‘Forget about the myopic parochialism and performative nostalgia of Britpop, with which Blair and others are far more regularly and erroneously associated,’ he writes with timely precision, ‘the 1997 election was won by house music..’ While Steve Lamacq and others rewrite history, Gillett takes the era head on and offers a persuasive alternative view of not just ’90s, but a broad sweep of dance music history.
Lost in the glaze of flickering lights, dancing has often been delicately freighted between thoughtless hedonism and acts of resistance, but has probably than many other human activity been frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted. Emma Warren’s recent book, Dance Your Way Home, was a clarion call for the act of dance-for-all, from Cecil Sharp House to Chicago footworkers and, in many ways, Ed Gillett’s Party Lines feels like a handy companion to Emma’s, with the duo’s aligned take on the both the politics and physiology of dancing. As he comments in our interview, ‘There’s something really powerful about moving in rhythm with other people.’
Over the years, there have been numerous attacks on the very notion of dancing together, whether via law and order, populist governments (who let’s face it, don’t like young people gathering in any form at all) or religious leaders, who clearly (often erroneously) see dancing as perilously close to that other forbidden activity, sex. Taking this power as a starting point, Gillett digs deep into the psychology of why; especially where it rubs up against figures of authority, whether that’s the biggest mass arrest in British history at a rave in Yorkshire or raiding one of London’s key gay entertainment hubs, the Market Tavern in Vauxhall, where Lily Savage was in residence (‘Well, well, looks like we’ve got help with the washing up,’ she acidly commented as they turned up in rubber gloves).
Gillett looks at how the music industry has sucked up, co-opted and frequently de-fanged areas of the dancefloor and partying, where capitalism has extinguished radical action. The initial impetus for Party Lines came from early essays he wrote for the Quietus on party organisations like the privileged house quartet Housekeeping, and their jarring relationship between their night-time hobby and contradictory daytime work as property developers (with aristocratic leanings, natch). He’s similarly merciless with companies like Boiler Room and Broadwick Live (while also acknowledging their importance in the industry’s culture).
There’s an impressive amount of original research in the book, the product perhaps of Gillett’s former employment, firstly, at campaigning organisation Liberty and then later, working as chief archivist on Jeremy Dellar’s Everybody In The Place documentary (Party Lines stands on the shoulders of Dellar’s work, but also, especially, Matthew Collin’s Altered State.) It’s particularly fierce on matters of marginalisation and demonstrates not just how far we’ve come but how we have so much further to travel. It’s a book brimming with ideas and indignation, but it’s written with such verve and zip he carries you along, panting in its slipstream. Sometimes it seems low on solutions, but it’s an incredibly worthy addition to the canon, as well as a manual for irreverent, insurrectionary party-throwing.
What was the initial impetus to writing the book? What got you started?
I guess the three things that I’ve always been most interested in throughout my life have been music and culture, politics and activism and grassroots social movements and physical space. And so, finding a niche to write about all those things, the politics of urban space and the way that dance music connects into, felt like an area that I could explore.
I worked on a film called Everybody in the Place, which was directed by Jeremy Deller. I got brought in to do the archive research, so to bring a sort of journalist-y dance music fan angle to it and track down old footage from the New Dance Show in Detroit of a bunch of Detroit techno dancers going wild to Kraftwerk in 1989, or old camcorder rave footage and work out who owned it and get it all licensed. And through that, I ended up helping out to develop the storyline. Obviously the way the film’s structured is it’s sort of a presentation of archive material, so the archive became really important to structuring the film’s narrative.
I’d known the basic history of dance music, but I wouldn’t say that it was an area that I was particularly expert in. My interests were all really about how it functioned in the present. Working on that film made me realise that a lot of these threads connect all the way back through into the past. I’d read books like Energy Flash and Altered State and Class of ’88 by Wayne Anthony, so I was familiar with the history, but I hadn’t really joined the dots until I worked on that film: oh, okay, it’s all part of the same continuum.
