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Rave New World - Commercialisation of Rave

The commercialisation of rave culture into British mainstream - by Rory Finnegan

The area of sociological and cultural interest I have chosen to focus on for this paper is that of youth subculture, with the branch of study being rave culture. I first outline the how rave culture came to be such a dominant subculture of its time and why it continues to shape the leisure activities of British youth. A chapter is devoted to the association drug use and in particular ecstasy has with the subculture. Media representations of rave and an ethnographical study of three rave nights help us to understand how this process of commercialisation has come about. I conclude with the ways in which rave has been commodified, drawing on comment from previous chapters.


Chapter one : The birth of rave culture
Chapter two: Ecstasy and rave culture
Chapter three: Media Representations of rave culture
Chapter four: An Ethnographical study of rave culture


The concept of the subversive youth subculture has been derived from the work conducted in the 1970’s by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (C.C.C.S), to whom we owe much for their theorising on this societal phenomenon. C.C.C.S saw youth as stylish yet somehow deviant in relation to mainstream society and working class youth were much more likely to participate in these subcultures. Hall et al (1976) wanted to examine why and how youth groups were formed. Youth as a cultural category only really came into existence after the second world war when, with the advances in industrialization and technology, it was no longer necessary for people to go straight into a working life at an early age and there was much more leisure time available. As Hall et al argue: “’Youth’ appeared as an emergent category in post-war Britain, one of the most striking and visible manifestations of social change in the period” (Hall et al p9,1976). The youth subculture’s operate in a wider society in which they are part of many differing social groups, however all of whom are set in opposition to the dominant culture. At the time when members of the C.C.C.S. were investigating youth cultures they believed that these different groups are always a result of different classes within society, “in modern societies, the most fundamental groups are the social classes” (Hall et al p13, 1976) and the creation of youth subcultures was a response to the breaking down of class barriers at the time. Phil Cohen (1972) argued that when working-class communities are undergoing change and displacement – when the ‘parent culture’ is no longer cohesive – youth (and the focus here is always on working-class youth) responds by becoming subcultural.

The period of youth in a person’s life is one of “maturation” (Malbon, p13, 1999) during which a person would learn how to act within their youth community and how to progress through this community into society as an adult with responsibilities. Part child, part adult but in neither societal group, becoming actively involved in a youth subculture provides a way for the subject to prolong their transition into mainstream society. Epstein argues that youth undergo “processes and mechanisms of socialization into the dominant culture” (Epstein p3, 1998) Youth culture’s differences and mysteries when compared to the adult mainstream has often aroused suspicion from its parent culture and given the notion to scholar’s that it is possibly part of a wider societal problem. Post war youth subculture is significant as economic and social factors have allowed it to become part of the capitalist phenomenon of commodification. Redhead holds that “in this period a specifically youth ‘style’ became commodified as consumer culture progressively swamped the advanced economies of the West.” (Redhead p1, 2000)

The youth subculture I have chosen for the focus of this study is that of rave culture. Since its inception in Britain in 1987 and the so called “Second Summer Of Love in 1988, rave culture has arguably become one of the most dominant youth subcultures to have ever existed in our society. From causing moral panic amongst the tabloid press and being perceived as a threat to the very moral fabric of society to certain sectors of society embracing it as part of the mainstream, this subculture has and perhaps continues to split societal opinion. What is particularly of interest is the circumstances in which this subculture flourished and continued to do so to the point of its commercialisation in Britain and eventually its export as a global ‘brand’. While other subcultures, except perhaps hip hop culture, have died out in within a few years, rave culture has successfully been commodified yet has maintained its popularity amongst British youth. Such commercialisation of youth subcultures has normally spelt the end of them, however this has not been the case with rave culture.

