London’s Acid Techno Underground of the ‘90s
By Harry Sword
Marshalling fierce DIY ethics, chemical excess and pounding grooves, London acid techno was the bastard child of the mid-‘90s UK underground, fuelling debauched squat raves with punk attitude and squelchy 303s. Harry Sword speaks to the founders of this belligerent force
The mid- to late ’90s saw UK techno spread off the island and towards a serious global reach. Clubs like House of God, Lost and The Orbit were internationally renowned, while a wave of homegrown talent (Surgeon, Regis, Oliver Ho and James Ruskin, to name but a few) was building a particular sound: stripped back tools imbued with brutal machine funk. Others – Cristian Vogel, Neil Landstruum and the Brighton contingent, for example – moved further sideways, pushing a sound as skewed as it was propulsive.
In the crumbling terraces of Stoke Newington, though, different channels were stirring. Rising from the underground networks established in the ’80s squat scene, and making use of the capital’s derelict urban spaces, London acid techno attracted a crowd for whom clubs were too restrictive and house music was too soft: mapping an illegal party network that has since slowed in the unrelenting head-butt of gentrification; a hazy chemical element that spread like a crooked grin across the capital.
Owing to banging German trance, US acid imports, sleazy Belgian rave and cranky hardcore, the sound fused the adrenaline rush of early trance with the relentless propulsion of roughshod techno, and was often underpinned with the acidic squelch of layered 303s. Mainstays like the Liberators (founders of the Stay Up Forever imprint), D.A.V.E. The Drummer, The Geezer and DDR were its instigators, releasing gnarled bangers and playing vast squat parties and sweaty basement clubs.
The Liberators – Chris Knowles, Julian Sandell and Aaron Northmore – met in 1990. Knowles and Sandell were squatting in Stoke Newington and linked up with Northmore after he knocked on their door one day, to investigate the sounds pounding the walls. The trio bonded over a love of music and a mutual dissatisfaction with the commercial club scene, and were soon playing out together as the Liberator DJ collective. Having played drums for anarcho-punk mainstays Hagar the Womb, Knowles applied the ethics of the punk scene to electronic music: find a building, set up a rig and do it yourself.
We put a techno soundsystem upstairs and cut a hole in the floor, so that we could have a fireman’s pole going down to the basement where the punk bands were playing.
‘‘We were at the early Bedlam parties, which was a big soundsystem at the time, but our sound didn’t quite fit in with the other systems,” Knowles explains. “There was a lot of house, gabba and Detroit techno, but we were into European techno – early Tresor, the harder acid trance stuff, like Hardfloor and Important Records – and UK rave labels like Rising High Records. When I was living in Julian’s squat we put a techno soundsystem upstairs and cut a hole in the floor, so that we could have a fireman’s pole going down to the basement where the punk bands were playing.’’
Early influences were myriad, but Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound imprint proved a meeting point for their tastes: a barbed tangle of dub, industrial and post-punk, underpinned by bowel-quaking sub frequencies. ‘‘The accepted narrative of how dance music erupted in the UK can be challenged,’’ insists Knowles. ‘‘Some big techno DJ’s will say, ‘Oh, it’s because of Donna Summer, it’s because of Giorgio Moroder,’ but for a lot of people, that music was irrelevant as to why they got involved.’’
Knowles was enthused by the disciplined sounds of Kraftwerk, lo-fi post-punk on Mute Records and cut-up barrage of Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. While these sounds were instrumental in forging an early musical identity, though, none of them explicitly led to an exploration of the nascent late ’80s rave scene. Rather, it was the sample-heavy hip-hop and industrial bass weight of Tackhead that provided a physical epiphany: ‘‘Going to see Tackhead was intense. You had Adrian Sherwood manning the desk, twisting it all up – and it was danceable. I can remember properly dancing at a [Tackhead] gig instead of just jumping up and down for the first time – and this was before I started taking ecstasy,” he laughs.
