the birth of balearic
As the Ibiza 2014 season kicks off, the trailblazers of Balearic reveal the truths behind the myths and the real origins of their Balearic-inspired revolution...
When you next find yourself out all weekend long - meeting people who are nothing like you yet sharing some kind of common ground, dancing to mad mash-ups of music that never sounded so good before; routines and everyday pressures temporarily banished by one means or another, living fully in the moment - whether you know it or not, you owe some kind of a debt to the trailblazers of house music - Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway, Paul Oakenfold, Johnny Walker and DJ Alfredo - whose 1987 holiday in the Mediterranean island of Ibiza ended up giving anyone who wanted it a much needed break.
Much less commercialised than today, Ibiza 25 years ago was populated and frequented by an un-hyped, international mix of holidaymakers, hippies, gays and randoms who collectively knew how to party. Amid this anything-goes ambience, the aforementioned friends discovered the thrills of open air clubbing, fuelled by a sun-kissed optimism and freedom that radically opposed the grim state of the UK; Prime Minister Mrs. Thatcher even insisting in a 1987 interview, "There is no such thing as community." It also offered a thrilling alternative to Blighty's naff metropolitan and provincial discos of the time that shut promptly at 2 o'clock in the morning, as soon as you had supped your own weight in cheap booze.
This newfound awakening was helped, of course, by a then-little known but hugely euphoric drug doing the rounds: MDMA, more commonly known as Ecstasy. Used recreationally by a few in-the-know fashion and media types in New York and London since the early 80s, it had first been synthesised in Germany back in 1912, later being discovered in pills and confiscated in Chicago in the early 70s, before inevitably filtering its way to loved-up Ibiza. When combined with a fantastically-eclectic mix of music spun by an influential Argentinean DJ named Alfredo, who was resident spinner at the island's most do-whatever-you-like club called Amnesia, the results were far too explosive to keep secret for long.
The unfolding events have since been told and re-told, tweaked, edited, distorted or exaggerated through the passage of time. Endless magazine and newspaper articles, books, documentaries and films, have subsequently appraised not only the birth of the Balearic sound, but also the ways in which it mutated into a niche London scene, before snowballing into the monumental youth culture phenomenon known as Acid House. What is inarguable though is that the combined adventures of Rampling, Oakenfold, Walker, Holloway and, of course, the legendary DJ Alfredo to redefine UK nightlife in the late 80s, caused massive changes in so many ways.
Alfredo: Imagine a less populated island, with a lot less construction and a different point of view about 'luxury'. There was a very laid back, cosmopolitan, post-hippie atmosphere, with many people still living in houses in the countryside with minimal comfort - no electricity or running water - and having a peaceful relationship with locals. Discotheques were already the centre of nightlife. There where three main clubs - Pacha, Ku, and Amnesia.
Danny: Ibiza offered a colourful, freedom-based, open-air clubbing experience with an international mix of people all celebrating the music on the dancefloor, under the stars. Everyone looked beautifully happy; it was an amazing time for music and youth culture.
One night the others tried this drug called Ecstasy, I saw they were having a good time, so I joined in. We were wandering about, on our first pill, dancing to music that we might have otherwise turned our noses up to. We were there every night after that, thinking, 'Fuck, this is it. We've found Narnia!'" Nicky Holloway
Danny, what was going on back in the UK?
Danny: The UK had been experiencing very challenging times. Just as we now have high unemployment and recession, everyone then was also sick of UK politics. A massive change was inevitable - with disadvantaged youths leading the way. Towards the end of summer 1987, London was a very exciting place to be. House music was starting to breakthrough on pirate radio, with DJs like Jazzy M, Colin Favor and Steve Jackson's radio shows. I used to go to Pyramid with my wife-to-be and Shoom partner Jenni Rampling, which was a mixed-gay club at Heaven, where Mark Moore, Ian B and Colin Favor played, and a great night called Delirium, where the outstanding Noel and Maurice Watson DJ'd. That club folded towards the end of 87, just as the whole scene was about to take off.
How did you come to DJ at Amnesia, Alfredo? And what made the club so special?
Alfredo: I had been DJing at Ibiza harbour and dreaming about playing at Amnesia. In 1983, I organised a party there, but the owners never gave me the chance to continue. One year later new owners came and this time I got the job! It was an open-air club with no private areas. In 1984 we became the first after-hours club ever. We got workers from all the clubs and bars, the dancers, and a completely different atmosphere than any other club could offer. It was the first club in the island that mixed all nationalities, including British holidaymakers from San Antonio, which give another dimension to the dancefloor and the feel of the club. There was always a very friendly atmosphere - I don't recall any trouble at Amnesia. The mixture of people was total - different ages, races, and nationalities, just like Europe after the Berlin Wall fell!
Nicky: We'd been going to Ibiza for years, like Brits Abroad, but only staying in the part where English girls went on holiday - that was the way we did things back then. One night the others tried this drug called Ecstasy, and at first I was like, "Nah, I'm not doing that!" I saw they were having a good time, though, so I joined in. We were wandering about, on our first pill, dancing to music that we might have otherwise turned our noses up to. We were there every night after that, thinking, "Fuck, this is it. We've found Narnia!"
Tell us about your music policy at Amnesia, Alfredo?
Alfredo: I had to play music to a very mixed crowd, I had to get them all together, and of course I was playing it after everybody had already been to another bar or discotheque before arriving at Amnesia. The music had to be alternative, different, so I started to play soul, funk, reggae, pop, rock, Italian, French, Latin-American, Spanish music, film soundtracks. I was lucky that house music came along at that time and created a massive change. Tracks I played included Could You be Loved by Bob Marley, The Pink Panther, Henry Mancini, Why, Why, Why, The Woodentops, Promised Land, Joe Smooth, Salsa House, Richie Rich, Going Back To My Roots, Richie Havens, Someday, Ce Ce Rogers, These Boots Are Made For Walking, Nancy Sinatra, When the Doves Cry, Prince, Dreams of Santa Anna or The Texican, Orange Lemon and tracks from Stevie Wonder, Tears for Fears, Elkin and Nelson, Jibaro, The Clash, James Brown, John Lennon, Tullio De Piscopo, It's Immaterial...
What effect did Alfredo's Amnesia sets have on you Danny, Nicky, Paul and Johnny?
Danny: I was running around the dancefloor, punching the sky like a winning goal at a Cup Final! I felt so inspired and uplifted by everything we were experiencing. The Nightwriters' Let the Music Use You produced by Frankie Knuckles, House Nation from the Housemaster Boyz, Kenny Jammin Jason's Can U Dance... the energy that was created on the dancefloor with these early house records was incredible. Phuture's Acid Trax… the most unusual, weirdest wonderful track I'd ever danced to at the time. And there was Jibaro by Nelson and Elkin, a crazy Latin funk track that sounded so unique, or Jesus on the Payroll by Thrashing Doves - indie rock with a message. It was a blessing and meant our time had come to pioneer the UK Acid house movement.
How important was Ecstasy to the origins of the Balearic vibe? Could it have happened without the drug?
Alfredo: I don't know. In the history of humanity people have always used substances to enhance their senses. Of course, ecstasy got this importance, but also there were other circumstances - the music, the sun, the air, the magnificent nature of Ibiza, and the mixture of people. I would say that ecstasy was a part of a whole thing, as much as the other parts.
Nicky: I don't think it could have happened in London the way it did without it. It's a sad thing to admit but it all went hand in hand. We thought we'd found the answer to all life's problems.... until Tuesday that is and you had a massive comedown. It was the first time since punk rock that there was a music, a fashion and a drug that all went hand in hand.
If you had to choose one amazing memory from that time, what would it be?
Danny: My most endearing memory was the first night at sunrise. U2's I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For pumped out the speakers closing Alfredo's set. I knew, after years of struggling to become a DJ, that I had found everything I'd been looking for that night under the stars.
Alfredo: One day at the club it was pouring with rain and the dance-floor got covered with 50 centimeters of water - like a swimming pool. I played Singin' in the Rain and 500 people were there, dancing happily under the heavy rain. Magic. Rainbow included!
Nicky: My favourite memory is seeing Nino, this 80 year old guy with a long white beard - who everyone calls Papa Smurf - dancing on the podium to U2 with everyone singing along. I thought, "You know what? Life's alright."
How did you transport the Ibiza spirit back to the UK?
Nicky: After that summer it all seemed so drab back in London. So all the people who'd been in Ibiza would hold these mini reunions - we didn't want the party to end, so we made our own party at home - that was how nights like Shoom, Future and Land of Oz started. At The Trip, after the venue closed everyone would end up outside on Charing Cross Road and turn their car radios on and dance around. The police would turn up, but they didn't know what Ecstasy was back then so they would stand there watching all these nutters wearing smiley T-shirts and bandanas, dancing in the street and in the water fountain outside of Centrepoint, thinking, "what the fuck is going on?!"
Text James Anderson
Photography Dave Swindells