It is my intention to investigate the factors which have caused this process to occur within the subculture using a variety of methodology’s in order to get to grips with this task. I shall first outline the formation of this subculture from its obscure beginnings in Ibiza, to its place as a worldwide cultural phenomenon. The method that lends itself most to understanding rave culture is that of participant observation. Only by attending these raves and immersing oneself in its night time culture can we hope to ascertain its true status in society as a commercialised subculture. One chapter will be given over to the intimate relationship drugs have with the participation in rave culture. Arguably it would not exist in the current form we know it, if it all, were it not for the rave drug Ecstasy; as Redhead argues: “Ecstasy and rave culture go hand in glove” (Redhead p13, 2000). Originally perceived as something that threatened to corrupt British youth beyond repair, the media has in general taken a dim view of this subculture and the drug use associated with it. Moral panics abounded throughout the late eighties and into the nineties of the perceived social menace that was rave culture. As it became assimilated into licensed clubs the media softened their perspective until the tragic death of Leah Betts in 1995 brought the question of drug use and rave culture back onto the public agenda. Ecstasy was vilified in the media to the extent that we were lead to believe that one ecstasy tablet has the power to kill its user. How misinformed or accurate were the media? Has the music itself brought about this representation of ‘getting off your head’ in the dance. The sheer depth and variety of club nights, record stores, artists and studio’s that have sprung from rave culture only serve to show that the subculture has a strong, loyal following that appears to show no sign of abating. Has this youth subculture left us with a chemical generation, only looking for a quick fix and a way to get off their heads on the weekend or does it run deeper than this? Has the process of commercialisation within rave culture left us with a lasting legacy?

Chapter One: Acid House and the Birth of Rave Culture:

In 1987 four working class males, Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker found themselves in clubs across Ibiza, listening to the music which was to make them legends in the dance scene and transform the face of youth subculture in Britain. Not only did they discover the musical genre of Acid House, played by legendary house DJ’s Alredo Fiorillio and Jose Padilla in clubs such as Amnesia and Pacha, they were also crucially introduced to the drug MDMA, more commonly known as ecstasy. Johnny Walker describes the experience:
“It was almost like a religious experience; a combination of taking ecstasy and going to a warm, open-air club full of beautiful people - you’re on holiday, you feel great and you’re suddenly being exposed to entirely different music to what you were used to in London. This strange mixture was completely fresh and new to us, and very inspiring” (Collin p53, 1998)
Walker’s succinct description here perhaps sums up neatly the factors which allowed rave culture to flourish upon their return to the U.K. The Ibizan atmosphere was a world away from the mundane Thatcherite Britain. As Redhead points out: “The Ibizan reveller high on Ecstasy, abandoned to the beat, lost under strobe lights consumes the radically different space of Dionysian pleasure: dance, music and drugs” (Redhead p32, 2000). This experience is the antithesis to what being a young person in 80’s Britain was like; the fact that the Ibiza experience was so enthralling, it meant it gave these four pioneers the inspiration to recreate the Ibiza scene in dreary South London. We could almost draw a comparison between the difference found in London and Ibiza to what Baudrillard found between Europe and its transatlantic neighbour America. In America everything is just as it seems, there is no meaningful fulfillment to be found from its culture. Disneyland is there to propagate a mythical status in the average American’s perception of the White House. In the same way Ibiza clubs offer a sense of hyperreality to its tourist consumer. The dance floor is the focus for the weary British holidaymaker; here one “submits to the loss of cultural and self identity” (Redhead p33, 2000)

Collin describes life in Britain in 1987:
“The country had just entered its third consecutive term of Conservative rule, a period which compounded the break with the collective values of the past. The last battalions of class warriors, the miners and the printers, had been vanquished after long turbulent strikes, socialism was in terminal retreat, and Thatcher’s “economic miracle”, a consumer boom fuelled by wild spending on credit and a mood of uninhibited individualism, was entering its final phase before the shuddering stock market crash of “Black Monday” heralded a plunge back into recession.” (Collin p55 1998)

