a comprehensive video history of rave culture
Take a trip back to Frankie Knuckles’s Chicago warehouse parties, Britain’s most notorious weekender, and early-90s New York institution NASA with the ultimate playlist of documentaries, alarmist news segments, and as-it-happened camcorder footage.
Genesis P-Orridge is often credited with first using the word "rave" to describe the acid house parties that swept the UK during the Second Summer of Love. (He supposedly dropped the term during a now lost TV interview from 1989.) But rave culture had existed for years before it reached Manchester, London, New York, or even Ibiza. The dance music, neon dreadlocks, pacifiers, and UFO pants that came to define the rave aesthetic (as immortalized in the club scene of Larry Clark's Kids) have their origins in Chicago's gay black 80s club scene.
While the first camera phones weren't widely available until 2002, plenty of grainy-but-amazing video footage has survived from rave's early days, filled with equally incredible fashion moments (barrettes, dungarees, tie-dye!). Thanks to fans with home video recorders — and the news teams that monitored their lawless, hedonistic ways — YouTube is a treasure trove of raw footage from throughout house music history. Here's a highlight reel that will take you from 80s Chicago to Manchester to a castle in the British countryside then back to New York.
House music began with Chicago DJs Jesse Saunders and Frankie Knuckles, and a Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer. Saunders first used the squelching sound of the now-iconic electronic instrument on his disco-sampling 1984 megamix "On & On." The record inspired other Chicago DJs like Knuckles — who spun at legendary club The Warehouse — to arrange their own D.I.Y. dance tracks, birthing a new underground sound.
"House music is HARD disco. It goes BOOM BOOM BOOM with little variation, subtlety, melody, instrumentation," explained a November 1986 piece in SPIN about Chicago's fledgling house scene (this article is 100% worth reading in full). "They worship Knuckles as the man who invented house music," notes the reporter, of the mainly black, gay crowds who jacked their bodies to Knuckles's mixes in the second half of the 80s. The Hot Mix 5, local radio station WBMX-FM's resident DJ crew, helped popularize the music. And the sound was crystallized in 1987 with the scene's first big vinyl release, Phuture's "Acid Tracks." "House is about the loss of decorum and control. From sexual extravagance to dance-floor excess, everything is geared towards losing it," concluded SPIN.
In late 1986, when police crackdowns were threatening Chicago's house venues, DJs Mike Pickering (from Manchester) and Graham Park (Derby) brought house music to the UK. Though it took off at legendary night Nude at Hacienda in Manchester, it wasn't an immediate hit. "It's the closest thing to mass organized zombie-dom," BBC Radio 1 DJ Peter Powell said at the time. "I really don't think it should go any further." It did, but not until December 5, 1987. A group of DJ friends — Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway, and Johnny Walker — had found themselves (physically and spiritually) at Ibiza club Amnesia the summer before and, in an effort to recreate that psychedelic experience and "Balearic" sound, they hosted London's very first rave. They called it Shoom. It took place at a fitness center on Southwark Street, where funk, disco, soul, and Chicago acid house blared over a sound system provided by Carl Cox. The flyer for the third Shoom used the iconic smiley face that has now become synonymous with rave culture.
In 1988, the fanzine Boy's Own organized the first outdoor rave in the UK. Due to reports of wild drug use and "general debauchery," raves unleashed a national moral panic, as this 1988 US news segment on the UK's "Acid House scare" illustrates. Look out for talking heads Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys (who complains that Acid House has already become overexposed).
Due to bad press, a number of reportedly drug-related accidents, and increasing police enforcement, raves went back underground. In this clip from an illegal weekender the following year, kids lose it to Frankie Knuckles's "Your Love" in an airplane hangar in a fantastic array of outfits. "It's quite endearing looking back now," DJ Dave Haslam told The Guardian in 2014, about the early days of UK rave culture. "No one knew how to dress. People were thinking, 'Do we wear shoes or trainers with this music? Do I wear a T-shirt?'" From the beginning, rave style was adaptive, expressive, and anything-goes. The tracksuits of casual culture mixed with the Lycra leotards of late-80s workout wear and deadhead tie-dye. You dressed like you were going to a psychedelic aerobics class.
The summer of 89 became known as the Second Summer of Love, a period documented in the 2013 BBC documentary below. The epicenters were fields, warehouse, disused factories, and parties and clubs like Fantazia, Universe, Amnesia House, ESP, Raindance, and Helter Skelter. "It was all one love, everyone together. Anyone can dance all of a sudden, freedom of expression. Dress down, not up. Converse trainers, smiley T-shirts — a sort of tribalism took over," Pete Tong explained to music historian Luke Bainbridge 30 years later. "Everyone was happy to be the same."