There was an animosity towards electronic music in the squats. Northmore recalled that a ‘‘lot of the punk purists hated it at first,’’ but groups that incorporated electronic sounds had blossomed around the free festival scene. Supporters such as Hawkwind – who’d been experimenting with electronics since the ’70s, and had never left the circuit – were joined by newer groups like Ozric Tentacles, Eat Static and African Head Charge, all of whom took a fluid approach to genre lines. One such group was Back To The Planet. Formed in the Peckham squats, they counted two future London acid techno mainstays as members: Henry Cullin, AKA D.A.V.E. The Drummer, and Guy McAffer, AKA The Geezer.
The band began experimenting with electronic production in the early ‘90s, learning to use rudimentary samplers and sequencers. ‘‘When we started listening to more dance music,’’ says McAffer, ‘‘I remember thinking, ‘Cor, I could do some of that.’ When the band finished, Henry and I went straight into making techno. I found it relatively easy because of the technology we’d already been using. We met the Liberators soon after that. They’d started their label around that time, too.’’
Founded in 1994, Stay Up Forever was an outlet for early Liberator productions alongside likeminded friends, heavily referencing the records they were playing at the time, and created an infrastructure and community for the scene to build upon. Early releases on the label demonstrated a sound finding its footing. Characterized by trance and hardcore influences, early 12″ incorporated uplifting synths and fluid musical structures that were at odds with the more austere, loop-based techno of labels such as Downwards and Dynamic Tension.
1994 was the year that jungle emerged as a serious underground force, and some of the earlier releases referenced it. The frenetic physical movement of the title track of SUF001, the Hardcore Disco EP, is tempered by melodic synths, only to be brought crashing back to the floor with panel-beating techno beats. The flip, “Junglist Son of an Angry Bastard,” was aptly named, underpinned by chopped Amen breaks. This open-spirited approach in which conflicting sounds were stitched together characterized the SUF catalogue: the anarchic aesthetic of bedroom alchemists.
While these records were playful, they didn’t nail the sound that the Liberators had in mind. “We realized that we didn’t have the capability to make acid because we didn’t have the right kit,’’ Knowles explains. “I had a little DX synth – we didn’t have a 303 then – so it was really hard to come up with the proper sound. We couldn’t really get what we wanted out of it. Julian came up with the name ‘acid techno.’ It wasn’t pure techno or pure trance, and it wasn’t pure acid, either. It fell somewhere in between all three.’’
Soon finding the running of Stay Up Forever financially draining, though, they’d almost run out of money by the release of SUF005, D.O.M.’s Acid War. This meant that the Liberators were still relying on money from their club bookings to keep the label afloat. One vital outlet for this was the infamous Megadog party. Normally held at Manchester’s Academy and North London’s The Rocket, the music policy was a heady brew of psychedelic rock, leftfield electronics, techno and dub, served alongside head-twisting visuals.
While the ravers at Megadog embraced techno, the promoters were initially less keen. They were convinced that the music brought trouble to the door through an aggressive traveller presence. It’s a situation that Northmore refutes. ‘‘At first, the people that ran it were freaked out by the techno. They were proper hippies and thought that we brought a negative traveller crowd [to the party]– the ‘brew crew,’ essentially. They’d seen what had happened with that lot at some of the free festivals in the ’80s – and they could be proper trouble – but we never brought them down to Megadog.’’
Other party crews brought a heavier ideological presence. ‘‘Spiral Tribe were quite aggressive in their approach,” remembers Knowles. “It was very much, ‘This is the way that it has to be from now on.’ I remember them marching into the Megadog offices and demanding that they change the whole music policy so that they would only play gabba. It was hilarious. They were ranting away, and the Megadog lot were just sitting there like, ‘Uh, no. We don’t like gabba.’”
Megadog helped to foster crucial links within the London scene. The Liberators and Back To The Planet had shared a stage on a number of occasions and their former drummer Henry Cullen – AKA D.A.V.E. The Drummer – was a skilled engineer who played a pivotal role in shaping many key acid tracks, allowing nascent audio visions to become fully realized and able to push through the increasingly powerful stacks. Stay Up Forever had released close to a dozen records by ’94, but Cullen’s influence was a turning point in the acid sound. It became even beefier.
