The connections with 60s/70s ‘alternative’ lifestyles (even the term ‘rave’) were inescapable, apparent in the tendencies toward escapism and hedonism and the trajectory from the underground to the mainstream. Antonio Melechi was among the commentators to note that “Not until the expansion of rave culture... has the counterculture so explicitly harked back to the sixties.” It was a ‘grass roots’ movement, building on the UK’s tradition of nationwide free festivals established in the wake of the huge gatherings at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight which marked the commercialisation of 60s rock. An anonymous pamphlet published at the end of the 1970s summarised the free festival ethos:
“Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time; miniature Utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence.”
George McKay, writing in Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties, recognised the tendency toward transformation; “One of the spaces of the dance scene side of rave – the club – is presented as libertarian utopian space, packed with transformative possibility.” As in the 60s, through the festivals, the subculture came to span both rural and urban environments, encompassing illicit rave parties in warehouses and the countryside, embracing both a ‘back to nature’ impulse and the modern technology of the music itself. Though rave styled itself as a movement without ‘stars’, stressing anonymity as central to the communality of the experience, artists such as Altern8, Orbital and the Prodigy became popular, together with the Orb and Steve Hillage on the ambient fringe, while Hawkwind, veterans of the counterculture and free festival circuit, incorporated dance elements and demonstrated the affinities with an earlier generation.
Undeniably central to rave’s appeal was Ecstasy, functioning like LSD decades earlier as both a catalyst and symbol of the movement, defining and enhancing the musical experience. This parallel was identified by Nicholas Saunders, one of the individuals to span both eras. Saunders was behind the 1970 publication of Alternative London, described as “a key text of the counterculture packed with information about subjects from health foods to communes to drugs.” As a rave enthusiast and the author of E is for Ecstasy (1993), Saunders described the affinities between the two eras, both culturally and in their respective choices of recreational chemicals: “I felt symptoms familiar from taking LSD in the sixties... A kind of uplifting religious experience of unity that I have only felt once before”.
With growing popularity came increasing attention from the press and public authorities; at this point, parallels with the free and easy 60s and 70s began to evaporate. While some debate took place around the medical effects of Ecstasy, the high-profile deaths of Leah Betts and Clare Layton fuelled media sensationalism and moral panic. The veteran investigative reporter Roger Cook used his Cook Report, broadcast nationally, for an episode entitled ‘Ecstasy Kills’ in 1992, which served as a prolonged broadside against the evils of drugs. The popular press followed suit. Criminalisation was in the offing, with the Castlemorton event, a week-long free festival, serving as the basis for the legislation which was enacted in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act. There was strong public opposition, with critics describing the provisions of the Act as “explicitly aimed at suppressing the activities of certain strands of alternative culture”, but it was duly passed. The widespread sceptical sentiments were echoed by author Jon Savage, who stated that the legislation was “about politicians making laws on the basis of judging people’s lifestyles, and that’s no way to make laws.” The Prodigy registered their disapproval with the themes and artwork of their 1994 album Music for the Jilted Generation.
|Music for the Jilted Generation. Inner sleeve artwork by Les Edwards.|
|Police Review, June 1992, in the wake of the Castlemorton Festival|
While rave as a mass movement never recovered from the effects of the 1994 legislation, it reverted to an underground sub-culture, evolved into different forms, and enjoyed a surprisingly durable afterlife. For an experience predicated on transitory chemical pleasures and instant thrills, rave culture has left an extensive legacy of archive, ephemera and memorabilia – blogs, compilations, flyers, literature, some of it even collectable. As one of the last widespread pre-Internet phenomena, nostalgic ravers and inquisitive researchers can read reminiscences, browse galleries of retro-flyers and glimpse ecstatic states in their vivid other-worldly imagery, without popping a pill and setting out for warehouse or field.