‘It changed lives and opened minds’: a visual record of the birth of acid house

Late one Thursday in March 1988, Dave Swindells walked into a tiny, sweat-drenched club in central London and found himself present at the birth of a new cultural revolution.

The venue, behind Charing Cross station, was packed with revellers dancing energetically to a variant of house music that had recently emerged out of Chicago, typified by squelchy sound effects from a Roland TB-303 synthesiser. Spurning the dressier fashions of the 80s London club scene, many in the crowd were wearing baggy jeans and T-shirts or jumpers with loud, clashing patterns. There was a euphoria in the air that couldn’t be explained by musical appreciation alone. “I got that instant hit,” Swindells recalls. “This was really something big happening. I just felt the whole year was instantly transformed.”

The club was the Soundshaft and the night, helmed by an ambitious young DJ named Paul Oakenfold, was called Future. It had been going for a few months before Swindells, a photographer and the nightlife editor at Time Out magazine, paid a visit. “It’s one of the crazy-best new clubs to burst on to clubland so far this year,” he wrote in his hastily filed report. “It has the kind of wild, uninhibited style that you’d normally only associate with mixed-gay trendy nights – it might intimidate some people but the punters are unpretentious and friendly.”

What’s amazing is how many of those people are still out clubbing. So many friendship groups are still going strong

Dave Swindells

Swindells remained Time Out’s nightlife editor for another 21 years, but he never experienced anything quite as explosive and thrilling as the rise of acid house. Aged 26 at the time, he had grown up in a London emerging from recession, where the options for clubbing – in the no-holds-barred sense he witnessed at Future – were severely limited. The arrival of this new musical phenomenon, with its joyful, anything-goes ethos, was like a tornado ripping through the capital’s buttoned-up club landscape – and across the country.

Acid house wasn’t the only subgenre being played at Future or rival nights such as Shoom, in a basement exercise studio across the river in Southwark. Oakenfold and fellow DJs Danny Rampling, Johnny Walker and Nicky Holloway had holidayed in Ibiza the summer before and came back playing a heady mix of Balearic house, Detroit techno, pop and indie. But the nascent scene coalesced around acid house, and fuelled by a cocktail of beats, strobes and ecstasy tablets, its devotees helped spark the so-called “second summer of love”.

In his new photobook Acid House As It Happened, featuring many images never published before, Swindells gives a blow-by-blow account of that frenetic year. What’s striking is how fast the scene flared up in an era before social media, when clubs relied heavily on notices in listings magazines such as Time Out. In March, Oakenfold and Rampling were playing 250-capacity venues; by June, Holloway was packing out the Astoria at the launch of Trip, with 600 people queuing outside on the first night. “We all said, ‘Oh gosh, this is it. It’s going overground now,’” Swindells recalls.

A couple of months later, the tabloid backlash began, focusing on the widespread availability of drugs at acid house nights, though the Sun took the name at face value and assumed the drug of choice was LSD.

Swindells was careful to keep drug references out of his reports , but he doesn’t hold back in the book – we see the full gamut of gurning faces and loved-up hugs, and even someone waving a sign with “Drugs” written on it. “The unbounded enthusiasm was partly drug-induced,” Swindells says. “But it was incredibly liberating and exciting. Whether you like drugs or not, it changed lives and opened people’s minds to other possibilities in life. So many people in 1988 quit their jobs and said: ‘Right, I can see another way out of this.’”

It’s striking how diverse the crowds are in these photographs. “It felt like the barriers that had separated us were finally falling,” writes Sheryl Garratt in her introduction to the book. “Age, class, race, gender, sexuality… For a brief, heady time, we really were one nation under a groove.”

All of this is captured by Swindells in a series of kinetic images of dancers wreathed in fog or cut through with light trails. At various points in the book, with the help of his son Caspar, who designed it, he arranges the photos in grids inspired by David Hockney’s Polaroid series, “in an attempt to convey the 360° intensity of these clubs, the fact that there was no dancefloor. People danced everywhere, which was really quite radical.”

Nearly 35 years on, Swindells sounds almost as enthused as he was at the outset. “We were so lucky to be a part of it,” he says. “And what’s amazing is how many of those people are still going out clubbing. So many of the friendship groups from clubs like Shoom and Future are still going strong.”

The Future at the Soundshaft, March 1988

“Paul Oakenfold had been badgering me about his club night The Future. ‘We haven’t called it that for no reason,’ he said, ‘it really is the way forward.’ When I finally made it down, I thought, Oh wow, this is it! I got that instant hit. There was a kind of abandonment in the way people were behaving. I’d seen ecstasy in clubs before, but it came together with the music in a perfect storm of change. I shot it in black-and-white because it was quicker to turn around and I wanted to get it into the very next issue of Time Out.”

