A brief history of the war on dancing, twenty-five years after the birth of “the first ecstasy generation.”
Adapted from a talk titled The Criminalization of Repetitive Beats and The Ongoing War on Dance Parties, originally delivered at the Society for the Advancement of Social Studies in Brooklyn, NY.
In the summer of 2009, four police cars, a police van, and a helicopter converged on an isolated field in a small village near Sowton, England. A Facebook post had alerted the local constabulary to an all-night rave, and under the auspices of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, they were there to shut down the party.
What they didn’t realize about this rager was that it consisted of about ten people, a barbecue grill, and a generator that hadn’t even been turned on yet. “I had 17 people confirmed as guests,” said Andrew Poole, a thirty-year-old coach driver. “I did put the times on it as ‘overnight’ in case people wanted to sleep over.” It was 4 p.m. in the afternoon.
What this little blunder indicates is how badly some people want to stop you from gathering in one place to listen to music and dance with your friends. In England, where rave culture was arguably born, this hysterical mistrust of dancing has manifested itself in a number of legislative moves—most notably in the “anti-rave” act that empowered a small village to dispatch a helicopter to a barbecue.
In New York City, nightlife professionals and battle-scarred party people will tell of a similar batch of lawmaking maneuvers that strangled the city in the 90s. And in the United States at large, threats of increased penalties to event organizers effectively scared the pants off of anyone thinking they’d like to throw a rave in their nearby cornfield.
But how did rave culture become public enemy number one, anyways? To figure out where we stand now, we’ll have to turn to the Second Summer of Love (a label that incorporates both the summer of ‘88 and ‘89), when England’s “first ecstasy generation” turned the country’s network of disused and abandoned spaces into a playground of nocturnal pleasure.
1988: The Second Summer of Love
The chemical compound MDMA had been around since 1912—synthesized accidentally by a German scientist, and used occasionally in experimental medical and therapeutic practices throughout the 20th century. In terms of its recreational history, the drug began appearing in the early 1980s in Ibiza discotheques, and apparently replaced cocaine as the “yuppy drug of choice” in Dallas, Texas-area gay clubs, where it was legally distributed under the name “Adam.”
But it wasn’t until 1987 that the general public got its first dose of ecstasy, right around the same time that acid house—an experimental, psychedelic form of house music recorded mostly in Chicago—exploded onto the British party scene and ignited a utopian rave culture founded on peace, love, unity, and repetitive beats that sound fucking great when you’re rolling balls.
Historian Simon Reynolds describes the growth of a vibrant underground rave scene that began to overtake London nightlife in the late 1980s, anchored by a network of legal and illegal venues, plus a healthy supply of E, LSD, and imported records from Detroit, Chicago, New York, and New Jersey. After a couple years of successful, urban events organized by obsessives and enthusiasts, Reynolds points out that it didn’t take long for the entrepreneurs and opportunitists to take it to the next level.
The recently constructed M25 motorway that routed a circle around the Greater London area allowed partygoers a new kind of access to the British countryside—where profit-hungry entrepreneurs packed thousands of ravers into derelict aircraft hangers, farm houses, and open fields for ecstasy-fuelled all night parties.
“It was like Close Encounters,” recalls superstar drum & bass DJ, Fabio, in the 2006 BBC documentary Summer of Rave. “You’re driving through some dark field in the middle of the summer, then all of the sudden you see a light and you’d follow the light. Before you knew it you had 100 cars behind you… then you’d look around and there’d be about 10,000 people.” The M25, also referred to as the London Orbital, would become the namesake of 90s rave superstars Orbital, who found mainstream acclaim alongside other crossover acts like The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, and the Crystal Method.
At first British police were left scratching their heads as to how to deal with the exploding acid house movement, and in some instances even supervised the events to make sure they proceeded in a safe and orderly fashion. “I think we soon realized that they were no great threat to us in terms of overt violence,” says Ken Tappenden, the Kent police Divisional Commander and the mastermind of the Pay Party Unit (PPU), the unit tasked with controlling the rave scene. “When we stopped them on the motorways they would get their portable radio out, and they’d all dance ‘round the car for half an hour.”
