Remembering Margaret Thatcher’s War on Acid House
First she came for the milk. Then she came for the mines. Then she ran out of things to come for, so she went after the soccer fans and acid house.
It might sound unlikely in an age where there are a pair of TV screens showing Sky Sports in every pub in the UK, but if you wanted to go toe-to-toe with the establishment at the tail end of the Thatcher years, the fast track to getting a beat down from the police was to watch soccer or listen to a series of repetitive records with the intention of dancing.
If you were looking for a measure of how the country has adjusted since Thatcher’s reign, you could do worse than consider how two constants of the modern mainstream—soccer and electronic music—were once painted as folk devils by a regime fast running out of new things to point its police horses at.
Granted, soccer fans had been under few illusions about where they stood in the perceived scheme of things since the 70s, and anyone with industrial or union connections would have been aware of Tory policy well before Thatcher came to power in ‘79. But for young people, the harshness of the establishment’s war on the twin evils of soccer and dance music came as something of a surprise.
Photo by Gavin Watson
It wasn’t till I fled a party in Dalston in 1989 that I felt it firsthand. The motivation for my hasty departure was the sudden entrance of a group of cops based at Stoke Newington Police Station who were notorious in the area for their thuggery. They’d come in, take the numbers off their uniforms, and break things up about as violently as they could without firearms, swinging at male and female ravers alike. Say what you like about violence—and this is what the state often forgets when it chooses to apply it—but it sure focuses the mind. If you were looking for a way to galvanise some of the last non-pissed off people in the country (white, middle-class men on euphoric drugs, in my case) then sending the Territorial Support Group onto the dance floor was an efficient way to go about it.
However, until the boys in blue actually turned up to do the truncheon dance, you’d be hard-pressed to find many ravers in attendance who genuinely cared about the government’s policies towards dance music (there’s little time to talk about politics when there’s sweating and jerking to get done). The photographer Gavin Watson—whose book Raving ‘89 documented acid-house raves in the late 80s and early 90s—agreed, telling me, “Politics became superfluous during rave. All of the bullshit that Thatcher was coming out with started to fall on deaf ears, because we were so wrapped up in the culture that we just didn’t have time to care about politics.”
Richard Kern’s Films Are Still Shocking as Hell
If you know VICE, you know Richard Kern. He’s been taking picture of young, supple women not wearing clothes for us (and a myriad of others, as well as for his own fine art) for years. Hell, he even has his own show with us. But what some of you whippersnappers may not know is that Richard wasn’t always making his current brand of hot naked girl art. Back in the day, Richard, along with buddies like Lydia Lunch, David Wojnarowicz, Lung Leg, Sonic Youth, and Henry Rollins, made some of the most bloody, sexually devious, and generally fucked up short films ever. Labeled the “Cinema of Transgression,” Richard and like-minded film makers shooked viewers to the core with their art. All of his films from this era were just remastered andreleased on Blu-ray. I recently came to work one morning and found a copy of the collection on my desk. Of course, I had to watch it. I then called up Richard and convinced him to come talk to me.
VICE: I was given a copy of the collection. I put it on the Blu-ray player at work and sat in the dark and watched all of it. There were some things that were hard to get through, to be honest, but it was definitely visceral and striking.
Richard Kern: And old, 40 years old.
What do you see when you watch the films today, now that the time has passed?
Pretty much the same as they were before, it hasn’t changed one bit. It’s like it was just yesterday, that’s the weird thing with time. It seems like yesterday. But I still look at it and wonder what people are seeing when they see it. There’s a couple of films I’ve got a really good idea of how the audience is going to react, but not in general. Like the very first one I made was Goodbye 42nd Street, that’s on there. The first time I showed it, I was really surprised people were into it. I just thought it was such a shitty Super-8 movie, but people responded well and that encouraged me. The first time it was at a screening, it wasn’t allowed to be screened. They immediately said, “You can’t show this.” That was also inspiring, to say “fuck you” to those kind people.
So you were part of Cinema of Transgression. Were you trying specifically to shock people and freak them out or was that an after-effect?
The group of films that immediately preceded it in the underground were all very boring. It seemed like one of the qualifications was to make it boring and slow and long. So our plan was to make it short, and make it non-boring, if possible. And that may not work now, but back then it did, and we just tried to break down any moral thing or taboo you could. One of my personal things was to fuck up relationships and fuck up people’s heads as much as possible. People were completely shocked by some of the stuff. But this was in the 80s, so I don’t know how they will react now.
Do you think it’s as shocking now as it was then?
