by Jim Butler
Get on one, matey: the smiley, symbol of acid house.
In September 1987 four British lads went to the Balearic island of Ibiza to celebrate one of their number’s birthday. However, rather than indulge in the familiar trappings that San Antonio had to offer – the chip shop and the boozer – Paul Oakenfold, Johnny Walker, Nicky Holloway and Danny Rampling sampled the bountiful delights of the island’s more exotic side.
At the island’s celebrated Amnesia club, the four took a new drug called ecstasy for the first time. Its euphoric properties chimed with the playful strand of dance music that the DJ, Alfredo, was spinning. Unknown to Oakenfold and co, they had stumbled upon the ingredients that they turned into acid house, the UK’s last great youth subculture and year zero musical movement.
Upon their return to the UK the four revellers were determined to keep the party going. Oakenfold introduced the new music to his club The Project in Streatham, before opening Spektrum at Heaven; Rampling meanwhile began Shoom in a fitness centre near Southwark Bridge and Holloway went onto open Trip at the Astoria. By the following summer, acid house dominated clubland.
In stark contrast to the dour music scene of the time, acid house was colourful, bold and fresh. A fascinating combination of Detroit techno, New York disco, Chicago house , European electro-pop and whatever other curious accoutrements it happened to pick up along the way, it was a complete break with what had gone before.
At its heart it had a collectivist zeal that marked it apart from the snooty London West End club scene. It had its own fashions – baggy, loose fitting clothing, perfect for dancing the night, and dawn, away, plus other key signifiers such as the iconic yellow smiley face. And in ecstasy it had its own drug. Originally used as an appetite suppressant during the First World War, ecstasy enabled people who wouldn’t normally do so to hit the dancefloor with unfettered abandon.
To give some indication of how pop time has speeded up and how underground movements are seemingly born into the mainstream, acid house was afforded nearly a year away from the gaze of the media and straight society. By the October of 1988, however, it was being couched in Fleet Street’s typically sensationalistic knee-jerk rhetoric of “folk devils and moral panics“, a la teddy boys, mods, hippies and punks before them.
In today’s media savvy days, it’s doubtful anything like acid house could happen on such a scale or cause such hand wringing again. The Daily Mail might have got its knickers in a twist over emo, but everyone else shrugged their shoulders with indifference. And while the spuriously titled new rave phenomenon makes for a neat cyclical accompaniment to acid house’s big bang, can you see the the Sun decrying the likes of Klaxons and New Young Pony Club in the manner it did 20 years ago? Not likely.