Then I wrote a piece in 2020 which looked at the role of a quartet called Housekeeping and two of them are corporate property developers. One ended up building this luxury apartment block in Aldgate, which got criticised very heavily for installing an entirely separate entrance for the council tenants that they were obliged to include in the developments. At night, they moonlighted as DJs and ran their own club nights. So anyway, I wrote a piece about them and the way that wealth and class quietly distorts the function and form of dance music. And that was really widely read. I got an email from an agent saying, “Have you ever thought about writing a book?“ I’m not the most self-confident of people. I hadn’t necessarily assumed that my writing would ever graduate into something more substantial until someone, my agent Charlie, voiced that idea and suggested that he had confidence in it. And that was a bit of a light bulb moment for me, where suddenly all of these things had been percolating for the previous few years coalesced into an idea for a book.
I’m wondering how you square the history of dance music in this country, which has always been both quite political, in a community or cooperative sense, but it’s also always been very entrepreneurial?
It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? A lot of dance music throughout its history has not been overtly or deliberately political. Like, it’s not been about writing a manifesto and then starting a club as part of a coherent political ideology. But I interviewed Joey Wieczorek who ran Labyrinth, and he was describing being picked up by the police, and the first question he got asked was, “Is this political?“ And he’s like, “I just want to go and get off my face, and you think I’m Jeremy Corbyn. What’s going on?“ What’s interesting about dance music is that it exerts a political force without it necessarily being consciously political in any way. Like, assembling a group of people without state permission to make loads of noise and get off your face is inherently a political act. It’s an act of act of communion, it’s an act of ritual that lends itself very, very easily to more overt forms of politics, but doesn’t necessarily need that in order to exert a political pull.
Governments generally fear people gathering together in large numbers, and especially if they’re working class.
That’s one of the things I wanted to do with the book was make sure that they didn’t treat dance music as unique in that sense, right? The way that the government responds to dance music was not really rooted in some particular specific fear of dance music as opposed to a fear of growing trade unionism. The policing at Orgreave was the same as the policing at Castlemorton and all these other places. The concept that I go back to throughout the book is the enemy within, which referred specifically to militant unions and labour led councils, but actually was kind of a proxy for, I think, all of the degeneracy that Thatcher and her acolytes saw in Britain. Whether that’s ravers or travellers or homosexuals or people of colour or whoever, they’re all part of that same kind of othering.
So dance music is inherently political. It can’t not be political, because it always automatically represents some sort of threat to the status quo. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is chatting about Marx in the smoking area or using the club as a tool of revolution. You know, the free party scene in the early ’90s. By rejecting the profit motive, that was an inherent part of the political function of those parties, even though it was about nothing to do with any kind of political movement beyond simply just not charging.
Dance music getting co-opted for political campaigns by political parties or the Socialist Workers Party turning up during the anti Criminal Justice Act campaign, deadens it, actually. Dance music is at its most politically potent when it doesn’t need to rely on the traditional signifiers of party politics. It’s a politics of being and experiencing, and that’s still really powerful, but it often eludes or escapes traditional definitions or structures around political activity.
What do you think of the political stance of the Night Time Industries Association?
Obviously my interest and the bit that I find inspiring is very much the left wing side of it. The NTIA is very much an industry body for the moneymaking arm of dance music and nightlife, and that’s how they’ve secured political buy-in. The whole concept of the nighttime economy is a really interesting one, I feel, because it reflects a growing political engagement with dance music, from Sadiq Khan or Amy Lamé or Sacha Lord or whoever. But there’s sort of a trade-off there in that it’s all about what economic benefits is it generating? How can it be used as a tool of place-based branding to help secure investment? And that’s part of what dance music does and has always done. Whether that’s superclubs in the ’90s or clubs like Shoom becoming iconic.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Well, I think it’s a double-edged sword. You undoubtedly have seen things like when Fabric closed, and real political pressure was brought to bear on keeping it open. That’s undoubtedly a good thing for nightlife, that a big flagship club was not allowed to be closed by the police and Islington Council. At the same time, I think there’s a risk in allowing the safeguarding of nightlife and dance music culture to be entrusted to industry lobby groups and centrist Labour politicians and large entertainment conglomerates, that their interests won’t necessarily always represent the interests of everyone within the culture, and certainly people at the bottom of the food chain who potentially need protection.
