Interview: From Tannadice to Ibiza… 909originals chats to Ninety Six author Johnny Proctor
Last year, first-time author Johnny Proctor published one of the best books on the emergence of rave culture in Scotland, Ninety, which followed the exploits of 16-year-old Dundee United supporter Zico and his path from from terrace culture to the all-night party scene.
Part autobiography, part nostalgia trip, Ninety encapsulated the experience of a generation of working class youth, as ecstasy and acid house washed over a nation.
Now, Zico is back, in Ninety Six, a novel set six years on from the previous book’s exploits, in which the protagonist has nabbed a summer residency in Ibiza… while keeping a close eye on Scotland’s performance at Euro 96, of course.
Following the book’s release last week, 909originals caught up with author Johnny Proctor.
Q. It’s been a year since the release of Ninety, and NinetySix is already upon us. Was it always the intention to get the sequel out so quickly?
I started the project with no real plan, other than the fact that I wanted to release a trilogy of novels that would cover events back in the 90s – nothing really more concrete than that.
At the beginning, parts two and three of the trilogy really had to be considered moot until I found out what the reception from the public would be towards Ninety. Being an unknown writer bringing out a debut novel, I didn’t know if anyone would even buy the thing.
It’s testament, I guess, to the way that Ninety was received that the world now has Ninety Six. There was no preset timescale for its release – this project has been 100% done on my terms so I left things six months or so from Ninety’s release before opening up the laptop again.
With the subject matter of Ninety Six – as with Ninety – I found that I was actually enjoying writing it, and even with the second instalment clocking in at 100 pages more than its predecessor, I wrote it in a much shorter time than I had anticipated. Officially, Ninety Six came out almost one year to the day that Ninety had. That’s not something I could have even predicted when I sat down to write it last year.
Q. As well as the football and acid house themes, Ninety was about growing up, finding your place in the world and wanting to ‘belong’ – universal themes, backed by a pulsing rave soundtrack?
The British youth have and will always find a way to rebel as a group. To find that feeling of belonging to something… doing stuff that they know their mum and dad ‘didn’t do when they were younger: mods, rockers, skinheads, punks etc.
What I did with Ninety, I feel, was to merge two of the subcultures that, unlike most other scene, not so much ran side by side with each other but had no choice but to coexist: the rave scene and hooligan culture.
As we all know, the majority of British youth subcultures have traditionally had a shelf life before disappearing. Terrace culture and rave culture changed that: each is going strong more than thirty years since either sprung up in the UK.
Now, all these years later, for the first time we’re seeing teenagers repeating what their parents did with regards to going out to clubs, festivals and trips to Ibiza and so on. That has been one of the coolest things about Ninety for me, in that there has been examples of fathers and sons, or mothers and daughters, that have read the book. As a teenager I’d have thought it unpalatable to think of myself reading the same book as a parent would.
Q. How much of Ninety was based on your experiences, and how much on the experiences of others?
Ninety was your classic case of a fictional novel written from the author’s own experiences merged with their own imagination. Prior to Ninety I had only written online articles for various culture and fashion websites, so went into writing a novel with a fresh perspective.
Most football hooligan books, for example, always seemed to have been written through rose tinted spectacles. The hooligan firm that the books were surrounding always seemed to be the ones that did the chasing, and were always victorious. That isn’t real life, however, and I wanted Ninety to be a true and authentic reflection on both terrace and rave culture.
One tip passed onto me by a peer before starting the first novel was to ‘write what I knew’. Luckily, and most definitely in some cases, unluckily, I have been in and around both the subcultures that the book merged together, and I think that’s one of the things that the reader will take out of the first book.
The feedback that has come over the past year from former and existing ravers, and also from casuals, has suggested this.
Q. Nora, the infamous ‘leader’ of the Dundee Utility Crew, is one of the most memorable characters in the first book. Was Nora a real person?
No, Nora was just your archetypal boogeyman that a story sometimes requires. Don’t get me wrong, I have known a lot of ‘Noras’ in my time, but fortunately I have not had to deal with a psychopath like him in the way that Zico has to endure in Ninety, when things begin to turn sour for him.
I’m extremely proud to announce the official release of Ninety Six AND the repackaged version of Ninety for 2019.— Johnny Proctor (@johnnyroc73) April 15, 2019
If you know you know.
Available from the usual places but please DM me for any book or merchandise enquiries 👍 pic.twitter.com/k9xkOjg554
Q. In Ninety, some of the standout scenes are when Zico experiences rave culture for the first time, and the impact it had on both him and everyone else. Did it have that profound an effect on your life?
Yes, absolutely. The way I put it across in Ninety was that after that first pill and that first experience of being in a field in the middle of nowhere, along with thousands of other people dancing from sunset to sunrise, was one of those life-altering experiences that once sampled left the individual a changed person in numerous ways.
