Boy's Own was the original village newspaper of the London acid house scene and would go on to to have a hand in some of the most successful dance music of the '90s. Stephen Titmus talks us through the history of one of dance music's most influential publications.
If you're too young to remember the acid house explosion of the late '80s firsthand, then there's a chance you may have never heard of Boy's Own fanzine; the very fact that you're reading RA right now, however, probably means that you owe a fair debt of gratitude to the lads who put it together.
A 40p homemade magazine published using only a typewriter, felt pens and Pritt Stick; Boy's Own became the lone, loud and often scathingly satirical voice of acid house. While the mainstream media and even supposedly cutting-edge fashion magazines struggled to get to grips with the enormous changes in Britain's youth culture that were being driven by house music and ecstasy, Boy's Own were telling it exactly how it was. Sure, the fanzine's articles may have been riddled with spelling errors, but they contained some of the most insightful and accurate accounts of the UK's early acid house scene—mainly due to the fact they were written by the very DJ's, promoters and clubbers who were shaping it.
Not only were the Boy's Own gang responsible for publishing the first article on Acid House, penned by none other than Paul Oakenfold, they also held the first documented outdoor acid rave in 1988. And through their offshoot record labels Boy's Own Recordings and later Junior Boy's Own, the founders of the fanzine would help discover the likes of Underworld, X-Press 2 and the Chemical Brothers and release some of the most endearing British house music of the '90s.
Fanzine culture had a long tradition in Britain before Boy's Own was first conceived in 1986. Punk fanzines like Sniffin' Glue produced some of the funniest and most authentic articles on the movement while football fanzines, with their accounts of terrace slang and the developing casual subculture, became an important element in shaping the identity of Britain's national game in the early '80s. It was one particular fanzine though that caught the imagination of Terry Farley; then a soul, fashion and football obsessed gas-fitter from the London suburbs of Slough. The End was a Liverpool-based zine that unlike others blurred the lines between football, pop, booze, drugs, left-wing politics and fashion; dealing with its subject matter in a uniquely funny and subversive way. Edited by Peter Hooton, who would later gain fame as lead singer of archetypal '90s indie-dance band The Farm, The End essentially provided the blueprint for lifestyle magazines a decade before they first hit the shelves. It would also provide the impetus for Farley, along with his friends Steve Mayes, Andrew Weatherall and Cymon Eckel, to start their own London version of mag.
As Andrew Weatherall remembers, "Terry was enthralled with The End. His words were at the time were, 'If fuckin' scoucers can do it then I'm sure we can!' or some such pep talk. And we did! It was Pritt Sticks and cutting things out on my coffee table."
Early editions of Boy's Own concerned themselves with the detailed fashion penchants of London's football firms as well as London's developing club scene. It also had a surprisingly indie-related slant early on, largely thanks to the input of Weatherall who was doing almost all of the writing. (The first issue in 1986 even contained an interview with cult British guitar band The Daintees.) As Farley explains in his typically affable cockney banter, there was a simple explanation as to why Weatherall was doing so much of the writing. "My schooling and Steve Mayes' schooling was pretty non-existent. We got Andrew in because he was a lot cleverer than us, could spell and knew proper grammar. Little did we know he was a lazy fucker and would always deliver his copy about five weeks late!"
Even from these early issues, though, a definite editorial voice was already emerging. Knowingly piss-taking and not afraid to point out and attack what it saw was wrong with London's subcultural scenes—even at the expense of its own scenesters—Boy's Own was uniquely cheeky, full of London-centric slang and elitist from the word go. Pete Tong, who became part of the language of the magazine when they coined the phrase "It's all gone Pete Tong," puts it another way: "They just existed to be bitchy!"
Conspicuously, the earliest issues of Boy's Own had remarkably little house music coverage—mainly due to the fact the music failed to really take hold of the capital until 1988. Instead it covered the club scene of the time that was, pre-house, quite different from what revelers would recognise today. Britain was undergoing its third term of Conservative rule and the greed-is-good attitude of the Thatcherite era had transferred itself to many of London's better clubs; meaning that you were unlikely to get in unless you wearing at least one piece of high-end designer gear. The music too in this period was very different from the club template of nonstop 4/4 that's accepted today. DJ's like Gilles Peterson, Jazzie B and Norman Jay were the toast of London, mixing up lost funk and soul cuts with early hip-hop and go-go. Although there was some house—Noel and Maurice Watson's Delirium as well as a smattering of gay clubs had adopted the sound—there was nowhere that would program a whole night of the music. Resistance to this imported sound from Chicago and New York was marked; many viewed house negatively as simply another strain of gay disco. Many times dancers wouldn't really know what to do with the boom-chick of house tracks, and the funky London strut that worked so well to rare groove just seemed out of synch with house's locked grooves.
