Parties, protest and police: the neglected histories of UK dance music

In the 1990s, Danny Boyle directed a rave scene that captured the era’s prevailing attitude towards dance music. Four years before the release of Trainspotting, Boyle helmed an episode of Inspector Morse, in which the middle-aged detective plunges into an underworld of repetitive beats, nihilistic hedonism and villainous drug dealers praying on the innocent young. While it never dissipated entirely, this particular moral panic wasn’t to last: when Tony Blair swept to power in 1997, he did so with the help of an upbeat house track. No longer confined to the margins, dance music became the soundtrack to Britain at its most confident and optimistic.

As journalist Ed Gillett explores in his excellent new non-fiction book Party Lines: Dance Music and the Making of Modern Britain, this is just one example of how club culture’s position in society has shifted over the decades: in a continuous cycle, it is repressed and then reappropriated. First, the authorities try to stamp it out, then they leverage its anarchic spirit in the service of profit. By broadening his scope beyond the rave era specifically, Gilett upends a number of popular myths about the history of dance music. Rather than positioning it as a spontaneous eruption which exploded in 1989, he traces its roots further back to Black British sound system culture and the New Age Traveller movement of the 60s and 70s.

Party Lines is also deeply concerned with how communal pleasure has been policed, suppressed and demonised across the last half century, from the Tories attempting to kill off rave culture with the 1994 Criminal Justice Act to the contemporary moral panic around drill. As much as dance music itself, it is about how successive generations have contested public space, asserted their identities within a hostile society and resisted the homogenising effects of capital. Below, we speak to Gillet about why he decided to foreground Black British history; the possibilities and limitations of dance music as a form of activism, the challenges posed to the culture by AI and climate change, and more.

Why did you decide to place Black British culture, and the history of race in Britain, at the forefront of this narrative?

Ed Gillett: The canonical texts on dance music were mostly mainly in the late 1990 and early 2000s, from the perspective of people who were there at the time. One of the things I was hoping to do with this book was to re-examine some of that history, taking into account the changes in society and culture that have happened since then.

Over the last decade, there has been an increased focus on dance music’s roots in marginalised communities. So for me, it was essential to incorporate as much of that broader historical scope as possible. If you are trying to find a starting point for British culture in the second half of the 20th century, the arrival of the Windrush is an obvious choice. Throughout the last 70 years, African, Caribbean and Black British communities have been integral to basically everything interesting in British culture, whether directly or indirectly.

As for the history of UK dance music specifically, it has to start with the sound system: reggae, dub, blues dances and house parties in unlicensed spaces. This is more widely acknowledged today than it was 30 years ago and journalism is now much more diverse in its approach to that history. But when you look at those older, canonical book-length histories of dance music, they generally start in 1987 with people taking pills in Ibiza.

The history of dance music has been hugely mythologised. Were there any particular cliches you wanted to avoid?

Ed Gillett: There were two big ones for me. The first is the sense that dance music was a complete rupture with everything that came before it. I’m sure that’s how it felt for people who were there at the time, and it was a huge cultural shift. But it also emerged quite organically from everything that preceded it: whether that’s the miners’ strike creating an anti-authoritarian bent to youth culture in the late 80s and early 90s; deindustrialisation creating the spaces that this new culture was able to take advantage of; and things like the ‘rare groove’ party scene, which formed the missing link between the blues dances of the 70s and the warehouse raves that came later. I was interested in exploring that sense of continuity.

The second relates to rave’s proximity to queer club culture in the 80s and how it was policed. One of the myths about rave is that it was a sudden explosion of culture that the police reacted to with unusual violence, aggression and fear. But in fact, there are so many parallels between the reaction to dance music and the moral panic which had emerged in the preceding years around late-night queer venues, particularly in relation to the AIDS crisis. I wanted to acknowledge that – at least in some ways – dance music wasn’t exceptional.

