Interview: “It all happened so quickly…” Author Alon Shulman discusses the birth of acid house, and what happened next
As has now been enshrined in dance music history, in the summer of 1987, four friends – Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker – travelled to Ibiza and had a life-changing experience.
What they did next is the core focus of a fascinating book by Alon Shulman, The Second Summer of Love: How Dance Music Took Over The World [CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE], which features contributions from some of the scene’s biggest names, including Carl Cox, Fatboy Slim, Moby, Irvine Welsh… and, as you might expect, the ‘Ibiza Four’ themselves.
The book also features an array of stunning photographs from Dave Swindells, which help to illustrate the rise of one of the most iconic movements in music history.
Shulman is better positioned than most to pen such a tome: he started his career as a jazz and funk DJ at the dawn of the second summer of love, and went on to be a celebrated festival and club promoter, developing close friendships with most of the scene’s main protagonists.
He’s the owner and CEO of Universe™, which has hosted seminal events such as Tribal Gathering and the Big Love festival, Last year, he staged Universe’s ‘Sunset At Stonehenge’ which saw Paul Oakenfold play to the sunset before being joined by Carl Cox for a full back-to-back set.
Once again, Shulman pulled off the seemingly impossible. Amongst his guests were dance music legends including Mark Moore, Nancy Noise, Terry Farley, Mr Oz, Tintin Chambers and Danny Rampling, who danced inside the stone circle at Stonehenge – yes, Stonehenge! – to celebrate the Second Summer Of Love and launch the scene onto the next chapter.
“Carl Cox flew in at his own expense to join Oakey at Stonehenge, played for free, and headed off again – he, along with everyone else, wanted to be part of something,” Shulman explains. “Seeing them together, both more popular and pioneering than ever, with Stonehenge as a backdrop, shows how far dance music has come and how limitless the possibilities are”.
Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado… Alon Shulman.
Q. Alon, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Can you sum up what the book is about?
Basically, the book is trying to explain the spirit and the moment and the feelings that make the culture what it is, as opposed to saying ‘this guy did this and then this guy did that’. It explores what happened, why it happened, and what could have been different.
So far, it’s been well received. I did a signing in London – I was on stage with Paul Oakenfold, Nancy Noise, Terry Farley and Mark Moore, and 200 people not only bought the book, but wanted me to sign it. I couldn’t believe it!
The next day, I was in Brighton and David Morales bought my book and asked me to sign it. I was like ‘are you joking?’.
Q. What sort of timeline does the book follow?
It starts in 3,000 BC, with a guy who starts hitting couple of rocks together and makes a repetitive beat. With that in mind, no-one can say they ‘invented’ dance music – Detroit and Chicago are always arguing but in reality, it goes all the way back to the dawn of man. From there, we shoot forward to the 1940s, and a jazz DJ with two turntables – technically the first DJ.
And then, via a quick stop in San Francisco, we get to the first ‘summer of love’, with Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold, Johnny Walker and Nicky Holloway jetting off on the now-famous trip to Ibiza.
I’ve got a foreword in the book from Danny and Paul, which helps to explain just what happened to four normal lads who were essentially on a ‘pulling holiday’.
On the back of that experience, they decided they were going to change the world… and then they actually came back and did it!
The book features 25 ‘spirit guides’, various people that were involved in the scene. People like Irvine Welsh, who was inspired to write Trainspotting after getting mashed the whole time. Also, people like Nicky Holloway, Nancy Noise, Jon Pleased Wimmin, Carl Cox… and the individuals behind the scenes, such as Nick Halkes, who signed The Prodigy for XL.
Q. Your own background is closely linked to the rise of acid house – how did you come across it?
In 1987, I had just left school. I was collecting records, and to make a bit of cash, I was playing records in a local pub in the West End of London. Then, in a very short space of time, maybe 12 months, I was headlining the WAG Club. I must have been doing something right!
I was given Saturday nights, and you would have people like Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold, Mark Moore and Terry Farley coming through the door – all the real pioneers of the scene.
Everybody would be wide-eyed and in great spirits until six in the morning. The funny thing was, we were playing house music to try to clear punters out, but that was the reason they ended up coming.
I remember sending a fax to Dave Swindells, who was at Time Out at the time, and I was trying to get him to come down to review my club night, to give it a bit of a push. It was all word of mouth back then: flyers, articles, whatever you could get.
At these nights I started getting friendly with Carl and his mates, and the focus turned to getting a soundsystem and putting on our own parties. We found a farmer and hired his land, and that was that. In time, that led to the creation of Universe, and then Tribal Gathering.
My background was in soul, funk, that sort of thing, so when the house scene was getting started, I could see where it was coming from, and where the influences were.
