In this exclusive extract from his new book, author Matt Anniss documents some of the key club nights, unlicensed events and musical trends in the north of England during the rave era.
Beer would go on to become one of the most successful club promoters and venue owners in the UK. So too would Tony Hannan, who joined forces with infamous DJ Brandon Block to launch Up Yer Ronson in 1992. In the years that followed, Back To Basics, Up Yer Ronson and another Leeds night, Hard Times, would help to kick-start the "superclub era" of British clubbing, with the city they lived in being celebrated across Europe for the strength of its club scene.
In contrast, those in Sheffield didn't aim for a similar level of success, even if Jive Turkey did become a destination club during its final years at the City Hall Ballroom in the early 1990s. They were far happier having a thriving underground scene with its own distinctive vibe.
"In Sheffield we celebrate the stoic and understated," Unabombers' Luke Cowdrey explains. "We didn't need the affirmation of Factory Records or media people in London. If you stuck your head above the parapet and shouted your mouth off people thought you were a bit of a dick."
Whereas the scenes in Nottingham, Manchester and Leeds were looser, baggier and more loved up in varying degrees, Sheffield's clubs reverberated to a different groove. "It was raw," Cowdrey says. "A basement, a red light and a feeling. Detroit records, Chicago records—rough, uncompromising, drum-machine driven house and techno. It was probably a lot more serious than what was going on elsewhere in many ways. Sheffield was very loyal to this sound and felt that the Balearic thing happening elsewhere was cheesy. It was pure energy. That was the sound and it became a unique thing in the same way that Detroit had a distinctive sound."
So distinctive was this sound, in fact, that Steel City dance floors went off to a completely different set of peak-time anthems. "At that time I was going over to Manchester a lot and I didn't realize at the time that a lot of the stuff played in Sheffield was very much just Sheffield stuff," Chris Duckenfield explained to Bill Brewster during an interview for Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. "Parrot and Winston would pick up on tracks and make them big where they weren't really big anywhere else, which fascinated me."
This distinctive Sheffield sound was particularly prevalent in the events that took place outside of regular club venues. There was a thriving warehouse party scene in the lower Don Valley, right in the heart of the city's once-mighty steelmaking district. "These parties were called Hush Hush," Duckenfield explained. "Parrot and Winston would play in these disused warehouses. Because of the environment they felt a little bit off the leash as DJs, so they'd go a little more wild [musically] than they would in the clubs."
Sheffield also boasted a number of "Acid Blues": reggae style all-night venues that kicked off when clubs shut their doors at 2 AM. The two key Acid Blues were CJ's in Broomhall and Donkey Man's in Pitsmoor. "They were dark, sweaty, hot and raw," remembers Kabal resident DJ Pipes. "You never went alone and you'd be looking over your shoulder a lot of the time. You had to keep your wits about you. CJ's had a fairly loose policy about who would DJ. If you turned up with your crate of records they'd let you do an hour or whatever."
Musically, these afterhours Acid Blues reflected the raw, stripped-back heaviness that marked out the developing Sheffield club sound. "As the story progressed, places ike CJ's and Donkey Man's had DJs who played that hyper-hardcore sound that me and Wini weren't really into," says Sweet Exorcist's Richard Barratt, then operating as DJ Parrot. "They had people like Asterix and Space and Easy D playing those sorts of records. Hardcore certainly wasn't non-existent in Sheffield."
Given their illicit, unlicensed nature and the money to be made from drug dealing, these Acid Blues often attracted some shady characters including members of rival gangs. This led to some pretty hairy moments. One night Barratt was DJing at Donkey Man's when an infamous local character pointed a gun at him.
"Somebody had been shot at CJ's with the same gun a couple of weeks before," he remembers. "I just started hearing these bangs, looked up from the decks and this psychopath was blasting plaster off the walls with a sawn-off shotgun. It was getting late—or early, depending on the way you look at it—and there weren't many people there so I thought I'd stop playing. Next thing I know he's by the decks. He said, 'Paz, play another record.' He opened up his coat and there was the sawn-off shotgun pointing at me. I didn't think he wanted to shoot me, but I was a bit worried about it accidentally going off because I knew it was loaded. So I said, 'Yes Kenny,' and put another record on!"
According to local folklore, two weeks later the local psychopath in question used the very same gun to shoot someone in the face outside another Acid Blues. "It was a proper manhunt," Barratt remembers. "It was on the front of the Sheffield Star every day for weeks. Eventually they caught him. The thing is, that argument wasn't about drugs or dealing—it was something trivial that got out of hand. You just couldn't reason with this guy."
