How Margaret Thatcher Took On Acid House

Source: Tom Sykes

All-night raves known as Acid House parties were spreading across the UK in 1989, ‘the Second Summer of Love.’ But it took a letter from an MP’s irritated uncle in the shires to get Mrs. Thatcher involved in the debate.

It was her successor, John Major, who outlawed gatherings of more than 12 people which featured “music with a repetitive beat.”

However, newly-released records show that the noise and disruption caused by “Acid House” parties–the drug and trance-music fueled illegal outdoor raves that roared through youth culture at the end of the 80s–began concerning British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher towards the end of the “Second Summer of Love”, as the summer of 1989 became known.

It was in that year–when smiley-face, pill-popping, acid house culture took off in a big way in the UK–that an all-night rave disturbed the beauty sleep of a Tory MP’s uncle, newly released official records show.

Archie Hamilton, MP for Epsom and Ewell, forwarded the Prime Minister a letter from his uncle Gerald Coke, who said he was “very disturbed” by the party which had lasted until 7.30am.

Mr Coke, who described himself in his letter as one of “the oldest inhabitants” of the village, said that he feared some of the party goers were seeking confrontation with villagers and was alarmed by the possibility of “bloodshed.”

The retired magistrate suggested a range of measures by which the parties could be prevented, despite admitting his knowledge of the law was “a bit rusty” since retiring from the bench some 12 years previously.

As a raver of the day might have put it, the party had clearly done the geezer’s head in.

The Prime Minister clearly took the old buffer’s note–described by her secretary as a “sample of what is going on”–very seriously, and asked to be briefed on what powers the police had to control the burgeoning rave culture after the party, which was held in Bentley, Hampshire, in August 1989, according to formerly secret documents published today by Britain’s Public Records Office.

Mr. Coke said in his note there was a “feeling of collective anger and helplessness” that police said they could do nothing because the event was a private party. He said he believed the police could have acted and were not as ‘powerless’ as they made out.

In a handwritten remark on the letter, Mrs. Thatcher was asked if the Home Office should provide a briefing on what powers police had to control the gatherings.

She replied: “Yes if this is a new ‘fashion’ we must be prepared for it and preferably prevent such things from starting.”

Malcolm Rifkind, the home secretary, cautioned Mrs. Thatcher in another letter also released today that any legislation should not inadvertently criminalize innocent gatherings, such as “barn dances.”

The correspondence generally reveals a government floundering as it attempts to dream up ways to stymie a youth culture it clearly has little understanding of.

One handwritten annotation on a government briefing document noted, with clear astonishment, that “there is surprisingly little alcohol” at the parties.

Another letter said that “confiscating the profits” of the organizers might be a way to “discourage the craze,” ignoring the fact that the biggest events were often run for free. The only money made was by those selling drugs.

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The rise of acid house in the late 1980s saw huge outdoor raves take place across Britain–accompanied by the use of recreational drugs such as ecstasy, MDMA-based tablets similar to today’s ‘Molly.’

One letter estimates that 223 acid house parties took place in 1989 across London and the south east of England.

Free party culture reached its peak in 1992, on Castlemorton Common, when an estimated 25,000 ‘crusties’ met for the UK’s largest ever outdoor party; the event was sound-tracked by the music collective Spiral Tribe. It lasted one week and the police, unable to break up the anarchic event, were humiliated.

In 1994 the state fought back with new prime minister John Major’s Criminal Justice Bill, which sought to legislate against gatherings “on land in the open air of 12 or more persons… at which amplified music is played”.

The bill included a legendary sub-clause clarifying that the state’s definition of music in this case was: “sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”

The measure became law but inspired widespread derision; the band Autechre released a record sealed with a black sticker that bore the following message: “Warning. ‘Lost’ and ‘Djarum’ contain repetitive beats. We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law. Flutter has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can therefore be played under the proposed new law. However, we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non-repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.”

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