He’s lost control of the nightclub. There’s been a coup.
There’s been a lot of talk online about Jeremy Deller’s new Acid House documentary, aired on the BBC last week. I finally got round to watching it after seeing David Stubbs‘ glowing praise on Twitter — high praise too from a legendary music writer whose recent Mars By 1980 is an excellent history of electronic music as a whole.
I’m left feeling giddy after watching it. It sent me on this weird trip down memory lane, thinking about all the chance cultural encounters had when I was growing up, their age and younger. If Jeremy Deller had shown up in my classroom to talk about rave culture in this way, it would have been like throwing gasoline on these teenage temperaments. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those kids pop up on the forefront of something a few years down the line. It makes a strong case for this sort of arts education being introduced into mainstream curricula — although I won’t hold my breath for state education to get state-critical. That’s the sort of thing you only get — and even then, only if you’re lucky — once you get to art school.
“Everybody in the Place: an Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992” is as brilliant as everyone is saying it is but there’s an obvious change here in how Deller is presenting his particular brand of cultural history. I’ve been to Deller’s exhibitions and seen his other films. This isn’t like those. This isn’t just an hour of expertly curated archival material made with the art world in mind. Here, the sort of psychedelic rave documentary (no less brilliant) pioneered by the likes of Mark Leckey, is being given a much-needed deconstruction.
Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore remains the blueprint for so many films about underground British culture. It is a time capsule that nonetheless contains within it a certain timelessness, due to the way in which the “subjectivist fuzz” of a particular time and place gets dissolved in its own euphoria. It’s the sort of approach to cultural work that we can still see echoes of today in, for example, Paul Wright’s recent film Arcadia.
Here, however, Deller’s documentary is presented through a very different structure. We begin — and remain throughout — in a typical London classroom. (And the London centricity is important here.) Deller is, essentially, giving a lecture to teenagers who look to me like GCSE students — 15-16 years old — about the rise and politics of Acid House and there is a subtly about the presentation here that I found really affecting.
I can’t claim that this “typical” classroom is anything like mine was. London, in general, is so much more radically diverse than the rest of the country. I went to a school just outside of Hull where I could count the non-white students in my year group on one hand. Casual racism and the associated “banter” were commonplace. The old adage that kids always pick up on difference was writ large then. It felt like if you were into or wanted to find diverse cultural experiences, the last place you’d look would be in the people around you.
Coming of age during the retromania of mid-00s Northern indie bands, my “Northern Soul” moment was disarticulated from any local club scene — despite every kid having a shoulder bag swearing allegiance to a scene that no longer existed for us. I’ve never really enjoyed the tracks that epitomise that subculture– the standards of the scene have always represented a sort of exoticised aesthetic conversatism to me: we like this because it’s so different but we only like this very particular kind of different — but I do understand the delirious confluence of sentiments found in dancing to Motown on amphetamines down the local conservative club.
I remember seeing an advert on the TV for the 2004 compilation Superbad when I was 14 and being haunted by the earworm of WAR’s “Low Rider” for weeks, as a track that is explicitly grounded in another culture, but which also strangely made sense jaunting around country roads at the mouth of the Humber estuary as you escape the city and hit the ocean wall.
“Take a little trip, and see” is a message to carry with you anywhere — no matter what kind of trip you’re after. I asked for that compilation for Christmas that year, much to the bemusement of my parents, and it blew my prog-dominated world wide open.
That was a gateway into a whole new way of existing for me. It was a gateway into a libidinality and form of expression that was wholly other to my own and, whilst it’d be disingenuous to deny a certain sense of exoticism in discovering the history of Black music whilst living my white British life, it ignited an autodidactic obsession in tracing the lines between the local culture I knew and that which seemed so radically culturally different.
Black music quickly became associated with the rhizomaticism of online cultures for me. The first hip hop track I ever heard was A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions”, selected as the opening tune of a mix CD I got sent from the US after taking part in a mixtape swap organised on a forum I used to post on.