But a renewed media frenzy brought acid house culture to the public eye in June, 1989, when a team of undercover reporters from the popular British tabloid The Sun found their way into an all-nighter in White Waltham, Berkshire. The Sun published a front-page story depicting twelve-year-old “youngsters so drugged up they ripped the heads off pigeons” and junkies fried out of their minds on “deadly white pills” that could induce “hallucinations, heart attacks, and attacks of paranoia.”
The exposé, entitled “Ecstasy Airport,” famously misidentified the shiny, reflective shrapnel strewn about by a confetti gun for “a floor littered with empty ecstasy wrappers.” Of course, if you know anything about MDMA you know it definitely doesn’t come in a wrapper.
Tappenden, the commander of the PPU, had previously cut his teeth during the British miners’ strikes of ‘84 and ‘85; according to historian Matthew Collin, he’d even been “censured by civil liberties lawyers after preventing pickets from entering the Kent Coalfields” during one demonstration. “He wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty,” Collin recounts. In 1989, with public anxiety around rave culture growing to a boiling point, he launched a massive surveillance campaign that monitored over 5,000 people and 700 vehicles.
Rave promoters and the Pay Party Unit alike knew that once you get 2,000 people into an aircraft hanger, there’s virtually nothing you could do to stop the party, so the state began to focus on surveillance—and prevention—instead. As The Guardian reported in 2008, the PPU began twenty major investigations in the program’s first three months. Outright anti-authoritarian groups like Spiral Tribe, an organization of “travellers, crusties, ravers, and new agers” that preached transcendence through drugs and dancing, bore the brunt of the state’s wrath in those early years.
One 1992 Spiral Tribe rave in a squat in West London went particularly awry when a special division of the Metropolitan Police surrounded the warehouse in the early hours of the morning. After a ten-hour standoff between partiers and police, the cops broke down an outer wall with a JCB excavator and, according to partygoers, began beating attendees and destroying their equipment.
Back on the Orbital, this vigilance meant that promoters had to stay one step ahead of the cops, who were monitoring all available channels to shut down parties before they started. Event organizers were forced to keep locations secret until the very last moment, using phone hotlines listed at the bottom of flyers to distribute the address in the hours before the event. When the cops got hip to rave hotlines, they began contacting phone service providers and had them disconnected from the source.
With their hotlines compromised, ravers took to England’s ramshackle network of pirate radio stations to distribute information about illegal parties. DJs would announce line-ups and other details along with the location and time of the events, and if you missed the broadcast, you were left to ask around at school and hope somebody caught the show.
Problems and solutions arose continually: one promoter explains in the documentary Summer of Rave that they would often have Plan B, and even Plan C locations in the event that the authorities were able to sniff out the first. Another promoter recounts using decoy trucks loaded with fake sound systems to throw cops off the trail. Authorities would follow the decoy 18-wheelers in a circle around the M25 loop, and when the coast was clear, the real convoys loaded with thousands of watts of sound system power would hop on the highway and head for the real thing.
1994: Have a lawyer or musicologist present at all times
In 1994, England’s obsession with smashing rave culture once and for all finally made its way into parliamentary legislation. That year, British home secretary Michael Howards introduced the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which restricted and reduced existing rights around certain types of “anti-social” behaviors.
Section 63, entitled “Powers to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave,” provides a definition of what constitutes an illegal rave—and outlines how police are expected to proceed in attempting to shut down or preempt such an event. According to section 63, raves are unlicensed open-air gatherings of “100 or more persons,” where the soundtrack is “wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” It also gave police the power to confiscate the organizers’ sound systems—huge, expensive rigs that are most rave promoters’ pride and joy; a devastating blow that could put you out of business forever.
A number of prominent musicians released protest tracks decrying the Criminal Justice Act, with Warp Records duo Autechre pressing the most memorable of those releases. They wrote their 1994 record, The Anti EP, in direct response to the ridiculous and arbitrary language of the legislature—and it came wrapped in a printed seal with the following warning:
“‘Flutter’ has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can therefore be played at both forty five and thirty three revolutions under the proposed new law. However we advise DJs to have a lawyer and musicologist present at all times to confirm the non repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.”
