‘It Changed Lives and Opened Minds’: A Visual Testimony to the Birth of Acid House | Art and design books
Late on a Thursday in March 1988, Dave Swindells walked into a sweat-soaked little club in central London and found himself present at the birth of a new cultural revolution.
The venue, behind Charing Cross station, was packed with revelers dancing energetically to a variation of house music that had recently emerged from Chicago, characterized by squelchy sound effects from a Roland TB-303 synthesizer. Rejecting the dressier fashions of the London club scene of the 80s, many in the crowd wore baggy jeans and t-shirts or jumpers with loud, jarring patterns. There was a euphoria in the air that couldn’t be explained by musical appreciation alone. “I had this instant success,” recalls Swindells. “It was really something big happening. I just felt the whole year was instantly transformed.
The club was the Soundshaft and the party, led by an ambitious young DJ named Paul Oakenfold, was called Future. It had been going on for a few months before Swindells, photographer and nightlife editor at Free time magazine, visited. “It’s one of the craziest new clubs to burst into clubs so far this year,” he wrote in his hastily filed report. “He has the kind of wild, uninhibited style you normally only associate with hip mixed gay parties – it may intimidate some people, but the punters are unpretentious and friendly.”
The crooks stayed Free timenightlife editor for another 21 years, but he’s never experienced anything as explosive and heart-pounding as the rise of acid house. Aged 26 at the time, he had grown up in post-recession London, where clubbing options – in the limitless sense he had witnessed at Future – were severely limited. The arrival of this new musical phenomenon, with its cheerful, anything goes ethos, has been like a tornado ripping through the landscape of button-down clubs in the capital – and across the country.
Acid house wasn’t the only subgenre played at Future or rival parties such as Shoom, in a basement exercise studio across the river in Southwark. Oakenfold and fellow DJs Danny Rampling, Johnny Walker and Nicky Holloway had vacationed in Ibiza the previous summer and returned to play a heady mix of Balearic house, Detroit techno, pop and indie. But the fledgling scene coalesced around acid house, and fueled by a cocktail of beats, strobes and ecstasy pills, its devotees helped spark the so-called ‘second summer of love’.
In her new photo book Acid house like It happened, bringing together many previously unseen images, Swindells recounts this frenetic year blow by blow. What is striking is how quickly the scene erupted in an era before social media, when clubs relied heavily on ratings in magazine listings such as Free time. In March, Oakenfold and Rampling were playing in 250-seat venues; in June, Holloway packed the Astoria at the launch of Trip, with 600 people lining up outside on the first night. “We all said, ‘Oh my God, that’s it. It’s going above ground now,’” Swindells recalled.
A few months later, backlash from the tabloids began, focusing on the widespread availability of drugs at acid house parties, although the Sun took the name literally and assumed the drug of choice was LSD.
Swindells was careful to keep drug references out of his reports, but he didn’t hold back in the book – we see the full gamut of smiling faces and adoring hugs, and even someone waving a sign with “Drugs” written on it. “The boundless enthusiasm was partly drug-induced,” says Swindells. “But it was incredibly liberating and exciting. Whether you liked drugs or not, it changed lives and opened people’s minds to other possibilities in life. So many people in 1988 quit their jobs and says, ‘Okay, I can see another way out of this.’
It is striking how diverse the crowds are in these photographs. “It felt like the barriers that separated us were finally falling,” Sheryl Garratt writes in her introduction to the book. “Age, class, race, gender, sexuality… For one brief heady moment, we were truly a nation under a furrow.”
All of this is captured by Swindells in a series of kinetic images of dancers shrouded in fog or traversed by trails of light. At various points in the book, with the help of his son Caspar, who designed it, he organizes the photos into grids inspired by David Hockney Polaroid series, “to try to convey the 360° intensity of these clubs, the fact that there was no dance floor. People were dancing everywhere, which was really quite radical.
Almost 35 years later, Swindells seems almost as excited as he was at the start. “We were so lucky to be part of it,” he says. “And what’s amazing is how many of these people are still going clubbing. So many friendship groups from clubs like Shoom and Future are still going strong.
The future at the Soundshaft, March 1988
“Paul Oakenfold had harassed me about his club night The Future. “We didn’t call it that for no reason,” he said, “it’s really the way to go.” When I finally did, I thought, Oh wow, this is it! I had this instant hit. There was a kind of abandon in the way people behaved. I had seen ecstasy in clubs before, but it joined the music in a perfect storm of change. I shot it in black and white because it was faster to shoot and I wanted to include it in the very next issue of Free time.”
