BY Tayyab Amin in Books , Opinion | 03 OCT 23

Underground Uprising: Dance Music's Role in Resisting British Legislation

In his new book, journalist Ed Gillett illustrates how the genre became intertwined with British conservative politics in a time of social division

BY Tayyab Amin in Books , Opinion | 03 OCT 23

Describing the UK Government’s reaction to the surge of unlicensed pirate radio stations in the early 1980s, journalist and filmmaker Ed Gillett tells of a schism among former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet: nativists on one side, fearful of the political consequences that voices for society’s most silenced might bring, and more business-minded Tories on the other, who believed licensing should be opened up to let supply meet this rising demand. The government would later announce a scheme to grant licences to a small number of community stations on the condition that, while their applications were under consideration, they would cease broadcasting – essentially sacrificing their audiences in a gamble to become legitimate. 266 stations applied for 20 spots, only to have the rug pulled out from under them when a government cabinet reshuffle mothballed the project.

Gillett relates this anecdote to introduce the iconic Kiss FM, which first started broadcasting in 1985, and whose initial success was attributed to scooping up listeners left wanting (half a million of them across London) while other pirates strove to go above board. This episode neatly encapsulates some of the key themes at play in Party Lines: Dance Music and the Making of Modern Britain (2023), with Gillett assessing the genre as a significant cultural and political force in Britain, from its 1970s origins right up to the COVID-19 era. There’s the undermining of marginalized people’s efforts to express themselves, coercive tactics silencing grassroots groups across the country in a time of deep political and social division, and the entrepreneurial seeds of neoliberalism planted in what would become part of the ‘creative industries’ sector under the future New Labour government. (That image of small organizations scurrying to pile their efforts into business cases and cultural justifications all for nought is a familiar sight for public funding-reliant music groups today.)

Ed Gillett, Party Lives book cover, 2023
Ed Gillett, Party Lines: Dance Music and the Making of Modern Britain, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Pan Macmillan

Pirate radio is only part of the story, the focus of one chapter in a book that traverses more than four decades of sound. Crucially, Party Lines acknowledges the knotty, non-linear roots of UK dance music. The idea that this culture originated with Paul Oakenfold et al. tripping on ecstasy in Ibiza has come under increased scrutiny of late and Gillett acknowledges how this origin story strips out ‘dance music’s associations with Black, queer or marginalized cultures, enabling a larger and more lucrative mainstream audience to claim it as their own’. To this end, the book’s early chapters explore the precursing Black British blues dances – in cities such as Bristol, London and Manchester – as well as free festivals in the more rural locales of Windsor and Stonehenge. However, in Gillett’s telling, dance is rooted in plenty more than its sociocultural influences: ‘Whatever the canonical histories say, the birth of UK dance music and the Second Summer of Love owe as much to the picket lines, policing tactics and moral panics of the earlier 1980s as they do to the global adventures of superstar DJs and the formative experiences of those first pills.’

Just as the racism preventing Britain’s Black residents from booking venues brought about living room blues, Manchester’s regressive crackdowns and Blackburn’s lack of club-ready spaces catalyzed Lancashire’s warehouse party scene. Gillett shows that the counterculture is sculpted by the state’s attempts to constrain it, even in ways we (or at least all of us except Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who envisioned how our ‘culture industry’ would function way back in the 1940s) might not expect: ‘In the shadow of the Criminal Justice Act, UK dance music took on a wholly different social and political identity: transitioning from an incubator of potential revolution to a highly regulated and lucrative cultural product.’

Stonehenge free festival 1984
Stonehenge Free Festival, 1984. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Following on from the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, New Labour would tap into big beat to assist their election campaign, Brighton would absorb the rave into a bankable part of its civic identity and Cream would work with Liverpool’s city council to sustain the superclub. All this laid the groundwork for the present-day ‘night-time economy’, a framework which Gillett observes is reductive: ‘If dance music is valued primarily for its economic rather than cultural impact, those who boast the biggest turnover end up getting the most help.’ As London’s small venues shut up shop, the capital embraces superclubs like Printworks, installed by property developers as a stop-gap solution in their mission to gentrify. The current prevalence of daytime festivals is also evident, funnelling money out of local economies and into multinationals, providing a lifeline to councils and making policing that much easier. In Gillett’s view, public authorities would always prefer one large-scale, weekend-long festival over ten small clubs opening every weekend.

In establishing Britain’s dance music roots across soundsystems and free parties, and in diligently reporting on how all these cultural nodes have been policed, Party Lines demonstrates Gillett’s nuanced understanding of music, culture, politics and legislation. One of the most notable conjectures in this field is Jeremy Deller’s BBC documentary Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984–1992 (2019), which directly juxtaposes protests and raves: Gillett contributed research to the documentary which would, in part, inspire the development of Party Lines.

Ed Gillett Robin Silas Christian portrait
Ed Gillett portrait, 2023. Courtesy: Pan Macmillan; photograph: Robin Silas Christian

In the 14th consecutive year of Conservative-led governments, it’s difficult to grasp why those two camps in Thatcher’s time were so divided over radio. After all, today’s DJs are compelled to professionalize in the same way those pirate stations sought to, so pervasive is the individualizing, enterprising politic stemming from that period. Artists are brands now, armed with tools of globalization and a ceaseless aspiration towards growth: the de facto metric for success. Thus, the counterculture of today is defined by its opposition to scale and careerism.

Gillett finds an example of this in activist Nick Sigsworth, interviewed towards the end of the book. Once renowned for his producing and DJing under the alias Klaus, he struggled to effect change throwing parties and, instead, turned to direct action as part of the Stansted 15, a group of activists who halted a chartered mass-deportation flight, and to projects such as his Tanum Sound System, which he offers for community use and to facilitate skill-sharing. His efforts are now oriented towards a certain smallness – ‘focusing on the people in the room’, as the author tells it. Having astutely chronicled British dance music’s propensity to adapt and survive, Party Lines closes with an optimistic assurance: Sigsworth is far from the only one.

Main image: Stonehenge Free Festival, 1984. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Tayyab Amin is a writer, event producer and DJ based in Leeds.