‘‘There was this guy called MC Teabag who was Megadog’s resident,’’ says Cullen. ‘‘He arranged to get Chris in the studio, which was above a pub in Deptford called the Harp of Erin. I was engineering the session and I instantly liked him. He had a definite idea of the sound that he was after. I remember showing him how to layer synths on top of each other in Soundscape and edit them on the fly. We came up with a track called ‘Spectrum’ which was released on a small label called Bag Records. ‘Spectrum’ was played on Kiss FM by [renowned UK techno figure]Colin Dale, and I distinctly remember that Dale dedicated it to Dave Angel. We were made up about that.’’
The message was clear: Prima donnas and wayward egos need not apply.
1997 saw the release of the Liberator DJ’s infamous compilation, It’s Not Intelligent…And It’s Not From Detroit…But It’s F**king ‘Avin It. Subtitled “The Sound of London’s Acid Techno Underground,” the mix solidified the sound in the underground consciousness. The music is colorful, the track titles are playful and the artwork is in direct contrast to the post-industrial greyscale cliches of the wider UK techno scene at the time: a can of 13% lager, half a packet of cigarettes, and an empty wrap of speed set against a bright green backdrop. The message was clear: the party is everything, we’re all in it together, so prima donnas and wayward egos need not apply. ‘‘If I’m playing abroad in South America or somewhere like that, I can put my hands in the air and everyone goes mental,” explains Northmore. “If I did that at a squat rave, somebody would throw a can of beer at my head and say, ‘You’re not a fucking rock star.’’’
This approach was key to the underground success of the music. Existing outside of the mainstream dance industry, it was fitting that the London sound was enthusiastically adopted (alongside jungle) as the music of choice at many political protests of the ‘90s. Reclaim The Streets – an anti-capitalist movement that created temporary autonomous zones in UK city centers – was unique in its approach in that the party was as central to their philosophy. When it came to spreading the sound further, a spartan work ethic was applied. Chris Liberator and others committed to weekend schedules of paid club gigs abroad in order to return to London and immediately make for the nearest squat party – where they’d continue to play for free, often for six or more hours at a time.
It was a philosophy that ensured that the main players never lost touch with the roots of the scene while the sound spread worldwide, and that acid techno became a full-time way of life for its main protagonists. They adopted a tireless schedule of studio work during the week and full-time partying at the weekend. ‘‘He’s a machine, a techno monkey, it’s amazing,’’ laughs Northmore, when describing Chris Liberator’s full-on schedule. ‘‘And that is partly the reason that he has found the kind of adulation that he has. He went out and spread the word. He’s that kind of DJ.’’
Duly, sizeable local movements galvanized in Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, Spain, France, and across Eastern Europe, but the music did attract derision from purists in some quarters, which tended to dislike what they saw as a bastardization of the form of ‘pure techno.’ ‘‘Purist techno heads didn’t like it, but purist trance heads didn’t like it either,’’ laughs McAffer, The Geezer. ‘‘In ’96-’97, things were very separated. There was a big snobbery within music back then: that whole macho thing of being seen to do things only in one way.’’
You can look back with dance music and pinpoint when cocaine became more popular than ecstasy, and then when ketamine became more popular than both.
Unbeknownst to much of this techno fraternity, key London producers were busy making other styles of techno at the height of acid. Laurie Immersion – who produced under the name DDR, amongst others – set up purist techno label Pounding Grooves in ’98. The catch was that almost all the records released on Pounding Grooves were made by acid producers, working anonymously. The label was widely supported by the same techno underground that sometimes derided the acid sound, as Knowles remembers. ‘‘Laurie got it distributed by the main company that handled all the big techno labels, and the purists loved it. It did eventually come out that [Pounding Grooves’ output] was all made by the acid techno people, and that proved a point. It was really funny. We all love different stripes of techno – and always have.’’
The smaller and more irregular parties of the early ’90s had, by the middle of the decade, morphed into huge weekly events that attracted thousands of ravers, boasting multiple soundsystems and increasingly sophisticated infrastructure and production. This was in part, and somewhat ironically, down to a complex relationship with the police and local authorities. While the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 had made life difficult for outdoor raving, the squat scene was not as aggressively policed.
