Underground culture, or simply “underground”, is a term used to describe alternative cultures which either consider themselves different from the mainstream of society, or are considered to be drug-obsessed lunatics so by others.
One of the first renowned musicians to challenge the status quo set by the music industry was prolific experimental rock legend Frank Zappa, who was honoured with a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.
As an ardent advocate for freedom of speech, Zappa’s lyrics reflected iconoclastic views of established social and political structures and movements. He believed that “without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
Underground music incorporates musical genres that are beyond the formulaic composition of commercial sounds. These genres, and succeeding sub-genres, allow artists to express creative freedom, integrity, and individuality in their productions, as opposed to conforming to conventional trends set by the mainstream industry.
In the mid 80s, Chicago gave birth to the first electronic, dance-orientated underground movement: House music. While “Jackin’ House” (coined from the freestyle dance move ‘Jacking’, whereby the dancer ripples their torso back and forth in an oscillating motion) dominated clubs across Illinois, a new sound started to emerge. Bassline generator Roland TB-303, originally designed to replicate a bass guitar, was used in an unorthodox manner to create a squelching sound that would go on to lay the foundations of “Acid House.”
By the late 80s, Police began to clampdown on house events in Chicago, resulting in the scene suffering significantly. Radio station WBMX closed down, meaning house records were no longer played nor heard on the radio. At the same time, however, the scene was just beginning to flourish in the UK.
Despite the majority of the UK still being unfamiliar with the genre, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s “Jack Your Body” peaked at number one in the charts in January 1987. Shortly after, Luke Bainbridge recalls in ‘Acid House: The True Story’, tabloids reporting the first ecstasy seizures in London, calling the drug a “sexual stimulant”.
“It got silly when they made it commercial. And that’s worrying because you had young kids doing drugs because they were told by the press that was what everyone was doing.”
In the summer of ’87, Trevor Fung and Ian St Paul, who ran ‘Project’ clubs in San Antonio and London, took friend, and soon-to-be rave pioneer Paul Oakenfold to Ibiza for his birthday, alongside Johnnie Walker, Nicky Holloway, and Danny Rampling. After relentless partying, and sampling ecstasy for the first time, the four friends immediately attempted to recreate the same vibe in London upon their return.
In November of the same year, Danny Rampling opened Club Shoom near Southwark bridge, while Paul Oakenfold kickstarted his ‘Future’ events in the backroom of The Heaven on Charing Cross. Both nights grew rapidly in popularity among young revellers, and by 1988, the first illegal warehouse raves were introduced into circulation.
Rave culture opened the door to concepts unheard of in such a stiff-cultured Britain. Although built on a new wave of electronic music, it was the big lights, fashion, and open-minded attitudes that enabled the scene to grow to tremendous proportions. At a time when football hooliganism was rife and political tensions were high, taking ecstasy, dancing, and hugging friends was a breath of fresh air for the young people of Britain.
As ‘smiley culture’ became widespread, however, Acid House’s reputation began to suffer at the hands of the media. The BBC banned Jolly Rodger’s ‘Acid Man’ from being played on its stations, ITN News filmed Tony Colston-Hayter’s ‘Apocolypse Now’ event, dropping interviews with the DJ’s for footage of ‘spaced out kids’, (ironically, Colston-Hayter was charged with conspiracy to steal £1.3 million from Barclays Bank in London in 2013) and The Sun published an investigation into the then-Richard Branson owned Heaven nightclub.
“Acid house had everything that makes for a great scare story.” Said Mixmag’s Sam Richard’s back in 2007, “Its alien music clawed open the generational divide, its spontaneous hippie-esque gatherings disobeyed social norms and it introduced a brand new drug, ecstasy, into the country, stoking fears of mass youth psychosis. You’d have to be a pretty crap tabloid journalist to miss that open goal.”
The first ecstasy related death, that of Janet Mayes in October 1988, sparked not only a mass media meltdown, but also a major police influx on the scene. Simon Reynold’s says in ‘Generation Ecstacy’ that he believes the death provided tabloids with the ‘killer drug’ angle they’d been waiting for.
