Writer Jane Bussmann on the Crazy Days of Acid House

From the DJ History archives: The author and comedian tells tales of Shoom, rave fashions and the UK’s infamous “Second Summer of Love”

Comedy writer Jane Bussmann was a champion raver, a regular at Shoom, mates with the Farm and once thought that the dancefloor at Heaven was in fact a sailing ship, with Anton the Pirate its captain.

These days she’s an award-winning comedy writer whose credits include cult Chris Morris satire Brass Eye, Smack The Pony, The Fast Show and South Park. She also wrote one of the best (and certainly the funniest) books about rave, Once In A Lifetime: The Crazy Days Of Acid House And Afterwards.

DJ History

Back in 2010, DJ History’s Mark Treadwell caught up with Bussmann to discuss being wanted by Interpol, wearing dungarees to office meetings and how faxing the fire department doesn’t really work. Oh, and the small matter of the UK’s celebrated “Second Summer of Love” in 1988.

Marc Smith

How did you first get involved in the rave scene?

I was going out with a bloke who was much older than me and who was friends with a bunch of people from the Limelight club. They also had a brilliant drug dealer, and one night at dinner he put an E on the saucer of my coffee cup and it sort of went from there.

I also found out at the same time that a bunch of school friends from Muswell Hill had started going to Shoom, and then we just started going absolutely everywhere. I went from going to stuffy, shitty, post-’80s London clubs where you all wore black suits to full-on dungaree mayhem in about a week, and it was just brilliant!

Do you ever cringe about the clothes you used to wear?

No! I wear them today and at meetings to get more respect. My only regret actually is that I didn’t buy Kickers, because I thought I had slightly missed the boat fashion-wise as they had been going for a couple of months before I got into it. Whereas looking back, I just think, “You ponce, you could have had a big red pair of Kickers, but you were too much of a snob.” I love those. I am going to wear Kickers and dungarees to meetings tomorrow.

What are some of your favourite memories of the time?

The main thing I remember is just being in places you never would have normally got to. Like, you would end up on the roof of some tower block in Elephant and Castle with a bag of croissants and a bloke who mended televisions and you’d try and trace back how this had happened, and of course you’d taken so many drugs you would kind of nod out and then you come back round and you’d forgotten it all again. Then you’d go off and meet a whole load of new friends and that was just the vibe of it, constant new people and constant partying.

The Farm – Groovy Train (12" Mix)

Another time, the group the Farm, we destroyed their life in about a week in Ibiza. They arrived as sort of rock stars of the Balearic scene and by the end of it they were all sitting with us on the ground having a watermelon pip-spitting contest. Their driver had already gone, really angry at the behaviour, and left this indignant handwritten note about how this wasn’t what he joined the music industry for. I just thought, “You twat!”

There also is a story in my book that I put in anonymously, but was in fact mine. A bunch of people had come back to my flat and got so off their faces they tried to sniff a bottle of ether that I had been given by a doctor in France, because I’d banged my knee. He gave me ether to clean the wound, the way we’d get TCP, and these people started sniffing it.

They were already so off their face on ecstasy they managed to somehow set fire to my bathroom. I didn’t know this until they ran through my living room a couple of times filling up tea cups full of water and going down again to try and put out this enormous fire in my bathtub, and finally they said, “Jane, your fucking apartment’s on fire,” and I went down and they were trying to fax the fire brigade. This was in the days when you had fax phones and I wondered what they were trying to do. Faxing a picture of a fire? 12 firemen turned up and I had to make excuses about nail polish remover. That was pretty standard at the time.

Was it about the music for you as well?

All the lyrics were about “This is a new age,” “We can live as one,” etc… “We can get on and have a great time as people together,” and all the lyrics reflected that. Even the clothes were about getting along; they weren’t competitive. That to me was what was so incredibly poignant. I don’t really think there has been fashion with meaning since. Literally, I cannot think of one thing that has happened since in street fashion that has had meaning outside of what little hoodies are doing now. I listen to house music everyday still, when I am running around cleaning up whatever.

Niceness became a fashionable thing. I cannot think of another era, even the ’60s, that was about mind expansion and grooviness.

Do you think that it all actually changed anything?

Yes, absolutely, it certainly did. It basically made it incredibly hard for an antisocial government to carry on. It created a whole new questioning generation, but a generation that was questioning in a good way. It wasn’t sort of fake misery like the punks or the CBGB set, it was all about, “Can we make this thing better?”

I really do think that held. Look at the Labour government. You try telling me in the mid-’80s that we would have 13 years of ostensibly Labour government, I would have laughed! I’d had endless years of the Conservative government that was all about eroding any kind of social responsibility or social freedom. Just niceness, basically. Niceness became a fashionable thing. I cannot think of another era, even the ’60s, that was about mind expansion and grooviness. The idea that niceness would be cool, that’s fucking staggering!

