Rashers Tierney chats to Piers Sanderson. He’s the director of a documentary about the early 1990’s Blackburn rave scene that saw a generation find wholly new uses for warehouses in the hard hit North of England.
The presence of Thatcherism hangs heavy in your trailer for your doc. Tell me what life up north was like under her Iron fist? Was rave a political response in a sense or more just frustrated youth looking to overcome alienation for a moment in time?
I think the effect of Thatcher’s policies were partly responsible for the rave scene in the north. Her refusal to continue to subsidise loss making British industry hit the northern manufacturing areas much harder than the south. This is turn created mass unemployment, a sense that there were very little opportunities – very little hope – a breakdown of community and of course lots of empty warehouses. The scene created a sense of community again and that filled a huge hole in people’s lives.
Thatcher also preached an enterprise culture and a huge amount of people became self employed components of the dance music culture. I think this was predominantly because it was impossible to hold down a proper job and party 5 nights a week, but also a reflection of the political culture of the time. We all found ways to survive that Thatcher would have be proud of. We became dj’s, promoters, flyer designers, flyer distributors, sound and light operators, drug dealers (perhaps Thatcher would not have been proud of the latter). I myself realised that a ‘rave’ fashion came about and there was no where to buy the clothes so i designed a range of t-shirts and sold those.
How did the warehouse scene come about? I’ve read that it partially kicked off in Manchester due to shit club closing times so people created alternatives.
To answer that you have to ask yourself why has there been no youth cult since acid house and i think one of the reasons is that there is less need to rebel against the system. Young people are relatively more comfortable now than they were 25 years ago. There is more money about, more things to do. We didn’t have social media or the internet connecting us, bringing an endless supply of distractions to entertain us. We were bored. We were out on the streets waiting for something to happen, not in our bedrooms staring at small screens. We had seen punk a generation before us. Our parents had had the 60’s. We were waiting for our thing. We were like a bomb waiting to go off. We just needed the right ingredients. When those ingredients arrived a huge swathe of us grabbed the opportunity and nothing would make us let go. Not Thatcher, the police, not our parents, our former peer group who didnt get it at first. We listened to no one because we knew moments in history like this rarely came around.
When I was growing up there was nothing to do in these small towns. Even Manchester which was our mecca was pretty run down and with little to do. Nobody lived in the center of the city in those days. At night the streets were desolate. I was watching some archive of ravers driving round the city center at the end of the 80’s and there is no one about.
For entertainment all that was on offer were pubs and terrible nightclubs with oppressive doormen. All except the Hacienda. That was one place that was a bit different but even that was half empty most of the time. Then came acid house and the Hacienda found its purpose. Within weeks the place was packed three nights a week. But at 2am when it finished we needed somewhere to go. You still wanted to dance. Some people tried putting on warehouse parties in Manchester but the Chief Constable at the time, James Anderton, who famously said that God spoke to him, he came down really hard on the parties and sent in the riot squad immediately. That is why the Blackburn parties took off. The neighbouring Lancashire police force did not want to risk anyone getting hurt so if the party had already started by the time they got there they let it run until enough people had left to safely close it down.
What was your own involvement in the scene? Can you tell me how you first caught the acid house bug yourself and where you would have sourced your records in those early days?
When I was growing up I loved music but somehow knew that I waiting for a genre I could call my own. I didn’t really get into the New Wave scene of my early teens. I was more in to my parents music collection. My mum’s was full of Motown, James Brown, stuff like that. My dad loved Pink Floyd. I was jealous that they had had a scene and I didn’t.
I started going to the Hacienda when I was 16. There were some older lads who drank in my local pub in South Manchester and they would drive up every week. They had a van and a couple of us younger ones would pile in the back. The music was mainly funk, soul and hip hop. Then one week they played Farley Jackmaster Funk – Love Can’t Turn around followed by Marshall Jefferson Move Your Body. I was like ‘what the fuck is this? I love it! The 4/4 beat went straight through my chest. I knew i had found my music.
The following week the acid house part of the night grew to half an hour and then soon it was an hour of Chicago House through the night. Then a few weeks later ecstasy arrived in the club and the rest is history.
I moved to Bangor, North Wales to go to college but i went back to the Hacienda every week. At college i met another English guy called Sasha and we bonded. I played him house music and took him to the Hacienda. He got it straight away and we decided to put on parties back in Bangor. We both dj’d and we were called Partners In Crime on our posters. But I was more outgoing than he was so I naturally drifted in front of the decks while he played the music. When college finished he moved to South Manchester with me and stuck at Dj’ing. He would spend all his money and more in Eastern Block record shop. I thought he was crazy to get into debt to buy vinyl, but he loved playing records. Of course eventually the scene took off and Dj’s started to make money, but at the time they got paid the same as bar staff. That is why I have so much respect for what he has achieved. It came from a pure love for the music. He would have stuck at dj’ing no matter what.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about how their was an ideology driving the Blackburn warehouse scene, describing it as “for the people, by the people”. Where did this feed in from? Were people involved in other subcultures like punk before rave came along?