There was this show in Berlin at the KW Institute of Contemporary Art in Berlin. They did this whole Cinema of Transgression month where they installed the films in this club-like atmosphere, like you would’ve seen back then, in different, weird rooms. People said it was really effective, and it was. I walked through and there was one film that I watched that a friend of mine made that I hadn’t seen since then and I couldn’t sit through the whole thing, it was just too fucking hardcore. So it’s definitely a negative attitude, everything was negative, everything was nihilist. It’s the whole belief, and it probably sounds stupid sitting here in this restaurant, but you have to destroy everything to start over again. That was the whole anarchist approach, which was pretty much the punk attitude. It was “fuck everything.” And I felt the only way you could really destroy and fuck with people was to fuck with their love life and their personal relationships. When you see something, it coarsens you. Every bad thing you see coarsens you. Think about video games, like playing Black-Ops—it fucks with your head. I don’t care what people say.
I was reading some of the reviews and one of the main critiques was that these people were shitty actors. Was that a secondary care for you?
It’s funny you just said that because I never thought about that. It wasn’t the same kind of approach, and if I was making one now, I still wouldn’t think about it. I never thought about that. But yeah, they are shitty actors. It’s all your state of mind when you’re looking at them, everybody in the movies is pretty real.
Yeah, the things they were doing were real.
Believe me, in Fingered, Marty Nation was exactly like that, no exaggeration. The guy who’s lifting weights, he was like that. Everybody was real. Lydia Lunch was like that. Lung Leg was like that. The story was based on Lydia and Marty’s travels when she was 16 and they would hitchhike and get picked up by somebody, and Marty would take his knife out and start stabbing and cutting up the upholstery in the car, looking at the guy. All those guys were really scary. The guy who’s lifting weights in it got killed about two years ago, somebody shot him finally.
BARBARIAN, VOID OF REFINEMENT: A COMPLETE HISTORY OF GOTH
1) A: of music, in a style of guitar-based rock with some similarities to heavy metal and punk and usually characterized by depressing or mournful lyrics.
B: in fashion, characterized by black clothes and heavy make-up, often creating a ghostly appearance.
2) A barbarian, void of refinement.
What the fuck is Goth? Are we talking Bauhaus or Marilyn Manson? Siouxsie and the Banshees? The kids who buy their Jack Skellington socks at Hot Topic? As Supreme Court Justice Stewart said when asked on what would constitute ‘hardcore pornography,’ “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand … But I know it when I see it.” That’s basically where Goth Rock fits; difficult to explain, but there’s no denying it when it’s in front of your face. For me it’s a genre of music that gets lost in the shuffle, often confused with the slow drone of post-punk, or the horror-movie themes of ‘Death Rock.’ But to sit and listen to ‘Goth Rock,’ there’s no denying it deserves a bit of the spotlight. And if any time of year is the right time of year, it’s now, on Halloween.
The origins are murky. Legendary music critic John Stickney coined the term ‘Gothic Rock’ in 1967 when describing a meeting he had with Jim Morrison in a dimly lit wine-cellar as “the perfect room to honor the Gothic rock of the Doors.” Make no mistake; the Doors were not a quintessential ‘Goth’ band, but much of Morrison’s poetic romanticism endured. Born from the political frustration of punk rock and the drug-fueled weirdness of post-punk, ‘Goth Rock’ is a jambalaya of minimalistic music, sparse arrangements, bass-driven sexiness, soaring keyboards, and pounding, droning drums. The vocals drive the song with dark lyrics, spinning tails of unrequited love, death, isolation, and loneliness. Though popular in America, the genre was firmly British, invoking images often associated with English poetry and literature; dark fields, fogged city streets, abandoned cemeteries.
‘Goth Rock’ makes no excuses and proudly carries the banner of its predecessors; combining the sexiness of Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop, the vocal delivery of Leonard Cohen, the drone-rock of the Velvet Underground, the eclectic movements of David Bowie, and the theatrics of Marc Bolan from T. Rex. Taking these elements then fusing them together with modern technology, ‘Goth’ has championed the use of modern effects in songwriting, incorporating digital synthesizers, keyboards, drums, and programming.
You may remember that in the 1980s kids huffed glue, played Space Invaders and skated to Mercyful Fate, all while trying to get laid by big-haired girls and/or long-haired guys. Or you may have just read about that stuff inLive… Suburbia!, the book about growing up fr33ky by Max G. Morton and VICE pal Anthony Pappalardo. Anyways, on Saturday there’s an exhibit that covers all this shit and more. It’s in Miami, where everyone pretty much still huffs glue and skateboards, so that’s convenient. If you’ve read the book of the same name, or readthe excerpt we published a few months ago, you’ll know that there’ll be hardcore photos and flyers and all sorts of cool 80s subculture crap everywhere. Drop by and check it out. There’ll be one in New York soon, too.
Live… Suburbia! opening reception
Saturday, May 13
7 to 11 PM
Runs through May
171 NW 23rd St., Miami