Art of Noise – Moments in Love

Also, because at the time the police sort of thought that drugs were evil, they thought something would happen, like people with guns and dogs would attack them. When they were just up against vast numbers of people just having a good time it sort of fried their brains, because they didn’t have a legal or psychological response to it. What do you say about 4,000 people who are really happy? What is the appropriate police response?

I remember at Sunrise, they tried to stop the party, and I may have hallucinated this, but I think people started chanting the chorus to the record and the police just had to retreat, because there was so many of us. I thought that was brilliant, because it really was a victory of a new age, of having a good time over the silly Thatcherite, quasi-police state.

Then, of course, they got the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act, which was sponsored by [member of Parliament] Graham Bright and put through by a lobbyist who had taken a bung from some cab companies or something. It was being presented as a sort of social protection order, to protect us from the illegality of raves. Bollocks! It was to try and get Whitbread’s profits back up. They’d taken a ten grand knock because of rave. It’s because ecstasy was a completely anti-British pill. Everything you couldn’t do as a child because it was embarrassing or it was silly, everyone was just doing it around you.

Were there any people you especially remember?

I remember there would always be the tall black bloke who was always nice to everybody, or the short ginger bloke. Actually, I remember the Tibetan couple at Shoom. They would come out every week dressed as a pair of – as far as I know – Tibetan peasants. I think they ran a shop called Bond.

But again, it was just that thing, that to walk through London in the late ’80s dressed as a Tibetan peasant… That took fucking nerve. It just represented that you can actually pretty much do whatever you want and it’s harmless, and fuck all that Janet Street-Porter bullshit, Network 7, trying to look cool, you know, absolute fake shit! This was just something completely new and lovely.

My dad called me saying, “I just got off the phone with your art teacher, your car’s been stolen and you’re wanted by Interpol. Sort it out, bye!”

I’ve got a diary entry from about 1989 about [British DJ] Brandon Block, from when he was very young, and it contains the line, “I watched Brandon Block running up to families who were trying to have a picnic, trying to improve their vibe,” and I remember thinking, “I really hope he isn’t clinically mad. I really hope this is part of an overall plan, rather than just genuine clinical insanity.”

People like Anton the Pirate were important because they just showed how far you could go in your dedication to the thing. On the bow of the boat – and the boat being Heaven – he basically took it upon himself to be a pirate-in-charge of a boat.

Heaven was an enormous, vaguely boat-shaped club and it seemed to just work, and there is a point when people think, “Yeah, essentially we are on an 18th-century Spanish galleon that has been hijacked by Anton the Pirate. I wonder where we’ll end up.” And that was really funny.

What were your favourite clubs?

I really liked Heaven. I thought it was brilliant, just a dream! I remember it was built so you had to go through tunnels to get there. The best clubs should be like you are emerging into a fantasy land, and that’s what this was. Particularly the dancefloor, it was like an explosion of colour, and the DJ booth was set up so you felt you had entered this brilliant dance place.

The KLF – What Time Is Love? (Live at the Land of Oz at Heaven, 1989)

Even the VIP room was brilliant. Anyone could get in if you had a reasonable attitude, but also it was up a flight of stairs so it had that strange, magical vibe. Also, though in such a sweet way, it had this other goth club still going on at the same time. So every so often you would bump into this lost goth!

Also, Clink Street, because it was in a seedier area, and because it was in a jail it was fucking nuts! I liked the slightly sleazier places. It felt much more dangerous and much more underground, physically underground, because it was in these dungeons.

The atmosphere there was great, meeting dangerous people with rap sheets as long as my arm and having brilliant conversations with them. There was also something really good about the Lea Bridge Road, just because it was so huge and foul and you really would see some middle-age woman jacking in a fluorescent top as the sun came up.

How many summers did you spend in Ibiza?

Maybe four? It was always a case of gearing myself up for going. Actually, one time when I was there I ended up being wanted by Interpol or some other kind of international law enforcement agency. We’d rented the villa of my art teacher, who was basically this slightly sketchy character who had a house out there. Of course, millions of people turned up. We didn’t wreck it or damage it or anything, though. In fact, I repainted it for him. I’d taken some quite speedy pills and I had nothing else to do, so I whitewashed his house for him.

One of the boys I was staying with was a bit of a sod, but I let him put the deposit for his hired car on my credit card, and because he knew he’d kept the car for an extra couple of days he thought if he left the car outside the rental office with the keys in it he wouldn’t have to pay for the extra couple of days. What he didn’t get his brains round was that some scally took the car, because he’d left the keys in it, and proceeded to drive it round Ibiza for eight weeks and then run it off a bridge or cliff or something.