Surprisingly, Farley who along with DJ's like Carl Cox and Pete Tong cut his teeth as a DJ on London's soul/rare groove scene fails to see London's slow take to house as a negative thing. "When house music came along it was slightly ignored in London, not because people didn't like it, but because the rare groove scene was so good at the time. The reason it took off up north first (at clubs like Manchester's Hacienda) was because they didn't have such a strong scene as down here. There were some brilliant clubs in London. London didn't need house music."
However, as Farley points out, the Ibiza myth oversimplifies things. "House music was already being played in some gay clubs and there was a rare groove club in London called The Hug club where everyone took Ecstasy and sat on the floor. Danny didn't bring back house from Ibiza, he was just the first person to put it all together in a package. The whole acid house dance is Danny. Waving his record around while he's playing. Until then DJ's used to just put records on. House only worked when you went 'right, this is a house club.' You went there in your house clothes. You did the house dance because you couldn't do your old dance. You did a totally different drug. So you had all these people taking a new drug together, doing a new dance, in their new clothes with their new mates."
With a natural penchant for the cutting edge, Boy's Own were quick to incorporate house music into their fanzine when it began to take hold in London. Terry Farley remembers the impact of encountering Balearic ex-pats already bitten by the house bug in a London club for the first time, "When you first went to a club and saw about thirty people all going mad and doing e's—and I mean really fucking going mad, wearing all their hippy gear—you just thought I'll have some of that!"
Accordingly, the first article ever written on acid house appeared in Boy's Own's Spring '88 edition marking a shift from their previously rare groove-focused coverage. Entitled "Bermondsey goes Baleric" (Balearic spelled wrong, naturally), the article outlined the magic of clubs like Amnesia and Pacha: talking through the music, pioneering British holiday crowd, Euro-trash heavy clienteles and wonderfully mind-bending drugs on offer. In typical Boy's Own style, already obsessed with keeping the best of London's club scene to those in the know, the article signed off with, "These people are now back in the UK and looking for the right club atmosphere again. For those of you looking for this, there is a club in London with the atmosphere of Amnesia, but if you really want it it's down to you to find it." The club in question was, of course, Shoom.
Boy's Own quickly became the mouthpiece of the embryonic UK house scene. The fanzine's founders became heavily associated with London's first acid house clubs. Weatherall became a regular DJ at Shoom while Terry Farley played the VIP room and later the main room at Oakenfold's Future night at Heaven. However, even before the music had hit the mainstream Boy's Own was already criticizing the scene. Operating as agent provocateur Boy's Own was quick to tell the developing house scene where it was going wrong, coining the phrase "Better off dead than an Acid Ted."
As Weatherall, who wrote under the pseudonym of The Outsider, explains, "I was The Outsider because I was a bolshie little bastard! I always want to be in a gang then I don't want to be. I want the best of both worlds. So I thought I'd be able to write a snarky piece deconstructing or taking the piss out of everything you're about to read in the magazine."
It was around this time, as Shoom and Future began to find their feet, that Boy's Own held their first outdoor party that came complete with a bouncy castle next to the decks. "There'd never been anything like it before. A prototype rave," says Boy's Own Records co-founder and manager of Underworld Steve Hall. "We tried to get Danny Rampling to play, but he wouldn't do it because he didn't want to shut Shoom for the night. It was the first time I'd ever been to anything outdoors. I'd never been to Ibiza at that stage and I think it was the same for most people. First time you'd ever seen a big soundsystem in a country setting and a full fuckin' rave going on!"
Through these early parties Boy's Own's would have a hand in inspiring the outdoor rave scene that would thrust acid house into the national tabloids and evening news—a movement that the Boy's Own crew would often deride in their magazine. "We were never about rave, even though some of the records we put out touched upon that world. Terry and I had been clubbing since the '70s, since disco, and we were about clubbing and we weren't about Sunrise," says Steve Hall with a laugh.
The Boy's Own parties were relatively short-lived and by 1992 were pretty much finished up. With dance music exploding and gaining ever more negative media attention it became increasingly difficult to run parties that lived up to the exacting standards of the Boy's Own gang. Farley remembers one ill fated night that saw the door raided by West Ham's notorious football hooligans, and then broken up by police who also stole all the door money.
"We did a party by a lake with a huge Marquee surrounded by hay bales," describes Terry Farley. "As the sun came up about a good quarter of a mile we noticed this cow. Everyone was really off their heads. Suddenly someone said, 'Look that cow's dancing!' The cow just stayed on the hill for ages. Then the cow started moving and rhythmically dancing its legs, really freaking people out—and then it started coming down the hill! It was only when the cow got about 100 yards away that you realised the cow was made out of cloth and had Barry Mooncult inside."
