Mike Mannix spoke to James Redmond recently regarding essentially the first in-depth look on film into Irish clubbing history. ‘Notes On Rave In Dublin’, is a new documentary produced by DCTV and Rabble magazine, that tells the story of the emergence of clubbing from the heady days of the late 1980’s in Dublins gay clubs through to its commercial peak in 1990s..
MM: Thank you James for talking to us at iconic underground..Can you give us the background to the inspiration for this documentary, and why you felt now was the time to release it?
J: Well, it’s something I was working on since about 2012/13 – it just about managed to make itself into the Audi Dublin International Film Festival this year as I’d finally reached a stage where I was happy enough for people to see it and it was time to move on The final run in was a bit of a melter, absolutely top work put in by some friends to get it across the line. Richie Price who is a sick bass producer in his own right, brought his dub mixing genius to the project and then Tom McDermott came in and hauled my ass across the line when it came to getting it ship shape for screen.
Let’s face it Ireland is sort of served a raw really raw deal when it comes to a lot of its cultural history, like there’s zillions of coffee table books out there documenting the UK rave scene and the closest thing we have here is Garry O’Neill’s Where Were You. People like Aoife Ni Canna and Paul Tarpey have all done amazing work digging around and formulating a take on these memories, because really so much of what happened has sunk into some strange crack between the analogue and digital age.
Like the rave thing is really close enough to be remembered properly but also unfortunately straddles a space where digital was really fragile so much of the output or fragments of that scene got stuck on dead forums, 404 pages, really low quality early digital camera shots and all the rest. So in a way a lot of the impact of it had sort of slunk off into some collective gap in consciousness on these shores or was still hiding out in shoe boxes in an attic somewhere. It’s almost like the more recent past is further away than decades ago because people have yet to release its value.
Also, I was just genuinely surprised that no one else had tried to do it before – like there’s always gunna be some timid RTE take on things, or the odd panel and Aoife Ni Canna blazed a trail with her unbelievable work sketching the whole thing in her podcast series for Near FM. Yet no one had tried to tie the various shades of it together in the same what that you can with a documentary for the screen bringing some of the rich visual culture like flyers to the fore.
That lack of a historical memory can have debilitating effect really. People just gaze elsewhere all the time, thinking it’s impossible to do anything of any merit in Ireland. There’s a lot of important players missing in this doc, but there are also a lot of other voices in it that haven’t been heard before – and I hope it somehow captures some aspect of just how they refused to accept what was being handed down to them and ploughed a completely new furrow in Dublin.
MM: The early scene from the 1988/9 onwards changed clubbing in Dublin and later the rest of Ireland in a fundamental way, where it brought all races, classes and creeds together for the first time, in a spirit of unity, anticipation and anything goes mentality. How has the Dance music scene changed from that hedonistic era?
J: There’s a bit of myth making that goes on with this though isn’t there? But usually it’s rooted in some level of veracity or accumulated experience. I’m wary of being seen as somewhat naive or giving too simplistic a view of things, so it’s worth stating that while that the start, like in all of these things – people talk about an incredible coming together, the whole thing was also rather quick to become heavily stratified again.
And as one of the interviewees, Kate Butler, who was a music journalist at the time put it to me, she said things became “very jesuitical” – where a really coded language developed around the various genres that were on the go at the time that allowed people to mark themselves out and say something about where they were coming from or going. Like you had them over there, tops off in the Temple Theatre, and us over here…Most people I spoke to said that those kinda divisions, which were probably really ones of social class to some degree – really only dropped at the outdoor raves and beach parties, which were free of some of the strictures that door policies muster.
So rather than being all romantic, people were pretty quick to talk about divisions within the scene, for most of the folk I talked to – the Pod was seen to quickly inject a right old dose of snobbery back into the whole thing – even going as far as to infamously make a feature of their doorman with “Denis on the door” appearing on their flyers sending signals to the in crowd about who could cross that hallowed threshold and escape the hoi polloi.
I found the Temple Of Sound the most interesting really of them all when it came to this type of stuff, as it seemed to really straddle a delicate line in most people’s eyes between having an open and accessible door policy – but still not being afraid to cultivate/curate its crowd – and also being okay with a more debauched dance music aesthetic with tops off and what not.
So, that said Billy Scurry and Johnny Moy really did surprise me with their take on the whole thing, as being a bit younger during that period they were always portrayed as “superstar DJS” when I came across them in the media or whatever, which was an easy caricature for the media at the time and probably other parts of the scene – but when it came to it, they were really down to earth and singing from a hymn sheet that really exhibited a love for the more liberating aspects of the acid house philosophy and dance as something to bring people together.