I think in certain cases, they can pull in the same direction. There’s a bit in the book about Sacha Lord, and I think he’s a really, really good example of some of these conflicts. Like, he’s done a huge amount of good with the dance music industry in lots of ways, but where his interests conflict with those of other people’s, you can begin to see some of those tensions play out. During COVID, he was really instrumental in pushing the government to expand COVID relief funds to cover dance music. So initially, relief for venues during COVID only applied to venues where there was live music played, and he lobbied successfully for it to be expanded to clubs as well. He was then able to get a massive stack of cash from The Warehouse Project, which he owns, but smaller clubs were able to get access to those funds as well. So, you have interest at the top of the industry and grassroots interests being kind of symbiotic.
But if you look at something like exclusivity clauses, for example, I know a lot of smaller promoters in Manchester are really frustrated by bigger promoters in the city, using really restrictive exclusivity clauses to prevent acts that play at The Warehouse Project from playing anywhere in Manchester, often for like huge chunks of the year.
So, I asked Sacha about this, and his response was, “I came up running a stall selling leather jackets, and if someone opened a stall selling leather jackets directly across from me, I’d be really annoyed. Like, obviously go and sell them around the corner, but not right next to me.“ So he was essentially protecting his patch, which is perfectly legitimate for him to do as a businessman, but given that he’s also the political figure responsible for nightlife in Manchester, taking that kind of approach to it suggests that he’s looking at it through the lens of his perspective on the industry, rather than necessarily acknowledging some of the complexities that might be viewed very differently from people at the other end of the food chain.
But it’s not a black and white thing. Even the operators right at the top of the industry, the Broadwick Lives of the world, their cultural and financial benefits to dance music becoming more professionalised, more corporatised. More people are able to earn a living from it. The market certainly for live dance music events continues to grow. But there is a double-edged sword in that power and money and agency do seem to be concentrated in an increasingly small coterie of people rather than as it was maybe potentially in the ’90s being a network of loads of much smaller bedroom operators. That’s partly just a function of the way that the economy as a whole has changed in those 30 years, partly a function of dance music becoming more popular, so there being more room for big operators at the top who then cannibalise the market.
There are clearly nuanced, quite tricky questions about, okay, this is making loads of money and you’re generating this top tier of DJ superstars. but how’s that feeding back into the rest of the culture? We had some of those arguments in the ’90s around superclubs. The dance music industry in the UK seems to operate along largely the same principles as the superclubs did in the ’90s. Big global media brands working in dance music and then expanding, possibly even more corporatised now than it was in the ’90s, and they’re backed by venture capital and global hedge funds. James Barton, who ran Cream, now runs this global entertainment company that’s backed by this massive California hedge fund.
But at the same time, our rhetoric around what the music does hasn’t acknowledged that. People who go to a venue like Printworks may well think of it as kind of an underground club, because it plays ostensibly underground music. There’s been kind of a disconnect. In the ’90s, superclubs played big, brash, cheesy, poppy, trancey music, and underground clubs played weird industrial techno.
I think that was a function of the opening of Fabric, because Fabric was the first really good, big, credible club that actually booked weird DJs. They were booking really unusual DJs and filling it because people had respect and confidence in their programming.
I mention it briefly in the book, that period where Home opened in Leicester Square after Darren Hughes left split with James Barton and Cream. It crashed and burned, and it was very much the kind of ’90s superclub model. Big, glitzy, progressive house and trance, superstar DJ headliners. And Fabric opened at the same time and was much more leftfield, much more pared down, and Fabric took over the city. That feels like a paradigm shift. Fabric’s the last of the ’90s superclubs and also the first of that new idiom of clubs, like that I guess to a certain extent got picked up by Berghain in Berlin and then brought back to the UK in terms of that post-industrial monochrome techno vibe. But they function exactly like superclubs did. It’s just the music on offer is less obviously commercial.
I mean, I find it interesting that our rhetoric and our analysis has not kept pace with that. We think of superclubs as something that existed in the ’90s, and we don’t really always dig into the financial or political or social meaning of what these big clubs are now and how they interact with underground music. So, that was one of the things that I was interested in, that double-edged sword of the world of the nighttime economy and industry lobby groups and huge clubs with global profiles, and analysing not just what they sound like and what gets played at them, but how they function economically, how that knits into the rest of the history and what it might mean for the future as well.
