Meet the Photographers Who Captured the Rave Revolution of Late 80s East London (Thump)
Photo by Gavin Watson
As The Daily Mail, your mum, “bloggers”, middle managers and hell, even east Londoners, scramble around to lampoon east London and its increasingly ludicrous signifiers — rich people! Rich people buying pot plants! Rich people riding bicycles to go and buy pot plants! Rich people then carrying those pot plants to the cereal cafe! — out of a misguided sense of self-protection, it’s all to easy to forget that despite the faux-American eateries and the lack of a single decent pub or club, East London’s actually…alright? Socio-historically for ravers at least.
Though the word “rave” emerged in 1950s Britain to describe “wild bohemian parties,” rave as we know it today was, effectively, born in 1980s Manchester, characterised by acid house music, ecstasy, whistles and people with large bottles of water mouthing “are you having a good night,” at the kind of strangers they’d usually cross the road to avoid. We’ve heard endless things about Madchester and smug grown-up earth motherstalking about life before mobile phones and being crammed into cars in the middle of the countryside on acid, but for whatever reason the east London rave-revolution is rarely given airtime.
By now we all know about Shoom and Spectrum and those other parties which took place pretty much slap-bang in the middle of town. A new exhibition in Hoxton that lifts the lid on the raves of east London and their impact on parties country-wide is hoping to redress the balance somewhat. Focusing on work by photographers Dave Swindells, Gavin Watson, Adam Friedman and Teddy Fitzhugh, Origins East is a visual reminder of a nearly-forgotten era.
Photo by Teddy Fitzhugh
It was in 1988 that party promoters Genesis put their first warehouse event on in east London’s Aldgate, with their second following on Christmas Eve in an empty warehouse near Clapton Pond in Hackney. The set-up was typically wild and creative, using thousands of old tyres they found in the building to build a UV-lit tunnel and bar area; this complemented the Christmas tree, netting, parachutes and white canopies, pinched from a building site.
In 1989, promoter Joe Wieczorek started to hold parties throughout east London, including on Shacklewell Lane, Essex Road, Ferry Way and in Homerton. He went on to found Labyrinth in a disused warehouse in Canning Town. “The funny thing about east London is that it’s always been a spiritual home for a lot of cultures,” says photographer Gavin Watson. “When rave started it was the perfect place for it because it was so run down, but there’s something about it that made it feel like rave’s natural spiritual home.”
Gavin photographed parties outside of the East End, mostly in Slough and High Wycombe, where he says the raves were heavily influenced by those in the capital. “They knew what they were doing, running raves in east London; the hierarchy of organising them, the logistics — things like having the dancers and the lasers,” he says. “The last thing I wanted to do was take a big Nikon and a flash. I wasn’t interesting in dragging my camera around the place. The paranoia was unbelievable, it was all illegal — the parties, the drugs.”
Photo by Gavin Watson
One of the most prominent and pioneering clubs in the area was Dalston Lane’s The Four Aces, sited where the big shiny Patrick Bateman-esque towers of Dalston Square now stand, gloating over their increasingly shiny, Patrick Bateman-esque surrounds. The club began as a rare site for black music, opening in Dalston in 1967, before the acid house nights like Labyrinth arrived in the late 1980s. Down the road on Hoxton Square, The Blue Note club was opened by Eddie Piller in 1993, with nights devoted to drum n bass (Metalheadz), breakbeat and dub. “I can remember a Hip Hop night where the whole crowd knew every word to every track all night long,” says Adam Friedman. “I remember hanging out with Lee Scatch Perry on a dub night and a rare groove night with a funky drummer in the corner, and a lot of people dancing in a James Brown style. Add to that James Lavelle, Andy Weatherhall, DJ Harvey, Norman and all the rest, and that is why people started heading east.Dave Swindells points out just how different the area was then. “The first parties I went to in east London were warehouse parties around Old Street and Hoxton in 1985. The area was almost totally deserted after dark at that time, with just a couple of old men’s pubs and a gay bar, so it was undiscovered territory that we usually got properly lost in before we found the parties,” he says. “These events weren’t necessarily easy to shoot at all — some of these places were dank railway arches or Victorian warehouses where you could barely see the back of the building because clouds of dust were stirred up by people dancing, with no health and safety at all.”
But it was this anarchic feel that made the movement so vibrant and wild. “At warehouse parties in the mid-1980s all sorts turned up, from dressed-down students to fashionistas head-to-toe in Bodymap and Leigh Bowery, but usually it was a pretty random mix of people who appropriated all kinds of from b-boys to neo-goth, rockabilly to charity-shop chic,” says Dave. “One thing that stands out is how many people couldn’t stand up because they’d get totally wasted and fall over, rolling around the floor of warehouses and clubs in the never-washes-out gloop of dirt, dust and spilt drinks. It was binge-drinking but these were some of the most fashionable and avant-garde characters in London rather than, say, hen parties from Hartlepool.”
Photo by Dave Swindell
Gavin Watson describes the rave scene of the late 1980s as “a revolution that changed my life.” He says: “Everything seemed really oppressive and then it was just an opening up — it wasn’t just a personal thing, the way it worked was a wider social thing. Rave became an integral part of our culture — our nightlife, adverts, film soundtracks — that music changed society.” By the early to mid 90s, the free party and rave scene in the UK was moving away from its utopian ideals, with gang violence creeping in and tabloid sensationalism whipping into a frenzy. In 1994 the government passed the The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which clamped down the rave’s “anti-social behaviours.” Those heady days were over, but while there may not be massive parties in cattle silos any more, for many, the spirit of rave lived on in east London. “Those were different times, different landscape, but I personally don’t feel like anything needs to be reclaimed,” says photographer Teddy Fitzhugh, who has taken pictures at various east London clubs including Benji B’s Deviation party at XOYO and parties by Numbers, LuckyMe and Earnest Endeavours, amongst others.
“Underground music will always react to the times, that’s why it remains interesting, and while the parties may be different, there’s a lot happening now that wasn’t happening in the 80s. Music has merged, culture has merged, and ultimately a generation of kids will always find a way to have their own party.”
Photo by Gavin Watson
He adds: “I think rave culture represented an underbelly of British society and is an incredibly powerful subject to capture the style, attitude, atmosphere of youth culture at that time. Work by people like Gavin and Dave informs contemporary culture and fashion in a huge way, and if we didn’t have the depth and substance of those images then we would be lacking a huge reference point in our past.”
Watson’s photographs are lauded for their energy — their ability to capture a moment in time that can’t be re-lived. “When I’m taking pictures I’m not looking for anything in particular; it’s just that moment. I would wander round and capture a shot that looked interesting, but it was so tough because it was like 120 degrees and there was condensation, and we had to use film — there was no digital shit. A lot of pictures would develop inside the camera or you’re in a cow shed with your feet up to the knees with mud. I rejected the pictures for years and I thought they were shit, over or under exposed, but when I looked at them again I thought “that’s exactly what it’s like to be there.”