Ibiza on the other hand was seen by these young musicians and countless other travellers as a place where you could lose any form of self and cultural identity. The dancefloors of Ibizan clubs were a mix of rich and poor, trendy and unfashionable, male and female. It was a place to lose yourself free from society’s watchful, judgmental gaze. This ‘Balearic’ experience had such an effect on British revellers that it was recreated in the dancefloors of South London on their return from Ibiza. Whilst Johnny Walker, Paul Oakenfold, and Nicky Holloway started up their own nights along Streatham high Road and other South London hotspots, Danny Rampling, along with his sister Jenny created a new night catering for this unique Balearic sound which was coined as “Shoom”. The night was a resounding success. As Jenny pointed out: “People came cos they can relax and freak out as much as they want without anybody standing and watching them.” (Godfrey 1988 p.33, Redhead 2000). It was perhaps this sense of freedom from society where Acid House won its original following. This is indeed an interesting point as although ravers seemed to be distancing themselves from the identity of a nine to five blue or white collar worker and losing that aspect of their identity on the dancefloors, they were slowing carving out the identity of the raver, a community of people that come together at the weekend to dance to a beat, an identity late eighties British society would struggle to comprehend, let alone integrate. The attire of choice was indeed deviant from the dominant culture and marked the raver out as part of a subordinate subculture: As Collin states: “a gaggle of brightly dressed extroverts in baggy sweatshirts, dungarees, ethnic accoutrements, strings of beads around their necks, hair grown long over the summer and caught up in a little ponytail with an elastic band. Compared to the drab uniform of London clubland at the end of the eighties-MA-1 flying jackets, Doctor Martens and Levis 501s-they looked and acted like freaks from another dimension.” (Collin 1998, p.55). The yellow smiley face logo was used as a sign for secret membership to this raving community, an example of the use of innocuous signs to represent the membership of a subculture, comparisons can be made with Hebdige’s criticism of the apparel worn by punks: “These ‘humble objects’ can be magically appropriated; ‘stolen’ by subordinate groups and made to carry secret meanings: meanings which express in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination” (Hebdige 1979 p,17-18). This was a golden age for Acid House and its culture, this period of time in the summer of 1988 came to be known as the second of summer of love, paying tribute to the hippy ideology of the late sixties which was evident across the dancefloors of London house nights.

Moral panics of drug taking, sensationalized by the tabloid press, amongst this “chemical generation” of British youth were fuelling the government to take action against this new so-called menace to society. By now it was 1989 and Acid House promotion was big business. Ironically under Margaret Thatcher’s new policies of entrepreneurial business, people such as Tony Colston-Hayter, the man behind Sunrise (one of the biggest promotions in the land at the time) were now making thousands of pounds by organising huge raves in fields around London’s M25 orbit . Having moved out of the clubs that were limited to a 3am closing time, entrepreneurs such as Colston-Hayter were now moving the rave into a into warehouses and fields and charging anything from five to twenty pounds for the pleasure. As Colston-Hayter put it: “Surely this ridiculous 3a.m. curfew on dancing is an anachronism in today’s enterprise culture.” (Redhead p.47. 2000, Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven, LSD and the American Dream, (1989) Paladin, p.487) Fields and warehouses were turned into night time theme parks, however this was all highly illegal territory and these entrepreneurs came to be seen as the ‘folk devils’ of their day. Police were given powers to shut down these illegal events, however promoters did not take this lying down. Perhaps the attraction in these raves was that there was a sense of adventure, a game of cat and mouse between raver and policeman, pirate radio stations gave out false information to deter the police as ravers rang various numbers to find the secret location of the rave. However, in 1990, these raids eventually brought the illegal parties back into the clubs as promoters where powerless to prevent the police closing them down at a great financial loss to the promoter. And it is in the clubs that rave culture has now flourished. Perhaps the Hacienda in Manchester is responsible for this. The Hacienda was now the home of Acid House as ravers travelled across the country to experience the super club in the country’s clubbing capital, then known as “Madchester”.

