Jere­my Deller: It wasn’t all about drugs”

The Turner Prize-winning artist explores the cultural significance of rave and acid house in his documentary Everybody in the Place.

The biggest mis­con­cep­tion about the acid house era is that it was all about drugs. Or so Turn­er Prize-win­ning artist Jere­my Deller tells me over the phone when dis­cussing his doc­u­men­tary Every­body in the Place: an Incom­plete His­to­ry of Britain 1984 – 1992 – com­mis­sioned by Frieze last year and air­ing on BBC4 for the first time tomor­row night. For some peo­ple [drugs] were a big part of it,” he explains. But actu­al­ly for a lot of peo­ple it was about the music. It was about being around oth­er peo­ple who were lis­ten­ing to the music at the same time. It was the com­mu­nal spir­it of it all.”

Acid house became the biggest youth move­ment that the UK had seen in decades – and would remain unri­valled for decades after­wards as an expres­sion of effer­ves­cent, joy­ful rebel­lion. It was a move­ment that unit­ed a gen­er­a­tion react­ing to the polit­i­cal cli­mate in Britain. One that ter­ri­fied politi­cians, par­ents and the police. One that saw droves of sweaty, smi­ley, mobile par­ty-goers pile into cars before speed­ing around London’s orbital motor­way – mak­ing friends for life in ser­vice sta­tions – in search of raves that went by the name of World Dance (Junc­tion 6 off the M25), Sun­rise and – the apt­ly named – Orbital.

It was as much about the music as it was about social change and sol­i­dar­i­ty; it was two fin­gers-up to Mar­garet Thatch­er who in 1987 declared that there was no such thing as soci­ety”. Here was a soci­ety unlike any oth­er the nation had seen before. And they were mad for it.”

Just as the Saatchi Gallery’s cur­rent rave exhi­bi­tion Sweet Har­mo­ny is intend­ed to cap­ture a feel­ing not to act as a his­to­ry les­son to today’s youth, Every­body in the Place sets out to upturn pop­u­lar notions of rave and acid house by look­ing at the seis­mic social changes – from the ware­house raves to the protest move­ments – that shaped and reshaped Britain in the 1980s. In the doc­u­men­tary, Deller joins an A-lev­el pol­i­tics class so that pupils can dis­cov­er the sto­ry of acid house – from its birth in the under­ground gay clubs of Chica­go, to the way it changed British soci­ety in the 1990s.

Here Deller talks peo­ple, pol­i­tics, and the anti-Boris march. 

What was it that ignit­ed this project?

Well I was asked to do it [laughs]. I’ve made quite a bit of work about it before so it was clear­ly some­thing I was inter­est­ed in any­way. I’ve always been inter­est­ed in that side of British life, his­to­ry and soci­ety. Because when it was hap­pen­ing, it was clear that some­thing was hap­pen­ing. It wasn’t just a fad. It was clear that a social change was hap­pen­ing and that was inter­est­ing to me – how pop­u­lar cul­ture dri­ves social change. 

Did you learn any­thing unex­pect­ed in the process?

That the gay roots in house music are real­ly fun­da­men­tal to the sto­ry. The inter­est­ing thing about acid house was the broad spec­trum of peo­ple [that it involved]. In Amer­i­ca it was very defined, ini­tial­ly. So that was inter­est­ing, the way it start­ed and the way it was picked up in Britain and expand­ed to every­one. It was a move­ment that was very much for everybody. 

How do you think the polit­i­cal cli­mate in Every­body in the Place com­pares to the cli­mate right now?

Well, I think in as much as it was Con­ser­v­a­tive – the Con­ser­v­a­tives had been in pow­er for sev­en or eight years. I mean, we’re get­ting to that point now with a very unpop­u­lar leader. A lot of peo­ple real­ly don’t like him, they know what kind of per­son he is. He’s the kind of per­son that rep­re­sents the past to them, the kind of old­er per­son who has views that go against the pro­gres­sive way in which peo­ple are start­ing to move and think. They’re also real­ly unhap­py about Europe. I think young peo­ple are real­ly angry, and I think it’s def­i­nite­ly going to feed into the music. I mean, it already has. It is strange­ly sim­i­lar even though the music in some ways is very dif­fer­ent. It’s full of lyri­cal con­tent, where­as acid house was often more instru­men­tal. The clev­er­ness of the lyrics and the skill in the lyri­cism. There was none of that. 

You pre­sent­ed the rave sem­i­nar in a school, how was it received by the pupils? 

I think some of the things I showed them made them aware of new things. They weren’t aware of the miner’s strikes. Strikes just don’t real­ly hap­pen [now], do they? I don’t think they were aware of most of the things I showed them. Like footage from Stone­henge, for exam­ple. I think the biggest sur­prise was that this was a world before the inter­net and mobile phones. 

