towards an (anti-)history of rave
“The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action. The great revolution introduced a new calendar” (Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, 1940)
We are all familiar with those superficial overviews of ‘popular culture’ in which the same clichéd images are used to denote entire social movements – a few naked hippies at Woodstock standing in for the 1960s counter-cultures, a couple of Mohicans for punk and some gurning ravers in smiley t-shirts for twenty years of electronic dance scenes from acid house to breakcore. In this way history affirms the status quo by suggesting that nothing fundamental ever changes, and the multiple possibilities of negation and creation opened up by these movements are denied.
If this media historification is easy to ridicule, some of the versions of history generated within dance cultures must also be challenged. Partisans of avowedly forward facing electronic dance musics have been strangely obsessed with the past since they emerged in the 1980s. A retro consciousness emerged from early on – by 1995, ‘Back to 1992’ nights were being held in London, with ‘Back to ‘95’ nights not long after. And every person stepping on to a dancefloor for the first time can expect to hear tales from older party-goers that they should have been there back in the day when the beats were fresher, the drugs were purer, and ‘bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’.
Very quickly, in the UK at least, a mainstream historical narrative emerged, a semi-colonial myth of crusaders returning from the Holy Land (of Ibiza) bearing a secret treasure which they propagated in early London acid house clubs like Shoom, after which it spread throughout the world, constantly mutating into new forms but all sharing the genetic imprint of Ibiza-Acid House-M25 orbital raves. This narrative imbues those same pioneers with ongoing cultural capital – early acid house promoters and DJs like Paul Oakenfold remain corporate dance music supremos to this day.
Like most myths this one contains some truth, but only by excluding all the messy bits of histories that don’t fit in with the big story. The most obvious critique is that it relegates the role of the early black producers of the music in Chicago, Detroit and New York to a back story rather than the centre of the story. Others have criticised its London-centredness, claiming for instance that people in Manchester were already dancing to house music when their capital city counterparts were still digging through their crates of 1970s funk obscurities in the 1980s ‘rare groove’ craze.
But the search for the one true story is doomed. There is no single history but numberless trajectories that converge and pass through the various sonic, social and chemical phenomena grouped under that unstable term ‘rave’.
Some other histories…
In musical terms alone we can identify any number of stories, the most obvious one being the explosion of African-American electronic musics in the 1980s and early 1990s – electro, hip hop, house, techno, garage etc., drawing in turn on earlier disco, funk and soul. But other currents are also important and indeed intersect with this trajectory. It is well documented that European synthesiser, industrial, and Electronic Body Music influenced black US producers, and so the history has to be expanded to take in the likes of Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire and Front 242. Equally important is the bass history of sound systems stretching back to post-WW2 lawn parties in Jamaica, Blues parties in areas of England settled by Jamaican migrants and the battles between police and black youth at Notting Hill Carnival in the mid-1970s as the former attempted to clamp down on reggae sound systems. We could also consider the eruption of noise into music, a trajectory that includes Luigi Russolo’s 1913 call for “the great renewal of music by means of the Art of Noises”, 1950s ‘musique concrete’, and the deliberate manipulation of guitar feedback from the 1960s.
The spaces where these musics took root also fit into wider histories. House music famously grew out of US gay clubs like the Warehouse in Chicago and the Paradise Garage in New York. Later in London, gay club Heaven hosted early acid house (Spectrum) and jungle (Rage) nights. These spaces owed their existence to the gay liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s – moments like the Stonewall riots of 1969, when drag queens fought police on the streets of New York after a raid on the Stonewall Inn. It was the radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF) that organised Britain’s first open, publicly-advertised gay dance at Kensington Town Hall in 1970 and gay activists set up an early gay disco in Brixton’s Railton Road, in the basement of a gay centre squatted in 1974.
The free party movement of squat parties and teknivals has actively drawn on earlier experiences. In the UK, it attracted from the start people keen to share skills learned in the free festivals, anarcho-punk squat gigs and warehouse parties of the 1970s and 1980s. Elsewhere in Europe the more established radical social centres sometimes provided a platform for dance music parties – though often not without a struggle with some more traditional political elements confused by their apparent undidactic hedonism.
What of the term ‘rave’ itself? Its first use seems to date from the late 1940s to describe all night jazz parties in London’s Soho. It was popularised by band leader Mick Mulligan, sometimes known as the ‘The King of the Ravers’, and self-defined ravers were a prominent part of the ‘Ban the Bomb’ marches in England during the 1950s and early 1960s. Later in the 1960s, psychedelic all-nighters were also routinely described as raves.