The first thing I knew about this was my dad calling me saying, “I just got off the phone with your art teacher, your car’s been stolen and you’re wanted by Interpol. Sort it out, bye!”

My credit card company had billed me for £800 that I couldn’t get back, and I ended up having to sue the tosser because he tried to say it was my fault for lending him the car. I think that was kind of the end of the acid house era, when that type of mentality crept in, but there was a great moment when the police had put some sort of warrant out for me because they were trying to follow this stolen car around the island.

Was there a moment when you thought, “This isn’t the same anymore?”

When people actually started taking coke, rather than just taking it because they had run out of E, and they thought coke was great. I just thought, “This isn’t gonna work, is it? Everyone’s just going to talk shit and be selfish and mean again.”

Ecstasy had been the catalyst! Clubbing is by nature snobby if you’re not committed to the idea of a bunch of people having fun together and it slips back into me being better than you. Then you lose what house was all about, which was community. If you start taking cocaine, it instantly removes community.

Did you used to go to all the big outdoor raves as well?

Yeah, some of them at first. I went to Biology and Sunrise. There is quite a funny chapter in the book where I described some of the raves as “evil raves.” When people started doing scary raves with DJs called Dr. Evil and techno records called, like, “Where’s Your Child,” with a distorted police announcement saying, “Do you know where your child is? He’s probably dead.”

4Hero – Mr Kirk’s Nightmare

It had definitely taken an unusual turn. Maybe it was sort of a satirical response to The Sun’s articles about evil ravers, but I suspect it wasn’t. It was just a bunch of blokes who thought that Whitesnake album covers were cool and producing these flyers the size of newspapers with pictures of women being raped by snakes on them, and somehow this was supposed to be a communal experience. No, I didn’t go to those.

Boy’s Own did an hilarious piece on evil raves. I think I reproduced some of it in the book. They were sort of interesting. I do hope that some of the money that people made was turned into property. I mean, there were bin liners of cash. I’d hate to think it all just disappeared. I’d like to think that there is some really tacky, pink Italian-style villa halfway up a hill in Ibiza that was paid for by drug money, happy drug money.

When did you decide to write the book?

It was when I realised my memory was going, and also because people started telling me stories and they were stories that I had heard many times, like snorting coke off a railway line or breaking into some mad old millionaire’s house and having an enormous bath all wearing top hats.

These stories, though, had started to lose their detail, so I thought it was time to write them all down. But I wasn’t really that high up in the rave scene, part of the “A Team,” as the original lot were called. I thought I didn’t really have the right. Then [the producer] Phil Perry said I ought to do it and I thought, “Fuck it, Phil Perry’s great and he says I can!”

I definitely wouldn’t be able to do what I do if it hadn’t been for the acid house scene, if I didn’t have that sense of optimism.

Then I just went around getting as many interviews as I could, and got people in Manchester to do the Manchester stuff, travelled to Belfast and all over, just collecting stories. That was all it was meant to be, a very accurate record of the time, because people were telling me their stories. It was meant to feel like you were there, that’s why everything’s in the first person. A couple of people said, “Couldn’t you have made me seem more intelligent?” Because I left it in their speech exactly how they talked, with all the “ums" and “errs” and “hhhhs.” But I really like that about it, like people are talking to you.

One thing, though: I definitely wouldn’t be able to do what I do if it hadn’t been for the acid house scene, if I didn’t have that sense of optimism, which I certainly didn’t have before. Because I grew up in London in the ’80s, and if I didn’t have that basic sense of people being worth it, I wouldn’t have traipsed around 18 fucking different rotten countries trying to make stuff work!

It really changed your outlook, then?

Completely! I work to the point of exhaustion at least two days a week, like six o’clock to midnight, and I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t think it was going to be worth it in the end. Fuck that shit, I’d be down the pub, relaxing or being drunk. It gave me the sense of… Not purpose, but just like, “It’s worth it. Whatever you’re trying to do is going to be worth it.” Bollocks if I had that before [acid house], and certainly in an industry like comedy, that is so depressing, it really helps to have an upper colon that is basically pebble-dashed with E.

Rave gave you a positive mental attitude?

Yeah, exactly. PMA. I think you could basically say that having some of my upper digestive tract pebble-dashed with E’s is probably the only thing that sustains me in ten-hour script meetings. I run on a residue of speckled blue drugs.

This interview was conducted in March 2010. © DJ History

By Mark Treadwell on January 24, 2018

On a different note