Boiler Room comes up a lot in the book, too.
I wrote a piece about Red Bull Music Academy when it closed, highlighting both the space that it created for this beautiful culture that otherwise wouldn’t have existed, but then the risks inherent in outsourcing that to a profit-making entity that isn’t actually really rooted in the grassroots culture that it’s supporting. So when Red Bull pulled out, that whole thing just died a death. So I wrote this article about RBMA and I got a DM on Instagram from Blaise Bellville [Boiler Room founder] saying, “This is stuff that I’ve been thinking about with Boiler Room. Would you like to go for a coffee?“ So I went for a coffee with him, and my pitch to him was give Boiler Room away, turn it into a cooperative. Make it cooperatively and collectively owned by the DJs that you work with. Like, just enable people to sign up as members for like a fiver, and then they run the business, share the profits. And by that point, obviously Boiler Room had loads of venture capital invested in it, so it wasn’t possible to just pay off all those investors, but that was my slightly utopian pitch.
I’ve met Blaise a couple of times, and I don’t doubt that his interest in and love for dance music is entirely genuine. But organisations like Boiler Room exist within a capitalist structure and they operate along capitalist lines, and there’s always, I think, going to be a tension between that and the collective emancipatory power of dance music. Like, how do you properly account for the value generated for Boiler Room and its investors by a grassroots queer DJ playing one of their shows? I’m not sure that in any of the capitalist structures of dance music, that cultural and capital that’s generated is ever really distributed equally or fairly. I think Boiler Room are a particularly stark example of that, both because of Blaise’s background as an individual and its atomised existence. It only exists digitally. It doesn’t really have a place to call home, so it’s more immediately obvious when it’s kind of globbing onto some other scene somewhere else in the world, and I think because it has over the years made a number of like very visible missteps in how it’s approached that question. At the same time, it’s been hugely important for breaking new artists. You only have to look at the career of someone like Sherelle right? Her first big moment was on a Boiler Room stream.
Undoubtedly, that’s a good thing for UK dance music, that Boiler Room moment and everything that spun off from it that happened. So, I do focus on Boiler Room quite a lot in the book. I’m not trying to single them out as the only people operating in UK dance music in ethically conflicted or complicated way, but I do think they’re a really excellent case study of how a genuine love for music and a maybe slightly naive understanding of the way in which capital and capitalism can infect culture. It’s a really interesting case study of the way that those two forces can lead people astray.
What do you think it is that enables music, and specifically dance music, to break down religious, racial, sexual boundaries, and is it only ever doomed to be temporary?
That’s a really interesting one. I don’t know if you’ve read Emma Warren’s book, Dance Your Way Home. I think she and I share a certain amount of skepticism over the critical role of drug-taking in creating that sense of commonality. Obviously drugs are incredibly important in terms of creating the context in which people have that communal, collective experience. But I don’t think that it’s the key to unlocking everything. There’s a really good bit in Emma’s book where she says, “People who assume that the drugs are the key to understanding everything clearly haven’t experienced that feeling of dancing with people and the connectivity that it can bring up.“ I’m paraphrasing it, but I think there’s something psychologically, physiologically really, really powerful about moving in rhythm with other people, of sharing, for want of a less wooey, hippie term, a vibration of some kind. I think there’s something very difficult to define, but intuitive if you’ve ever experienced it, where just dancing together, moving to sound together, sharing in that kind of rhythmic experience aligns you with people in the same way that lying next to someone and your heartbeats aligning. There’s something in that that’s just very deep-rooted in how we function as animals.
I think there’s also a social element in terms of dance music being something that exists on the fringes of society in one way or another. Even if you’re going to a mainstream club, you’re generally going late at night or to an area with the city that you wouldn’t otherwise go to. There’s some sense of sharing an unusual social space that I think is – particularly if you’re going to, say, an illegal rave – you’re sharing in a conspiracy with people. You are stepping out of yourself and into another version of yourself along with loads of other people. That’s particularly true when you look at marginalised identities in that context, right? Stepping out of a world in which you are denigrated or dismissed or marginalised and into a space where your identity and experience is foregrounded and centered and valued and celebrated.
