age. He has been DJing for over 15 years and has played all over his hometown, Lurgan. He also obtained a degree in Music Technology from Belfast's prestigious Queen's University. Has an (as yet) unfulfilled ambition make a pilgrimage to Chicago, the birthplace of house.