Because the 1994 Criminal Justice Act essentially made large, outdoor parties impossible without expensive licenses and sponsorship, rave promoters began filing into the expensive and highly regulated legal venues that house their events to this day. “People flooded into the clubs,” authors Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton explain in their 1999 book, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. “They swapped muddy fields for the carpets and chrome of the local Cinderella’s and carried on partying. The underground scene was legalized (and largely sanitized), money was made, and the whole thing was a grand victory for consumerism.”
1997: “In case of emergency, play a Radiohead record”
Meanwhile, in New York, it’s 1997 and Giuliani is doing his best to dismantle the city’s mythic nightlife culture. The Cabaret Law is a bizarre prohibition-era piece of legislature that restricts the number of dancing patrons allowed in unlicensed establishments to three. It specifically prohibits “synchronized movements”—and was originally enacted in 1926 in order to crack down on moonshine-slinging jazz clubs where white and black alike would mingle and dance into the wee hours, much to the chagrin of politicians and naysayers.
By the 1970s, however, “its enforcement was lax,” writes Andy Beton in Issue 17 of the Daily Note, “ushering in a golden if gritty age of New York City
dance culture, where disenfranchised blacks, Puerto Ricans, gay men and
women, and other members of minority cultures could express themselves
freely.” Indeed the dance music landscape in Downtown New York, from the 70s on, was a network of marginal spaces for folks on the fringes—whether racially, sexually, or simply ideologically and artistically. From the earliest loft parties where disco found its footing in the early 1970s, dance music in New York was pioneered by “queers of color” and “straight-but-not-narrow allies [who] came together to create small pockets of space in the city’s harsh urban landscape,” writes Luis Manuel Garcia in Resident Advisor.
When Mayor Giuliani was re-elected in 1994, he dug the racially-tinged Cabaret Law out of obscurity and began enforcing it as part of his quality-of-life campaign, which sought to reduce not only criminal violence, but also focused on addressing noise complaints. Throughout the late 90s and early 00s, the MARCH task force—or Multi-Agency Response to Community Hot-Spots—routinely sent vans full of city officials to known “problem places” during peak party hours, looking for unlicensed dancefloors and other violations—and threatening establishments with fines and closures.
“I moved to NYC at the end of 1994, and that’s when Rudi started using the Cabaret Law to shut down clubs with gun violence and security issues,” says Dominique Keegan, former owner of the iconic East Village bar and venue Plant Bar. “By 1996 he started hitting places with noise complaints.” The Plant Bar, which nurtured the early careers of DJs like James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, was hit particularly hard by the anti-dancing legislation.
Fatboy Slim (left) and Keith Wood at Plant Bar in 1999. Courtesy of the Daily Note. Photo credit: Dana Dynamite
Their first dancing violation resulted in a $100 ticket—nothing to write home about, even with legal fees—but when the second ticket came in at $2500, it “basically closed the bar,” says Keegan. “We had to agree to have no outside DJs and not promote events.” The venue’s bouncer had a switch at the door that they would flip in the event of a visit by MARCH task, and a blue light would turn on in the DJ booth. “In case of emergency, play a Radiohead record,” the DJs were told, and usually the ruse worked—no dance music meant no dancers; no dancers meant no violations. But on the night of James Murphy’s birthday party in 2002, a guest DJ named Tim Love Lee was going back-to-back with the LCD frontman himself… and Tim apparently never got the memo. Meanwhile, the venue’s owner was DJing elsewhere that night, so when the red light flashed, the kick drum continued—”and we got fucked!” as Keegan puts it.
“I know so many great businesses that were closed because people were dancing,” he reminisces. The $2500 fine and its itinerant legal fees, compounded by the fact that Plant Bar could no longer market itself as a dance venue, basically spelled out a death sentence for the iconic Downtown hangout. A June, 2003 article in the Downtown Express reported that the city had already padlocked 11 unlicensed clubs (and that was only halfway through the year). And while many of the city’s smaller bars cowered in fear of the padlock, the larger clubs—backed by the city’s nightlife powerbrokers—were able to secure licenses and deals with the city, meaning they could monopolize dance music in New York. Naturally they were nowhere to be found when it came time to advocate against the Cabaret Law.