Shoom at The Fitness Centre, March 1988

“This photo was horribly overexposed and I never did anything with it at the time, but it’s amazing what you can achieve with Photoshop. The ‘Trance Dance’ banner, painted for the club night Shoom, is incredible – kind of Picasso meets Frankie Goes to Hollywood.”

Shoom at The Fitness Centre, March 1988

“This was still very early days in the acid house scene and Paul Oakenfold was going to everyone else’s clubs – here he is with the DJ Lisa Loud, promoter Ian St Paul and singer Gary Haisman, just after they turned on the lights at 5am. Shoom was Danny and Jenni Rampling’s club in a basement gym in Southwark – the name was slang for the euphoric rush of ecstasy, which blasted away inhibitions. It was small and sweaty and filled with dry ice and flashing lights.”

Three Day Doo at Rockley Sands Holiday Park, March 1988

“Nicky Holloway had the idea for a dance music weekender modelled on the soul Weekenders held at holiday camps. There certainly wasn’t 100% support for acid house here – the majority of the crowd were dedicated soul boys and girls who took their music seriously and liked dressing up in natty retro styles. But there were a few dozen who’d been out to Ibiza who were wearing much more casual gear. This is [DJ] Johnny Walker – he was having such a good time. He was usually quite a dapper dresser, but sitting there in the bass speaker he was totally unconcerned!”

Shoom at Arena Club, May 1988; Anna Haigh and Nina Walsh

“In May, Shoom moved to a bigger venue on Tottenham Court Road, below the YMCA, and Danny and Jenni Rampling invited the media along to see what it was all about. People like Boy George and the dancer Michael Clark came to check it out. Those two girls are having a fantastic time. I usually tried to take pictures with a longer exposure to get more ambient lighting, but when the strobe’s going off you just get this crazy multi-image.”

Trip at The Astoria, June 1988

“Trip felt like the moment that acid house went overground. The Astoria was a well-known venue in the West End and there was a queue of 600 people outside on the opening night. Nicky Holloway, who ran the club, wasn’t sure it would be a success so he lowered the ceiling with drapes, to retain the atmosphere in case it wasn’t busy. But any worries dissipated when the club was suddenly full of people determined to have a great time. These photos were taken that first night. I knew it was going to be massive and I wanted to capture that. It was really exciting.”

Danny Rampling at Shoom at the Fitness Centre, Southwark, July/Aug 1988

“Danny and Jenni Rampling relaunched Shoom at the Fitness Centre the same week that Danny played Boy George’s birthday party. They had huge new banners declaring ‘Joy’ on the walls. This picture is a bit of a classic. It speaks to the worship that the crowd had for what Danny was doing. He’s definitely preaching to the converted there, holding up the record like it’s a message from the gods. That’s Anton Le Pirate in the corner, an acid house regular who went on to co-run the Energy raves in 1989. By the summer most of the Shoom regulars had either left to start their own clubs, lost their jobs or were desperate to find a different way to earn a living. Jenni was so concerned she printed an open letter in the Shoom fanzine begging people not to give up their jobs.”

Trip at The Astoria, July 1988

“I had totally forgotten about this picture and I was so pleased to be able to include it. I love what the people are wearing – paisley had been such a big look – and that this guy (he’s now a drum’n’bass DJ – DJ Otis) had photocopied the word ‘Acid’ from what looks like an Evening Standard headline. I shot this for an Observer story on acid house. It was really good that they were covering it – they picked up on the story before the tabloid backlash happened.”

Mutoid Waste Co at Battle Bridge Road bus garage, August 1988

“This wasn’t a conventional acid house event, but there were plenty of acid house kids at it. It was probably the most radical alternative event at the time. The Mutoids were scrap-metal sculptors who had been squatting a disused bus garage behind King’s Cross station. Their occasional parties were like post-apocalyptic adventure playgrounds for adults. In some ways it prefigured the free party scene in the 90s. The founder, Joe Rush, went on to art direct the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games.”

Adrenalin at The Twilight Club, November 1988

“This was taken on Victoria Park Road [in Hackney], such a swanky neighbourhood now, in a big old corner pub that had been turned into a club. Tony Wilson, who played in the first Genesis raves in 1988, was on to me to come and see his night. This is just behind the DJ booth, where he was playing acid house and Balearic beats – he was a child of Ibiza. The two girls – Lorraine and Mandy -were great and I really like the flying earrings.”