Since this move back into clubs, rave culture has gone from strength to strength, the Hacienda was eventually closed due to spiralling violence in the club, however violence in clubs has been reduced massively with technologal advances in surveillance and increased security presence. Perhaps the only other threat in recent times was the tragic death of teenager Leah Betts on November 16th 1995. This received intense media coverage and her parents set up a campaign with Leah’s face plastered across billboards the length and breadth of the country. Beneath her face was the slogan “Sorted” with the grim warning below it “Just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts”. Although the cause of death was given as Ecstasy poisoning, after the coroners inquest, Dr. John Henry claimed that death was more likely as a result of water intoxication: delusional hyponatremia. Opponents to this claimed that if Leah Betts had not taken ecstasy she would not have died, while the ‘ecstasy evangelists’ claimed that it was not the MDMA and that if information was readily in available in the public domain, there would be fewer deaths as a result of ecstasy. Undeterred by such events many clubbers continued to take ecstasy. The largest ever survey done on the subject by Lifeline and Mixmag in 1996, suggested that more and more people were experimenting with the drug and few anticipated giving it up in the near future. (Collin, 1998, p.299-305). In 2006, this grim episode in rave culture’s history seems long ago, yet it should serve as a reminder for the risks partaking in drugs as part of the subculture can bring.

Rave culture has brought not only new genre’s of music into our domain, it has also provided us with new forms of lifestyle and job opportunities. Like the hippie and punk movements before it, it was seen as deviant, threatening, and subversive, yet now it is part of a major number of youth’s social activities. It has become mainstream, normally this is the death knell for many subcultures, yet it has retained an underground feel for the most part, peeking into the mainstream every now and again. The song ‘Things Can Only Get Better” was used by New Labour as they won the general election of 1995, it was penned by D-Ream, themselves ravers and known for making house tunes. What a departure from the Conservative governments attempt to censure this new, exciting sound. Jungle, Drum and Bass, Happy Hardcore, Old Skool, Progressive House, Trance, Garage, Gabba, Grime, Hard House, Techno, and many more genre-defying tunes have sprung from the initial invasion of Acid House to Great Britain. The sheer depth and variety of club nights, record stores, artists and studio’s that have sprung from rave culture only serve to show that this subculture has a strong, loyal following that shows no signs of abating.

Chapter Two : Ecstasy and Rave Culture

The drug, commonly known as ecstasy, known chemically as 3,4 Methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA, was made illegal in Britain in 1977, under the misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, over reports of it being sold on the American Black Market (Redhead, p9, 2000). On account of this thousands of young, mostly law abiding although some clearly not, Britons were committing a criminal offence every weekend. Redhead argues that “ Ecstasy and rave culture go hand in glove” and it was this combination of youth and drug taking that alarmed the dominant order so much. It is difficult to argue which came first but it is irrefutable that ecstasy plays a major role in the weekends of ravers even to this day. It may be argued that ecstasy use in raves is a way of legitimising “getting off your head”, pursuing a hedonistic pleasure. Redhead argues :”It is associated with a politics of pleasure, a hedonism (in hard times) - a pleasure for its own sake in times when moral regulation of youth is pervasive and deep economic recession is rife” (Redhead p7, 2000). This politics of pleasure was not a unique phenomenon to rave culture, it was also appropriated in the sixties through hippies use of marijuana and LSD and the use of amphetamines and purple hearts by those in the punk movement (Madge p145, 2000). With rave culture and indeed hip hop culture’s promotion of marijuana in the 90’s to present day (Cypress Hill: Hits from the Bong, Afroman: Because I got High) it could be argued that we live truly in a chemical world where our stresses and strains may from time to time, only find relief in whatever drug we can obtain. This information from The office of National statistics give us an indication into the drug consumption in recent society:
“In 2001/02, 15 per cent of men and 9 per cent of women aged 16 to 59 in England and Wales said that they had taken an illicit drug in the previous year. Among young people (those aged 16 to 24), 35 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women said they had done so in the previous year.
The most commonly used drug by young people was cannabis, which had been used by 33 per cent of young men and 21 per cent of young women in the previous year.
Ecstasy was the most commonly used Class A drug, with higher use among the 16 to 24 year olds than those aged 25 to 59. In 2001/02, 9 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women aged 16 to 24 had used ecstasy in the previous year.

