Eight From ’88: Celebrating 30 Years Of Acid House

ACID house has real mythology about it.

Much comes from London where the scene took hold most. This is the scene that has led to what we now understand as normal and what we see and hear and feel everywhere.

Techno, 4/4 dance music, dancing in what has been called a connected alienation (I read that somewhere but it’s perfect), the strawberry smoke and lights and DJ and also the drugs that are everywhere and have fused with it inexorably since. It’s gone in good and bad directions in the 30 years since 1988, our year zero here.

The first steps were in London in 1987, with music largely imported from Chicago – or so they say. It sure looks that way but I wasn’t there so I can’t talk about London but I can tell you about Melbourne as the spring of 1988 slid into the summer of ’89.

LISTEN: AN EXTENDED ACID HOUSE PLAYLIST ON SPOTIFY

I was 21 sliding into 22. I think it’s a pretty universal experience of the sound but also the emerging culture. In London and other spots it was magnified by being at the centre. But there were many outposts, and my first memory is of acid house being strange. It sounded very strange at first. It sounded mathematical.

I remember a day after a night before waking up in the afternoon and hearing mathematical patterns in my head and it was hard to understand, but great to dance to, the clockwork rhythms all sliding around in the mess and clarity of the floor, faces and light-beams poking through the strawberry smoke, connected and distant, all night. What a dream. The first proper ‘rave’ was still two years off.

The vibes were strong here, Sydney the same. Sydney was bigtime. But I was only in Melbourne that year. There were DJs already playing funk and rare groove, disco, ’80s dance, DMC edits and mixes, and industrial in clubs with reasonable sound systems. Warehouse parties too, especially in Sydney.

By ’86 and ’87 you would hear things like ‘Acid Trax’ by Phuture, still the most purist original acid track ever, bubbling under with the Roland TB 303 bass synth; ‘Jack Your Body’ by Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley; and/or ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ by Farley Jackmaster Funk, an equally purist original vocal house tune. All are black artists from Chicago.

Medallions were big, I remember that. You’d have a lot of things hanging around your neck.

You’d also hear ‘Pump Up The Volume’ by M/A/R/R/S; ‘Push It’ by Salt-N-Pepa; lots of Yazz; ‘White Lines’ by Grandmaster Flash; and, most importantly, ‘Promised Land’ by Joe Smooth, another from Chicago and the best track of the era for me, but released just before we jump into 1988.

These are the actual roots. Except for Kraftwerk and co, Juan Atkins and Detroit, Arthur Baker, New Order, ecstasy, things like that. But we can’t be here all day.

This list is based on memories and vibes rather than being complete, it’s the sensations and bodyworms I can feel when I listen to these again now. There’s pop hits here (and above) because that’s what it was like.

There weren’t lots of 12s or many clubs willing to host entire nights of them – although in Melbourne people like Steve Robbins and Davide Carbone were giving it a red-hot go – so the DJs were playing generalised dance music but dropping in bits and pieces of acid house.

Therefore the other things – the pop songs and tracks with beats and samples – became acid house too. People started getting into the fashions.

You would see OG ravers with water pistols, toy trucks and smiley t-shirts next to an ’80’s mob who looked like they were in Bros or The Go-Gos or, even if they were white and from Boronia, Public Enemy. ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ was a huge club tune in 1988 and crossed over into acid house.

My first memory is of acid house being strange. It sounded very strange at first. It sounded mathematical.

Medallions were big, I remember that. You’d have a lot of things hanging around your neck. The bars at the clubs started selling bottled Evian. The first drug raid happened in December of ’88, at Checkpoint Charlie, but the coppers got the night wrong.

There were no dance music billionaires. Nothing was yet put into words.

These first two records are beautifully connected. They are built of the same parts but are very, very separate. House music and techno still eats its young, editing and re-editing and lifting signals to make new tracks, familiar but different, close but far away. A song is not a song, it’s a track and everything is up for grabs. This is just one thing we learned.

‘Can You Party’

Royal House
(Idlers)

Todd Terry, a foundation DJ from New York. He was still releasing music as Royal Party until four years ago. This is one of those really old house tunes still played today without sounding thin or, I guess, ancient.

