Britain in the 1980s. Unemployment, strikes, riots, polarisation. Brits looked out to war in the Falklands, famine in Ethiopa, and intifada in the Middle East. But as Britain’s economy gained traction at the end of the decade, a fresh start seemed imminent. The Berlin Wall fell, the dissolution of the Soviet Union heralded the end of the Cold War. The 1990s would bring prosperity and communion.
Waves of optimism struck the country, none more apparent than the burgeoning rave scene. When Danny Rampling opened Shoom in 1987, he could hardly have imagined the profound impact the music it introduced would have on British society. Within a year, the scene had outgrown its acid house origins at Shoom and Nick Holloway’s Trip, held at London’s now defunct Astoria. After-hours clubbing was illegal. Partygoers regularly spilled on to the street, dancing and chanting, prompting a police crackdown which led rave organisers to abandoned warehouses and open space around the new M25 motorway, which circled London.
The growing popularity of electronic dance music and unlicensed MDMA—known colloquially as Ecstasy, E, or X—fueled an explosion of youth culture, a Second Summer of Love. By 1989, quietly organised gatherings in the English countryside attracted tens of thousands of ravers.
Primal Scream took a different path. Their humble beginnings had Glasgow-born Bobby Gillespie banging two dustbin lids together while his school friend Jim Beattie played fuzz guitar. As drummer for the Jesus and Mary Chain, Gillespie met Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records, who later achieved notable success with My Bloody Valentine and Oasis. When issued an ultimatum by the Jesus and Mary Chain to leave or disband Primal Scream, Gillespie stuck with his pet project. With an augmented lineup, Primal Scream signed to Creation and released two albums of incoherent jangle pop and sub-rate blues rock.
In 1988, McGee introduced Gillespie to the acid house scene. Having already developed a penchant for acid and speed, Gillespie was initially more interested in Ecstasy than in acid house. But soon it was apparent that something was afoot. Ecstasy was a different experience: a social drug which dramatically enhanced empathy, a drug which went hand-in-hand with electronic dance music.
The morning after one all-night rave in Brighton, Gillespie met Andrew Weatherall, one of the scene’s most prominent figures. Weatherall agreed to remix “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have”, an uneventful ballad from Primal Scream’s second album. The result was a revelation. “Loaded”, with samples from Edie Brickell’s “What I Am”, Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” and the Peter Fonda B-movie Wild Angels, became the band’s first hit and the starting point for Screamadelica.
In the context of Primal Scream’s prior and subsequent career, Screamadelica is a miracle. Elsewhere there is little evidence to suggest the band had the chops to write anything more than a half-decent tune. But Screamadelica bursts with imagination and vitality. Naysayers credit its myriad producers—Weatherall, Jimmy Miller and the Orb—with the record’s fusion of dance and psychedelic rock, a happy accident not the fruits of real labour. But this is a disservice. Screamadelica is not a dance record. It is a rock record about discovering Ecstasy, rave culture, and the music that went with it.
As such, “Movin’ on Up” acts like an overture, relating the trip to a spiritual awakening. The opening verse—“I was blind / Now I can see / You made a believer out of me”—is immediately reminiscent of “Amazing Grace”. As the drug begins to take control, the rhythms become more pulsating. “Slip Inside This House” combines a four-to-the-floor beat with a blues piano pattern similar to “Movin’ on Up”—temptation mixed with the anxiety of leaving normality. The throbbing bass line of “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” is blood coursing through the veins, an increased metabolic rate. It is the song’s only constant. The accompanying sounds are less organic and more intense, building towards “Higher Than the Sun”. Here, the body regains control, but in another state altogether—“I have glimpsed, I have tasted / Fantastical places / My soul an oasis.”
Pulling back from the intense “come-up”, “Inner Flight” drifts atop this higher state. Its keen focus gives way to a gradual outpouring of empathy, the protagonist realising that everyone else at the rave is discovering the same joy. Clocking in at ten and a half minutes, “Come Together” is a master class in sustained euphoria. Combining staccato horns, gospel choirs and the rousing strains of Reverend Jesse Jackson—“We are together / We are unified”—it remains one of the most sophisticated dance tracks ever produced, the musical equivalent of the spiritual awakening described in “Movin’ on Up”.
Organic instruments begin to return in “Loaded”, albeit in repeated motifs. “Damaged”, ostensibly a rock ballad about a failed relationship, heralds the comedown. A rasping saxophone calls to the barely alive narrator of “I’m Comin’ Down”—“Highs and pills won’t cure my ills / But they make me feel better for a little while.” And so the trip ends.
This journey was taken by tens of thousands at the height of the Second Summer of Love. Initially, the acid house scene was well received. But soon the tide turned against ravers. A few weeks after proclaiming the acid house scene “cool and groovy”, The Sun, Britain’s highest-selling tabloid, ran a feature on “The Evils of Ecstasy”. The resulting moral panic over freely organised raves soon became a national priority.
In 1993, Michael Howard, then Home Secretary and a future leader of the Conservative party, introduced the Criminal Justice Bill. Among other things, the proposal sought to ban gatherings “on land in the open air of 20 or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night”. As if the targeting of raves wasn’t specific enough, the proposal defined “music” as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”
Despite the optimism of the new decade, the polarisation of 1980s Britain remained. Lefties saw the bill as an attack on civil liberties. Protest marches attracted a huge number of ravers; one led to a riot in London’s exclusive Park Lane.
There was musical protest also. The Anti EP, released through Warp Records by Manchester duo Autechre, came emblazoned with a warning:
“Lost” and “Djarum” contain repetitive beats. We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law. “Flutter” has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can therefore be played under the proposed new law. However, we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.
Orbital took a less direct approach. “Are We Here? (Criminal Justice Bill Mix)” ended with four minutes of silence in protest against changes to an accused person’s right to silence, which allowed inferences to be drawn from silence and used as evidence in court.
Most jarring was the Prodigy’s immediate transformation from the “kiddie rave” of Experience to the primal rage of Music for the Jilted Generation, exemplified by the distorted guitars framing a single line: “Fuck ‘em and their law.” Four months after Music for the Jilted Generation was released, the bill was passed into law as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
From here, underground dance music in the UK rejected euphoric melodies and subtle progression in favour of anger and darkness, popularising triphop, dubstep, and minimal. Raves went indoors, to clubs with limited capacity and bad sound. Spontaneity vanished; community dispersed.
Simultaneously, successive governments—led by John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and now David Cameron—ruthlessly extended the erosion of civil liberties in Britain. Stop-and-search powers handed to police; the legal detention of terror suspects for 28 days without charge; restrictions on the right of peaceful protest; house arrest; electronic tagging; the legal interception of letters, e-mails and phone calls—all would have been unimaginable to the starry-eyed gathered in fields at the turn of the 1990s. And all can be traced back to the moral panic which led to the Criminal Justice Bill.
And so the optimism of the 1990s was quelled. Screamadelica, with its perfect distillation of joy, discovery and empathy, is a bold reminder of exactly what it is we’ve lost.