Since 1996 there has been an increase in the use of cocaine among young people, especially among young men.” (Office of National Statistics)

There is no age limit in this search, or desire. Although youth is still overwhelmingly associated with drug use, especially over-use, it is only because of the twin and universal aspects of youthful desire to try anything once, with often equal desire for inconsequential over indulgence. Adult society worries itself sick over youth and its indulgences, whilst continuing to provide the means by which youth can (legally) get off their heads (using alcohol), adding an envious tinge to whatever excesses make the morning papers or breakfast television. At the same time adult society frets, as it must, over the image portrayed by youthful icons such as sports (Diego Maradona) or pop stars (Pete Docherty) and their thoughtless, not to say downright stupid, commentaries on their over indulgent lives.

However I would like to argue that rave culture runs deeper than pure intoxication. An offshoot of the explosion in Dance music was the need to provide services, services such as record shops, more clubs, record labels, websites and thousands of individual promoters catering to every taste of a clubbers musical diet. Would all of this have emerged if rave culture was purely about illegal drug use? I think it is clear that a significant number of people within the subculture who have a passion and love for certain forms of dance music. Cynical commentators could argue that this merely comes from wrongly associating the good times felt by ecstasy’s grip with the music itself, however I find this point a step too far. For every raver who takes ecstasy there is one who chooses not to, it is left as the choice of the individual to break the law and consume drugs at a rave. Many do so and many do not. Rave and clubbing culture runs much deeper than simple drug use. However the tabloid press would struggle to see it from this point of view.

Chapter 3: media representations of rave culture:

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 positive story about Acid House, 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. 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 argues 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 p135, 1995)

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. Stanley Cohen (1972) states that media panic and exposure was what caused the famous clashes between the mods and rockers of the early 1960'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 1978, it is suggested that media panics may be created in order to distract 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 hegemonistic 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 they began to target 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-admitted 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:

'10,000 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)

It could be argued here that there was a political agenda being employed by The Sun newspaper. By focusing on the seemingly deviant activities of those involved in the Acid House movement it shifted the focus from the economic problems being experienced in Britain at the time. These ravers were considered to be a reason for these problems not a direct result of them

When the Rave scene emerged from the underground in 1991, the media panic it had experienced up until 1990 did not emerge 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 in the media that the word 'rave' has now become synonymous with drugs, and in particular, Ecstasy, just as 'Northern Ireland' has been associated with violence and 'Westminster' with politics.

Indeed it seems that rave culture is rarely covered by the tabloid press any more. The coverage by the mass media as a whole has become less extensive and believes its because people are less shocked by rave culture - rave culture is no longer sensational enough for tabloid editors. This is an indication of the successful integration of rave culture into British mainstream.

Chapter Four: An Ethnographical Study of Rave Culture

The qualitative research method used in this study provides a micro-level perspective, based on case studies or data collected from groups and individuals. Emphasis is placed on smaller scale events exploring the meaning that events and situations have for participants. The method that lends itself most to understanding rave culture is that of participant observation. Only by attending these raves and immersing oneself in its night time culture can we hope to ascertain its true status in society as a subculture. It is important that observations are made not only from an objectivist perspective, that is to say the material space and actions that I see as an observer. The research in this instance must also take the form of a subjectivist perspective, that is to say we must give credence to social interactions, we must progress from merely observing the participants to actively participating with them in the subculture in order to gain a better understanding of its members.