In those early days, with the scene still in its relative infancy, it truly felt like you were part of a revolution, albeit a peaceful one. That feeling that you were part of some sort of secret society, of a ‘if you know, you know’ basis. It was profoundly exhilarating to be a part of.
None of us were ever sure if acid house was just going to be another fad back then or not. It was the way everyone involved cherished and looked after the scene that ensured that instead of being a short-lived craze it went the other way, leading to the monster that the electronic music scene became.
Q. One of the parts I love about the first book is when the perspective shifts all of a sudden from a first-person narrator to one of the other characters. What inspired you to do that?
I chose to do that in specific chapters because of how important that life-changing moment meant to different people. How they both dealt with the assault that they experienced to their minds, bodies and souls. I also thought that it would be fun for the reader to see what each character made of the other one, in terms of how they were projecting themselves during those moments.
I was a little worried as to how I might be able to write from the perspective of a sixteen year old girl, as I did with Zico’s girlfriend Lisa, but any of those fears were soon eased when I had people inquire if I had allowed someone else to write those individual chapters.
The character change in perspective is something that I have taken much further in Ninety Six. Don’t get me wrong, this is still very much Zico’s story, but with a lot more major players in what is a much larger story, this time around I felt that if I was able to read what was going on away from Zico’s own thoughts and observations, it would provide a lot more depth.
Q. Ninety ends with Zico in bullish mood about the future – “the snowball that had been pushed down the hill in 1989 was now traveling at pace”. By the time Ninety Six rolls around, what is our protagonist up to?
While Ninety provides a glimpse of Zico’s plans for the future with regards to integrating himself even further into the house music scene, it doesn’t really go much further than that. With Ninety Six picking things up six years on, it provided enough years in between for Zico to have made inroads with regards to this.
When the reader revisits things years later they find the main character out in Ibiza a week or so into a three month stretch, having bagged a residency on the Space Terrace. He’s not famous by any means, but the small residency is a sign that he’s heading in the right direction.
Of course, anyone who has read Ninety will already cringe at the prospect of Zico being on the White Isle for that prolonged amount of time and the potential carnage that may follow. They would be correct to do so.
Q. The book is set in Ibiza in 1996, a year in which the island’s reputation was raised a notch (Ibiza Uncovered and all that). Was that your first time in Ibiza, and if not, what was your first Ibiza experience?
Oh f**k, I’d actually forgotten about that TV show! I can’t say that I watched too much of it, but from what I saw it gave an entirely different view of what a holiday to Ibiza was actually like, particularly with regards to what I would get up to over there.
Ibiza Uncovered could have easily been renamed Magaluf Uncovered with regard to its content and what you saw going on.
My first trip there was actually in 1991, and from what I was able to gather, was right at the point where the scene and the whole ethos of partying in Ibiza was all about to change through commercialism. In fairness, I was probably a couple of years too late myself to ‘fully’ experience Ibiza for what it was, and how it had earned its reputation.
Ibiza will always be Ibiza in whatever shape or form it chooses when it comes to the house music scene, but the magical spirit that the island, the kind where you could’ve blagged a free ticket into Amnesia, Space or Ku and then spend barely a peseta in there, are now a distant memory – today’s Ibiza has VIP bottle service and €60 and upwards admission fees.
Obviously things change, but there was the feeling that in the old days that ‘anyone’ could go partying there – something which I felt aligned itself with the whole spirit of the house music scene in general – whereas now certain people will be priced out of going there.
Q. Zico has a DJ residency in the new book. What are some essential tracks in his record bag?
I had a bit of fun when it came to some of the tracks that he was spinning, during the various chapters find him behind the decks. Due to him being out there for so long, I have him with a lot more tracks out with him than just the usual thirty or forty ‘flavour of the month’ tracks.
Some of the current – for 1996 at least – tunes that are his bangers include the Armand Van Helden remixes of CJ Bolland’s Sugar is Sweeter and Tori Amos’ Professional Widow. A little indulgence of my own that I made sure to insert was Zico’s insistence that most sets he would end with something more obscure. This I felt was a small nod towards how Ibiza used to be, where you would hear Alfredo playing a U2 or Madonna track.
There are a few older tracks that predate Ninety Six that you will see mentioned over the course of the novel. For example, to give someone – no spoilers! – a send off on their last night in Ibiza, and knowing that their favourite record label is R&S Records, Zico plays an old school set full of bangers from the Belgian label.
Q. I have to get a football question in, again given that the current book is set in the summer of 96 [Scotland drawing with Holland, McCoist’s winner against Switzerland etc]. Do you think Scottish football is on the up, and what would you like to see more of in the game?
The fact that the novel takes place during the Euros in England was again something that I had a lot of fun with; much like 1990 which included such a brilliant World Cup.
During summers like 1996, due to the football, people will always remember where they were and what they were doing, and I feel aspects like that can make a reader feel more involved, because to an extent they lived it themselves.
