In 1988 the tabloids told how the country’s youth was being sucked into a vortex of drugs and depraved sex. Most readers felt they were missing out on something…

It was 1998, the so-called second summer of love. Ecstatic ravers embraced each other in dingy warehouses and danced to acid house. It was the birth of rave, and the beginning of the great dance music explosion. These were the days of Smiley faces, bandanna’s, baggy clothes and, er, illegal substances. Word of these goings on eventually reached the offices of Britain’s newspapers. The initial response was a (relatively) good humoured attempt to cash in on the scene, with the Sun running a piece on “cool and groovy” acid culture, offering readers a “guide to the lingo” and the chance to buy Smiley T-shirts for only £5.50. But the papers soon realised that there was much more fun to be had working on the irrational fears of mums and dads across Britain.

Over the next few months the Daily Mirror and the Sun seemed to be competing to produce the most outlandish misinformation. The way they saw it, young people in paisley bandannas were the new apocalypse, and “undercover reports” flooded in. The Daily Mirror weighed in with typical restraint: £12 Trip To An Evil Night Of Ecstasy” it roared. “The Mirror shows how thrill seeking kids as young as 15 are lured into the lairs of the acid house barons”. The age of the “thrill seekers” got younger as reports progressed. “The party is in full swing as 2,5000 revellers, many sporting the Smiley T-shirts of the cult, ‘trance dance’ to the flashing strobes”, the article went on. “The kids reckoned it had been one hell of a night”, they admitted – at least they got one thing right – but warned that “no-one counted the cost of being sucked into a tragic spiral of drugs”.

According to the tabloids, “Mr Big” figures were setting up raves in order to turn kids into drug-addled wrecks. This wasn’t helped by the self-publicising antics of party organiser Tony Colston-Hayler, whom the Mirror dubbed “The self-confessed king of the acid house warehouse parties”. A few days later Tony refused to talk to the Mirror after taking advice from his “family”. It looked like Mr Big was in trouble with mum.

If the Daily Mirror was bending the truth, the Sun snapped it in half. “Acid Raid Cops Flee 3,000 at Party” it claimed in a spurious tale of riot police running scared of a group of ravers. But the real story here was something quite different. The night, according to the Sun, was a sex and drugs orgy: “Sun reporters saw PUSHERS openly selling Ecstasy, a drug which heightens sexual awareness, but can lead to hallucinations and heart attacks…OUTRAGEOUS sex romps taking place on a special stage in front of the dancefloor”. Really?

The sexualisation of Acid House is easy to understand. For ravers, ecstasy is all about love. For the tabloids, love is all about sex. E became the “sex drug ecstasy”, and every paper in the land was salivating wildly over a chemical, which – as they never failed to remind us – heightens sexual awareness. The message to parents was: Do you want your daughter turned into, quite literally, a raving nymphomaniac?

Misinformation about E was widespread. The Sun wheeled out resident quack Dr Vernon Coleman to tell the nation that the drug would cause hallucinations for up to 12 hours, while in the Mirror’s White Hot Club entertainments page its author Gill Pringle declared: “Ecstasy has been proved to permanently loosen control of sleeping and waking, sexual behaviour and the brain”.

What about the music then? The Mirror tried to explain: “In 1985 in Chicago DJs began sampling one liners from record hits and stringing them together with strange effects and beats based on ‘60s psychedelic music”. All the old British insecurities about the ‘60s were returning: peace, joy, psychedelic drugs and free love. Not surprisingly, the tabloids declared war on acid house.

Gill Pringle led the way with her Whatzhot/Whatznot column – the Mirror’s style guide for its younger readers. On November 4th 1988 she declared “Hot Gypsy Music. Not: Acid House”. But the nation’s youth had other ideas, and cruelly ignored gypsy music. So a fortnight later she tried again. “Hot: Orange Juice. Not: Acid.” Hello? Clearly Pringle was being driven mad by the acid wars.

In desperation, all-girl chart toppers the Bangles were dragged in to bolster the Mirror’s campaign. Resplendent in “No Acid” T shirts – featuring a smiley face with a line through it – they showed quite clearly that they didn’t have a clue. “I have friends whose lives were completely ruined by taking acid”, warned guitarist Micki Steele. Which was fair enough, except that the vast majority of the ravers were taking ecstasy. But Micki seemed like a voice of reason compared to drummer Debbi Peterson. “I’ve nothing against happy faces”, she wibbled. “In the States they stand for ‘70s polyester loon pants and platform boots. It’s the drugs I don’t like”. Thanks Debbie.

Over at the Sun, things were no better. The stylish accessory for every Sun reader in the winter of ’88 was a “Say No To Drugs” badge – a Smiley with a sad face. They also managed to persuade a range of unlikely pop celebrities to join a campaign against acid. Jonathan King amusingly declared acid to be “Rubeeeish”. Radio 1 DJ Peter Powell, said acid was: “the closest thing to mass zombiedom”. Peter was later to test this theory by marrying Anthea Turner, a well-known zombie. Rick Astley, hitherto renowned for being pop’s Mr Sensible, was the one who really lost it. “They may as well call it heroin house”, was his contribution to the debate.

Even Britons abroad weren’t safe. Only a few months earlier, Gill Pringle had gone to a nice sensible pop festival in Ibiza, only to find the place crawling with chemically addled Brits. “Ibiza has been dubbed ‘Ecstasy Island’ by the trendy Brits who get high on the dangerous designer drug”, she wrote in the Mirror. Always one to create a problem, Gill roped in a hapless holiday maker to warn readers about the drug-crazed kids wandering Ibizan roads. “If they don’t get poisoned by the drug, one of them will get run over soon”, warned Barry Carpenter, 19. In the same issue, the paper paraded Spandau Ballet as a wholesome alternative to acid culture. Hmmm…

But while the ravers weren’t put off by the campaign, the tabloids did manage to whip up some panic among the general public. In November ’88, Radio 1 banned acid records. A spokesman quoted in the Daily Mirror said: “It’s all over the for acid house as far as Radio 1 is concerned”. This was very much a sign of the times, and across the country, clubs found their licences being revoked as local magistrates ran scared of tabloid pressure. Then, in 1990, the Bright Bill was passed by Parliament. Ostensibly it was intended to protect people from the obvious safety hazards of dancing in disused warehouses. But the introduction of heavy fines and a harsh attitude to the whole principle of being able to dance all night suggested safety was not the only thing on the government’s agenda.

Of course, every scene has a natural lifespan, and by the time the establishment began making moves to marginalise acid house, a lot of people were moving on to other things. That said, the early tabloid reaction did a lot to shape the public’s attitudes to Ecstasy and dance culture, and helps explain why we now have to live with the Criminal Justice Bill, and have such problems with the staging of events like Tribal Gathering.

If Gill Pringle or any of her kind are reading this, then here’s our message to you: We hate the Bangles. We have gypsy music. And we’re not that keen on orange juice. If tabloid journalists had addressed the phenomenon of acid house and E in a reasonable way, and not treated their readers like gullible idiots, then we might have a society where parents understood more about what their children were up to, and where misinformed kids didn’t die because they knew nothing about the risks of E, or because they had been scared into drinking too much water. Perhaps the evil acid barons aren’t the only villains.


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