Shoom at the health club, March 1988
“This photo was horribly overexposed and I never did anything with it at the time, but it’s amazing what you can do with Photoshop. The ‘Trance Dance’ banner, painted for the Shoom club night, is amazing – the kind of Picasso meets Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Shoom at the health club, March 1988
“It was still very early in the acid house scene and Paul Oakenfold was going to everybody’s clubs – here he is with DJ Lisa Loud, promoter Ian St Paul and singer Gary Haisman, having just turned on the lights at 5 a.m. Shoom was Danny and Jenni Rampling’s club in a basement gym in Southwark – the name was slang for the euphoric surge of ecstasy, which blasted inhibitions It was small and full sweaty and filled with dry ice and flashing lights.
three day doo at Rockley Sands Holiday Park, March 1988
“Nicky Holloway came up with the idea for a dance music weekend modeled on soul weekends held at holiday camps. There certainly wasn’t 100% support for acid house here – the majority of the crowd were dedicated soul boys and girls who took their music seriously and liked to dress in retro chic styles, but there were a few dozen who had been to Ibiza and were wearing much more casual clothing. [DJ] Johnny Walker – he was having such a good time. He was usually a rather stylish dresser, but sitting there in the bass speaker, he was totally indifferent! »
Shoom at the Arena Club, May 1988; Anna Haigh and Nina Walsh
“In May Shoom moved to a bigger venue on Tottenham Court Road below the YMCA and Danny and Jenni Rampling invited the media to come and see what it was all about. People like Boy George and dancer Michael Clark came to see him. These two girls are having a fantastic time. I would usually try to shoot with a longer exposure to get more ambient lighting, but when the strobe goes off, you just get this crazy multi-image.
Travel at the Astoria, June 1988
“Trip felt like when acid house disappeared. The Astoria was a well-known venue in the West End and there was a queue of 600 people outside on opening night. Nicky Holloway, who ran the club, wasn’t sure it would be a success so he lowered the ceiling with curtains, to keep the atmosphere down in case it wasn’t busy. But all worries melted away when the club suddenly filled with people determined to have a good time. These photos were taken that first night. I knew it was going to be huge and I wanted to capture that. It was really exciting.
Danny Rampling in Shoom at the fitness centre, Southwark, July/August 1988
“Danny and Jenni Rampling relaunched Shoom at the Fitness Center the same week Danny performed at Boy George’s birthday party. They had huge new banners saying ‘Joy’ on the walls. This photo is kinda classic. It speaks to the worship the crowd had for what Danny was doing. He’s definitely preaching to the converts there, holding up the folder like it’s a message from the gods. That’s Anton The Pirate in the corner, a regular at the house who went on to co-run the Energy raves in 1989. By summer, most Shoom regulars had left to start their own club, lost their jobs or were desperate to find a different way to make a living Jenni was so concerned that she printed an open letter in the Shoom fanzine pleading with people not to quit their jobs.
Travel at the Astoria, July 1988
“I had totally forgotten about that photo and was so happy to be able to include it. I love what people wear – cashmere had been such a big look – and that guy (he’s now a drum DJ ‘n’bass- DJ Otis) had photocopied the word “acid” from what looks like a evening standard big title. I shot this for a Observer story about acid house. It was really good that they covered it – they picked up the story before the tabloid backlash happened.
Mutoid Waste Co at Battle Bridge Road Bus Garage, August 1988
“It wasn’t a conventional acid house event, but there were a lot of acid house kids. It was probably the most radical alternative event at the time. The Mutoids were scrap metal carvers who squatted in a disused bus garage behind King’s Cross station. Their occasional parties felt like post-apocalyptic adult playgrounds. In a way, it foreshadowed the free party scene in the 90s. The founder, Joe Rush, went on to lead the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games.”
Adrenaline at the Twilight Club, November 1988
“This was taken on Victoria Park Road [in Hackney], such an upscale neighborhood now, in a big old local pub that had been turned into a club. Tony Wilson, who played at the first Genesis raves in 1988, asked me to come see his party. It’s right behind the DJ booth, where he played acid house and Balearic beats – he was a kid from Ibiza. Both girls – Lorraine and Mandy – were great and I really love the ruffle earrings.
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