Terry built it from four main sources: an even older house tune by Marshall Jefferson of Chicago called ‘Move Your Body’, from 1986. That was the skeleton. He added pieces of The Jacksons live in 1981 (the “can you feel it” voice) plus some Malcolm X and snippets of a ’70s disco edit by Shep Pettibone of First Choice’s Philly-sound classic ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’. And that’s about it.

Eerie in its similarity to almost every underground dance record of the day, especially something like ‘This Is Acid’ by Maurice, of Chicago. Phenomenal.

‘I’ll House You’

Jungle Brothers
(Gee Street)

Hip-hop, rap and hip-house were a big part of acid house. Some producers catered it especially to fit. ‘Pump Up The Volume’, ‘Push It’, even something like ‘Buffalo Stance’ by Neneh Cherry are all acid house tunes.

Tyree Cooper’s Chicago banger ‘Turn Up The Bass’ was probably the monster of them all, but when Daisy Age hip-hop trio The Jungle Brothers had Todd Terry infiltrate their Straight Out The Jungle debut album, he came away with ‘I’ll House You’, based solely on his own ‘Can You Party’ with added hip-hop rhymes as a welcome, but also a warning about this new sound with all that it was bringing: “I’ll house you, you’re in my hut now.”

These next two are acid tunes, raw and unaffected, the pure thing. This is where it got most strange and interesting.

‘Stakker Humanoid’

Humanoid
(Westside)

Humanoid was Brian Dougan from Scotland. He later formed the Future Sound of London who made Papua New Guinea, a breakbeat approximation of the sound of MDMA. That was in 1991 with sampled vocals from Australian Lisa Gerrard.

He made ‘Stakker Humanoid’ as the soundtrack to video art piece but it ended up championed by the pop scene in the UK, specifically Pete Waterman who was writing songs for Kylie, Jason Donovan and Rick Astley at the time.

It’s a fierce track, pointing forward to techno and hardcore drum ‘n’ bass and it absolutely levelled clubs. Totally alien, a whole new language, like nothing heard ever before. Gavin Campbell at his club Razor would play it among Fred Wesley and the JBS’ ‘Blow Your Head’, ‘The Theme From Shaft’, and ‘Jibaro’ by Electra, a Balearic stomper produced by Paul Oakenfold.

But Stakker Humanoid stood apart, all naked, awkward, alien and unbelievable.

‘Voodoo Ray’

A Guy Called Gerald
(Rham!)

Crazy to listen to this now. It’s so slow – 119 bpm according to Gerald (Simpson), from Manchester.

It’s like the acid house lullaby, alongside ‘Break 4 Love’ by New York’s Raze. Gerald explained in an old fanzine interview that the beat fluctuates between precise bpms because he didn’t exactly know what he was doing, and that he used a Roland 303, 808, 606, SH 101 and an Akai sampler.

The chant, which he had sung for him and reversed, is witchcraft. The whole thing is witchcraft. He sampled a routine by British comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore – “In her sort of voodoo rage…” – but the sampler stopped working and it came out as “voodoo ray”.

It’s pretty much a breakdance track, showing acid house’s debt to electro and body popping and the sonics of tracks like ‘Planet Rock’ (Arthur Baker and Afrika Bambaata) and early Mantronix, whose own ‘King of The Beats’ was right there in among the acid house experience – the soulful, ghostly machines.

•••

These final four are the killer pop songs with acid house DNA. It’s surprising how pop the whole thing was, between the notes. It was a celebratory time; people were “born again”, according to Mark Moore of S’Express.

It was the first big musical revolution since punk, and just as the first punks made do with interstitial reggae records because they sounded rebellious the first acid housers made do with pop records that sounded lysergic or ecstatic, or both.

They’re all flat-out dance tracks with no introspection. Dance culture didn’t know how to be introspective yet. They are celebrations of all the people dancing and the scenes playing out among them. The DJ became the core but was usually invisible and never showy. Acid house turned the whole experience of music as entertainment upside down.

It was impossible to know then whether it was temporary, just a glitch, a break in the system, or something more. I think that was the most important part; the feeling of, “What is this? What are we doing?”

‘Theme From S’Express’

S’Express
(Rhythm King Records)

A massive commercial hit – number one in the UK and number one on the US dance charts. Just shy of the top 10 in Australia. Done on the cheap by rare groove DJ Mark Moore and producer/engineer Pasquel Gabriel. Gabriel also co-built Beat Dis (see below).

