You Just Have To Move Your Feet: 30 Years Of Acid

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I Love Acid promoter Josh Doherty charts the peaks and troughs of acid’s popularity over the last three decades.

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“So many questions have been made about this new dance craze called acid… What people really want to know is how the story all goes about acid…” – Maurice, ‘This Is Acid (A New Dance Craze)’

Thirty years ago, the Roland Corporation ceased production of the TB-303 Bass Line. Designed for home musicians and garage bands with no bass player, it famously shipped without English instructions and the sequencer was notoriously difficult to program. A small, flimsy plastic rectangle adorned with silver buttons and dials, less than 10,000 units of the analogue synthesiser were made before it was deemed a failure by the powers that be and abandoned.

Although it was used occasionally on records in the early 80s – Heaven 17, Chris & Cosey and Charanjit Singh all have notable early 80s tracks featuring the TB-303 – it never quite became a desirable or famous synthesiser in its early days. However, one man’s mistake is another’s opportunity; the lack of success among the target audience meant the TB-303 was soon available cheaply, and it wasn’t long before they were picked up by young electronic musicians from the US midwest.

“Acid house was a breath of fresh air. No one cared what you looked like or danced like, and the music was brand new. Nothing had ever sounded like it before.”

From the mid 1980s, house and techno music began to take form, particularly in the cities of Chicago, Detroit and New York. Other Roland electronic instruments provided the backbone of these new dance music revolutions – specifically the TR-808 and TR-909. In 1985, a Chicago act named Phuture wrote a track featuring the TB-303, tweaking the controls of the unit continuously throughout the track, changing and twisting the sound. They called it ‘Acid Tracks’, but due to lack of funds it took them nearly two years to cut it to acetate. DJ Ron Hardy then famously played it four times in one night in 1987 at Chicago’s famous Music Box nightclub, clearing the floor on its first play, but having the crowd go wild by the fourth.

This track birthed the name ‘acid house’ and was among the first releases in an explosion of new music led by the TB-303. Producers like Armando and Frankie Knuckles brought vocals into play, and labels such as Trax started shifting vinyl by the truckload. In the UK, imports of US dance music were making their way over the Atlantic and into DJs’ record boxes, then out onto dancefloors. Chicago house became hugely popular in Manchester at clubs like the Haçienda, while the starker futurist vibes of Detroit techno were most likely to be found in the record shops and warehouses of London.

In Manchester, a group called 808 State started writing their own take on acid, influenced by the sounds coming out of America. Their debut album, Newbuild, released in 1988, was one of the first definitive British acid releases, and band member Gerald Simpson followed that up the same year with his solo anthem ‘Voodoo Ray’. Long before computer sequencers, and with samplers still being rare and expensive, UK acts like Ege Bam Yasi would play live PA shows with an array of Roland equipment all synchronised, practically bringing entire studios into the clubs and on stage.

“From what I remember of friends and the general vibe, 86/87 was all a very big rare groove, dressing-up-to-go-out kind of scene,” recalls Paul Wise, aka Placid. “Acid house was a breath of fresh air. No one cared what you looked like or danced like, and the music was brand new. Nothing had ever sounded like it before.”

This wave of acid house music arrived in the UK at the same time as a newly popular drug, ecstasy. Combined with a sense of discontent and detachment within youth culture fuelled by the economic downturn of the death throes of Thatcher’s Britain, it was a perfect storm. The rave scene was created – seen by many as the last of the great sonic rebellions.

Like rock and punk before it, the rave scene was completely entwined with anti-establishment movements and social groups. Huge numbers of youths followed photocopied directions to secret fields or warehouses where sound systems and acid house awaited. With this came a feeling of comradeship and the desire to dance all night (helped for many by ecstacy), but every silver lining has its dark cloud. The drugs and security of these events were soon capitalised on and controlled by gangsters. These large gatherings, and their criminal element, attracted the unwanted attention of the authorities and the media. The term ‘acid’ was seized upon by tabloids, mistakenly linked to LSD, and the whole genre tarred by the brush of ‘drug music’, with even Top of the Pops bowing to popular pressure and banning acid house music from their programme entirely.

“Scenes like this are usually the result of several different elements colliding with a generation at the right time, and something happens that maybe only lasts for a couple of years at best but leaves a lasting legacy,” says Ninja Tune’s Strictly Kev. “The media jumping on it with all their hysteria and misinformation about drugs maybe made it seem bigger than it was, but possibly spread it to places outside of the main cities.”

The rave scene outlived acid house in the UK, and acid was heard less and less by the early 90s – with hardcore breakbeats and harsher, heavier sounds taking firm hold, while house music moved into more commercial arenas. But the TB-303 was still alive and well. Acts from Amsterdam, Belgium, and east London were taking the TB-303 and distorting it, pushing the tempo faster in hard techno arenas. There was a lot less experimenting with the sound by this point, and with MDMA becoming rarer amphetamine-based pills were more prevalent on the dance floor, driving a need for speed.

“Some 90s acid techno is a bit horrendous when you listen back to it now… I blame the producers not using it imaginatively enough,” says Al Farrier of Manchester duo Shadow Dancer. “I think that’s the reason why even critically endorsed producers in 2014 are using it in more wonky, funky ways – because it’s those sort of acid records that have stood the test of time rather than the ‘fuckin’ avin’ it!’ ones.”

Trance, particularly Goa trance, also adopted the sound of acid, and developed it into deeper (albeit more monotonous) territory. Surprisingly, this scene continues strong still to this day, maintaining a solid underground following within the festival circuit, club events like Shoom and Whirl-y-gig and their modern descendents, and of course, groups of kids in fields with campfires and magic mushrooms. And probably someone juggling.

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  • Words: Josh Doherty
  • Date: 4th April 2014
  • Sean Wrote:

    >groups of kids in fields with campfires and magic mushrooms. And probably someone juggling.

    Love that line. I myself am bracing for a f**k ton of acid stuff now that the TB-3 has been released. Hopefully it will be tasteful and not just a bunch of kids picking it up for the first time and acting like “acid c**ts”

  • Edward Wrote:

    Good article, but dismissing Goa trance as ‘monotonous’ seems very odd given the extremely minimal nature of a lot of acid music. Goa tends to be heavily layered and structured with quite complex mixes. I wonder if he’s referring tot he fact that most Goa tracks opt for a rather dark/exotic sounding harmonic minor key.

    OK, I admit the jugglers don’t really help…

  • charnk Wrote:

    Adonis – Too Far Gone, was played. In my opinion maybe the best Chicago House song ever made. I have it on vinyl from its original pressings.