Outside of London, rave culture thrived in Lancashire, in the North of England, where the rural communities of towns like Blackburn were less than thrilled. This March 1990 news report for British channel Grenada on "the new craze of Acid House parties" explains the nightmarish traffic jams that would clog small towns as thousands of kids tried to reach parties' secret venues. "These people are crooks," warns Blackburn's Labor MP, "And they're destroying the lives of hundreds, not to say thousands, of decent, law-abiding citizens."
In 1992, the UK government passed a law allowing the police to shut down outdoor raves and large parties. While house music lived on in clubs, morphing into new sounds like jungle, it was the end of a legendary era of free-wheeling UK raves. A group of promoters known as World Dance organized their "last" rave at Lydd Airport in May, posting flyers around London that read, "Here is your last chance before another chapter in 'Rave History' comes to an end!" The fashion in this video from Lydd Airport is beautiful — from the bucket hats and whistles and leotards to the woman wearing a dog leash.
May 1992 was also the month of the Castlemorton Common Festival, a sound system gathering which became notorious even before it began (see: the news footage below). The scale and carnage of the event — an estimated 20,000 "hippies and New Age travelers" took over a village in Worcestershire — led to further legal measures which effectively put an end to unlicensed super-parties in the UK.
That same year, house music reemerged in the US again, reconfigured by its commercial success in the UK. Legendary party producer and DJ Scotto organized the first rave in New York, at The Ritz (formerly Studio 54) on West 54th Street in 1992. Around the same time, DJ Frankie Bones (who had been spinning in the UK) began hosting the first raves in Brooklyn, parties he dubbed Storm Raves. 1992 also marked the birth of NASA. Started by Scotto and ex-London A&R guy DB Burkeman, the party began during the summer, on Fridays at the iconic club Shelter in Tribeca (then a Manhattan no man's land). "NASA is like Woodstock — if you can remember it, you weren't really there," XL Recordings founder Richard Russell told Pitchfork in an oral history of the party. The night was iconic: a youthquake outfitted mostly by rave emporium Liquid Sky. Regular Chloë Sevigny (then 18) explained, "NASA was a phenomenon that was really for young people. Ninety-eight percent of the kids in there were in high school — I was in high school myself! [...]The guys working the door ended up being my roommates — a perk being I never had to wait in line again."
The club scene in 1995 Larry Clark film Kids is a time capsule of 90s New York rave culture in four strobe-lit minutes. Harmony Korine, in coke-bottle glasses, leads Sevigny (blue ringer tee, white-blonde crop), through a labyrinth of fluorescent-haired kids making out, sucking pacifiers, and generally, in Korine's words, "feeling the effects-asy" of NASA. Clark didn't begin shooting Kids until the summer of 1993 — this was a NASA reenactment — but Korine did once take Clark to the real deal, where the director first met Sevigny. "It transcended raves," Sevigny has said of NASA. "I knew I was experiencing one of the best clubs ever."
NASA also organized two national tours that helped deliver house music to kids across the US. The first, "Rave New World," had a lineup that included Moby, The Prodigy, and then emerging DJ Richie Hawtin. The second, in 1993, featured Aphex Twin and Orbital. Rave began to flourish in San Diego, San Francisco, and LA. And in 1995, San Diego promoters Global Underworld Network organized OPIUM and NARNIA, raves that hosted over 60,000 people.
As rave spread to new audiences across the U.S. throughout the mid 90s, so did scare-mongering news reports filled with fist-shaking locals and concerned parents. The 1996 news segment below actually features the phrases "Do you know where your teens go when they head out late at night?" and "deadly teenage orgies." But despite its increasingly demonic public reputation, rave culture has always been about community, optimism, and a sweetly idealistic quest for music-induced euphoria. We were so wide-eyed, naïve, and happy," remembers Moby.
Over the years, rave culture has spawned a host of related subcultures, from gabber in early-90s Rotterdam to the Hispanic ditch parties of 90s LA. It's also flared up in variations of its original form, like "new rave," that short-lived glow-stick-waving phenomenon that swept the UK in 2006, thanks to British bands like Klaxons and New Young Pony Club. But for the most part, today we're left with EDM, rave culture's enormously commercially successful cousin. And it's hard to imagine Larry Clark ever wanting to document Electric Daisy Carnival.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson