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Rave's relationship to the Media

How did the national and subcultural press contribute to the development of Rave culture from its roots as Acid House in the late 1980's to the current day scene?

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Newspaper Press
The Music Press

The Rave phenomenon will go down alongside rock and roll, punk, rock, disco and new romanticism as one of the great all time youth movements in British history. Appearing as Acid House in the late 1980's, Rave developed to become one of Britain's most renowned industries - that of Dance music. However, it is commonly considered that without the intervention of various media groups, Rave may not have occurred at all - a theory that could be applied to any of the above musical sensations.

This research paper will set out to track the course Rave took in it's now 12 year history and will try to understand how its changes and developments can be attributed to the effects of national newspaper and sub cultural press coverage. Though closely related, issues concerning the Club scene will not be covered in detail, such as the death of Leah Betts, which created a moral panic that effected Clubland more than it did Raveland.

The paper will first investigate the contribution of newspaper reporting and then that of the sub cultural press. While both these areas interact on a number of occasions in Rave's past, for the sake of simplicity the paper will approach them separately. There has only been limited work in the field of Rave/media relations so the report will use existing theories and research on media relations with past movements and subcultures in general to try and explain events in Rave cultures's progress. The report also includes some specially chosen comment from two people involved in the Rave scene, Tom Jolly, a very experienced raver and Kevin Noone, who has been involved in free parties and raves since the 1970's and runs a free party website.

Finally, the paper will some up the findings from both media of areas and conclude as to the extent of the print media's effect on Rave culture over the years.

The Newspaper Press

The national press' initial coverage of the Acid House scene was a positive one, with The Sun promoting the famous craze of 'Acid Smiley Face T-Shirts', now accredited with 1988/89 E-culture, as the latest fashion to impress your friends with. They described Acid House itself as 'cool and groovy', but this would soon change. Increased pressure from the subcultural press about the 'drug crazed world' of Acid House, and the Dance scene's desire for a moral panic soon meant that Acid House hit the headlines in the biggest possible way. Indeed, what followed may have been the single biggest contributing element in Acid/Rave's explosion as young people's most popular form of entertainment at the turn of the decade.

Moral panic broke out in October 1988. Only two weeks after running the story about Acid House above, the Sun linked the scene with rumours of new horror drug ecstasy, bearing the headline 'Evil of Ecstasy' on October 19th. The other tabloids including The Post and Today all ran similar stories, many on their front pages along with photographs of writhing masses of sweaty teenagers. One Sun headline entitled 'Spaced out!' is accompanied by such a photo, along with a caption saying, 'Night of ecstasy... thrill seeking youngsters in a dance frenzy at the secret party attended by more than 11,000.' The ravers in the photo look hot, crazed and quite demented. Also, the use of an exclamation mark in a headline is usually reserved for only the most shocking of subjects. The moral panic had begun.

Because of this media coverage, the 'smiley face' T-Shirts promoted by the press only months before were recalled from the shops and some Acid nightclubs such as Trip club changed their names so that they would not be associated with drugs and closed down. However, the climax of Acid House's media coverage was marked by it's first ecstasy related death on July 14th 1989. Clare Leighton collapsed and later died after taking a pill at the Hacienda Club in Manchester. She was aged just 16. Ecstasy was no longer a menace to society, it was a severe threat to the well being of thousands of Britain's young people, and in extension, so was Acid House.

This hit a big blow to the more commercial Acid scene that had emerged as a result of media attention and many of the new nights closed down while big nights had to lower their profiles and prove to the authorities that they had cleaned up their acts. By the end of 1989 the scene seemed to be shrinking away and tabloid stories began to lose their news value. Acid was, for most mainstream Djs dead and was rarely played out any more. Acid was not dead however, it had returned underground - to what it had been before the moral panic - and when it would resurface in 1991 it would be known as the Rave scene.

Thanks to the hype created by Acid's music press, they had in essence instigated the wave of negative exposure themselves - some would argue deliberately. In her research, Sarah Thornton explores the theory that subcultures target young people by purposefully creating misleading or sensationalised negative views of their cultures. In the case of Acid/Rave, the music press seemed to have preyed on the fact that youngsters desire what is forbidden by barraging the tabloids with tales of drug induced parties and freedom from parental restrictions. (Thornton 1995: 136)

As this extract from i-D magazine explains, every youth movement since the 1950's has consisted of a media panic fuelled by association with drugs:

'Every sub-culture breeds its own moral panic, every moral panic is stereotyped by its own devil drug. Think of all those headlines in the past that have screamed themselves horse: mods on speed, freaks dropping LSD, punks sniffing glue, blacks smoking dope, even cocaine-crazed yuppies.' (i-D June 1990)

This was by no means the first time moral panic had fuelled a youth uprising in Great Britain. In his research, Stanley Cohen (1980) states that media panic and exposure was what caused the famous clashes between the mods and rockers of the early 1970's. He argues that it was because of the hype created by tabloids and other national mass media that antagonisms arose and the riots occurred.

Admittedly, Cohen's research, and indeed much of the subcultural study of that time ignores the contribution of subcultural publications - an element that clearly sparked the tabloid coverage of Acid/Rave in 1988 - however the principles still hold their ground. As Thornton states:

'...without tabloid intervention, it is hard to imagine a British youth movement. For, in turning youth into news, the tabloids both frame subcultures as major events and also dissemble them. A tabloid front page, however distorted, is frequently a self-fulfilling prophecy; it can turn the most ephemeral fad into a lasting development.' (Thornton 1995: 132)

In the view of other research including that of Stuart Hall in the 1978, it is suggested that media panics may be created in order to deter from other more serious social inadequacies. In a study of moral panic over muggings in the early 1970's it is suggested that the media sensationalised the rise in attacks beyond what any statistics could support in order to divert attention away from the government's failure to curb crime and unemployment. In other words, the media, as a hegenomistic tool of the state diverted the public's attention to that of the young, black and poor and away from the big issue.

Similarly it could be said that the media panics over video nasty, child abuse, dole scroungers, welfare cheats, pornography and in this research paper's case, drugs and ravers, were in fact sensationalised by the press in the 1980's and early 1990's to distract public attention from the clear problems of recession and social disorder at the time.

Thatcher's Tory government was beginning to struggle and as Mo Bean suggests in her research, they targeted Acid House and the ravers as a social scapegoat and a high profile battle they could win. The Sun was, until recent years an self-admitant Tory newspaper and was indeed, one of the greatest attackers of Acid House from 1988-1989. While this article from Touch magazine suggests that the Sun's treatment of Acid/Rave may come down to selling as many copies as possible - one of the main theories behind moral panics- it also suggests that the Sun's coverage of rave culture may have had some political agenda behind it as well:

'10,00 DRUG CRAZED YOUTHS' This was the headline carried by the Sun newspaper during the Summer of 1988. It was part of an uncompromising effort to bring disrepute and destruction upon the rave scene that was growing at rapid rate across the country... now three years after that headline was printed, the Sun has launched 'Answers' - its so called comprehensive guide to weekend raving... What audacity! How dare they? On approaching the Sun about their change in attitude we were informed by some clueless dimwit that the rave scene is now, in their opinion, a respectable, clean and drug free zone. Anyone who has been to the major clubs recently will know that drugs are still very much a part of the club rave culture. We're not saying that this is a good thing, but it does prove that the Sun knows absolutely fuck all about what's happening on the rave scene, just as they knew fuck all in 1988 and 1989. The truth is that the Sun is run and staffed by a bunch of hypocritical, no good, Tory band-wagon jumping wankers. (Touch December 1991)

Kevin Noone has been involved in the free party scene since the 1970's and currently runs a free party website that includes information on both future and past parties all over the South Coast and the rest of the UK. He believes there was certainly some political agenda behind tabloid newspapers' treatment of the rave scene.

"There was a lot... the government were losing power in the cities and so they used Rave as an excuse to enforce new laws. They had some of the highest unemployment ever and the jobs were getting worse so they tried to cover the headlines with whatever they could. It's like in 1985 when they used the travellers at Stonehenge as scapegoats - uniting on a common front takes the pressure off them. Rave was near the end of the unemployment thing... youth had created a new form of income and new jobs - not drugs but as Djs - there were a lot of new working class role models and the government didn't like that... they couldn't handle having no control.

"I've known (the tabloids) to lie a lot. I don't trust them. There was a time when not everyone did anything (took drugs), but they said we were all unemployed druggies. Rave helped a lot of angry, messed up people get back on the straight and narrow. You went to a Rave and they were all dancing round, smiling and hugging!"

