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The Great British Freak-Out

From an underground sound to the front pages of the nation’s press, how acid house became a tabloid sensation

  • Sam Richards
  • 17 April 2013

From an underground sound to the front pages of the nation's press, how 80s acid house became a tabloid sensation.

Words: Sam Richards
Photos: News International
Published: Mixmag issue October 2007

"£12 TRIP TO AN EVIL NIGHT OF ECSTASY!" screamed The Mirror. "Ban Acid Cult That Killed Our Girl" demanded The Sun. "Scandal Of The Giant Acid Party" roared The Daily Mail. It was 1988, the second summer of love. But for Middle England – goaded by the lurid exaggerations and febrile fantasies of the red-tops – it became the autumn of fear.

It's little surprise that the nascent acid house scene caught the imagination of tabloid journalists as much as the fledging ravers who turned it from the specialist province of a few tiny London clubs into a national phenomenon in a matter of months. Acid house had everything that makes for a great scare story. Its alien music clawed open the generational divide, its spontaneous hippie-esque gatherings disobeyed social norms and it introduced a brand new drug, ecstasy, into the country, stoking fears of mass youth psychosis. You'd have to be a pretty crap tabloid journalist to miss that open goal.

On August 17th 1988, The Sun ran its first acid scaremongering story headlined: "Fiver For A Drug Trip To Heaven In Branson Club", centring on Paul Oakenfold's Spectrum at Heaven, then owned by cuddly entrepreneur Richard Branson. Typical of early dispatches from the acid frontline, it confused acid the music with acid the drug. "Junkies flaunt their craving by wearing T-shirts sold at the club bearing messages like 'Drop acid not bombs'," ran the hysterical report.

As the acid craze spread, The Sun even tried to cash in by selling its own smiley T-shirts through the Bizarre page for £5.50 a pop. They were soon forced to backtrack, as their newsdesk ploughed ahead with ecstasy scare stories. The Sun said the "devastating side effects" of the "deadly white pills… include hallucinations, heart attacks and attacks of paranoia" while The Mirror reckoned ecstasy had "been proven to permanently loosen control of sleeping and waking". E was certainly the love drug, but the tabloids rebranded it as the sex drug, one report imagining "outrageous sex romps taking place on a special stage in front of the dancefloor".

"Any time an authoritive body says 'Don't do this' the younger generation are going prick their ears up and see for themselves what it's all about," says Altern8's Mark Archer, no stranger to tabloid notoriety himself. Employing a media-savvy approach that most of the original rave acts had not, in 1992 Altern8 fooled The Sun into running an entirely fabricated story about the band handing out disco biscuits to clubbers to help 'Infiltrate 202' up the charts. "It's all part of the game – and you've got to play it," says Archer. "Give them a good story and they've got something to write about."

The death of 21-year-old Janet Mayes after taking two ecstasy tablets in a Hampton pub in October 1988 sent the media into overdrive. Forget the circumstances, forget any sensible investigation of MDMA's actual effects, forget even the fact that most papers were still confusing ecstasy with LSD and heroin: acid house was now public enemy number one.

Tony Colston-Hayter, by this time running the famous Sunrise parties, found himself outed as "Acid's Mr Big" by the tabloids who reported "thrill seeking kids as young as 15… lured into the lairs of the acid house barons". The fact that ecstasy didn't appear to be physically addictive didn't prevent The Mirror from warning of wide-eyed teens being "sucked into a tragic spiral of drugs". The Star even uncovered "Plans To Flood Britain With Killer Pills".

Tintin Chambers and Jeremy Taylor, the brains behind the Energy raves, were demonised by theSunday Mirror. "We were on the front page, labelled 'Evil Acid House Barons'," laughs Chambers. "The implication was that these people will kill your children. But to be honest I didn't really give a shit. Not even my parents were that concerned because they knew I wasn't the person that was being portrayed." Chambers smiles when he recalls the coverage of acid house in the tabloids. "There was one article [about Sunrise's Midsummer Night's Dream party] where the press wrote that people were biting the heads off pigeons! They were just trying to sell some papers by portraying acid house as the new menace facing society."

The Sun pulled a drastic u-turn from flogging acid T-shirts to pushing 'Say No To Drugs' badges with the smiley face changed to a frown. The Mirror persuaded The Bangles, occupying the number one slot in February 1989 with syrupy ballad 'Eternal Flame', to don 'No Acid' T-shirts.The Sun roped in celebrity losers like Matt Goss and Freddie Starr to condemn acid house. "You wouldn't step in front of a car, so why kill yourself with drugs!" ranted the hamster-eating comic, in an unintentionally hilarious tirade that foreshadowed Brass Eye's brilliant 'cake' episode. Top Of The Pops suddenly banned records with 'acid' in the title, even though they'd already aired D-Mob's harmless 'We Call It Acieed' video twice. Risibly, The Sunday People appointed gnarled, middle-aged hack Ted Hines as their 'acid house correspondent'.

To be fair to the police, they did try not to be swayed by tabloid hysteria. Chief Superintendent Derek Todd of the Met Police's drug squad appeared on TV doc World In Action to rubbish reports of an E epidemic and say, (perhaps a little naively) that, "The media has tended to suggest that every acid house party has drugs. That's nonsense." However, police raids on acid house parties were becoming increasingly common as they felt the pressure to be seen to be doing something.

Acid house was forced out of London and the M25 illegal rave scene was born, but it didn't take long for the tabloids to catch up. In June '89, journos from The Sun and The Daily Mail 'infiltrated' a Sunrise rave at White Waltham airstrip in Berkshire, dubbing it "Ecstasy Airport". The Sun's article was especially fantastical, describing "thousands of ecstasy wrappers littering the floor" – whatever ecstasy wrappers are.

Ultimately, things got nasty: promoters got more ruthless, criminal gangs moved in and the police cracked down, often indiscriminately. In early 1990, with the government about to rush the Bright Bill through, enforcing tougher penalties on the organisers of unlicensed parties, The Sun ran a valedictory editorial: "Ecstasy! The party's over". Yet looking back at some of the more lurid coverage, you're inclined to think the hacks were having as much fun as the ravers themselves. Their breathless headlines served to make acid house seem wildly exciting to a whole generation of ravers.

See the full feature, as it printed in October 2007, below:

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