Francois too really, he was consistently nailing just how those liberatory elements of dance music got gnawed away at by the back rooms, VIP areas and commercialisation that set in during the run up to the millennium when it became recognised as a cash cow. I just watched a documentary about the lads that ran Suburban Base in the UK talking about the London centric acid house set being more clubby and looking down on the Essex hardcore scene – from talking to people you hear a bit of an echo of this as well in Dublin, with the way people talked about say stuff like the Olympic versus Sides in its earlier days.
When it comes to the North, while there was no doubt a real escape valve provided to folks from sectarianism via the scene up there, you really probably need to temper utopian vision by watching a documentary like Desmond Bell’s ‘Dancing On Narrow Ground’ which takes a look at the scene around Kelly’s in Portrush. While things did open up, tensions can easily reassert themselves again as they do in that doc.
David Holmes talks about it in ‘Alternative Ulster,’ a project documenting subcultures up there – he said:
“It really felt like a revolution. It’s almost like everyone that you’ve ever known, people from like punks, to mods – it was almost like almost the uniforms came off and everybody just got together.”
How does that compare to today? While the dance scene is probably a dose more diverse or open than a lot of other sub-cultures that claim that to be their mantle like many things, it certainly looks to be with bigger room stuff to have become more image centric, less about people losing themselves and more about being seen. That said, I just saw DJ Bone for Subject at what was the Voodoo Lounge and that gave me the jitters for the blacked out sweat pits that are what make techno in Dublin so sick. Ain’t seen the like since the Twisted Pepper basement.
MM: At one point in Dublin in the 90’s and some of the bigger cities like Cork and Limerick, the dance music scene seemed to rival its UK neighbours with multiple underground clubs serving hordes of passionate revelers who were up for it. Today seems a far cry from anything remotely like it, why?
J: I’m not sure its right to say that the dance music scene rivaled the UK, that’s just a misnomer. How could it? For a start like is not being compared with like, there are population gap discrepancies that are mean there are just not the economies of scale to mean its even worth trying to measure up.
Then there are cities like Bristol, London, Sheffield etc that have been absolute powerhouses of innovation blazing a trail from house to hardcore, through bleep, jungle and garage and all its bass off shoots that Ireland barely even references and probably because until recently we were a mono-culture with none of the influences that immigration brought to the UK. So while Ireland might have upswings in the consumption of dance music, with towns going through periods of having a boom bust cycle of venues – that’s just purely at the level of consumerism.
There’s probably a hint of rose tinted nostalgia there, in terms of “ah it was brilliant years ago.” I’m not trying to rain on a parade, in fact ‘Dublin certainly has multiple underground clubs and an up for it crowd at the moment. Wah Wah moving to their new spot, the Voodoo opening up again under Subject’s stewardship, the Wigwam basement is still going – there’s always things on in shitty little backroom bars. Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford – all of these places have their own little scenes going on – often in BYOB spaces, gray areas and more interesting spots than standard clubs – it might not be at the level of the super clubs of years ago, but was that ever healthy?
Those things are impossible to sustain and if anything we’ve seen a certain death of midsized clubs and the community they generated. I’d really miss the Twisted Pepper, that basement was really treasured and I stuck in a bit of phone footage of sweat dripping down the walls in their one night when Derrick May was giving the place right rinsing. There were some truly magic moments in there. But I’d probably struggle to remember half of them.
Anyway, part of me thinks Ireland really only gets to go raving over the summer when festival season kicks in and we’re allowed be a little looser in the fields – you could throw a stone and it’d probably land on a mini-dance music festival somewhere outside of the Dublin these days. Never mind Life and the like. Also, if you really want to get to the root of this, we need to talk about the Dancehall Act of 1935 and our poxy licensing culture.
MM: How important was ecstasy in shaping the scene in Ireland?
J: There’s really no point in dancing around it, like the doc is completely tinged with the euphoria that a new drug and a broadly new form of music brought to people It doesn’t shy away from how elements of that were rather fake or tinged with artificiality and just lasted for a honeymoon before we all settled back into tired and worn patterns.
Just on a scale of how real this was, I found lots of old Hot Press magazines and other archive material and you can really see all the drinks companies chasing that ecstasy scene, if not directly competing for it – then in the sense of adapting themselves to the visual aesthetic of the posher parts of the scene. Then there is the old folk tale of how Guinness sales totally plummeted in this period, which people saw as a sign again.