For example: that James Brown Funky Drummer riff, which created the backing beat for drum and bass. When I would go to very early jungle nights, with Fabio and Grooverider, I would just hear James Brown speeded up for several hours.
Q. The scene must have been really eye-opening back then?
I was 17 or 18 at the time, and I didn’t know any different. I would go to a club and everyone would be dancing around in t-shirts, sweating away. Because I had just got into clubbing, I didn’t realise that two years earlier, you would have to dress up in a suit, shoulder pads, all that kind of stuff, just to get into a club.
It was never supposed to be more than a hobby. I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. A lot of the rest of them felt that way, they loved the music and were trying to earn some extra money.
Carl Cox, for example, was earning £71 a week cutting the grass for the council. Can you imagine that? Actually, the reason he didn’t go to Ibiza with Paul and the rest was because he couldn’t afford the flight.
Q. You count Carl as one of your closest friends. What was he like back then, and how did he become one of the world’s most celebrated DJs?
The reason Carl went on to become the best DJ of all time – and I firmly believe that – was that every time there was a soundsystem, his girlfriend of the time would call them up and say ‘you have to book Carl!’
A lot of clubs were a bit scared to put him on, because he was so good. If he was warming up for you you wouldn’t have a chance of being able to follow him.
Carl is like a Roman gladiator the way he approaches the decks, honestly. Often he will only take 100 to 120 tunes with him, and that’s all he has to work with for the night; rather than bringing 20,000 tracks on a USB stick or whatever. He goes in with nothing else on his mind other than ‘I’m going to entertain this crowd’.
His career, and the career of others like him, typifies why dance music is the biggest thing in the world right now, but is also totally underground. If you walked into Glastonbury, you definitely wouldn’t feel out of place seeing Carl on the main stage one day, and then seeing him play some techno bunker in the campsite the next day.
Q. Ecstasy is mentioned in the book, but isn’t placed front and centre in terms of the development of the scene. Why?
It is not a book about ecstasy. Ok, there is a chapter about how MDMA originated in the US, and how Soft Cell went over there in the early 80s to record an album and discovered it in the city’s gay clubs.
But house music is not about drugs – ecstasy may have been the catalyst that brought people together, but it was the music they kept them together.
Q. Much was made of the influence of the ‘Ibiza Four’ on the emergence of acid house, and the rise of dance music as a global phenomenon… but could it just have easily have been four other lads?
You could say that with hindsight, but to me it couldn’t have been. They were very different personalities.
Paul Oakenfold is one of the most driven people you could ever meet. One day he decided ‘I want to get into music’. He was sitting on a coach next to Trevor Fung. Trevor said he was a DJ, and Paul wanted to find out everything he could about it.
So he doesn’t just do what everyone else does, and goes out to buy records. He goes to the Paradise Garage, and meets Larry Levan and all these people, and then goes on to take the Beastie Boys to the UK for the first time, before basically inventing the London acid house scene.
If you had said to him, on one of those early Monday nights of Spectrum, that ’this was only going to last a few months’, he wouldn’t have believed it for a second. This was what he had been looking for his whole life, there was no way it was going to fail.
After that, he got into trance, making that the biggest sound in dance music, and after that, he went to America and almost single-handedly invented EDM in Las Vegas. He has done it time and time again.
Danny was the one most affected by the trip to Ibiza. He was a bit of a lost cause; he was working for Nicky Holloway, but didn’t have much in the way of career prospects. Then, when he heard Alfredo play I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, that was the moment. He knew what he had to do.
So he went off and found a gym in Southwark and set up Shoom, and the rest is history.
I don’t think it would have become what it did if it was a different bunch of guys. Of course there were others that went to Ibiza before and after, but they didn’t do it – they just weren’t the right people.
Let’s not forget, it wasn’t trendy. Terry Farley was a gas fitter, Danny Rampling a handyman. Paul Oakenfold was a chef. These weren’t the glitterati, they were setting their own rules.
There was a famous night at Spectrum when Paul stopped the music and played the 1812 Overture for 15 minutes – he felt it was the right thing to do.
Q. We think now of super clubs with thousands of people on the dancefloor, but the iconic club nights that started the scene were quite small, weren’t they?
Shoom could only hold 200 people, so unless you were working for Vivienne Westwood or knew Jenni on the door, you couldn’t get in. You had The Face, ID, and the Boys Own fanzine all writing about this place, but it was very small.
Back then, it was quite a big gamble to head all the way to Southwark and not to get in – there was no Uber in those days…!
Actually, the reason why Lucozade became the drink for the rave generation, with Adamski NRG and all that stuff, was because of the fitness centre where Shoom was held. Lucozade didn’t have any special properties, it was because it was all you could buy there.
Another thing about Shoom was that it we always thought it didn’t have a licence to have those parties… but 15 years later, we found out that it actually did.