The day of the England match was a massive one and I felt it almost therapeutic all these years later to go back over that day in Ninety Six, with the whole Gary McCallister penalty business and then what happened a few minutes later with Gazza.
As for the game in Scotland being on the up? No, not so much. The national team – who have most probably the most inept football association running things behind the scenes – were recently embarrassed in Kazakhstan. while Celtic are approaching an historic domestic treble treble.
Despite this dominance, they aren’t really able to transfer that over into European competition and part of the reason for this is the lack of real competition domestically, which isn’t good for Celtic or the Scottish game in general. It ‘has’ been tighter this season in the Premier League, but yet by this point Celtic are still eleven points clear at the top.
I guess you look after yourself when it comes to football, so what I most want to see in the game up here is a return to the top league for my own team, Dundee United. With the promotion play-offs fast approaching I’ll soon see if it’s going to be another soul destroying year in the championship or a return to the top table once more.
At the same time, it’s exciting times for us. We’ve just been bought over by an American family and there are talks of a link up with Boca Juniors, alongside other projects, as part of the new owner’s plans. We just need to get our arses promoted first before most of it can begin to fall into place.
Q. Do you plan to turn Ninety (or Ninety-Six) into a screenplay? And if so, who would you like to play Zico?
While I hold no real plans for any screenplay being written, it has become a standing joke amongst some of my followers on social media that it will only be a matter of time before I get the knock at my door in relation to the ‘Zico Trilogy’ making the leap from print to film. I’ve actually lost count of how many people have staked their claim for a cameo as a raver or football hooligan!
I feel that the way the first two books have been written, they both work as stand alone titles and in that sense the opportunities for transferring the story into something visual are plenty; whether someone wanted to cover the three separate years or focus entirely on one specific story or year.
As far as likely actors to fill any roles? I’m not so sure about who could play the young Zico, but six years on from Ninety and with Zico now 22, I would love someone like the always-impressive Richard Madden to fill that role.
Also, I’m currently watching the on screen dynamic between Martin Compston and Stephen Graham in this years Line of Duty, and there are already two roles in Ninety Six that without question were practically made for them. I’d love to elaborate further on that, but with the novel only having been out three days I’m wary of giving out any spoilers!
Q. Tell me about your plans for a third book?
As for the third and final instalment of the trilogy the only things that I can, or to be precise WILL tell you is that it already has its title – not a numerical title like the first two – cover design and story all mapped out, before I’ve even started writing it. Exactly like things were after Ninety had been released, I have no set time to begin and finish it.
I have had a lot of questions put to me in relation to when the final piece of the puzzle will surface but have remained non-committal on it. In fact, I haven’t ruled out writing a standalone novel in between Ninety Six and the final part of Zico’s trilogy.
For now, it will be a case of focusing on promoting the new book in whatever way possible and I will sit down after the summer and decide what comes next.
Q. So much of Ninety (and Ninety Six) is about nostalgia for the good old days. Do you think there is anything better about clubbing today than there was back in the day?
Brilliant question mate, and if your intention was to set me up to come across like some old moaning faced bastard, then it worked! I literally cannot think of a single thing that is better now in house music than it was back in the day.
Even the parts where technically there have been improvements are, in my opinion, improvements that don’t immediately make the scene any better in the grand scheme of things. Like the rise of the superclub over the years. It makes no difference where you are when the lights are out and the music is playing… although it does make a difference to the price of tickets!
One of the best nights that I went to last year was the Solardo-curated ‘Higher’ night for Manchester’s Warehouse Project, in their Store Street venue. It was a cold, filthy venue underneath Manchester Piccadilly that was once an air raid shelter – the complete polar opposite to what Hi in Ibiza is like – but what an amazing venue! Without question it’s going to be missed.
Having had the good fortune to experience what the house scene was like during its early days and what it is now like decades later, I don’t think it’s even up for a debate that things have changed and the magic, spontaneity and the whole community spirit has been sucked out of things.
Years back, while you went out with friends there was the feeling that everyone inside the venue were almost there ‘together’. Strangers talking to strangers, with the whole ‘what’s your name, where you from, what you had’ vibe. I don’t see that anymore.
Today, you’ve got clubbers more interested in taking a shitty quality video of a DJ that they’ll probably only watch once again in their life, or making sure that everyone on Facebook or Instagram knows where they are for the night, rather than just enjoying themselves and living in the moment.
Ketamine is also a major issue, and for the life of me I will never understand why anyone would intentionally take that to go out and dance all night. At most nights I’ve been to over the past few years, ket has been prevalent, and you see multiple casualties all sitting down around the place. It’s a shame that for many newcomers to the scene now, that’s what they are experiencing.
From my own personal experience in recent years, it looks like the combination of bad drugs and mobile phones on dancefloors has left those hedonistic days from years ago look so far in the distance, that you actually now realise how privileged you were to even experience them.