Moments of excess
In a sense, the very act of trying to historify ‘rave’ does it violence by denying its challenge to habitual conceptions of time and history. Musics based on breakbeats and loops intrinsically lock the dancer into a cyclical notion of time based on repetition and variation – as opposed to the linear progression of most ‘western’ music. Furthermore, parties can create a sense of being in a time of their own, outside of life structured around work. In the 1920s, Herman Hesse wrote of a party where ‘I had lost the sense of time, and I don’t know how many hours or moments the intoxication of happiness lasted…There were no thoughts left. I was lost in the maze and whirl of the dance’ (Steppenwolf, 1928). In her 1992 novel Jazz, Toni Morrison imagined a Harlem scene where ‘Anything that happens after this party breaks up is nothing. Everything is now’.
But sometimes there is a sense that new social relations and potentialities are being created that last beyond a particular party, a sense of the possibility of making the continuum of history itself explode. Such times have been described as ‘moments of excess’ when ‘everything appears to be up for grabs and time and creativity accelerates… At these times, which may have spanned several years or literally a few moments, we have glimpsed whole new worlds’ (Leeds May Day Group, Moments of Excess, 2004).
For many of us, there will be particular times in the ‘history of rave’ which seemed most productive of these kinds of moments. For me personally, there was a period in the mid-1990s of Reclaim the Streets, Dead by Dawn parties and seemingly endless clubbing when I had a tangible sense that a new way of life was being constituted within the shell of the old, assembled from sound systems and dancing bodies. For others the key period might have been in the late 1980s, driving in convoys around the M25 motorway in search of a field to dance in. For others still, the thrill of dodging the police for a dawn epiphany in the woods is just beginning – witness the weekend cat and mouse games between cops and sound systems in rural East England over the summer of 2007, or the tenacity of Indian ravers in Pune where hundreds were arrested at a party in March last year.
In the heat of these moments of excess there can be sudden flashes of recognition when people feel an affinity across time and space with other people, living or dead. Unlike the trajectories discussed above, these connections do not have to be based on a traceable sequence of links – it is enough that there is some assumed commonality of expression, passion, oppression or resistance.
A non-linear method of mapping such links is suggested by the artist Jeremy Deller in his work ‘The History of the World’. Deller explores the affinities between Acid House on the one hand, and the Brass Bands associated with mining villages in the north of England on the other, based on common histories and cultural associations. Brass bands were, for instance, a feature of the 1984/5 miners’ strike – the policing of which foreshadowed the Criminal Justice Bill and crackdowns on free parties in the 1990s. Warehouse parties and the closure of industries are two sides of deindustrialization, the former taking place in the ruins created by the latter.
There are any number of similar connections that could be made between ‘rave’ and other times and places. We might be inspired by 1940s scenes like the Zazous of Paris or the Hamburg Swings who danced to jazz in extravagant clothes in defiance of Nazi restrictions – some of them ending up in Concentration Camps. We might poetically invoke the spirit of the millenarian ‘ghost dancers’ amongst the Native Americans of the 1890s, who hoped to dance a new world into being.
There are ancestors of today’s ‘autonomous social spaces’ and social centres in places like the Autonomie Club and the Workers Friend Club in London, where Jewish anarchists and other radicals danced the night away in the 1890s. There are (white) lines of intoxication that connect the present with obvious reference points such as the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests in 1960s California and less obvious ones such as Rembetika, the music of Greek hash dens suppressed by the fascist dictatorship there after 1936. Perhaps also a link to cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s 1930s drug experiments in Ibiza and Berlin prompted by ‘the great hope, desire, yearning to reach—in a state of intoxication—the new, the untouched’ (Benjamin, On Hashish).
A map encompassing all these connections, all the times and places where people have moved to rhythm, would be close to a representation of the history of everything. It would be the kind of map that perhaps only Benjamin’s Angel of History could write, surveying humanity with his back to the future. Instead of attempting to write The Big History perhaps we should focus on the myriad micro-histories of clubs, parties and scenes from Tel Aviv in Israel to Pune in India, from Brixton to Berlin. It may be in the detail of sound, sweat, encounters, gestures, conversation and context that we can convey what is really significant about ‘rave’, rather than in the grant narratives of Ecstasy and 303s.
“A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history” (Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, 1940).