Protests throughout the years have included actions on the part of groups like the Dance Liberation Front, who organized a 1998 Hokey Pokey around City Hall and a Times Square Twist-a-Thon. A number of grassroots organizations formed in response to the crackdown, and alongside a handful of civil liberties lawyers, they attempted to frame the legislation as a constitutional issue: “Dancing is expression,” says Abner Greene, a First Amendment expert and Fordham University Law School professor. “[It] is thus presumptively protected by the First Amendment.” And in 2003, the law faced repeal, with lawmakers proposing a separate nightlife license that would require different compliances for different kinds of establishments.
But after years of political snafu, the law remained on the books, and while you’re less likely to hear talk of the Cabaret Law around town, the damage has been done. In the same Daily Note article, Andy Beta speculates that it wasn’t until the turn of the end of the 00s “that club culture slowly began to dig its way out from the rubble.” And with the recent spate of DIY venue closings that coincides with the proliferation of megaclubs like the 750-capacity Williamsburg techno temple Verboten, it appears that the city will continue to funnel dance music into large, consolidated spaces—where they can keep an eye on partygoers.
2003: RAVE, or Resisting Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy
The RAVE act here actually stands for “Resisting Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy,” a piece of legislature passed by the 107th American Congress, and sponsored by then-Senator, now Vice-President Joe Biden. It was proposed in response to what many concerned Americans viewed as an ecstasy epidemic
Passed in 2003, the Act was meant to “prohibit an individual from knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance.’” Its advocates maintain that despite the totally coincidental acronym, it wasn’t meant to target dance music event in particular. A “Senator Biden is not against electronic music,” said Biden’s press secretary in 2002. “The bill’s rave-specific name is incidental.”
An anti-RAVE act protest in the early 2000s
The Act is essentially an expansion of the 1986 “crack house law,” which attempted to deal with the problem of crack houses by making home owners and tenants responsible for the drugs that were being sold, bought, and consumed on the property. It extended the same logic to dance parties, whether legal or illegal, where not only club owners but managers, promoters, and other event organizers would find themselves responsible for any drug trafficking or consumption taking place at the party. They now faced jail time and fines of over $100,000.
By allowing various rave accessories—glowsticks, pacifiers, massage tables, bottled water, and air conditioned “chill rooms” where partygoers could cool down from the effects of club drugs—lawmakers believed that event organizers were knowingly and openly encouraging drug use at their events. After 30,000 protest faxes and the withdrawal of two senators’ support, the clause about rave accessories was removed from the language of the RAVE Act, but the general idea remained the same.
A Magnetic Mag article about a legendary club night in Miami called Fever laid out the implications of the act, which was passed but rarely actually brought to bear: “While its purpose was to limit raves by increasing the liability of promoters, the result was merely a shift from independent, underground parties to major clubs and events organized by big businesses that could afford a good lawyer.”
2014: Capital-E EDM
Much like what happened to rave music at the turn of the 90s—but on a larger scale—powerful business owners have begun to see rave culture’s moneymaking potential. Why waste resources on surveillance programs (and why scare away kids with disposable income) when you can divert partygoers into corporate-sponsored festivals that are the size of small cities? Over the last few years EDM entrepreneurs have carefully cultivated the mythology of the festival experience, making a high-production, high-tech, over-the-top encounter inextricable from the experience of repetitive beats.
One company, SFX, has purchased stake in most of dance music’s high-profile institutions, from online music distributor Beatport to the world’s largest EDM festivals. The company’s CEO was behind the merger that ultimately led to the formation of Live Nation, who are now his major competitors in the “arms race for electronic music promotion and production companies.” And through all of this, the festivals are getting bigger and bigger, with so much money and influence that it seems no drug-related media frenzy could ever stop this movement.
Perhaps this brief and selective history will act as a reminder to party people that nightlife wasn’t always like this—that it’s been carefully shaped by powerful people and overbearing pieces of legislation. Surveying the current landscape, it’s important to remember that hegemony is always incomplete, that alternative worlds exist in the cracks and fissures between structures of power. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and like any good game of cat and mouse, they can keep chasing us, but we’ll always stay one step ahead.
This feature appears in issue 5, the Islands Issue. Download here.