Q. Were you surprised about how quickly things kicked off?
It all happened so quickly, you had the warehouse scene, the outdoor party scene, and all of a sudden you had the explosion in the charts, with S’Express, the Happy Mondays, and artists like that.
People were writing music in their bedrooms, pressing up a few vinyls and giving them to Paul Oakefold and people like that, and if enough people would ask about it, Pete Tong would sign it.
People were much more open to different music back then. If dance music had stayed small, it might have stayed like that, but when you had the different genres emerging, things started to change.
Q. By the early 90s, the rave scene had mutated and was putting out tracks like Trip to Trumpton and Tetris. What happened there, do you think?
I’ve got a record somewhere called Bagpuss. It’s garbage. It was made by some guy, who was a bit of a chancer, who was just trying to make a quick buck. That music is terrible; it was terrible at the time, and it hasn’t stood the test of time at all.
A lot of those ‘party records’ were just awful. The dance scene had been invaded by people who were obsessed with taking Es, without really understanding what it was all about. Thankfully, the novelty records never persisted and the scene carried on.
But then again, don’t forget Jive Bunny is one of the biggest selling singles of all time…
Q. There’s still plenty of nonsense going on in EDM culture today, though – did you see KFC’s Colonel Sanders at the Ultra Music Festival?
I did. That, to me, was a badly thought out advertising campaign by an agency that didn’t know what they were doing. If KFC had just paid for a restaurant at the event, or paid for the security or something, nobody would have batted an eyelid.
But they decided to put the character on stage for a performance that was only ever going to be ridiculed. They didn’t do it to get the backlash they got, but they deserved it, because it was all wrong.
Q. Corporate sponsorship has been part of dance music for some time now, though, didn’t you have sponsors at Tribal Gathering?
Of course we had – one year, we did a deal with Evian, where sponsored one of the bars, but the deal was that they could only sell their water for £1. We could have charged more if we wanted to, but that wouldn’t have been right: we were giving back, in a way.
Tribal Gathering was not strictly licensed in the beginning, but when we became licensed, we never lost that underground feel. We kept the ticket prices low, we stayed independent as long as we could, and we made sure that we looked after people.
For example, if people were cold they could get a blanket, but it would only cost them three quid, instead of 50 quid.
Most festivals these days are very commercial and are all about the numbers, but that’s because so many of the artists are so expensive. If you have a big line up now, it can cost you millions.
Q. Writing the book, you conversed with some of the biggest names in dance music, and those that played a ley part in the development of the scene. Chatting to them, did you get the sense that there was anything they regretted?
Not really, although there are always cases of ‘if things had worked out differently…’.
When Alfredo came over to see me, he did say that he felt he had been ‘left behind’ in a way because they all came along and learnt his craft and went off and became megastars.
Also, Nicky Holloway was running a big party in London called Special Branch back then, and one night, on the floor of his club, he sees a flyer for Shoom. He heads down there to see his apprentice, Danny Rampling, as the main DJ, the same guy that he works with doing the security, and another same guy doing the flyers. For him, it was a case of ‘you should have asked me first’!
Or, take Terry Farley. He’s someone who had a real opportunity to step up to the big leagues, I think. We did a Q&A with him and his wife, Sue – they’ve been married 42 years, or something like that – and she said that Paul Oakenfold offered Terry the chance to go all the way, but he honestly didn’t think it was going to last.
Getting £100 for the occasional DJ gig was great, but there was no point in selling the house because it was going to be over in a year.
Trevor Fung, too, was the guy that introduced them all to Amnesia, so in a way, it should have been the ‘Ibiza five’, with him as one of the most important members. But as he told me, he’s managed to make 30-year career out of it, so he’s doing alright.
Think about it, if everyone had spent all those years doing what they were doing and then the scene sort of died, and they were left selling The Big Issue, they might have regretted it.
But the fact that things worked out the way they did means there’s not much to regret!
Q. Tell us one of your favourite anecdotes from the book?
There’s an very interesting story Carl Cox told me. Stella McCartney, Paul McCartney’s daughter, said to her dad I want to have Paul Oakenfold play my birthday. So he managed to locate him, and Paul Oakenfold drives down to the McCartney farm somewhere in the countryside, with Carl Cox and Nancy Noise in the Panda van. You had Paul and Linda and the McCartney family dancing away all night.
So it gets to the end of the night, and Carl is loading the equipment back in the van. Then, suddenly, there’s a face at the window. It’s Paul McCartney, who has come over to ask ‘do you want to come in and have a pizza?’
So he’s in the house, eating pizza with one of The Beatles. I suppose it says a lot about Paul McCartney, that he invites the van driver in for pizza..!
The Second Summer of Love: How Dance Music Took Over The World by Alon Shulman can be purchased by clicking here.