“Tabloids became obsessed with ecstasy’s supposed aphrodisiac powers. Readers were warned they might end up in bed with someone undesirable or even an entire tangle of nude strangers. At one club, the Sun’s reporter hallucinated ‘OUTRAGEOUS sex romps taking place on a special stage in front of the dance floor.’”
Overwhelmed by the media witch-hunt that was unfolding on the scene, the backlash began in force. ‘Smiley’ t-shirts were withdrawn from all 650 Topshop and Topman branches across the UK and police began to raid warehouse events.
Despite its best efforts, tabloid and TV fearmongering did not have the desired effect of dispiriting the youth of Britain; if anything it was counter-productive, with the result being an inundation of younger kids onto the scene.
“Before, it was responsible people. It wasn’t silly,” said Paul Oakenfold, blaming the tabloids for the arrival of the ‘unhip’ onto the scene, “It got silly when they made it commercial. And that’s worrying because you had young kids doing drugs because they were told by the press that was what everyone was doing.”
Following ‘Operation Seagull’, which resulted in the 10 and 6 year imprisonments of Robert Darby and Leslie Thomas for “conspiring to manage premises where drugs were supplied”, after they organised a boat party on the Thames in November 1988 – convictions celebrated by Detective Chief Inspector Albert Patrick as “an excellent result.” – the scene took a different direction.
In 1989, parties moved from inner city warehouses and clubs to the countryside. The events featured massive sound-systems, fun fairs, and saw thousands of people in attendance. As the scene developed, the “defiant, aggressive, and anarchistic” connotations that were associated ‘acid house’ were dropped for the more favourable term ‘rave’, with the media portraying the evolution in a more positive light.
It wasn’t long before this perception changed, however.
Staging one of the most memorable countryside raves were notorious event organisers-cum street fashion connoisseurs Anthony and Chris Donnelly. The brothers grew up in Manchester, at the centre of what was allegedly one of the UK’s most elusive crime families – the ‘Quality Street Gang’ and were labelled a ‘menace to society’ by parliament, yet ‘ambassadors for a generation’ by Vivienne Westwood, with their Gio-Goi brand being sported by the likes of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays during the Madchester phenomenon.
‘Joy’, which took place on 5-6th August 1989 at Stand Lees Farm in Rochdale, was the largest outdoor rave to be organised in the north of England. The rave, which featured three stages, 30 DJs, and a fairground, was attended by over 10,000 people who danced through the night and into the next day. “The police initially intervened and shut the event down” say the Donnelly brothers, “but were left with no other option than to let it continue after realising the scale of the mayhem and repercussions of letting thousands of dazed people wander the moors.”
After numerous raids, arrests, and overall perplexity in dealing with this youth revolution, the authorities finally decided to take action, and later that year the “Increased Penalties” Bill was put to parliament, with the intention of raising the penalty for organising an illegal event to £20,000 and six months’ imprisonment.
On January 27th 1990, the “Freedom To Party” campaign orchestrated marches in London in protest of the bill, and over 8,000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square to hear fulminated speeches from promoters and DJs.
Amplified music was banned by police, and Old Skool MC Chalkie White was arrested as the demonstration was brought to a close.
“Yes, it is true about my arrest at Trafalgar” he said, “[the police] were looking for any excuse to make arrests; I was trying to MC, we just wanted to party. In the end they got me.”
Despite considerable protesting, the Increased Penalties Bill was passed in July 1990, and resulted in significant police crackdowns on events. In the same month, one of the biggest mass arrests in British history took place as 836 ravers were arrested and detained at the Love Decade party at Gildersome in Yorkshire.
The succeeding years saw similar mayhem and clashes with the authorities. Despite winning a lengthy court case to remain open following the ecstasy-related death of 16-year-old Clare Leighton the previous summer, the Hacienda closed its doors in January 1991. Albeit the club did reopen shortly after, it was treading on eggshells with pressure mounting from the police.
