Lightening in a Bottle: 1990s Rave Culture
TREVOR KENNEDY (December 2019)
“Why do I rave? Because for a short while, a few hours, there are no problems. The floor becomes a paradise where all are welcome, and none are judged. I rave because it allows me to see the world the way it should be seen.” (Chris Schweizer)
From the mid-twentieth century onwards (and arguably even before), every generation has had their own -iconic to them -music scene. Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly are just two of the names that dominated the 1950s new and fresh (and frowned upon by many of the older establishment whose memories of the horrors of the Second World War were still vivid) rock ‘n roll movement. In the ‘Swinging Sixties’ the youth of the day had The Beatles, and for the more serious rockers, The Rolling Stones and The Who. The ‘60s also saw the rise of the hippie movement and ended with the Manson Cult massacre. In the ‘70s there was Glam Rock, Disco and Punk (not forgetting the likes of The Bay City Rollers for the teeny boppers), and in the Thatcher, Reagan and yuppie-dominated ‘80s we saw the rise of several more musical genres including the New Romantics, Ska, big hair-inspired Heavy Metal and the skinhead-based material. Oi, oi!
Towards the end of the 1980s, however, a new movement began to form in the mainland UK in the likes of farmers’ fields and old warehouses. Young people were beginning to congregate in ever-growing numbers at these so-called Acid House parties, dressed in the most over-the-top, colourful and revealing outfits imaginable and dancing non-stop through the night, right into the next day, to extremely fast-paced, beat-orientated electronic music. There wasn’t much alcohol consumed at these usually illegal events either, odd if put in the context of most of the other music scenes that went before. The reason for this, of course, was that certain other substances were being taken instead, namely LSD, Ecstasy pills and amphetamines. It goes without saying that these upcoming raves were widely condemned, sometimes in the harshest possible terms, by the politicians, mainstream media and law enforcement officers of the time. Naturally, the kids taking part in these underground activities took no heed of what the powers that be had to say in regard to their social lives and continued unabated, as the movement grew and grew and eventually spread to Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole.
I remember the early days (and nights) of the local rave scene vividly. I think my mates and I got properly into it around 1991, when I was aged 14. We used to hang around Woodvale Park, the bandstand there, and also The Candy Box shop, just opposite the park, usually armed with a trusty ghetto blaster pumping out the latest tunes, adorned in all the latest rave-inspired fashions, such as Naf Naf jackets and those ridiculously over-the-top red Fila boots that I once owned a pair of. Other teenage high-jinks such as a little bit of underage alcohol consumption, smoking and other related past-times were also the fashion at the time. Enough said.
A few under-18 raves soon began to pop up along the way and as expected my friends and I attended as many as we could, including at the community centre in Disraeli Street on the Woodvale every Friday night and the Dundonald Ice Bowl on the outskirts of East Belfast, where we actually had the joy of seeing The Prodigy, a largely upcoming dance outfit at the time, perform live one evening around November 1992, if memory and research serve me correctly.
This was fast becoming a hugely growing local music-based movement that most, if not all, working class kids at the time were involved with, or at least affected by, in some way. At the time though, I don’t think most of us fully appreciated how big it was all becoming, or indeed how what we were experiencing would soon leave a great impact on us for the rest of our lives, for good and sometimes not so good reasons.
Some of the big name DJs from the mainland, such as Sasha and John Digweed, are still very well known to this day and even here in Northern Ireland we had our own versions in the forms of Glen Molloy, Gleave Dobbin and more. We all had their tapes and would listen to them together continuously from the aforementioned ghetto blasters and tape decks. These guys inspired many a young pony-tailed lad back then to try their hand at spinning the wheels of steel for themselves, including quite a few close friends of mine, some of which were rather successful at it too, soon moving on to rocking the socks off revellers at local clubs and beyond, continuing with their passion right up to the present day. I used to even attempt a spot of bedroom DJ-ing myself the odd time on my various mates’ decks, usually stored in their converted attics, but to be honest I was pretty rubbish at it and couldn’t mix a tune to save my life.