One thing I found striking about the book is that it partly functions as a history of policing across the last four decades. What role has the police played in the history of dance music?

Ed Gillett: The first function of the police is to embody moral panics around dance music. Whether it’s M25 raves in 1989 or panics about knife crime in 2019, they have been a constant presence. Dance music is noisy, it’s seen as seedy and it is objectively connected to organised crime, so it’s always going to attract a certain amount of police attention, which in turn has shaped the culture itself. Getting one over the establishment, and doing something you’re not supposed to do, has always been part of the appeal. One of the things that really drove attendance to the Castlemorton Common Festival in 1992 – possibly the biggest illegal gathering in British history – was the police and media loudly urging people not to go.

Finally, the police have a lot of power in terms of licensing, in deciding which spaces get permission to exist and which don’t. One of the biggest shifts we’ve seen in the last 15 years is the explosion of inner-city festivals at the same time that high-street clubs are closing down. The police have played a very active role in that, because nightclubs that are open every weekend are much more difficult and expensive to police.

“The cultural capital embedded in dance music makes it a rich target for capitalism, which in turn absorbs that radical energy into itself and quietly deradicalises it” – Ed Gillett

People often talk about club culture as an act of resistance. What does that idea mean to you?

Ed Gillett: There’s something inherently political about a group of people taking control of a space without necessarily having the approval of mainstream society. That could be a marginalised community finding a space of solace and peace for a night; it could mean mobilising 30,000 people to go and seize a piece of common land.

Dancing together can also be useful as a foundation stone for wider community-building. To give two examples from different periods in history: the Exodus Collective in Luton, which started off throwing parties in the late 80s and eventually evolved to become a huge community project. It ran a housing co-op, provided employment and formed part of a much wider social and cultural infrastructure. A more recent example is the community around Dialled In [a festival in North London]. The organisers are very clear that it’s not just about throwing parties: it’s also about running workshops, creating media platforms which are rooted in British South-Asian experiences, and building a wider infrastructure off the back of that.

On the other hand, what are the limitations to dance music as a form of political activism?

Ed Gillett: Dance music is desirable, it’s alluring, it has a cultural cachet, and I think it’s been very easy for successive generations to mistake that for genuine community. So there’s a risk of dance music becoming tokenistic in its politics. You get quite a lot of shallow, superficial feel-good semi-political activity and there isn’t always the space to have deeper conversations. There’s one festival (I won’t single them out) who were lauded in the press for having a 50/50 gender balance on its bill. That’s good in and of itself, but the festival is run by this huge corporate entity – it’s the same old white men.

You also get lots of brands interested in leveraging dance culture’s sense of outsider cool, which then spills over into how the music is politicised. So while I think Blackness, queerness, transness and femininity can all be incredibly powerful within a dance music space, those identities can quickly become co-opted and commodified. The cultural capital embedded in dance music makes it a rich target for capitalism, which in turn absorbs that radical energy into itself and quietly deradicalises it.

What are some of the challenges facing dance music going forward?

Ed Gillett: In the book I talk about AI and climate change. The threats posed by AI to dance music are the same as with any other cultural pursuit. I guess the interpersonal nature of DJ’ing and the experience of being in a club might help certain sections hold out for longer. But we’re not far from the point that AI will be able to mimic basically any genre. Dance music is synthetic by its nature, it’s designed to be functional and often quite minimal in the elements it uses – there are very few fields of endeavour more suited to AI.

As for climate change, I’m sure it will soon be viewed as a ridiculous extravagance to fly out a DJ to perform a set, much less to travel overseas to go attend a festival. The economy in general is not particularly conducive to pleasure right now. We’re all just scrambling to get by and it’s always the luxuries that go first. But one thing that gives me hope is that dance music is a bit of a cockroach – throughout its history, it has survived multiple attempts to kill it and existed in spaces which are fundamentally hostile to any form of culture. Whatever happens, I think it will be well-placed to weather the storm.

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