In order to gain a broader focus, I have chosen to observe three differing aspects of the rave scene. The first being Detonate, the biggest Drum and Bass and Breaks promotion in Nottingham and indeed one of the biggest in the U.K. Having run for over seven years and progressed from humble beginnings at the small club Dubble Bubble, it now showcases monthly nights at Nottingham super club Stealth and twice yearly events at Rock City. The event I undertook my research in was at one of these Rock City events The night was entitled as Detonate: The Next Level, held on 15th October 2004 and was one of the biggest rave nights to be seen in Nottingham. Over years spent in Nottingham as a student I have come to know the two promoters Kath and James Busby on a personal level and so was able to gain access to the VIP area in order to make this research a little easier to carry out. The time was 1:15a.m. I first decided to focus on the dance floor as this is where the majority of the packed out Rock City crowd could be found. It was a mass of sweaty heaving bodies jumping up and down in time to the bass heavy, pounding beat, years later almost vindicating Adorno’s description of the predictable jazz beat on the dance floor. As far as I could tell the majority of the crowd were male although there was still a significant proportion of females, if I were to give an estimated figure I would say a 65% male to 35% female ratio. The crowd express their delight when a well mixed tune or just a pleasing tune on its own gets played by responding to the DJ by waving their fist in the air and calling for the DJ to rewind or reload, as is the common parlance, the track. The main room is so packed that people are dancing on the stairs, near the bar, even on seats. After ten minutes of dance floor observation I turned my attention to the bar area, it is a heavy point of socialisation as the participants are getting more intoxicated and hence less inhibited. The bar is seemingly unable to cope with the vast amount of ravers searching for a drink. Bottles or cans are the preferred receptacles for holding drink as they are less prone to spillage in the chaos of the dance floor. Interestingly, bottles of water are purchased with as much if not more regularity as alcoholic produce. Does this indicate a surrogate use of the raving drug ecstasy? Judging from the stereotypical gurn and profuse sweat the researcher has no other conclusion but to confirm that there are drugs being consumed.

The second rave event I have focused on is also based in Nottingham but it has more of an underground feel to it due to the venue in which it is located. This event is known as Firefly and is to Techno in Nottingham what Detonate is to drum and bass. As a promotion it has been running for five years with its original home being the now defunct The Bomb; it too is now located in a monthly position at Stealth. However Firefly also hosts bi annual events at The Marcus Garvey Centre (MGC), a community centre in Lenton, Nottingham built for the use of its residents and to honour Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey. The layout of the MGC is less your standard club which has a fixed dancefloor, bar area and chill out zone, more one big hall with a stage for the DJ’s and a stack of speakers either side. It is much more comparable to the raves which occurred in disused warehouses during the Acid House phenomenon than to club nights which are found at Steath and Rock City. Using a similar methodology to the one employed at Rock City I first observed the activities of the crowd on the dance floor, or in this instance the area in front of the stage that was assumed to be the dance floor, at 1am. Although the musical genre may be different here than was at Detonate, the crowd reactions are the same. The hall is a mass of sweaty ravers, all gazing at the DJ in awe of his tune selection and mixing abilities. The DJ is occasionally called upon to rewind the track if it is an especially popular or classic tune, although not as frequently as was the case at Detonate. The gender mix here is split more evenly and there appears to be less ‘shady’ characters than there were to be found at Detonate. By this I mean there appears to be less attitude and more fun loving vibes, a return to the principles on which rave was founded upon in the late 80’s. At 1:20am I shift my focus on to the small bar located right at the rear of the venue. The alcohol selection is sparse while the supply of water bottles and lucozade is plentiful. As was noted at Detonate the majority of the crowd are buying and consuming water bottles and judging from their behaviour it appears as though ecstasy consumption is preferable to that of alcohol. The smell of marijuana is just as noticeable as it was in Rock City. A quick trip to the toilet provides me with an interesting insight into the manner in which drugs are dealt within the venue. Just in front of the entrance there are three men offering me ‘pills’ or ‘weed’ by thrusting a bag containing both these drugs in my face. What is surprising here is the blatant nature of the way in which these drugs are offered for sale, as if I had entered some legal marketplace. Naturally I declined but it was clear that many people within the venue were only too happy to purchase these drugs in such a blatant manner.