As the years progressed and we reached our later teens, the group I ran around with soon started dabbling in proper, full-on raves, often bus loads of us travelling to some of the biggest clubs in the country, like Charlie Heggarty’s in Bangor, Kelly’s of Portrush and, of course, the infamous Circus Circus in Banbridge, now incidentally a bingo hall aimed at a more mature female clientele -oh, how times have changed! Other clubs worthy of mention would most definitely be Tokyo Joe’s and the Arts College, both in Belfast City Centre, Kilwaughter House in Larne, and one of my all-time favourite spots, the Network Club in North Street, not far from the bottom of the Shankill Road. From the mid-to-late-‘90s my mates and I were hardly out of the “Sweatwork”, as it was known affectionately to many in the know, such was our love of the place. And there was ALWAYS a party to go to afterwards, quite often partying for quite a few days and nights straight with very little-to-no sleep gotten either. Many a Monday morning I would have stumbled into work in the printing factory where I was employed at the time totally unfit for a day’s toil but struggling through it anyway.
This was a very special time indeed for those of us who grew up within this era and the experiences we shared together. Lifelong friendships were forged, friends still as close today as ever before, despite not seeing each other on the same regular basis as we used to due to family, work and other more grown-up, adult commitments. We even went on a few gloriously debauched holidays together in the late ‘90s as well, specifically Magaluf, Ayia Napa in Cyprus (twice) and Benidorm. It really did feel that being a part of this scene was like being privy to some sort of forbidden, highly secretive knowledge. It felt risky and edgy, and, to be honest, for a good part of the time it really was. It was almost like we were part of a cult, but a somewhat chemically-induced, happy and friendly one at that.
It is also most definitely worth noting that the rave scene here in Northern Ireland also transgressed quite a few other substantial boundaries. For the first time in many decades, young working class Protestants and Catholics were coming together en masse and enjoying themselves at these raves and parties, not giving a proper care in the world about the old tribal rivalries or worrying about the potentially life-threatening ramifications it could bring to them either. Risky business at the time, yes, and some have even claimed that these oft-times foolhardy comings together brought about the peace process here. That’s definitely an over-exaggeration to me but these factors were most certainly a contributing component.
So far in this piece I’ve painted quite a rosy picture of the 1990s rave scene and you are probably thinking to yourself that there are a couple of rather large elephants in the room that I haven’t properly addressed so I’ll get to them now. Were there drugs involved? Well, of course there were. Ecstasy and other substances were a massive part of the movement as a whole, a major factor, but for obvious reasons I’m not going to go into this in too much detail, but what I will say is this: for every high there is always a low. Whilst they were indeed the best of times for the most part, not all of us escaped unscathed. In the resulting years, quite a few of us succumbed to serious mental health issues, addiction and even suicide. At the time, very often we brought other forms of trouble to our front doors too. We played with fire and some of us got burnt badly. None of this should be taken lightly, despite the sometimes overly-enthusiastic nostalgia for the period which we are all guilty of to certain extents.
In recent years there has also been quite a few reunion events held at various clubs around the country. On a personal level, I’ve only ever attended one of these and while it was definitely an enjoyable night out, it just wasn’t the same and I don’t think it ever could be for me. We’re older now, times have moved on from that special moment, whether we like it or not. Physically I couldn’t do it all again, nor mentally either. Life and society here in Northern Ireland has changed so much over the last twenty years, for good and bad. Even the clubs have changed dramatically these days. Everything about them is just too shiny, clean and commercialised, all properly run and official. Back in the ‘90s it felt raw and untamed. Any attempt to recreate that buzz and excitement that we had back then would feel unnatural. You can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice, so perhaps it is all best left in the past, the crazy times always fondly looked back upon with a large mischievous grin pasted right across our faces.
I’d love to go back in time and revisit it for the day though, to in some way better understand it all from a present day perspective as a now 43-year-old. Although, if past form is anything to go by then that one day would probably roll into several days and nights of sweat-filled nightclubs, seemingly never-ending house parties and other shenanigans. I certainly wouldn’t put it past us.