If the title of the track didn’t already capture that “take a little trip and see” mentality, the lyrics disappear down a rabbit hole of references, genres, names, etc. It’s intoxicating if you’re already a hip hop head — imagine hearing it for the first time as a 15 year old white kid from Yorkshire.
What I like about it is that it captures the very autodidactic essence of adolescence whilst doubling down on the cartography of the band’s eclectic but loyal approach to sampling and culture with a four-minute extended verse flow that starts with the jazz-hiphop lineage in the first verse:…
Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listenin’ to hip-hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop
I said, “Well, Daddy, don’t you know that things go in cycles?
Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael”…
… and then ends beyond the sleeve notes with:
What you gotta do is know the Tribe is in the sphere
The Abstract Poet, prominent like Shakespeare
(Or Edgar Allan Poe, or Langston Hughes, or…)
I mention all this because Deller has built an entire career on making these sorts of connections between cultural moments and there is always a sense that whiteness or white Britishness is the underlying thing being probed here. I’ve always particularly enjoyed his work connecting Acid House to mining bands, having enjoyed both a good rave and once playing lead cornet in a brass band when I was the same age as these kids.
Even this existence would be probed by strange outside forces: I remember taking a lesson from my trumpet teacher in his garage out towards Howden in East Yorkshire where he had a hoard of jazz memorabilia and a collection of battered VHS tapes that were on the verge of technological redundancy. He put one on of a live performance by Rahsaan Roland Kirk which felt like watching Top of the Pops beamed in from another dimension but every time you saw him outside the comfort of his own studio it’d be playing standards at the school BBQ.
This is to say there is a strange frequency to these encounters. They’re alien and mind-blowing but happened so often its strange now to remember I once thought they were so disparate. You feel enclosed in your own immediate community at that age but things only appear that way because the State has done it damndest to compartmentalise forms of expression along economic, racial and geographic lines. Some people never escape them.
This is reflected in the documentary. It’s interesting that, beyond the music, many of the Asian students on screen seem more curious about the miners’ strike and its relationship to a music they might be more familiar with through their friends and relatives. If I’m talking about my own experiences here, it’s because I had never thought before about the extent to which these perspectives mirror each other, precisely in the sense that they gaze back at each other over an apparent line of state-sanctioned difference.
They talk about the miners’ strike in the same way I’ve heard kids talk about the Troubles in Northern Ireland: everyone knows it was significant but today no one can make sense of the arguments for or against. Deller does it for them and all in the context of the rave scene as this underground web that connects London to Glasgow to Birmingham to Stoke-on-Trent to some unnamed field in Wales; how the scene spread outwards from the neighbourhoods these kids know today and into the outsideness of the Home Counties, tapping into a broader and more material sense of disenfranchisement felt nationwide.
When Deller begins to talk about this relationship to the countryside and to the historic libidinality of rural areas — again, in line with Wright’s Arcadia and Mark Fisher’s excellent essay “Baroque Sunbursts” — he discusses with one student this two-way alterity of how, today, the countryside is an alien place to inner city youth and, likewise, inner city youth are alien to rural areas. Deller’s aim, it seems, is to bridge this gap — and others — for a new generation.
Watching “Everybody in the Place”, where Deller is getting teenagers to read quotations from Karl Marx, Derrick May and Juan Atkins, list famous clubs from around the country, and letting them play with synths and samplers, regrounds these discrepancies in precisely the place they should be and indeed are explored, albeit indirectly. Teaching a classroom full of kids about rave culture feels, at first, like a radical gesture but quickly the novelty wears off and we see a group of kids beginning to understand the relevance of an underground scene to their more standardised education. It’s his way of saying, here’s how what they teach you in school connects to what they don’t.
In this sense, there is an unspoken affinity between these arguably by-gone cultures and the cultures these kids are no doubt immersed in when they go home at night. The anger and virality of drill music, so often in the news like rave was, the latest teenage moral panic on London’s streets, starts to appear like an explicitly 21st century form of stunted libidinal expression, caught in the bottleneck of inner city pressure.