If anything, Chapeltown in Leeds—the beating heart of the afterhours scene in that city at the time—had an even worse reputation for gang-related violence than Sheffield's Pitsmoor or Burngreave. In fact, so bad was its reputation in the late '80s and early '90s that students were advised not to venture there at all. For those who were interested in underground dance music, like Ralph Lawson, this was rather difficult. After all, by 1989 the Astoria on Roundhay Road was home to a number of the city's leading acid house events.
"It was crazy at that point because we'd had a write-up in I-D as one of the north's best club events," says Drew Hemment, a friend of Ralph Lawson who was quickly becoming one of Chapeltown's most prolific DJs. "We had big numbers and it was a big rave—the whole thing was just mental. I remember crazy things, like getting my records out of the car outside and 12 guys pulling knives on me. I had knives to my throat and my records disappeared. We had a warehouse party later that night, so I went down there totally distraught. When I got there I found that one of the local junkies who used to be at the back of the room during the Blues I DJ'd at had fought off four people and carried my records to the warehouse party. Stuff like that happened all the time."
Hemment was by then a recognizable figure in Chapeltown as resident DJ at Twilight, a Thursday, Fright and Saturday night Acid Blues that utilized numerous locations across the notorious inner-city suburb. Twilight was initially set-up by local soundsystem crew Jungle Warrior—the very same outfit who had previously been critical of Iration Steppas man Mark Millington's efforts to play house during his Ital Rockers events at the Hayfield Hotel—and DJ Mikey Luton. When Luton fell out with Jungle Warrior and set up a rival Acid Blues at the previously reggae-only Sonny's, Martin Williams (DJ Martin) and Drew Hemment (DJ Drew) took their place behind the decks. Williams lasted two or three nights before handing the reins to Hemment for good.
"While I was doing Twilight we went through dozens of houses," Hemment remembers. "There would be times when we would cruise around, find an empty house and break into it on a Friday afternoon. We could then set it up for the weekend. We also had a couple of long residencies in the same house. Every place we used was seedy as fuck."
One of these "long residencies" was at a place on Francis Street opposite the Phoenix club. "You'd go in to this house and the living room was stripped back to bare floorboards," Ralph Lawson remembers. "There were decks and a big, stacked soundsystem at one end. It was Jungle Warrior's reggae sound that was used in Twilight. The guys running it were dub guys who had cottoned on quite early that house music was becoming big. The sound was set up to play reggae music, which meant big bass cabinets and a sound EQ'd for bass-heavy music. What you were feeling when you were in there was bass."
Hemment played a mixture of Belgian new beat, acid tracks, Chicago house and what Lawson refers to as "orbital rave music"—breakbeat-driven hardcore tracks and piano-heavy house anthems that were big at the infamous illegal raves that took place in locations just off the M25.
"My background was hip-hop and I loved beats and basslines," Hemment admits. "To me, there were a lot of touch points between hip-hop and the breakbeat-heavy UK records of the period. I'd play right through the night and into the morning, sometimes until lunchtime. At that point the hookers would show up to take over the house during the day. We'd have nothing to do with them but it was like a change of shift."
A similar blend of bass-heavy house, techno and breakbeat hardcore was all the rage at Sonny's, where Mikey Luton, George 'E.A.S.E' Evelyn, Christian Cawood and Kevin 'Boy Wonder' Harper were regular DJs. "It became one of the key afterhours spots," Evelyn says. "I ended up playing at Sonny's for almost two years and it became the main lynchpin of the underground in Leeds. At the same time as I was doing that and playing Italian house, breakbeat hardcore, rave records and local stuff [such as Bleep tracks on Warp], the illegal raves were happening over the Pennines in Blackburn. To me, Blackburn was the epicentre of that illegal rave thing up north."
The increasing importance of the unlicensed, illicit rave scene did have an adverse effect on the numbers of dancers heading to the Acid Blues. If something was happening in Yorkshire or Lancashire, dancers were drawn to that rather than the local Blues.
"There came a point, maybe around the end of 1989, when many of my regulars weren't coming down on a Saturday night," Hemment admits. "They told me they were going to these raves in Blackburn. So one night I made a call to close Twilight so we could all drive over the Pennines to one of these raves. I rocked up to the party with a bag of records and said, 'I'm Leeds, are you going to let me on?' Amazingly, they did."
By his own admission, Hemment got "swept up" in the illegal rave circuit, becoming increasingly active on the scene. His initial involvement was as a DJ, but he quickly became embroiled in the organizational side as well. It was at a time when anti-rave hysteria in the tabloid press was reaching its peak and the Conservative government was instructing local police forces to squash the growing free party movement.