In May of the same year, the likes of Spiral Tribe, Adrenaline, and various other Sound Systems attempted to host a rave near Bristol, but were initially thwarted by police intelligence. With the BBC broadcasting the efforts on the Six o’clock news, thousands more people turned up at Castle Morton to find the party. Police estimated that there were between 40 and 50 thousand in attendance. Matthew Collins recalls in ‘Altered State’ a local resident saying: “You wonder at what stage it becomes reasonable to call in the Army, because there’s an occupying force up there on the common.”
The ‘occupying force’ of the rave movement had become one of the most contentious issues in the UK for decades, and the media and authorities were under immense pressure to take control.
In 1993, a new bill was put to parliament, The Criminal Justice Bill. Section 63 of the new legislation featured a clause which allowed police to shut down events that were “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”
In July 1994, an alleged 50,000 people marched from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square in protest of the bill, which also saw police obtain new powers; introducing unsupervised stop and searches being one of them.
The controversial enactment of The Criminal Justice Bill in 1994 pretty much saw the death of the original rave scene, however partygoers did not concede defeat and instead found their new haven in the country’s nightclubs. Artists continued to promote the underground scene through the development of new dance genres, paying tribute to counter-culture of the late eighties and early nineties.
The Streets frontman, Mike Skinner, who grew up among the scene, recites nostalgically in 2002 hit ‘Weak Become Heroes’: “Out of respect for Johnnie Walker, Paul Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway, Danny Rampling, and all the people who gave us these times; and to the government I stick my middle finger up with regards to the criminal justice bill, for all the heroes I met along the way.”
Since the establishment of underground venues, tensions have been high between owners and the authorities, with the two constantly at each other’s throats over licensing and regulation. Conflicting views within parliament have made for some interesting spectacles regarding club closures over the years, resulting in MP’s, producers, and event organisers arguing the toss over nightlife’s substantiality within UK culture.
One of the most undeniable causes for concern within our unyielding society is the consumption of illegal substances within the premises of these clubs.
“When the mainstream media inevitably paints a mental image in their reader’s minds of a wholesale, free-for-all drug den, providing the general public with an honest, practical assessment of the challenges a club faces is next to impossible.”
In September 2016, one of London’s most iconic underground nightclubs, Fabric, was forced to close permanently after having its license revoked following the drug-related deaths of Ryan Browne and Jack Crossley. Despite eventually reopening following a selection of petitions and a lengthy court proceeding, the affair sparked outrage among the music community and general public, with people fearful of the closure supplementing the cultural void that London was and is becoming.
The Leveller’s Sarah Squire said in 2016, “Fabric, along with nightclubs all over the country were, and are refuges for a generation of young people struggling to stave off the homogenization of culture and escape from the increasingly bleak outlook for their adult lives.”
Nightclub’s have always played a significant role in the UK’s cultural appeal, and although two-drug deaths in the space of a week doesn’t make for great PR, incidents such as these are not always preventable. “When the mainstream media inevitably paints a mental image in their reader’s minds of a wholesale, free-for-all drug den, providing the general public with an honest, practical assessment of the challenges a club faces is next to impossible.” Says Squire. “It is easier to determine that the venue with a face is the culprit, than it is to blame it on an abstract web of societal issues.”
In light of the drug-related closure of Fabric, which followed in the footsteps of the likes of Herbal in 2009, I conducted a survey to find out how young people feel about the use of drugs, the scene, and the media representation of their culture.
“What does a drug-taker look like? It could be a granny shopping at Waitrose, or an old man in a wheelchair, you don’t know. Maybe 20 years ago you could have pointed the finger at a demographic of society, but not now.”
In a survey which saw some 90 people take part, 87% said they believed young people who go to club events at the weekend to be portrayed in a negative manner by the media and police.
70% of respondents said they had taken drugs at a club/rave in their lifetime.
As a majority, 34.44% said they sometimes take drugs at a club, drawing close with the 32.22% who said they never take them; 28.89% said they often take drugs at a club.
Contrary to the government’s fears of more people taking drugs if they were legally manufactured, a 36.67% majority said they would not be more inclined to take drugs if they were made legal.
However, 73.33% of respondents believed that if drugs were legally manufactured and regulated, there would be less deaths because of them.
In fact, 67.78% believed that if drug distribution was regulated and taxed, the rise of ‘legal highs’ such as spice could have been prevented.
