Manchester’s annual Louder Than Words Festival is a diverse four day celebration of music based literature, with this year’s club culture panel diving headfirst into a nostalgic yet undeniably relevant discussion of the potential presence, or absence, of politics on the dancefloor.
Held on a Saturday night, in the knowledge that many of both audience and panel members would soon be heading into various dimly lit basements and warehouses across the city, the various arguments both for and against a political dimension within club culture continued to echo long after the talk was brought to a close.
The ‘second summer of love’ of 1988-9 saw a spiralling outburst of underground dance culture. This ran in parallel to the political disengagement and despondency that came as a result of almost a decade of lingering Thatcherism.
Drawn to the shiny and new, ever-evolving sounds of rolling acid house, largely chemically fuelled crowds gathered to dance in fields, abandoned warehouses, and clubs that were to become almost mythically acclaimed, such as Manchester’s own Hacienda. These crowds made up what was to be the biggest youth movement seen in UK history up to that point, only potentially rivaled today by XR in terms of its momentum and scale.
Dance music and the joyful escapism it offered was described by the panel as ‘the perfect antidote to grim 80s Thatcherism’. The unlicensed parties and the very act of taking up space, that was legally regarded as being in possession of a political ‘other’, served as direct assertion of presence and gave a clear message from a working class that were not simply abandoned by Thatcher, but actively not included in the conversation in the first place.
Further east, yet running in parallel to this emergence of a British underground, the tentative first steps of the 24 hour club scene – now synonymous with the city of Berlin – were being set into motion. Crucially, this evolution was taking place in the tense, politically charged context of a divided Germany, and as a microcosm of this, a divided Berlin.
Amongst others on the panel, Manchester raised but Berlin bound record producer Mark Reeder – credited with having discovered Paul van Dyk and with having created the first ever techno/trance label MFS (Masterminded for Success), gave a fascinating insight into the grassroots, almost homemade feeling behind the making of this scene.
Reeder revealed how the teenagers in East Berlin had listened to West Berliners’ radio, and had assumed the existence of an entire club scene devoted to the electronic music played on what were in reality fairly obscure radio stations. After the fall of the wall in 1989, these teenagers moved across the border, and seeing that this scene did not yet exist, decided to create it themselves. Many of these founding nights therefore took place in the no-man’s land ‘death strip’ that ran along the border of the two sides of the city.
In this unique, hazy vacuum of political uncertainty, whereby a new city was created effectively overnight, the need for a universal language became apparent. Techno music, in all of its repetitive, industrial glory, ensured a crucial absence of lyrics, therefore reducing language to redundancy. Thirty years on from the fall of the wall, Berlin’s unrivalled club culture remains an integral part of the cities progressive, forward thinking identity.
Whilst members of previous subcultures, such as punk, had been easier to identify and therefore define and categorise as ‘other’, the second summer was unique in its accessibility. This accessibility enables anyone to join – a dangerous thought for parents and the state alike and a thought that set off moral panic which rapidly translated into legislation.
The 1994 criminal justice act gave British police the powers to remove ‘persons attending or preparing for a rave’, attempting to categorise the genre within the clunky definition of ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. Once aware that the state is defining the type of music you are allowed to listen to, and the hours during which you can listen to it via licencing laws, it becomes impossible to deny the presence of politics within the club environment.
It’s also impossible to deny the presence of drug culture within these environments, and in response, it’s clear that big breweries, and therefore the government, were worried. The Hacienda, a cultural landmark, was forced to close in 1997, largely due to its failure to bring in revenue from the bar. The creation of alcopops in the 90s can also be seen as a direct attempt to fill in this gap in the market, and divert young people’s attention away from experimental drugs, and back to the very British and very profitable drug of choice – alcohol – which is deemed socially acceptable, despite the violence it can induce.
The cliche of drug users hoping to ‘expand the mind’ may feel tiresome, and appear simply as a justification for illicit behaviour. However, it’s credible that people truly needed a temporary escape into euphoria, even if chemically induced, when the reality of everyday Britain equated to booming mass youth unemployment and an underlying presence of cold war mentality and nuclear threat.
The need for escapism in itself is political. Yet is worth noting that, escapism can come at the price of avoidance of full political engagement and activism as, in exchange for an evening of escapism, a certain level of political capacity is arguably sacrificed. In other words, by remaining in a ‘live for the weekend’ mentality, and simply returning to work in a more fragile state on a Monday morning, there are limits to the level of radical political action that will be taken.
Of course dance music is political. As with any piece of art, it cannot be created within a vacuum and will therefore always present to us something of the outside context it was created within. Yet whether or not it pushes forward real political change is left up for debate, and in the hands and actions of the individual.
If, within dance music, individuals can find a sense of community, that in itself is a positive thing – yet also perhaps a sad marker of what a society that is failing to offer that community by other means. In the meantime, we must hope that, in coming together to dance and escape, individuals take away a sense of community and connectedness with those around them. This may in turn foster better understanding of the issues that exist beyond their own personal experiences to influence the way in which they use their vote and voice.