mods, punks, skins, travellers, casuals, junglists and yuppies: welcome to the 90s
As This Is England returns to our screens, we take a trip down memory lane to the 90s and its particularly disparate vision of 20th century style tribes raving under one roof…
Don't get it twisted: clubbing in the 90s was much like clubbing now. There were commercial nights and underground nights. Legal parties and illegal ones. Ones with extraordinarily mixed crowds and much more homogeneous ones. Swanky and sophisticated ones and ones that were grubby as fuck. There was slang and dance moves to learn and odd little fleeting fashions that would come and go in the blink of an eye. There were long, rambling conversations with people who could equally easily become your best friend, the bane of your life, or just a memory that vanished like smoke. You'd go out, get spannered, dance around under flashing lights to music that was just a bit too loud, get gunk on your trainers, try and find a taxi, try and find an after-party, try and work out where you were, rinse and repeat. The fundamental nighttime ritual was the same as it's ever been.
But of course there was something going on beyond that. Especially in the first half of the decade, before Britpop ossified into its tragic parody of rock music, giving the industry a safe haven away from the chaos of the rave - and before superclub culture disappeared up its own nose and off away into a helicopter to play gigs in Dubai and Singapore -- there was real magic in the air. I was 16 in 1990, I'd already watched my schoolmate's older siblings get caught up in the first explosion of acid house, and I saw everything changing around me: it felt like somehow technology, subculture and chemistry were truly changing the world. Dammit, for better or worse, they were changing the world. The "come together as one" rhetoric of the gooier dance tracks might seem like utopian naivety looking back, but strip away the happy-clappy stuff and, in a slightly stickier, murkier way, people really were coming together.
The eighties were the last true flush of 20th century style tribes. Sure, people still define by clothes and affiliation, but back then the sight of large groups of mods, punks, skins, travellers, casuals, yuppies or whatever was part of the cultural landscape whether you were in the biggest city or out in the sticks. Acid house, however, sucked them all in. And for a short period, all of their input was vital to what rave actually was. By the time I went to my first club - the Prism night at the Co-Op Hall in Oxford to be precise - in 1990, the blurring and blending was still in full effect.
In more psychedelic moments, you could start seeing it like William Burroughs's "undifferentiated tissue", individuals and groups splurging together into a disturbing, incomprehensible, ecstatic mass - but even with a bit more clarity it was a bit that way. Students, new age travellers and hooligans, b-boys and Psychick Youth, personnel from gay clubs and from reggae soundsystems, poshoes and scrotes really were all raving under one roof, and crucially were bringing their own skills and energies to play. The kaleidoscopic look, feel and sound of rave were all completely tied up with that subculture clash, that pulling together of seemingly irreconcilable forces by the greater force that it seemed was taking over everything.
By 1993, those internal forces proved too strong, things fell apart, the centre couldn't hold. Whereas up to that point you could very easily see DJs of all backgrounds and styles on the same lineup, and there was still a sense that bar a few headbanging purists the audience could broadly all be called "ravers", in '93 the distance between, say, goa trance, happy house and the nascent jungle scene became too large to deny, and the closest they'd get would be as separate tents in the most massive raves or festivals. I remember a symbolic moment: where ravers frequently had "ON A MISSION" stickers on the back windows of their car, symbolising the never ending search for the party, I saw a bunch of scrotes driving a battered Mini through the centre of Brighton blasting distorted gabber, and their sticker read "MISSION ABORTED".
The dream wasn't over: obviously it wasn't. Even with the rise of lowest common denominator britpop and the horrors of the superclubs tainting everything with their trance and interminable prog house, we still had the new planets that had formed: jungle, drum'n'bass, hard house, IDM, garage, trip hop and all points in between, each with their own unique atmosphere, excitement, mental states and social rules. And though the fragmentation of crowds and scenes was real, behind the scenes the links that had forged in the white heat of 1988-93 still remained. Tracing the personnel of clubs, labels and the drug trade, you could see the strangest enduring lines of communication between the gayer-than-gay hard house of Trade and the fury of jungle, between impeccably groomed football casuals and bus-dwelling crusties - and if you were aware, these were lines of communication you could use yourself. The internet was barely in effect yet, and mobile phones were a luxury, but here was social networking in a very real form, enabling ideas, money and cultural memes to propagate in a totally new way.
For a long time, I felt embarrassed about thinking all this stuff. We did think about it at the time, and lots of people would pontificate about networks, cultural undercurrents, the practical application of postmodern theory and the rest - but the problem was, most of those people were either screwy-eyed hippies, dryer-than-dry academic or just plain off their tits, and made it sound like absolute festering balderdash. But it wasn't. It really was a step shift towards the hyper-networked existence we have now, a new way of understanding, owning and participating in your own culture, and it really was exciting. (Although mostly it was about taxi, after-party, work out where you are, rinse and repeat, obviously.)
Text Joe Muggs
Still from This Is England 90