This is arguably why rave culture did so well for itself. It was a culture that had a geographic outside to escape into, and Deller is not the first to claim that a reconnection with such Outsides is necessary if we’re to tap into these potentials again.
The importance of this for our sense of national and international identity is huge, and the key to this documentary’s approach, I think, is that it sidesteps the heady melting-pot euphoria of most rave documentaries. Deller, at one point, asks who in the class identifies as British and is met by complete silence. And so he goes on to challenge the unruliness of identity that has always haunted these lands — the folk traditions that might now be fatally associated with whiteness in their minds but which were just as antagonistic to the English state at large as rave and the subcultures of today.
Because of this approach, Deller succeeds in not fetishising the importance of a trans-Atlantic Blackness to cultural trends. He sidesteps the sort of wide-eyed wonder and hackneyed admiration that someone like me no doubt continues to fall into when talking about Black musics. It holds white and Black both up and says, “Look at the crazy shit all these people were doing and look how important it is to everything we love today.” Look how important Kraftwerk was to Detroit techno and look how important Detroit and its industries was to them. Look at how important Northern class politics is to 21st century inner city pressure… The difference is that the latter is generally framed negatively. All we hear about is how the white North has lost out to the racially diverse urban centres and London in particular. But London isn’t a happy place either and there’s a reciprocal relationship to be rebuilt here.
Deller’s tactic has long been to rebuild these relationships through the mapping of cultural rhizomes, and there are plenty of others we could still explore. After watching this documentary I’m left wondering: What’s the six degrees of separation between voguing and morris dancing? But the more important question is: what does the making of that kind of connection do to how we think about ourselves and how we encounter each other?
I’m reminded of the White Pube’s current essay on diversity and representation. They cite Riz Ahmed’s lovely speech to Parliament a few years back but then add an all important caveat:
The issue with us, as ~diverse~ publics, seeking representation as a singular end goal, is that it is fundamentally a liberal position. That is: it does not seek to overhaul, change, disrupt or dismantle. Rather to preserve; to move within the current structures that exist, that it recognises as broken, exploitative and oppressive, and expects to have a minority of that already excluded minority succeed within these busted frameworks. It does not look to change for all, only for a few. In forcing an excluded minority to funnel through the existing structures around us, this system ensures an assimilation into the cultural values that created the existing structures, and precludes those unwilling to buy into this assimilationist narrative from succeeding within it. In short; it believes in exceptionalism. The institution ensures its survival at all costs by absorbing the critique that hits it, bc it can point to a few success stories that have conformed to its requirements. This drive for representation within that system runs off of a politic of lack, and in that lack, it opens the door to neoliberal ideologies; of creating new markets to exploit and harvest for value. In our quest for representation and visibility through existing structures and channels, we will see ourselves consumed as a sellable commodity ourselves.
This is the resonant heart of Deller’s movie for me and likewise various politics explored on this blog. Dellers’ incomplete history of Britain is knowingly selective but it shows how cultural praxes of disruption are available to everybody in the place. The politics of Black musics and stereotypically white mining communities share a common — notably Marxist — grounding of seizing the means of production, whether that be national infrastructure or making tunes in your bedroom, each having the potential to influence people around the country and, indeed, the world, and explicitly without the exceptionalism required for your own continual state-sanctioned existence.
These “worlds” speak to each other more than we are encouraged to recognise and it demonstrates the innate flaws of this liberal position when talking about rave and mining in the same breath in a modern day classroom can look like a radical act. In reality, all Deller is doing is showing how two events that happened in spatiotemporal proximity to one another are related. It’s the sort of thing these GCSE students would be asked to write about in a History exam. The flaw of British education is we don’t do this for ourselves unless we’re talking about how we won the war.
Deller disrupts the “old” but nonetheless still contemporaneous order of things by reconstructing (through historicization) tandem lost potentials which remain buried in the future. I hope it’s these kids that go and dig it up.