Spaces were often broken into on the night of the party: a situation that discouraged a police presence, as party-goers wouldn’t know where it was taking place until the very last minute. Soundsystem crews would get the rigs in as quickly as possible, set up the space, and put the address on a pre-recorded party line – but only once the building was secured and the time was right. Most of the time, if the police showed up once a party was in full swing, they’d leave it alone. The cost of shutting down a squat rave with up to 3000 attendees on an already under-resourced busy Saturday night in London was far too great to regularly enforce the law.
The make-up of these London parties was markedly diverse. ‘‘There were people from France, Spain, Israel – all over the place,’’ says Knowles. ‘‘The Italians deserve a special mention, though. In a party of 4,000 people, you might have got 1,500 Italians. It was like a techno sabbatical for many.’’ Escapism was a huge attraction, too. Draft-dodging, pro-Palestinian, left wing Israelis found an unlikely sanctuary in the London squat scene, and a number of would-be army recruits spent a year or two stomping it out to the Liberators instead of facing the bleak reality of military life.
In the early to mid-’00s, however, a darker element encroached. Ketamine use had become endemic and whereas the previous feeling of ecstasy-fuelled camaraderie allowed the parties to be relatively self-policed, a seedier air descended. Gangs of opportunists would regularly rob incapacitated ravers en masse. ‘‘It massively changed the party scene,’’ explained Knowles. ‘‘It got grim. There were a few occasions when you just thought, ‘Jesus, everyone here is totally K’d out.’ You can look back with dance music and pinpoint when cocaine became more popular than ecstasy, and then when ketamine became more popular than both. The music changes, the scene changes – and a lot of people got fucked up by it.’’
One track came to personify this era, reflecting the nihilism that had swept through the scene: Dynamo City’s anthemic “One Night In Hackney.” Referencing The Horrorist’s ’97 darkside stomper, “One Night In New York,” and transposed to a dank east London warehouse, the track follows an innocent protagonist as they arrive at a squat party for the first time and fall into two days of bacchanalian excess, culminating in drinking “15 cans of Stella” on the following Monday night. But while the seedier end of the scene was immortalised in the track, London – not least Hackney – was changing at a rapid pace. Previously affordable areas that had long played host to weekly parties without much trouble were falling victim to vicious property price hikes, and the attendant changes in vibe that such hikes bring. Hackney remains the most extreme example: life long residents priced out; aggressive development; cutsey artisanal shops; an influx of moneyed investors drawn to the area specifically because of its edge, only to spend the next half decade trying to file it off. The effect on the squat scene was predictably dire.
‘‘Take Shoreditch,” says Guy McAffer. “We used to do big warehouse parties around there, but you couldn’t have a party round there anymore. All of those places have turned into shops – you’d get stopped in five minutes flat if you tried to put on a party now. Rent has gone up so much and the landlords don’t give a fuck. The houses are going up so much in price that you have to be the son of a millionaire to buy one. There is no other way of doing, but that is exactly what the Tories want – they want millionaires around them. It’s unacceptable to be poor now; they’ve demonized it. It’s a mirror image of what was happening under Thatcher.’’
Although the effects of gentrification have chronically affected the squat scene, the music itself retains a devoted following and continues to grow in clubs and free festivals all over the world. Everyone was at pains to point out that – aside from the squats and free parties – the club scene has always thrived. Northmore describes today’s scene as more like a ‘‘fanatical fan club than anything. It’s smaller, but very devoted.” Over the past decade, Stay Up Forever has continued to operate in the acid sphere while others have fallen by the wayside. 2013 saw the imprint celebrate 20 years of underground agitation, and the music retains the key ingredients of freedom and oblivion that have fueled it all along. Chris Liberator – who continues to tour the world with little regard for his sleeping pattern – sums it up.
‘‘It doesn’t matter where I go – I’ll meet people who come up and tell me how much the records mean to them, or how much the squat parties meant, or how they went out once in ’99 or ’04 and it changed their lives forever. In terms of people’s lives, the squat scene had the same impact as the commercial rave scene did. It was just less well documented. The canon of people that have been touched by this scene is huge, and we’re still here doing it more than 20 years on.’’
Originally posted on the Red Bull Academy Website June 3rd written by Harry Sword