An interesting pattern emerges here when we consider that not just Detonate and Firefly have been relocated to Stealth from The Bomb but also Camouflage, Product and Spectrum whose genre of music they champion are hip hop, House and break beat respectively. In 2005 The Bomb closed down after these major promotions moved to newly opened Stealth due to its superior capacity of 1500 as opposed to The Bomb’s capacity of 800. With Stealth monopolising the major promotions of the city, The Bomb could not compete and its weekend audience gradually declined. This is yet further evidence of how club’s have capitalised on the popularity of rave culture and that these promotions are commodities to be consumed by the clubbing populus of Nottingham and indeed across the U.K. Rave culture is big business.

The final night I shall focus on for this chapter is one based in London known as Bangface @ Electrowerkz. This is a slight departure from my previous two observations not only by its location but also the musical genre’s. Bangface does not employ a strict musical policy as the following genre’s are stated on the flyer; neo rave; acid; jungle; old skool rave; drum & bass; house; techno; break core and abstract dance. I decided it would be essential to include a night from London in this paper as this was after all the birthplace of the Acid House phenomenon in Britain. Taking the same methodology as has been used previously, I fixed my attention on the dance floor at 1am. What was surprising at this club was that the crowd did not seem to be interacting with the DJ as much, there was much more interaction between fellow ravers on the dance floor. The crowd also seemed a fair few years younger here with ages looking to range from late teens to early twenties rather than a mix of people in their twenties which was to be found at Detonate and Firefly. The dance floor was teeming with the sounds of whistles and horns being blown, inflatable toys and beach balls were thrown into the air with delight from one raver to the next; ironic signs were held aloft displaying the slogans “I’m raving innit” and “I’m here with my nan” adding to the festival spirit to be found here. As was found at Detonate the crowd present has a male bias although women are represented also. The chill out area was also located directly next to the bar and so this is where I chose to shift my focus to at 1:15am. As was found at the previous venues there is a plentiful supply of water bottles and energy drinks but here there is also a well stocked bar for alcohol as ravers seem to consume an equal mix of soft and alcoholic beverages. What is interesting also is that drug consumption is not as blatant as was found at the previous two venues. No discernable smell of cannabis smoke lingers anywhere in the club and nor am I offered the chance to purchase any drugs inside the venue.

Having observed the behaviour of ravers at three differing venue, it if fair to say that the claims that millions of the nation’s youth go raving each
weekend on a cocktail of drugs are plausible. Ecstasy is just one of the many at their disposal. What can society do to stop this? Legalisation is not the answer in my opinion. This would open the floodgates to drug abuse. However how can the law continue if it shown to be an ass? I believe it takes a general shift in the consciousness of society as to the perceptions of what drugs really are and what their effects can do. The “Talk to Frank” adverts we have recently seen are a step in the right direction. Rather than warn people off drugs, which only causes people to rebel against these warnings, it is a more prudent to display the facts and make as much information as is possible available to the potential drug consumer. The declassification of marijuana to Class C seems to be a green light for its use throughout society, as walking down a city centre its pungent odour can be picked up. Indeed the three crowd’s observed in this paper appear to treat it liberally just as they would with legal drugs sold on the premises such as alcohol and tobacco. Indeed at Firefly class A drugs were offered up for sale just as any commodity is offered in any marketplace across the country.

The lack of serious, informed debate in government with regard drugs policy only serves to perpetuate this black hole in the law. The media are quick to pounce on any major comment from a public figure on drugs and inevitably giving it a negative spin. Without a serious, informed debate how can we hope to tackle the social menaces of the consumption of hard drugs.

Chapter Five: Survival through Commodification:

Rather than stagnating into self parody, as British youth cultures had traditionally done after brief years of vitality, rave culture has remained in a state of constant creative flux, regenerating itself year after year with fresh blood and influences. Although the culture has itself been commodified through various businesses and entrepreneurs, its apolitical hedonist heart has slowly been assimilated into the British leisure industry.

