YouTube Made Me Hardcore

Are we too fixated on our past, content with rehashing old glories rather than trying to forge new ones? You might think so, given how many electronic music videos use repurposed classic rave-era footage these days. But it’s not quite that simple, says Angus Finlayson.

Pete Swanson - Grounds For Arrest

We’re given just a few seconds of warning before the kick drum enters, a diabolical chug seemingly designed to make mincemeat out of speaker cones. On screen, bodies thrash around in unfocussed frenzy, silhouetted in the darkness or strobed with dazzling light. What might have been enjoyment, with this apocalyptic soundtrack, reads as desperate, mad hedonism, the last party before the world caves in.

It’s difficult to think of a more appropriate visual accompaniment to Pete Swanson’s music than the video for “Grounds for Arrest.” The track, taken from his Punk Authority EP, out this month, is a refinement of the bracing noise-techno aesthetic he’s been developing since 2011’s Man With Potential. But paired with images of a warehouse rave in full swing Swanson’s sound takes on a new resonance. Dancefloor hysteria experienced from the inside. Brutal, confusing, glorious.

Brassica - Lydden Circuit

Swanson’s use of re-purposed rave footage is particularly striking, but he’s not the only musician to land on the idea in recent years. From the chart-bothering likes of Friendly Fires to underground concerns like Brassica and fan-made montages, the practice of pairing footage that references rave’s golden era with up-to-the-minute dance music is decidedly in vogue.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this period of dance music history exerts such a pull on our cultural consciousness. From the Second Summer of Love in 1988 through to the dizzying future-rush of mid-’90s jungle, this was an era when UK dance music was king, and its seeds are sown deep in modern music. Rave is, in a sense, British dance music culture’s founding myth – and like any such myth, it has proved a rich seam of inspiration for artists over the years.

Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore

The urtext of rave retrospection is Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey’s 1999 video piece Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. Leckey’s 15-minute collage of found footage plots a dreamlike course through the UK’s youth-dancing subcultures, from ’70s Northern Soul to the mid-’90s. The latter half focusses on rave’s heyday, and through a succession of surreal edits Leckey brilliantly captures the extreme joys and strangenesses of no-holds-barred raving. Leckey’s intention isn’t just to celebrate, though. “The world’s just... it’s just different. It changes every day,” he narrates at one point. Fiorucci is partly about the experience of successive generations of young people growing up and coming to terms with that change.

The theme resurfaces in 2006 in the hands of hauntological pioneer James Leyland Kirby, working under his V/Vm alias. The Death Of Rave – a vast project constituting some 200 tracks – re-imagines rave as ghoulish ambience, the echo of a lost era reverberating, tragically, in the present. “The rave legacy no longer lives on,” reads Kirby’s accompanying press material. “The corpse of rave bears no resemblance to those heady days in the late ’80s and early ’90s.” Kirby’s harsh diagnosis may be up for debate, but since 2006 numerous musical projects have appeared that variously attempt to respond to, revive or mourn rave, from Burial’s urban dirges to Zomby’s 2008 pastiche Where Were U in ’92?, Paul Woolford’s Special Request project to Lee Gamble’s recent Diversions 1994-1996. As if to complete the circle, the soundtrack to Fiorucci... was last year reissued on a Boomkat sublabel titled The Death of Rave.

These projects, whether intentionally or not, feed into an ongoing discussion about the decline of innovation in dance music, and our supposed inability, in the early 21st century, to recapture the energy found in the underground scenes of the late 20th. In his book Retromania, Simon Reynolds argues that as a culture we are fixated on our past, content with rehashing old glories rather than trying to forge new ones. For Reynolds and others, our tendency to look back is a symptom of a culture in crisis, and the art it produces is at best a reminder of our failure to move on, and at worst a pointless indulgence.

So is reliving our cultural past essentially a bad habit we ought to kick? The debate is a complex one, and to simply dismiss all retro-leaning cultural activity as illegitimate seems to miss the point. But it’s certainly true that in some cases this kind of art serves as fuel for a generation prone to chronic self-doubt. “I was born in the wrong era,” reads one comment under the video for Trevino’s “Derelict,” which repurposes footage from a ’92 Fabio & Grooverider party.

Trevino - Derelict

Confronted with the musical glories of past decades, we all too easily give in to the conviction that we are cultural latecomers – in other words, that the party’s already happened, and we’re just sifting through the piles of beer cans, hoping to find some half-worthwhile piece of memorabilia. In pairing old footage with their music, artists are perhaps hoping to catch a little of that reflected glory – a meagre ambition that suggests a depressing lack of confidence in their art.

Falling back on the golden age of rave can also indicate a cynical cashing in on nostalgia, as in Chase & Status’ 2010 single “Blind Faith,” where a night out circa 1989 is re-staged in its entirety. Or else it’s a vehicle for mean-spirited irony, as in Samoyed’s rave-referencing “Klondike Rush,” whose video focusses on a handful of hapless gurners for comic effect. There’s a hypocrisy at work in the latter video – maintaining a distance on the one hand while exploiting the values of this bygone era on the other – that, you could argue, is a blight of certain sectors of web-age culture.

And yet, musical approaches built around cultural excavation and recycling have proven time and again to produce brilliant, challenging music, from the hauntologists through to Oneohtrix Point Never, Madlib and Moodymann. And as Leckey showed, rave culture can be explored in a way that’s both aesthetically daring and remarkably poignant. Swanson’s “Grounds for Arrest” is clearly enriched by its visual accompaniment, as is Lee Gamble’s “M25 Echo.”


Even better is the video for a track from HOLOVR’s Opal Tapes release Lunar Lake, also out this month. Here dancers are rendered in super slow-mo, their forms warped and corroded through extreme processing. At these speeds their expressions seem rapt, as if deep in thought, but oddly desolate too – a neat representation of rave as a religious experience, but one with a dark side. It seems likely that rave culture will continue to be picked over, discussed, revived and reinterpreted for years to come. Whether this practice is worthwhile is surely down to the presence of those age-old qualities: thoughtfulness, skill and a healthy dose of originality.

By Angus Finlayson on March 22, 2013

On a different note