In the summer of 1989, amid the sweltering heat of one of the driest summers in the U.K. in three centuries, the countercultural spirit of electronic dance parties, or raves, spread across the nation. That year, then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher celebrated a decade in power as the head of a conservative regime based on privatization and deregulation. Elsewhere, struggles for freedom marked the histories of nations, from the Tiananmen Square protests in China to the Baltic Way created by a human chain of demonstrators across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In several months, the Berlin Wall would fall.
Fed up with an increasingly virulent and conservative government, British youth—clad in oversized T-shirts, wide-legged JNCO pants, and Doc Martens boots—escaped to underground clubs; decrepit, abandoned buildings; and wide-open fields of grass to dance until dawn. Though the term “rave” had been coined 30 years earlier in London to describe raunchy beatnik parties, rave culture truly emerged with the spread of the British acid house scene during what would eventually be called the “Second Summer of Love” in 1988 and 1989. British raves of that period took cues from Detroit techno, Chicago house, queer nightlife, and the hippie ethos of Ibiza, all of which were thriving.
Confronted with a world they had no control over, ravers saw the parties as a means of freedom and self-possession. “Young people were turning their backs on the rat race and throwing themselves into a hedonistic rush of new music and new drugs,” reported the BBC in its 2006 documentary The Summer of Rave, 1989.
Though the influence of raves and dance music today reaches as far as Justin Bieber to Hood By Air
, the thumping, repetitive beats of dance music once provoked derisive comments that linger in contemporary discussions around popular music. Dance music was seen as mimetic, mindless, and conformist. However, the history and impact of raves indicate otherwise: In the face of government crackdowns and discrimination, the progressive, utopian vision of the rave allowed diverse people of all races, genders, classes, and sexual orientation to commune in an increasingly fragmented world. Often tied to political and social movements worldwide, raves are more than just temporary escapes—they are places to be and become. Below, we feature several photographers who have captured the euphoric, liberal spirit of rave culture.