I don’t think they were involved in Punk but you would have to ask Shack that. I think they were just young girls and lads who didn’t want to have to wear a dress or a shirt and tie to get into a nightclub, so they created something themselves for themselves. Unlike nightclubs they were not designed to sell alcohol or make money. They just created spaces so that they could party and like minded people could join them. They charged £3 originally, just to cover the expenses of the night and that eventually went to a fiver. They could have charged £20 and people would have paid it but it wasn’t about the money. I think that is one of the reasons that Blackburn was so special. There was a loose ideology behind it that ran counter to the profiteering promoters that were putting on the big organised raves around the country. In Blackburn they would find a warehouse, break in, build a big sound system, put in a few lights and a strobe and have a party. It was that simple.
There was no social media in them days. Tell our readers some of the ingenious methods people used to get word out?
There was a network of record and clothes shops that would have flyers advertising the raves. You could also buy your ticket there. On the ticket would be a number to call on the night of the party. There would also be a meeting place. There was no point in calling the number then having to drive for hours to get to the party as the police would be calling that number too and you had to get there before the police blocked the road. Now remember nobody had mobile phones back then so it would be a case of everyone waiting in service stations near phone boxes, all ready for the party. Car parks and car stereos were the pre party.
Then after calling the number at a certain time a recorded message would tell you where the party was and it was like the start of the Le Mans car race. Everyone would sprint to their cars and get to the party as fast as you could. You ignored one way streets, red lights, you used hard shoulders of motorways. Thousands of cars in convoys stretching for miles would weave their way through the countryside looking for the party. Once you were close you would stop and listen for the bass to make sure you were going in the right direction. If you were late and the police had already blocked the road you would just abandon you car and then leg it through fields, sometimes chased by police dogs, knowing that once you got through that warehouse door you were safe. It was such a buzz. Just getting to the party was half the fun.
The parties you guys were involved in were massive. Figures like 10,000 are thrown around. Epic really. How did you manage to sustain this for so long and how did the crackdown finally come about?
The Blackburn parties grew to be so big and lasted so long because of the determination and bravery of some very special people. There was a loose collective of people who all had a job to do. Joe and Jules were two guys who loved to build sound systems and devised an ingenious way to get the system in and out of the party each week, right under the noses of the police. Someone would hire the van that the sound system would come in. Others would be involved in leading the convoys.
They all played part in making it happen. Tony Kreft and a couple of really solid guys would go out all week looking for warehouses. After a few months they knew that that the parties were growing so quickly they had to keep finding bigger venues. They would scout the industrial estates of Lancashire, which were full of empty warehouses back then. Once the had identified a venue they would come back on the Saturday night, break in, see if there was power, if there was no power they would see if they could wire up a neighbouring warehouse, if that was not possible they would take it from a lamppost! Once everything was ready a few convoys would set off from Blackburn city centre. One would be a decoy and one would go to the venue. This was so the police didn’t know which one to follow. It was brilliantly organised but once raves became political the police had to up their game to stop them. One night they raided a party in Nelson in full riot gear. It caused a stampede of panic and its a miracle no one was hurt. The following weeks they closed off every road into the Blackburn on the Saturday night and any car with anyone who looked like a raver in was turned back. I am sure this was totally illegal but when the full apparatus of the state come against you there is nothing you can do. They then arrested all the organisers on made up charges and held them on remand in police stations. They refused bail and deliberately slowed down the court process. They knew once it got to court it would collapse but they just want to keep them from being able to put on parties. Tommy was held in a cell on remand for 11 months! They knew they couldn’t beat the parties legally so they resorted to this.
You had terrible trouble getting the rights to use some of the tunes you featured. This must have been massively frustrating – how did you handle this in the end?
Its all about money James. I can get the rights to use the music i just need to pay for it. Each track will cost £2000 to license and there are 15 tracks so we just (just!) need to raise £30k and the film can come out. There is an appeal for donations of the website and we have raised nearly £5k so far. It is frustrating because i cannot release the film until this is done but i don’t blame the record companies. They are a business that has suffered because we all dowload for free and don’t pay for music anymore. This is one way they know they can get some money back for their artists.
Where do you hope to see the film go? It’s really been a labour of love?
I just want to see it get to the public because i want as many people as possible to know about this time. Not just the people who were there back in the day but the people who missed it because they were too young or too old. I think that its an important part of our collective history and i am pleased that i have catalogued this for future generations.
I would have put it on the internet for free by this time if i hadn’t borrowed £20k to get it made. I have had no money for the 10 years i have put in to it and so yes it really has been a labour of love. All i want to do is clear the music and pay back the guy who had faith in me and get it out there. Its been a hard journey but i have not lost hope that it will happen.