I Love Acid promoter Josh Doherty charts the peaks and troughs of acid’s popularity over the last three decades.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“When the acid hits your soul it makes you lose control of your body… Acid sounds so unique you just have to move your feet when you hear it…”
Acid did rear its head on a couple of occasions in the 90s – the famous screeching distortion of Josh Wink’s ‘Higher State of Consciousness’, and Fatboy Slim’s ‘Everybody Needs a 303’ at the height of the big beat scene, but overall acid was seen by many as something that had passed its sell-by date. With samplers and computers expanding production techniques at an astonishing rate and new genres being coined every five minutes, the TB-303 became just another footnote in the eternal march of music. There were a smattering of releases by the likes of Woody McBride and Armando still flying the flag for acid house, but they were very much in the minority.
Then, led in no small part by producers like Aphex Twin and Luke Vibert, an acid renaissance took place in the late 90s and early 2000s. Electronic music record labels such as Warp and Rephlex began releasing 303-heavy tracks of a much more experimental nature. Luke Vibert’s anthem ‘I Love Acid’ was a rallying call, and a new wave of producers – empowered by new, cheaper music software – began picking up TB-303s and fusing their unique sound with styles and genres from across the board: hip-hop, techno, braindance, and even ambient would all be combined (sometimes all in the same track). Aphex Twin famously included a war cry, “Come on you cunts, let’s have some Aphex Acid!” on his 2001 album Drukqs, and featured the TB-303 heavily on his Analord vinyl series (named after the song by Luke Vibert, itself an acid electro track).
By the late 2000s and beyond, acid was firmly back on the menu. In recent years labels like Crème Organization, L.I.E.S. and Killekill have championed output that harked back to the ethos of the early Chicago days, bringing acid up to date and to new ears. Clubland has embraced acid again, with the likes of DJ Pierre and A Guy Called Gerald returning to their roots and playing to huge crowds of acid lovers once more. DJs began to feel comfortable playing shows with tracks from the mid 80s sitting seamlessly alongside brand new releases, and a whole new generation began discovering the sound of the Roland TB-303.
Throughout the years, the 303 had become one of the most sought-after synthesisers in the world. Prices rocketed, driven by the huge demand. This demand led to many imitations finding their way onto the market. Digital emulators tried (and often failed) to recreate the sound. Hardware kit like the Future Retro 777 and Novation Bass Station had first appeared in the mid 90s but could not quite get it right.
By the late 2000s and beyond, acid was firmly back on the menu.
A large part of what made the TB-303 particularly unique was its sequencer and the timing of the patterns it created. “Even if you use the 303’s sequencer to play a different synth, it still sounds really 303-ish just from the note lengths and the way the slide works,” says DMX Krew’s Ed Upton. When the TB-303’s squelchy sound is combined with its internal sequencer, it creates something extremely hard to recreate. Mark Archer of Altern 8 agrees: “It’s not just the sound, but the way it was programmed.”
Roland themselves took notice of the demand for TB-303s in 1996 and released the MC-303, but it was hugely derided for having almost no similarities to the original, bar some digital samples and a familiar looking layout. More recently, the x0xb0x and Cyclone TT-303 appeared on the scene. Backwards engineered, they use the closest possible components to the original TB-303, while adding newer features like MIDI and the ability to save patterns without power or batteries. The x0xb0x was sold as a kit for self-assembly, meaning that without an expert hand at the wheel, many were built with problems. The slightly more expensive TT-303 is a more recent arrival, and even looks almost identical to the TB-303. For many, it’s the closest available alternative to the real thing without having to shell out vast sums of money for an original model.
Fast-forward to 2014, and Roland have once again taken notice of the huge demand for the TB-303 and released what they call its successor. Part of the AIRA range, based around their 1980s classics, the TB-3 is a digital synthesiser designed very much for live use. There have been rumblings of discontent from purists as the TB-3 lacks analogue circuitry and doesn’t have the full range of rotary controls needed for tweaking (it’s missing the hugely important individual envelope modulation and decay controls). However, its cheap price and brand heritage will no doubt see huge sales for Roland as the next generation take their new digital, shiny acid into the clubs and beyond. Thirty years on, the lure of acid remains as strong as ever.
Josh Doherty is half of Posthuman and promoter of London’s I Love Acid nights, which conclude with a final event at Corsica Studios on April 12th. Posthman have put together a mix charting the history of acid fom 1984 to 2014, which will broadcast on Ninja Tune’s Solid Steel Radio show on April 11th.