My favourite example is a Smirnoff poster with a tonne of sweet heart candy used in the design, one of them says hug me and there’s some vaguely dance floor aesthetic like a set of headphones or something else real dumb – this was real obvious signal sending going on with everything in the ad looking like it had been cogged from a Nightcrawlers video.
Dublin certainly has multiple underground clubs and an up for it crowd”
MM: Why do you think the Dance music scene in Dublin as the capital of Ireland, pales in comparison to Amsterdam, London, Manchester, and New York?
J: I’d sort of contend with that to some degree, I mean Dublin punches way above its weight category given the size of the place. It just hasn’t really ever had the same social base that other places have. When you think of cities of a similar or smaller size like Sheffield and point to their contributions by producing things like Warp records – you can see how the absence of a sound system culture coming in via immigration and more entrenched youth cultures could well have something to do with it. While that might explain a truncated origins, there’s also something else going on as well – dance music is still something of an outsider demonised force.
Firstly straight up there is the Dance Hall Act from 1935 – so it’s not just about silly politicians and how they don’t understand youth cultures – though there is a whole deeper facet to this – you require an actual license to run a dance in a venue in Ireland whether licensed or not. This is the story. This is the ideological expression of a Catholic theocracy that back in the day did not like people gathering to dance outside of the eyes of their jumped up guardians of parish morality. Go watch Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall if you haven’t a clue what I’m on about.
I’ve seen the dancehall act cited at events like MASS, where Eomac was about to drop a set and the boys in yellow rolled up and literally cited a 1935 act to shut the spot down – then they let a trad band play on but openly said “no DJs and no DJ music”. You couldn’t make it up. It was wheeled out again to shut down a rave in Tralee some time ago.
This has a huge knock on effect. It means there is a lack of alternative unlicensed art spaces, or even the sort of pop up licenses you get in London that allows a set of temporary licenses to hold events in interesting locales like warehouses etc. Everything is at the whim of the Guards. And it’s impossible to engage with the authorities, even those art spaces that openly try and engage with the authorities get shut down or hit a wall.
This is a fundamentally conservative kip, people might want to look to actually shake themselves and look at who is in power in this country. Something we’ve seen ourselves with rabble magazine, it’s really possible to fundraise and sustain culture ventures through decent gatherings in small venues that operate a bit in the gray.
Just go and take a look at the recent attempt to enforce a 40% music of an Irish cultural origin rule in the Dail by Willie Penrose, I watched three hours of it – this wasn’t a refined discussion about supporting Irish independent music – it was a bunch of fucking yahoos baying loudly around the parish pump to see who could siphon off a lifeline to a country and western music cartel of local radio station big wigs, hotel owners who host huge dinner dances and whatever coffin dodgers they are shoring up for votes.
In some of the stuff I didn’t used there’s a discussion between Eamonn Doyle where they talk about losing funding from the Arts Council for DEAF – they commented something about how they felt what they were doing was never properly understood. These were people that built their own labels and built a thing on a small budget, but that was never met by the grants that float around.
At the level of what is accepted culture here, everything we are force fed is boys with guitars on College Green. Or the type of modern day showbands that Ryan Tubridy trots out on the Late Late Show or tortures you awake with of the morning.
Listen, this is a conservative kip – why talk about clubs when women don’t even have the right to choice in this country, and you’re surprised we don’t have a society that’s forward thinking enough to understand the importance of a night time economy? Instead we are cutting bus routes. So, never mind anything around opening up the conversation to be about harm reduction and safer use of chemicals?
Listen, this is a conservative kip – why talk about clubs when women don’t even have the right to choice in this country, and you’re surprised we don’t have a society that’s forward thinking enough to understand the importance of a night time economy?
MM: What’s the message you’re trying to deliver with the documentary, what do you hope to achieve?
J: There’s always discussions around comparing the Dublin scene to elsewhere and it’s often the starting point of any such video or article, but this takes a different slant it looks at the cultural explosion around dance music in Dublin in its own right and doesn’t attempt to measure it up or legitimise it by reference to elsewhere. In a way I guess, there’s more to our cultural heritage here than lads with guitars if you go looking for it.
Hopefully people come away with some feeling of celebrating the foundations of the Dublin. And, probably more importantly, I also hope it encourages people to look back at what was truly liberating about it, and from what I gathered from the folk I talked to that was the mad urgency and DIY ethic that vitality of this new music and scene ushered on and then there was also a certain feeling of collectively and togetherness that came with it, that people could rediscover themselves in it and not be hemmed in by the expectations of society.
Interview – Mike Mannix