Inspired by our collaboration with Smiley, I look at how rave culture could be the blueprint for a truly inclusive climate movement

28 July 2023

The launch of our new collaboration with Smiley has prompted several conversations which have had me looking back to the birth of rave culture and thinking again about how that period from 1987 through to the mid 90’s is the perfect example of how music can sit at the heart of a cultural shift that has profound real-world effects.

I was fortunate to have grown up within reach of Manchester and doubly fortunate that Manchester had Tony Wilson and Factory, a colossus of cultural thinking that refused to play the regional poor relation to London and generated and sustained something beautiful that remains at the heart of the city despite its originators having left the stage. Wilson, Erasmus, Gretton, and Saville’s wilfulness and belief in culture transformed Manchester and the world beyond with their unswerving belief in the value of art rather than its price tag. The Hacienda must be built.

So, from 1988 I was aware of the changes going on in Afflecks Palace, the International and, of course, the Hacienda. The music I listened to was starting to change, new rhythms and influences making themselves felt via the likes of The Woodentops, Age Of Chance and others but I was still a confirmed indie kid when I first encountered Saturday night at the Hacienda, feeling very out of place in my stripy t shirt and Docs. I needn’t have worried, no one cared, no one judged. I also remember not really understanding the music, feeling a little overwhelmed by being so far out of my comfort zone, but being washed away by the feeling and the positivity in the room.

Around the same time, I had agreed to go to see Manchester City with my dad for the first time since the mid-80s when we had nearly died in a police horse charge following hooligan trouble after a game. Much as I loved football and City, the early 80s were grim times to be on the terraces; racism, violence, and general aggression were the norm and often we would come out of Maine Road dodging missiles and punches. I remember being at Blackpool for an FA Cup game and watching our fans take apart the roof of the away stand when we lost to hurl the slates at the Blackpool fans and anyone in between.

Approaching Maine Road that day I noticed the change in look of the younger fans. Less curly perms, stonewashed jeans and adidas, more bagginess, hoodies, bucket hats and, weirdly, inflatable bananas. Coming on to the home stand I was hit by a pungent aroma and waylaid by a discernible change in vibe. It felt communal, the aggression was gone, replaced by a comedown feeling of, yes, it really was, a coming together. I was watching the game with my dad, but I was kinda still in clubland from the night before. Rave culture was seeping on to the terraces.

Moving to Leeds to start University, the effects of rave culture became ever more apparent from late 1989 into the early 1990s. Leeds was a centre of dance music, we worked with Ark, Phobia, and Kaos, Basics was happening in town. Through our work with the raves, our social circle moved outside of the traditional student only circle that had been the norm for as long as I could tell to locals of our age, brought together through repetitive beats. We lent lighting equipment to local youth clubs in areas of Leeds that students once feared to tread and were welcomed by the community without prejudice.

As Tony Wilson said about the rise of the Hacienda in terms that are relevant to everywhere across the UK from the late 80s:

“The great cultural change comes with the Ibiza experience, working class Northern kids, Spring, Summer 88, that culture and that culture collided…”

The University, so often a place that Leeds residents never came to for leisure aside from the odd gig, was now hosting Ark and a gathering of the tribes became the norm. Megadog set up regular nights bringing Underworld and Orbital in and further adding to the social mix. The Utah Saints, ex Leeds students, emerged to become Leeds rave heroes complete with a video shot at Ark at the University (with our involvement) and a cross cultural and cross class fanbase.

So, when the repetitive beats law bore down on raves, it wasn’t just the usual suspects protesting.

Rave had broken down social barriers that had existed across UK culture for generations, whether ‘town and gown’ or more recognisable class structures. We were one nation under a groove. Little wonder that the changes in UK society in the 90’s, a sweeping away of old attitudes to race, class, sexuality, and gender, came so swiftly nor that a political changing of the guard marked the back end of the decade.

Back to our Smiley collaboration. As an organisation that truly believes that music can change culture and culture can change society, adding the rave icon to our work seems about the most obvious and important thing we can do at this point.

In a moment where it feels like the warning signs of climate breakdown are finally hitting home to a mass public, we reach the moment of truth.

If we all feel that what we are seeing in Southern Europe and the USA, China, and South Korea, is genuinely terrifying, the next stage is to decide what we do. We can hide, we can resign ourselves. We can be angry. But, to my mind, the thing we should do is begin to imagine a world without that horror. And, to collectively imagine that world, rave and its power to bring together people from all areas of society with one simple guiding principle, of love and respect for all without judgement, feels like a perfect example of the centrality of culture to any response to the climate emergency.

The name may now adorn a row of posh flats on Whitworth Street, but the spirit remains.

It’s time for the Hacienda to be rebuilt.