‘A Crash Course For The Ravers’: The Origin of British Rave Culture

At Digsy’s Corner we like to enjoy music as much as we like to write about it (probably more, to be honest). With this in mind, we have set our sights on The Camden Assembly for their ‘Pump Up The Jam: 90s Rave’ special to try and imagine ourselves as part of the rave scene. You are probably thinking, why are they telling me this? I’m not their PA but it is this club night that sparked the topic of this post: the history of British rave culture.

Now, if you are like us, when someone says the word rave your first thought is glow sticks, UV paint and EDM hits. This will also mean that you will be just as surprised as we were when we discovered that the word rave was not originally applied to EDM. As Londoners, we were delighted to hear that the term was first used in London to describe the beatnik parties that took place in Soho during the 1950s and 60s. As with any generation, soon enough their whims, fashion and slang were looked upon by the younger generation with disdain; evidence for such can be found in David Bowie’s ‘Drive-in Saturday’ when he says It’s a crash course for the ravers- as an individual who makes clear he is not one of them. However, as with any bygone era, lost phrases and cultures soon re-emerged (okay so maybe those lively 17thcentury compositions have yet to meet an age of re-enchantment but you get our point).

Whilst the re-emergence of rave was no longer the same sound, there were a striking number of other continuations. If you can believe it, older politicians once again appeared on TV claiming the youth of today were going mad and had lost control (we feel you guys- we had to live through 2016). Newspapers feared for yet another lost generation. Drugs were as readily available as skittles but new ravers swapped LSD for Ecstasy. The drug culture was symptomatic of the end of another period of social isolationism and what historian Simon Reynolds notes as the ‘go-it-alone’ decade that was the 80s (think Del Boy’s attempt to be a yuppie in that iconic wine bar scene of Only Fools and Horses).[1]The 1960s response to the post-war get on with it and keep to yourself attitude of the 1950s had been LSD parties and the famous “Can You Pass The Acid Test?” invitations that the ‘Merry Pranksters’ issued in America. These invitations were not (at least initially) started by the ‘troubled teens’ of the time but rather academics such as ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ author, Ken Kesey.[2]Now before we go any further, we do need to stress that this post is not about how you need drugs to enjoy whatever underground music current you wish to dip your toe into. Many ravers could enjoy a trip to the Haçienda or to a mysterious unknown Warehouse party just high on life (and probably quite a few vodkas) and some were happy with the music itself; but even so we couldn’t ignore that a fair few ravers were feeling a chemical rather than just an emotional sense of ecstasy whilst stood in a field listening to a beat as fast as their elevated heart-rate.

Drugs or no drugs, the revival of the term raver at the end of the 1980s coincided with the birth of Acid House and the return of widespread parties at undisclosed locations which were away from the watchful eye of the police and older, disapproving generations. Think how in the 1960s, Roger Daltrey was talking about my generation and had them identifying as Mods which baffled the Establishment. Well in the 90s and early 00s, the younger generation danced away their troubles in a tranced state and identified themselves as Ravers. Both examples, are of course a general overview as not everyone chose to join in but this highlights that the identity of a Raver was not new- in fact, every time a new music trend takes over, the hard-core followers will always have a shared identity such as the name Raver and usually an unofficial dress code- cue the Neon bands, dungarees, bright sports jackets and of course the large yellow smiley that often decorated any rave location (now for you slightly younger readers- when we say yellow smiley we are not talking about your keyboard emojis). Really, you could wear anything you like but some slightly more obscure elements included t-shirts that looked like you decorated them yourself (you possibly did), bucket hats and dummies- that’s right children’s dummies which helped with the side effects of too much MDMA. The point of the fashion was ultimately to feel more free, comfortable and as bright and optimistic as the upbeat tempo; it was a complete rejection of the sharp cut suits of the 80s and a reaction to the lifting of the tense Cold War era.

Once you had your waviest clothes and UV body paint on typically you would (on the good authority of a friend of a friend) go to a meeting point where someone would be waiting to direct you into an unmarked warehouse or other vacant building that had been turned into a raver retreat. Any unexpected location could have importance, we spoke to one former raver who recalled following clues left at petrol stations that directed them to the rave. The idea of doing that now seems strange but swap petrol station clues for Facebook groups with obscured names or rogue leaflets on lampposts and you can still find whispers of former rave hotspots, albeit not to the same extent or size. Upon arrival, you would be met with strobe lights and EDM tracks. EDM has splintered now more than any other music genre with House, Acid House, Dubstep and Pop-synth. There are many more but EDM was only ever a general term for ‘Electronic Dance Music’ so this is not too surprising; one thing that is key to the music is that the beat has a deep bass, is upbeat and often the more trance-like the better.

For anyone looking for a quick introduction to rave then go straight to The Shamen or Faithless. Ravers are still amongst us, the crowd watching Faithless at IOW 2016 proved that the rave veterans are out there and a trip to Camden’s rave store Cyberdog only confirms it. So, if anyone wants to Step On with the Happy Mondays or believe God is a DJ with Faithless then fear not, it’s out there. However, if you are like us and don’t fancy a visit to an unmarked warehouse just outside the M25 then you can still rave out to the beats wherever you like, at home if you want. The whole point was that raves were an expression of freedom and one could start wherever if you had the right music; on that note, find our essential playlist of rave hits and tracks influenced by the golden age of Rave in the link here.

Thanks for stopping by.

Digsy’s Corner.

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[1]Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (Faber & Faber, 2013).

[2]Edward P. Morgan, The 60s Experience: Hard Lessons about Modern America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p.180).

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