It was done so cheap apparently that they used the sound of a hairspray nozzle for a hi-hat, or maybe that’s the folklore, the myth. It’s another jigsaw of samples patched together but looked deliriously forward to Deee-lite’s ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ two years later.

The two have the same set of ideas at the centre. S’Express used a disco thing by Rose Royce whereas Deee-lite used Herbie Hancock and more disco by Vernon Burch.

Disco begat acid house. The patchwork feel of ‘Theme from S’Express’ added to the psychedelia; the tune, like many from the times, was episodic. The cheapness – in cost, not necessarily in sonics – is punk. There is a real DIY spirit here. Mainly though this tune – played relentlessly – was delirium, equally OK alongside Technotronic’s ‘Pump Up The Jam’ as ‘151’ by Armando.

‘Beat Dis’

Bomb The Bass
(Rhythm King Records)

Smiley culture. The yellow smiley face became the symbol of acid house. It was transformed, writes Jon Savage, from a ’70s hippy symbol of freedom to a “harbinger of wickedness”.

The sleeve for this 12′ had a yellow smiley bleeding from above the eye, and the tune is harder-edged hip-house with the sampledelic vibes of S’Express and the relentlessness of the Chicago acid people. It’s kinda like the Beastie Boys too, in a way – they were between Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique at the time.

It has scratching. The writer – Tim Simenon, of Brixton – straddled the London and Bristol scenes and was involved with The Wild Bunch before they became Massive Attack.

As he was writing Beat Dis, with more than 50 samples, he was also helping Neneh Cherry with ‘Buffalo Stance’. You’d hear the two records mixed, often, in and among Coldcut and the KLF.

This went number two in the UK. It’s a banger!

‘Know How’

Young MC
(Delicious Vinyl/4th & Broadway)

Ridiculous. Just stupid fun. But that breakbeat is ‘Apache’, the most sampled drum break of all time, found more especially later during jungle and drum ‘n’ bass when producers sped it up it to make it roll hard.

‘Know How’ is a hip-hop party track, not even hip-house. It was top 10 in the US and the even cheesier follow up, ‘Bust A Move’, was a big hit in Australia. ‘Apache’ goes back to the 1950s as a folky guitar song. It morphed into a surf tune and then was funked up in 1973 by The Incredible Bongo Band – only for one of the first DJs in the Bronx, Kool Herc, to use the drum break to keep his B-Boys and B-Girls dancing. Crazy history.

People are still using this loop. Probably every day someone somewhere messes with it. Didn’t know any of this at the time, it just sounded wild up really loud through the neon dark and the waves of thick pink smoke.

‘Big Fun’

Inner City
(KMS)

Detroit, and the biggest party anthem of the year. Inner City was/is Kevin Saunderson of the fabled Belleville Three; black kids from Detroit making music inspired by Kraftwerk, Italo-disco, and the dystopian vibe of their hometown.

In his new book on Melbourne dance culture called Techno Shuffle, Paul Fleckney draws parallels between Melbourne and Detroit in the late-’80s – both “former manufacturing and industrial cities in decline”.

Both with a strong music culture always looking for the next new thing. These Detroit guys – Saunderson, Derrick May and Juan Atkins – were mostly making very early techno.

May said, in an interview (by fax!) back in the year 2000: “The Belleville Three was very much real. I think without one of us there would not be another. Juan, Kevin, myself … There was also Eddie (Fowlkes), Blake (Baxter), Shake (Anthony Shakir), and a few others, all friends trying to push each other.”

He said the Chicago acid house producers were ripped off. “It was the great Chicago fiasco. Every record company in Europe attempted to take advantage of these guys, young black men that were taken advantage of. Indirectly we all visualised the future, we were involved with the club scene, DJing, the dance music that was coming from Europe, in particular Italy. We all frequented the same clubs. Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, Ken Collier in Detroit. That is the common ground. If it wasn’t for Juan Atkins and Rick Davies as Cybotron, I’ve said it thousands of times, this shit would never have happened.”

‘Big Fun’ came out of this milieu. It is the ultimate celebratory dance track moving well away from early techno into house and acid house. It’s like the ‘Dancing In The Street’ of 1988 and it’s everything Motown stood for too – empowerment, self-reliance, freedom and the party. The Party!

That was acid house.

LISTEN: AN EXTENDED ACID HOUSE PLAYLIST ON SPOTIFY

Something Else