Significant to the Fabric scenario, 84.27% of participants believed a drug-related death to be out of a clubs control, and that they should not face prosecution because of it.
Finally, 51.11% believe that when a person dies from taking drugs, it is both their fault and the fact that they should have been professionally advised on the recommended dosage, with one respondent saying: “I believe that the government and the legislator are at fault for innocent deaths at the hands of “party drugs”, were they regulated and produced in a controlled environment then deaths would be few and far between, alcohol and tobacco accounts for ample more deaths than party drugs such as ecstasy.”
Following the results of this survey, I spoke to perhaps the biggest face of the campaign to legalise drugs in the UK; activist, politician, and bereaved mother Anne-Marie Cockburn, whose daughter, Martha, died after taking half a gram of 91% pure MDMA on 20 July 2013.
Ms Cockburn has been involved in a selection of works following the death of her daughter, including her book, “5,742 Days: A mother’s journey through loss”, numerous podcasts, and most recently appeared on BBC Newsnight to speak about her experience and why she wants drugs to be legalised and regulated.
“For me, the thought that ten people become me every day in the UK, that bothers me a lot.” She says, “I get comments with people saying ‘oh well burglary is illegal but it still happens so are you just going to legalise that?’ and I just think you can’t use these stupid examples when you’re talking about people’s lives.”
Ms Cockburn, who regularly goes into schools to speak about drugs, said: “Kids aren’t daft. Kid’s know what’s going on and they need some secrets, but 99.9% of the hands go up when I say ‘how many of you know where to get drugs from?’ and to me that’s all I need; because that just emphasises the fact that there is no control in this.
“If you look at the home office and the clause they use, which states that ‘what’s in place is working because less people are taking drugs’; one, I want to know where they get their statistics from, and two, I don’t necessarily care about how many people take drugs, I care about how many people live to tell the tale. It’s about saving lives.”
When asked about the association of drugs with the UK club scene, Ms Cockburn said “What does a drug-taker look like? It could be a granny shopping at Waitrose, or an old man in a wheelchair, you don’t know. Maybe 20 years ago you could have pointed the finger at a demographic of society, but not now.”
Referring to the 73.33% who said they believed there would be less deaths from drugs if they were legally manufactured, Ms Cockburn said “It’s reassuring, but I often find I’m preaching to the converted. For most people who just go beyond the headlining and go into the subject a little bit, it doesn’t take long for them to really understand the problems.
“If they read ‘Chasing the Scream’ by Johan Hari and ‘Good Cop, Bad War’ by Neil Woods, who was an undercover drug officer for 14 years, and now he wants drugs to be legally regulated; those books are incredible learning tools to show people the truth on the subject.”
Although her views are not widely recognised as the general consensus, Ms Cockburn says she likes to be challenged by those who don’t understand: “I’ve been out for tea with Peter Hitchens (a frequent critic of political correctness) to say alright Peter, with your views, Mr Prohibition, you tell me how I could have saved Martha, and he doesn’t know the answer to that and that’s the problem.
“The 1971 misuse of drugs act is out of date. It’s all very well for you [Peter] to point the finger and pontificate and say people shouldn’t take drugs, but ask him what he did when he went to university, it’s all out there in the public domain.”
You can listen to more from my interview with Anne-Marie Cockburn below:
As with most music scenes, it is no mystery that drug consumption occurs within the underground club environment, so instead of continuing this losing battle in the war on drugs, perhaps now is the time to bring forward regulation as a genuine operation, providing the ill-informed with a means for intelligent decision-making and the general public with less fear-driven forms of media coverage.
Since the dawn of electronic music culture, the media have succeeded in triggering moral panic through aggrandising media coverage which depicts the movement and cultural values as a threat to society, whether that be the rave scene of the 90s, or the underground club scene today.
The ebullience the scene radiates is soured as a result, and unless social attitudes towards UK nightlife and the cultural benefits it embodies change, the underground music community is under obvious threat. If they continue to be regarded as drug-fueled, violence-condoning ganglands, underground clubs run the risk of becoming mere notions of the past.