When the Rave scene emerged from the underground in 1991, the media panic it had experienced up until 1990 did not emerged with it. While scare stories about ecstasy deaths still appeared in the news, much of the tabloids' coverage of this new 'Hardcore' Dance scene had begun to take on a far more positive angle. Articles entitled 'High on Life', 'Bop to burn: Raving is the perfect way to lose weight' and 'Raves are all the Rage', as well as actual coverage of top Dance nights in the UK (as described in the Touch article above) all featured in the press and gave the impression that the Rave scene had cleared up its act.

When ecstasy was referred to, it was still in a negative light and in these cases, Rave culture was usually mentioned as well. In effect, the press dealt with Rave as suited them best, depending on the subject of an article. With increasing numbers of laws coming in to force Rave into the clubs and control free parties, many people saw the growing clubland as a future commercial venture. The press could now capitalise on this new money, and with the split of Dance into Happy Hardcore, Drum & Bass and House in 1993, the press found themselves in a much more convenient situation.

While raves playing Hardcore and Drum & Bass continued to be put on across the country, House found itself well established in the clubs and licensed venues. House nights seemed well organised, clean, safe and an acceptable form of entertainment. Meanwhile, free Rave parties became associated with drugs and social outcasts - often happening in illegal venues and attracting large numbers of working class young people and degenerates such as travellers. Dance seemed to have an easily reported on good and bad side now.

Large illegal Raves such as that at Castlemorton Common in May 1992 and Castle Donnington a few months later brought Rave into the limelight again - tabloids branded ravers as public menaces and called out for new laws to stop parties from happening without a licence. While the Club scene developed and grew, the Rave scene was almost stopped in its tracks in December 1993 when the Government, approaching a general election, created the high profile Criminal Justice Bill and Public Order Act. Rave once again shrank and became restricted to organised, legal events while the culture relied on a new breed of music press to support the scene and help it grow.

National press coverage of Rave diminished greatly until the death of Leah Betts in 1995 - while this event rocked Clubland far more than it did Raveland, which had become highly low profile, it brought ecstasy back into the public domain and proved to the media that drug related teenage deaths really grabbed the attention of readers, listeners and viewers. The media panic that followed Leah's death was immense and threatened to damage Club culture's relatively clean image forever. Ecstasy, whether associated with Clubbing or Raving would prove to be a powerful area for newspapers to cover.

Indeed, Rave's appearance in the national press from Leah's death up until present day is scarce and almost entirely in association with MDMA related subject, and predominantly fatalities. Headline's from the Telegraph alone include 'Rave rules tightened to fight drug sales' (19th December, 1995), 'Disco boy took ecstasy to feel alive' (8th November 1996), 'Ecstasy may have killed 'rave' youth' (2nd January, 1997), 'Senior Tory's son leapt to death after taking ecstasy' (29th January, 1997), 'Doctors correct to deny drug girl a transplant' (23rd July, 1997), 'Sleep-over turns into drug rave with 300 gatecrashers' (30th April, 1999) and 'Ecstasy tablets killed lying teenager' (14th November, 2000).

In a recent article on drug prices in the UK, printed in the Guardian, the piece is accompanied by a photograph of two people in a club. The caption reads, 'A rave in Liverpool, among the cities identified as cheapest for illegal drugs.' Out of dozens of Dance nights in Liverpool, less than a handful could be described as a rave. The people in the photo are well dressed, the man in a suit like jacket and the woman a smart dress - hardly the clothes worn to a rave night. It would seem that the word 'rave' has now become synonymous with drugs, and in particular, Ecstasy, just as 'Northern Ireland' is associated with violence and 'Westminster' with politics.

Indeed it seems that Rave is rarely covered by the tabloid press any more. Kevin Noone agrees that Rave's coverage by the mass media as a whole has become less extensive and believes its because people are less shocked by rave culture - Rave is no longer sensational enough for tabloid editors:

"There's less coverage because people have stopped dying. People aren't in the habit of dropping dead these days. Most people know about free parties or know someone who's been to one - scare-mongering doesn't work any more. The scene's still growing - I get contacted by a new sound system (free party organisation) everyday. All the old people that poured out of the scene are getting back into it - it's going back to its 1987/1988 roots. But the police don't care about free parties any more... and if the police don't care, then nobody's going to care."

The average number of people to die as a result of taking ecstasy is currently 11 every year, down from a peak of 27 in 1994. Over one million 'E's' are thought to be taken every weekend. (source: Office of national statistics) Tom Jolly, 27, has been a raver for 10 years believes that the national press' treatment of Rave culture has been very unfair over the last few years, "If one person dies from a pill then it's all over the papers... how many people die of alcohol every year!"

Continued to: The Music Press.....


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