Skep­ta recent­ly put on a gig at Man­ches­ter Inter­na­tion­al Fes­ti­val called Dystopia987

Yeah I went to it. 

How was it? 

There wasn’t a sin­gle phone in sight. It was amaz­ing. Peo­ple were going berserk, but I don’t know what peo­ple do at Skepta’s gigs normally. 

They go berserk, but there are phones.

He had a very elab­o­rate set with elab­o­rate stag­ing – a kind of scaf­fold­ed pyra­mid with pro­jec­tions. It was very sci-fi. Peo­ple were just total­ly in the moment. I’m not sure if peo­ple were doing drugs though. My the­o­ry is that now peo­ple prob­a­bly do a drug once, and then they remem­ber what it was like when they go out and repli­cate that feel­ing. It was as if you need­ed the drug in the 80s. The rea­son there’s not real­ly much talk of drugs in the film is because you can’t talk about them you have to be very care­ful about how you dis­cuss that sub­ject when you’re in a school. The head teacher said to me, If you say any­thing at all that pro­motes the tak­ing of drugs, I’ll have to stop the lessons.”

So I thought, right I won’t men­tion them at all – well, I men­tioned them once. You can make a film about this sub­ject with­out men­tion­ing drugs. I want­ed to make a film that took a step back from the usu­al nar­ra­tive and saw this quite brief peri­od of time in a his­tor­i­cal con­tin­u­um. It’s basi­cal­ly a step back to see what else hap­pened before and around it to try and explain why it hap­pened. There were oth­er rea­sons why it hap­pened, social and polit­i­cal rea­sons that explain why it was so loved and adopt­ed by young people.

How do you think it com­pares to the Extinc­tion Rebel­lion protests?

There is a lin­eage. You can draw the line from rave move­ment to Reclaim the Streets. But it’s absolute­ly for a dif­fer­ent rea­son. Reclaim the Streets hap­pened in the late 90s and that was almost like a trav­eller move­ment. Extinc­tion Rebel­lion is a bit more urgent now. It’s less par­ty focussed and much more about the pol­i­tics and the issues.

What do you want peo­ple to feel when they watch this on Friday?

I don’t know real­ly. I hope they see the sto­ry of this moment and the oth­er things that were going on around it and maybe look at pop­u­lar music in a dif­fer­ent way. If you’re not into the music, you can still appre­ci­ate the film. And it might help you under­stand the music bet­ter. But I also want­ed to make a film through the eyes of the young peo­ple in the room. I want peo­ple to think about them as much as the footage. So that when you’re look­ing at footage of some par­ty or rave, you’re think­ing about what they were think­ing [about]. I want you to be aware of that gen­er­a­tion look­ing at this, as well as your­self. So that you’re think­ing of them all the time.

Peo­ple always talk about the hedo­nism of the era, what’s your take on hedo­nism today?

I think it’s nec­es­sary. It’s not an end in itself. Hedo­nism all the time is obliv­ion, which you don’t want. I think it’s nec­es­sary to lose your­self. But you can lose your­self in so many dif­fer­ent ways, through art, through music… You can be hedo­nis­tic in so many dif­fer­ent ways. I think it’s a young person’s self-dis­cov­ery, to be hedo­nis­tic. Now it’s very for­malised, you go to Glas­ton­bury, you don’t organ­i­cal­ly dis­cov­er it, the expe­ri­ence is laid out for you. It’s ground you have to cross into adulthood. 

What are you work­ing on at the moment? 

I’m edit­ing a film about what’s been going on in Par­lia­ment Square this year. I vis­it­ed Par­lia­ment Square between Jan­u­ary and March this year to talk to peo­ple who are pro and anti-Brex­it – I was more inter­est­ed in the peo­ple who were pro-Brex­it – and filmed what was going on. It’s a film look­ing at the pave­ment-lev­el dis­cus­sion of what was going on. 

It’s going to be shown in Aus­tria in Sep­tem­ber and then I’ll prob­a­bly show it some­where in London. 

Did you go to the anti-Boris march last week?

Yes I did. It was great, actu­al­ly. Bril­liant. It was a great atmos­phere, great music, once again, music help­ing to fuel it. It’s the first of many though, isn’t it. It’s great cos he’s some­one who just wants to be loved by every­one, espe­cial­ly young peo­ple. So to imme­di­ate­ly have 5,000 peo­ple scream­ing down Down­ing St was brilliant. 

BBC Arts’ Every­body in The Place: An Incom­plete His­to­ry of Britain 1984 – 1992 by Jere­my Deller will air on BBC Four on Fri­day 2nd August at 22:35 and will be avail­able on BBC iPlay­er for 30 days.

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