The old skool reunion
In February 1992, dance producer Q-Bass released his sole hit, the optimistically titled Hardcore Will Never Die. Like fellow one-hit wonder Guru Josh, who boldly announced “1990s! Time for the Guru!” before fading into obscurity just six months into the new decade, it looked as if Q-Bass’s crystal ball needed a polish.
Within months, hardcore rave’s four-year reign was over.
Almost exactly a decade later, the dancefloor of London’s Camden Palace is consequently a surreal sight. It’s a Moondance night, and DJ Ellis Dee (whose name encapsulates rave-era wit in a nutshell) plays nothing but old rave records, all primary-coloured piano riffs, scampering breakbeats and vertiginous synth rushes. The crowd welcome every track like an old friend, blowing their whistles and waving their lightsticks as if the last 10 years of dance music had never happened.
The clubbers are a varied bunch. Dave, a 32-year-old steelworker who returned to clubbing recently after a six-year break, sits chatting to bank clerk Tom, 20, who grew up on his older brother’s records even though he was too young to go raving. Upstairs, Grant Walker, thirtysomething founder of old skool rave website Epidemik, hosts a stall selling early 1990s paraphernalia including whistles, airhorns and lollipops. “Old skool was ahead of its time,” he asserts. “It was a whole new game: new drugs, new rules, everything.” At which point Ellis Dee plays SL2’s 1992 hit Way in My Brain to a fanfare of airhorns. Clearly, hardcore wasn’t dead after all. It was just taking a breather.
Nostalgia springs eternal but, even so, 2001 was a bumper year for retrospectives, and dance music, for all its initial futurist verve, has finally succumbed. The stream of archive-raiding programmes such as I Love the 1980s has spawned a club culture tributary that includes Channel 4’s Pump Up the Volume and ITV’s The Dance Years. Parallelling the success of the School Disco club night and Friends Reunited website is a nostalgia boom among retired ravers who spent their youth dancing in fields rather than halls and prefer old skool to their old school.
In October, the Ministry of Sound released Back to the Old Skool, a double CD of classic hits from rave’s heyday, 1989 to 1992. In total, the two volumes to date have shifted a remarkable 500 000 copies, and Telstar have released Old Skool Euphoria, mixed by Mark Archer of revived rave act Altern 8. Every weekend there are revival nights up and down the country, and you can hear hardcore’s influence in everything from hard house to the So Solid Crew. “Everything gets recycled after 10 years,” says Archer. “In the mid-1980s there was a whole 1970s revival, in the 1990s there was an 1980s revival. It’s hardcore’s turn now.”
Although acid house dates back to 1987, the phenomenon was initially restricted to the trendsetting metropolitan elite. The rave era began during the long hot summer of 1989, with a series of enormous outdoor events - some licensed, some not - that attracted a much broader, younger, working-class following. Now that dance music is part of the furniture, you can understand the appeal of a time when ravers would dodge the police to attend events while the anthems routinely gatecrashed the Top 10 with little or no mainstream radio support. “It wasn’t quite anarchy, but if you wanted to put an event on, you could,” says Radio 1’s Dave Pearce, who hosted Kiss FM’s breakfast show at the time. “Every weekend, thousands of kids would be whizzing around the M25 trying to find the nearest rave. The music reminds people of a time when there was a great deal of change going on.”
Another factor in this nostalgia is the innocent amateurism of dance culture’s infancy. “People were making money out of it but it was quite a genuine time,” contends Dan Donnelly, one of rave’s first entrepreneurs. As a teenager he set up the Suburban Base label, recording tracks himself as Q-Bass, and now runs Tailormade Music, an umbrella company that includes publishing, consultancy and the Euphoria compilations. “People wanted to make music and put on events just so they had something to dance to. These days everyone wants the glory of being a DJ or a promoter.”
Most importantly, there was rave’s musical unity. DJs such as Judge Jules, Paul Oakenfold, Carl Cox and Grooverider, now worlds apart musically, would regularly share a bill, and one rave even booked hip-hop heroes Public Enemy. “What has happened in dance music is tribalism, which has been mainly perpetuated by the dance media,” says Pearce. “By categorising genres they’ve forced new generations of clubbers into very narrow fields. Back then, it really was about a broad spectrum of music.”
