Rave ain’t nothin’ new. When the papers recently mourned the death of the ‘King of the Ravers’ they weren’t referring to Brandon Block or Derek Dahlarge, but the legendary Fifties jazz trumpeter Mick Mulligan. Mulligan, a fine trumpeter in the style of Eddie Condon, coined the phrase with his agent Jim Godbolt; its move into national consciousness no doubt hastened by the social documentarist George Melly, who was also the vocalist in Mulligan’s band.
The word, of course, has been around for centuries in its original definition (meaning ‘to become delirious or mad’), often attributed to Jamaica, although it was in use in Scottish and Northern English dialects as early as the 1300s. In the 1940s the phrase ‘rave-up’ – meaning party – was being used in England, with Mulligan and cohorts cementing the term soon after.
And now we have a new movement, dubbed Nu-Rave by indie pop group the Klaxons, as a joke. By the end of 2006 the joke had become a fully fledged movement, with clubs, bands, DJs, a magazine and, crucially, many club-goers at its core. Despite the Klaxons apparently distancing themselves from the term, Nu-rave is now a genuine presence in London, if nowhere else (in fact, in East London nowhere else).
Rave has been part of the pop culture lexicon for 50 years now, initially through the trad-jazz circuit in which Mulligan and co. plied their trade. “The word ‘rave’, meaning to live it up, was as far as I know a Mulligan-Godbolt invention,” wrote George Melly in Owning Up. “It took several forms. The verb as above, ‘a rave’ meaning a party where you raved, and ‘a raver’, i.e. one who raved as much as possible. An article once described Mick as ‘The King of the Ravers’. During a National Savings Drive in 1952, Mick and Jim derived a great deal of harmless amusement by ringing each other up every time they saw a new poster and reading out its message with the word ‘Rave’ substituted for the word ‘Save’ ‘help Britain through national raving’, ‘wanted 50,000,000 ravers,’ etc. Mick and I were the first people to organise all-night raves, and they were an enormous social success, but a financial loss.” Dancers at raves were called ‘Leapniks’ after the strange jumping style they employed – a sort of existential pogoing. Melly called it “anti-dancing”.
In February 1964, a pop magazine called Rave was launched – with the Beatles as cover stars – which lasted right the Sixties. Its title bore no relation to the George Melly description, covering chart music like Walker Brothers, The Who, The Beatles (although later editions suggested they’d received a drenching in lysergic acid at some stage). The Melody Maker ran a gossip column for several years called The Raver; the Yardbirds released an album called Having A Rave-Up, while the Roundhouse hosted an All Night Rave in 1966 featuring the Pink Floyd and Soft Machine. A ‘right little raver’, however – usually referring to a woman – often suggested promiscuity rather than partying, particularly from the mouths of the older generation. The word was immortalised by David Bowie when he sang, “It’s a crash course for the ravers, it’s a drive-in Saturday.”
Punk rock ushered in a hiatus for raving, at least among white youth in Britain, where it did not surface again until a burst of activity in the early Eighties club scene saw its return, this time permanently. For a period, a raver was someone who was clued up, who knew the score, although by the early 1990s it had somehow mutated into the opposite, often denoting a young, pilled-up clubber (probably in white gloves). The rhyming slang, ‘cheesy Quaver’ (a type of luminous savoury snack a little like a crisp), seemed to cement its meaning as something to be ridiculed, which they duly were.
Modern rave’s birth was during the M25 parties that began to spring up around the outskirts of London as well as the northern raves that spread all over Lancashire (in particular) and elsewhere. Inspired by what they saw in the trendy city clubs, promoters attempted to present the cool of Shoom or Jive Turkey or the Haçienda to a wider audience. This audience, younger and greener than its city counterparts, became known as ravers. Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll (whose band’s name derived from the informal name for the M25) dubbed himself and his mates “farmers on ecstasy”, which seemed to sum up this new strata of dance fans, most of whom had probably never listened to dance music before (not necessarily a bad thing).
What had initially been a loosening of dress codes, itself a reaction to the dour and po-faced designer-obsessed ’80s, was soon replaced by a rave ‘uniform’ of baggy jeans, loose-fitting T-shirts, hideous British Knight trainers, yellow workman’s vests, Beanie hats, white gloves, whistles and in extreme cases dust-masks; all accompanied by ecstasy, the raver’s medicine. Rave Situationists Altern-8, took this rave uniform and lifestyle to its logical extreme, producing a series of playful (and occasionally brilliant) tunes that were both celebratory and satirical, brazenly working the letter ‘E’ into titles wherever possible: E-Vapor-8, Brutal-8-E. They were not alone, other groups surfed on this commercial wave, the best among them being The Prodigy whose Charly launched a thousand novelty rave records, among them hits like Roobarb & Custard, Sesame’s Treet and A Trip To Trumpton. When Mixmag had Liam Howlett on the cover with a gun held to his head – ‘Did Charly Kill Rave?’ – Howlett was so incensed he didn’t speak to the magazine for years.