Sporadic as were they were, the early Boy's Own parties coupled with Farley and Weatherall's developing DJing skills and the rising prominence of the fanzine on the club scene led to the beginning of Boy's Own Records. As Steve Hall explains, "The label came about because a close friend of ours, Paul McKee, was an A&R man at London Records. He used to take Boy's Own (fanzine) into work, and of course Terry and everyone had a relationship with Pete Tong. (Then also an A&R at London Records.) They'd DJ'd together for years. And, in those days, a label deal was nothing. It was more like, 'Come in, tell us what records you like and we'll take them off you and exploit them for you. And that was fantastic for us.'"
The Boy's Own / Junior Boy's Own best
Underworld - Born Slippy
Buoyed by the record's inclusion in Danny Boyle's hugely successful Trainspotting, the NUXX mix of "Born Slippy" remained at number 2 in the UK national charts for most of the summer of 1996. Still one of the most potent dance records ever, JBO's label manager Steve Hall readily admits that "working with Underworld is the thing I'm most proud of."
Bocca Juniors - Raise
A Terry Farley, Andrew Weatherall, Pete Heller and Hugo Nicolson co-production that succinctly sums up all that was the Boy's Own fanzine. A footballing in-joke was used for the group's name while a sample from British rock band Thrashing Doves (no doubt Weatherall's influence)provided the musical backbone. Tied together with breezy percussion-filled break beat, "Raise" was the Balearic vibe of 1990 encapsulated.
X-Press 2 - Muzik X Press
Terry Farley: "Diesel gave us a tape copy for the car. Driving up to Back 2 Basics in Leeds gave us plenty of time to decide that 1. it wasn't all that (on the way up) 2. it was the best UK house record ever made (on the way home)." A faithful rendition of New York's Wild Pitch sound, "Muzik X Press" became a favourite with not only the New York DJ's that inspired the record, but just about every house DJ on the planet.
Black Science Orchestra - Where Were You?
This Ashley Beedle produced number became a watershed moment for JBO. As Terry Farley explains, "That was the track that really kicked things off for us. Frankie Knuckles picked it up and he was playing it at The Sound Factory. It made it a New York anthem, which made all the DJ's in England who had been ignoring us take notice of us. New York broke Junior Boys Own more than London did."
The Dust Brothers - Song to the Siren
The Chemical Brothers, then The Dust Brothers, debut release on JBO. As Terry Farley understatedly puts it, "Andrew Weatherall came in and he had a little tape from some bloke he'd met in Manchester who turned out to be Ed Chemical and we said "oh we'll put that out."
It also seemed that both Farley and Weatherall were doing all of their best work for other labels, with Terry Farley and Pete Heller turning in seminal mixes for The Happy Mondays and Weatherall producing Primal Scream's Screamadelica. In 1993, with Boy's Own releases failing to shift big units, the label was wound down by London Records. This was also the time that Andrew Weatherall left the collective to pursue his own, less house-orientated direction. Weatherall had also become weary of how seriously some people were taking Boy's Own. "We had a mate who use to wear these old battered Kicker boots. We wrote, for a laugh, that there was a Kicker revival going on—next thing there was a Kicker revival," remembers Farley.
Pete Tong didn't really see Boy's Own continuing as a going concern without Weatherall. "Andy was like the dark genius. To use an analogy of Andy at the time, he kind of was to Boy's Own what Martin Hannett was to Joy Division. Without him you just thought, how is it going to work?" But it did work... Originally started as a vehicle for The Boy's Own family and friends, Junior Boys Own would go on to hugely overshadow the label it sprang from. Of course, it did Terry Farley and co. no harm that some of their close friends would turn out to be some of the most talented British house producers of their generation: X-Press 2, The Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Heller & Farley and Dave Lee all turning in some of the best work for the label. Junior Boys Own not only produced genuine hit records, most notably Underworld's "Born Slippy," but also released a steady stream of solid club music; helping to put British house producers on a level playing field with their American counterparts for the first time.
Poignantly, most of the records put out by JBO still stand up to close scrutiny. Just take the Junior Boy's Own remix of River Ocean's "Love & Happiness" which has officially cemented itself as an anthem at secretsundaze in recent years. This longevity probably has a lot to do with the A&R approach which was motivated by the instinctive tastes of its owners. "There weren't really any records I didn't like. That was both the up of the label and the failing of the label because if you want to make money you've got to put out records that loads of people want to buy. Not [the ones] that you want to play out in a club that holds 300," confesses Terry, finishing off with a line that few label owners even today could say hand on heart. "But then again, you look back and you can say I haven't got to apologise for anything!"
The complete collection of Boy's Own fanzines is available now to buy in the book The Complete Fanzines: Acid House Scrapes & Capers published by DJ History. An accompanying CD compilation of Junior Boy's Own's greatest hits is also available on Defected Records.