"It was wild for a period before the police cracked down hard," Hemment says. "The town of Blackburn went wild and the police couldn't control it or contain it. It was beyond the rule of law. Then the police cracked down massively and there were huge riots. There was one at Nelson where the police burst in and kicked the shit out of everyone."
The warehouse party at Nelson, to the north of Burnley, was the biggest one yet attempted by Tommy Smith and Tony Cleft. They'd initially started small by taking over a club in Blackburn in late 1988 and running an afterparty in an abandoned building. By the time they saw 10,000 people squeeze into the warehouse in Nelson on February 24th, 1990, they'd run scores of events around the area, with attendances growing by hundreds or thousands at each successive rave. Their parties had become so successful, in fact, that they'd become a target for gangs of organized criminals from Scotland, Liverpool and Manchester.
"It all went dark and a lot of gangster stuff started happening," Hemment sighs. "A lot of us involved in the Blackburn and West Yorkshire raves were idealistic—we felt like we were changing the world and caught in this very special, incredible moment. But behind the scenes, there were a lot of people making a lot of money."
The Nelson rave fell a few short weeks after the Lancashire Evening Telegraph had begun a campaign to rid the north-west of raves. When the night came, the police were ready, with over 200 officers in riot gear ready to descend on the location. "I was sitting on the roof taking in the beauty of it all when I spotted a blue wave coming in," Smith told Matthew Collin in Altered State. "When I looked closer it was a wave of shiny blue riot helmets. They waded into everyone."
With Greater Manchester Police determined to arrest and imprison those behind the raves, Smith and Croft headed over to their friend Drew Hemment's territory in West Yorkshire. In early July 1990, following the high-profile raid on a rave beneath a motorway bridge near Wakefield a few weeks earlier, Hemment made his move. "The rave was called B-Rave New World and it took place at this horse-riding place north of Leeds," he says. '"We got the crowd there but the police were waiting for us. When we arrived, we basically charged the police out of there. They took my decks, so I got a lift into town and picked up replacements. Once we brought them back and got the music going the crowd went mental!"
It was less than two weeks later when Smith put on his first big rave in West Yorkshire. It was called Love Decade and took place just outside of Gildersome, a picturesque village to the south-west of Leeds. "It was carnage," he says. "That's where the police really cracked down hard. There was fighting like you wouldn't believe and one of the biggest mass arrests in British legal history."
In total, the police arrested 836 ravers that day using powers introduced just weeks earlier by MP Graham Bright's infamous anti-rave bill, though only eight were ever charged with offences. Almost as many were injured in the melee. The incident became so infamous that it featured prominently in a feature in The Face written by local dance music journalist Vaughan Allen; initially, he'd just been commissioned to write about Yorkshire's vibrant club scene and the growing number of local producers who were championing the thrilling Bleep & Bass sound.
Back To Basics promoter Dave Beer is another with vivid memories of the events at Gildersome. "By the time we got to Gildersome we'd already had serious trouble at Nelson near Manchester," he says. "It was horrible because the police were dealing with us just like the miners in the Miners Strike. They were blatantly attacking all of the partygoers. Everyone was pilled up and loved-up and just wanted to dance. I remember seeing the police coming down the hill like Romans, banging their shields and coming down in groups, wading in with truncheons and just hitting everyone. It was absolutely crazy but nobody was moving. People were just going, 'Fuck it—we're not moving. We've got nowhere to go. What are you going to do about it?' The police had other ideas."
In hindsight, the response of the authorities to raves was extremely heavy-handed, particularly considering that most who've ingested MDMA are less likely to cause trouble than those who've been sniffing cocaine or heavily drinking. In the years that followed, the government's response to raves would only get harsher, though it was still pretty heavy in 1989 and 1990. For those involved, a police raid on a party could be a frightening experience.
George Evelyn remembers one particular rave in Blackburn where the police prepared for a raid by cutting off the power and blocking off the only exit—a small doorway at one side of the building. Pandemonium followed. "The first thing I remember is the weight hitting my chest as the crowd surged forwards," Evelyn says. "Someone climbed up into the rafters and somehow managed to get the metal shutters of this warehouse up. As we all ran out I remember thinking, 'Just don't fall,' because it wasn't that long after the Hillsborough disaster. As we ran out, the police were trying to stop people with their shields. We managed to burst through and run up this hill. It was scary, man. The police were so ready for this rave—they came in big numbers to crack heads. It just shows that the government aren't about understanding things—they're just about the force of the law and that can be dangerous."
Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music by Matt Anniss is out now on Velocity Press.