But also the grammar of performance in a club. You’re not just part of an audience. I think that dance music, so much of the energy of a dancefloor depends on the crowd rather than the DJ. I think that the performer/audience distinction is a more permeable barrier in dance music than in other forms of culture. The audience are part of the performance in a way that you don’t always get in other forms of culture. So I think that heightens dance music’s particular strength in forming that kind of communal identity.
In terms of whether it could be temporary, I think yes and no. The experience of the dancefloor is always temporary, and that’s kind of the beautiful thing about it, right? It is ephemeral. It is time-based in the same way that music is. I think trying to create a vision of dance music that is immovable and immutable also leeches out what’s vital and exciting about it. But that sort of communal world building, that sense of a space that is ours, that feeling can persist and it can act as a catalyst for world building that can be more permanent.
One of the groups of people I talk about in the book are the Exodus Collective in Luton, who started off throwing free parties in the late ’80s, closely affiliated to communal squats in the town. They ended up building a community centre in the early 2000s, became this entire self-sustaining community where the rave was one part of a much wider holistic system of social capacity building and communal bonds of solidarity. When there was rioting on a nearby estate, the riots only calmed down when Exodus started throwing a party on a Saturday night. On the weekends where Exodus threw their raves, crime levels in the local area dropped precipitously. But they were targeted quite aggressively by the police, to the extent that the local council, rather as you would expect in siding with the police, voted to investigate their own local police force, because they valued what Exodus were doing and saw something really dodgy in the police’s approach to them.
Or you look at a collective like Dialled In, which is a festival in London that focuses on British music of South Asian origin and heritage. When I interviewed them, they spoke about they’d had their own kind of hypie Boiler Room moments. They’d been press darlings for a year, but because of the way that hype cycles work, that had maybe started to fade a little bit, and their position was very much like, “We’re not interested in industry gatekeepers or success on those terms. What we’re interested in is using the music as an entry point to build a community”. So they would run workshops, and they’ve got a whole programme of educational stuff and skill sharing. Just that kind of stuff with a much broader emphasis on creating a whole ecosystem around a party rather than just viewing dance music as something that only goes to the boundaries of the dancefloor and no further. I think that’s where some really interesting stuff’s happening and where you can take that energy and vitality and optimism that occurs when everyone’s dancing together and begin transferring that to the real world, for want of a better word, in a way that feels really organic, exciting and really inspiring.
What’s your view on potential Arts Council funding of dance music?
So you get this kind of reification of rave as something that happened between 1987 and 1994 where everyone drove Vauxhall Astras to a club in a warehouse just outside the M25, because that’s the thing that is immediately identifiable that can be moulded into a shape that meets these expectations and criteria and can be absorbed into the structures that places like the Arts Council work within. I think the other thing is that dance music has always been kind of fun and exciting in a way that there is demand for it, that people will always want to go out and lose themselves a bit and go dancing in a way that there is not perhaps an enduring, permanently reinventing demand for ballet amongst young people.
But also, is that not just completely class bias, the amount of funding that ballet or opera get, when they are really minority interests in the UK?
Oh, absolutely. But that’s reflective of kind of class prejudice across society. It’s obviously very, very, lopsided, but also dance music has continued to be vital and exciting without a reliance on those sources of funding. And just as with the nighttime economy, I suspect that were that funding ever to be made more available, it would come with strings attached, which would leach out some of that vitality and urgency in the culture as well. But I do think that things are shifting slightly. I do think that things have slightly improved, but also, I’m not sure it’s a hugely profitable use of anyone’s time to be angry at society for being that it is. I think it’s important to acknowledge it and map those historical trends and threads, but then also to use that as motivation to go off and imagine other ways of doing things.
I’m not even completely convinced that Arts Council funding would necessarily be a good thing.
Yeah. But you look at Berlin, where they’ve identified clubbing as not just a tourism driver, but also a cultural good in itself. It would be wonderful if there was a mindset shift in the British state and the way that it operates. But also we can poke people and hope that they get better, but I’m not overly optimistic about the chances of that happening anytime soon, and I think it’s possibly better to use it as a cautionary tale and think about other ways to achieve the same goals than waiting for those gatekeepers to give dance music a cultural and economic legitimacy that it has survived for decades without.