No act typifies the period more than Altern 8. Stafford pair Archer and Chris Peat started out in 1990 as a techno act, Nexus 21. For their Altern 8 alias, they decided they needed a disguise consisting of customised chemical-warfare suits and dust masks, obtained through Archer’s RAF brother. Like the KLF, the duo built a reputation for high-concept pranks. In 1992, they stood for parliament, garnering a grand total of 100 votes. At a rave at rock venue Bingley Hall, Birmingham, they introduced a “witch doctor”, in reality a blacked-up photographer from Tamworth wearing a loincloth and cow’s skull, to “exorcise” rock. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. “The crowd loved it,” Archer, 33, recalls wistfully. “It was still dance versus rock, fighting against the establishment. Even at that event there was a huge police presence, so we were basically up on stage sticking a finger up.”
Altern 8 notched up eight Top 75 hits before parting ways in 1993. Their demise mirrored that of rave itself. Even before the government cracked down on illegal parties with the Criminal Justice Act, rave’s open-arms populism was wearing thin, triggering a return to glamorous dress codes and elitist door policies in the form of superclubs. The music also fragmented, in part because of a slew of wretched novelty tunes that wilfully misunderstood the subversive appeal of the Prodigy’s Charly.
Records that no old skool compiler has yet seen fit to resurrect include Slipstream’s We Are Raving (a cunning rewrite of Rod Stewart’s Sailing), Skin Up’s Blockbuster (“Give Us an E!”) and such revamped children’s TV themes as Trip to Trumpton, Roobarb and Custard and Sesame’s Treet, which was only kept off the number-one slot by Jimmy Nail. What a golden week for music that must have been. “The whole thing got very cheesy,” laments Archer. “There were people wandering around with fisherman’s hats on with a big E stuck on the front, sucking dummies. Someone’s going to start doing that again, but why on earth they did it in the first place I don’t know.”
Embarrassment prompted rave’s leading lights to move on - Fabio and Grooverider invented drum’n'bass, Judge Jules and Paul Oakenfold become superstar DJs, and the Prodigy conquered the world. So far, the old skool revival has learned the lessons of history. That old copy of Trip to Trumpton remains gathering dust along with such best-forgotten rave accessories as white gloves and Vick’s inhalers. But old skool’s appeal is not tongue-in-cheek; many of the records still sound implausibly exciting. “I dropped Altern 8 the other day and there was a rush of phone calls going, ‘What was that?’,” reports Pearce. “That music had energy and there’s been a lot of very dull music around this year. There’s a whole new generation that’s really into it.”
Lohan Presencer, UK managing director of Ministry of Sound recordings, is more cynical. “We don’t see it as a revival,” he says. “We see it more as a nostalgia boom. People saw rave music as quite naff until recently, and now enough time has passed for it to become kitsch and for people to reminisce about it.” Presencer sees the old skool phase as just the first step in a lucrative process of repackaging dance history. “We could conceivably have an album that reminisces about 1999.”
It’s a reductive view that may explain the disproportionate commercial success of Back to the Old Skool but doesn’t chime with the genuine enthusiasm of the Moondance crowd, who have little time for current styles like UK garage. “Garage is about fashion and being cool,” sniffs Epidemik’s Grant Walker. “Raving wasn’t about being cool. It was about freedom, expression, meeting new people.”
Nostalgia, however, is always bittersweet. No recreation can mimic that initial honeymoon period when the music, the lifestyle and the drugs genuinely changed lives, and nobody at Moondance seriously pretends that it can. Nor can the current compilation boom last long (“There’s only so much gold that you can dig,” Pearce argues), but Altern 8’s Archer hopes that it will at least allow him to return to music. He currently fits occasional DJ dates around his day job at Argos’s Staffordshire call centre and sometimes regrets ending Altern 8 while contemporaries Moby and the Prodigy graduated to megastardom. “I do wish I’d carried on and made the money they made,” he admits ruefully. “But everything happens for a reason.” He brightens. “I’ve seen people wearing hooded tops and masks with an A on the front. Everything’s coming back.” - The Guardian
Old Skool Euphoria is out now on Telstar. Back to the Old Skool volumes 1 & 2 are out now on Ministry of Sound.