Following government legislation such as Bright’s Entertainment Bill in 1991, licensed raves began to prosper and have continued to do so up to present day. A nocturnal economy has prospered through the DJ agencies, records shops and labels that came arose from the Acid House movement. In the mid 90’s three major house brands; Cream, Ministry of Sound and Renaissance commodified and commercialised the culture further through DJ mix CD’s ( now a legal alternative to the bootleg mixtape), merchandise and clothing ranges, opening bars and shops, promoting nationwide club ‘tours’ and package holidays to destinations such as Ibiza and Ayia Napa. As Collin argues : “The Ministry refined the idea of club culture as pure product, and the nightclub as the marketing tool” (Collin p269 p270 1998). What was originally intended as an alternative to the mainstream nature of raves has now generated a new mainstream; a high street dance-drug culture.

Major music labels have sought to cash in on the largely independent dance music scene. They have launched subsidiary dance operations headed by scene heroes such as Paul Oakenfold and Goldie, bought out or affiliated themselves with cutting edge independent labels, issued mix compilations, and marketed DJ’s as celebrity superstars.

Leisure opportunities for young people outside the capital have altered fundamentally since the eighties and pleasures that were previously only available to a bohemian elite are now open to all. As Patrick Mignon argues: “Popular music and drugs are two products which by their very success, indicate the spread of behaviour previously reserved for the elites: the right to explore one’s interior or social space. They are tied to the growth of the industries of dream and relaxation” (Mignon, Redhead p176, 2000). It is hedonism distilled to its purest essence. The lack of any ideology bar the ceaseless pursuit of sheer pleasure has made it even more accessible. The weekend dance session is no longer considered subversive or extraordinary, merely a natural option for a night out.

While back in 1988 acid house was roundly banned by Radio 1, now the rave genres it has spawned enjoy many prime time slots with Pete Tong’s essential selection, Fabio and Grooverider and Mary Anne Hobbs show’s considered to be the most exciting on commercial radio. As Tomlinson argues: “once a music is co-opted into the mass culture, it can no longer be considered confrontational” (Tomlinson, Epstein p207, 1998). And this is perhaps where we find rave culture in society nowadays. The music itself does not strike fear into the government of the day, instead it is applauded for the diversity and aesthetically aural qualities.

However, the question of liberal ecstasy use is still something that draws and indeed warrants the attention of the authorities. Just recently on 16th April 2006 the nightclub Fridge in Brixton was raided by 200 policeman as part of an attempt to target class A drug dealing. There were 11 arrests. John Roberts, the Metropolitan Police Authority's lead member for Lambeth, said the operation was part of a wider attempt to end the misery that drug dealing caused to the community. Mr Roberts said: "By listening to the community and responding to their concern we can tackle drug dealing in Lambeth. He said the operation was "part of a much bigger picture" which involved targeting "the anti-social criminality that drug dealing breeds and the misery that is causes". He added: "People come to Brixton to have fun and enjoy the nightlife, they do not want to come to clubs where they are being peddled drugs." (Source: www.bbc.co.uk/news)

The ongoing search for meaning amongst the generations of post war youth will continue as long as there is a feeling of not belonging to their adult society. Youth’s search for meaning through music becomes linked to their alienated state. Each resistive activity is countered by the co-optation of that activity into the marketing of a particular music. The alientation of youth becomes a marketing strategy to which rave culture continues to be bought into.


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Additional References Consulted:
Arnold, D (1970) Subcultures Glendessary Press: Berkeley
Hammersley, R, Khan, F and Ditton, J (2002)Ecstasy and the rise of the chemical generation Routledge: London
Knowledge, December 2004
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Reynolds, S. (1999) Generation Ecstasy: Into the world of Techno and Rave culture Little, Brown and Company: LondonReproduced with permission of the author. 

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Fantazia.   For more information on this article contact:



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