Although most of the music was derided at the time – sometimes rightly so – it did have a unique sound and in our current age of pop homogeneity the sound of coruscating beats and jarring piano chords at least sound vibrant and colourful. When the most exciting club music in Britain is made by over-intellectualising Germans and consumed with the aid of horse tranquilisers, there’s little wonder that some kids regard ’90s rave as some kind of golden age of pop. And since most of them were around eight to twelve years old at the time, it carries with it that powerful stench of childhood nostalgia.
Rave in its original context, and in its 1990s sense, was more than a casual set of half-codified ideas about music, fashion, lifestyle and so on: it was a way of life. Both in the 1950s and particularly during the hedonistic period of rave’s ’90s heyday, for those who participated, it had all the mores and rites of a religion, with the rave as the temple in which ravers gathered weekly to celebrate and give thanks of exultation.
But what is curious about the current Nu-Rave movement is just how little most of it owes to its forebears (stylistically and musically). The first most had heard of Nu-Rave was when the highly vaunted Klaxons, a Nottingham indie group, with an apparent affection for rave signifiers like whistles, 303s and drum machines hove into view in 2006. Major labels were falling over themselves to sign them. By the time their debut single arrived, Golden Skans, we found a superior piece of indie-pop without any trace of anything that might have been described as rave (or dance music, for that matter, although unlike most indie bands, the drummer can, at least, drum).
“We basically invented it as a joke,” confessed Klaxons guitarist Simon Taylor. “When we started the band we were like, ‘Let’s invent a genre and let’s become a big pop band’. We thought it was hilarious reading all these things like electroclash, all these genres that have been kind of picked out of the sky and invented and we just thought it would be quite funny to invent our own genre and become kings of this genre, which weirdly happened! It’s just really funny to us something which we’ve invented as this joke has become this kind of culture thing.”
Nu-Rave may well have started as a marketing jape, but there is now something real happening in East London. Gathered around clubs like Boombox, All You Can Eat and Antisocial, the music is more reminiscent of legendary Eighties trash palace Taboo than ragga rave-ups like SL2 or piano screamers like Jinny. And if the new music being produced is an indicator of where this scene is heading, then the Klaxon’s brazen cover of Grace’s Not Over Yet bears little resemblance to, say, Niyi’s vibrant dayglo grime (his Ur Mummy is a brilliant sex poem to a friends’ mother) or Yr Mum Ya Dad’s loutish electro beats and Eighties vocals. Trash Fashion, a sort of Towers of London with a Roland 303, with their indie-band line-up, are the nearest to the Klaxons, although in interviews it’s Spinal Tap on whom they appear to have modelled themselves.
Its fashions, curiously, owe far more to punk’s X-Ray Spex, particularly frontperson Poly Styrene, than anything offered up by acid house’s baggy informalism. In fact, it’s the New Romantics with whom these youth have most in common and, like those narcissists, Nu-Rave is genuinely polysexual (it’s no accident that veterans of the early Eighties, like Mark Moore, have supported them so fiercely; the parallels are extant). If acid house was propelled into national consciousness by bored suburban soulboys, then Nu-Rave is the revenge of the art student. It has all the hallmarks of being hatched in St. Martin’s rather than St. Albans and Camberwell rather than Camberley.
“It doesn’t matter how much anything costs,” claims the scene bible’s style director Namalee Bolle (who is also vocalist in the lamentable Namalee and the Namazonz), with naïve enthusiasm. “It could be anything; you could have found it in the bin. It doesn’t matter. It’s just about loads of stuff assembled. It’s not about nihilism, it’s about making everything grow and be better. The world’s quite horrible and we wanna make it better.”
Nu-Rave has, for now, made the world a little better. Just how much better will depend whether the clubs incubating the scene manage to spark the huge waves creativity that followed punk, New Romantic and acid house. If, two years hence, Nu-Rave produces its own Culture Club or Bodymap or The Face or Leigh Bowery or Depeche Mode or Rusty Egan then it will achieved that to which it obviously aspires. Till then, it’s all bells and whistles.