From acid house to Goldie's Junglist movement, these books trace the underground icons of the British music scene
November 5th sees the return of Music Nation, Dazed’s documentary series on the rich, messy, glorious tapestry of filth that is the UK’s musical subculture landscape. Last time around, jungle, balearic beats, the Bristol scene, and hardcore got the documentary treatment. This second series goes deep on the Northern bassline scene, London grime, British South Asian ravers of the ‘90s, and Glasgow art-school pop. Prepare for deep dives down memory lane and new perspectives on the most iconic cult movements in UK music history. Get ready for round two of the critically acclaimed series by doing your research: this week, we pick ten of the best books on the musical underground.
UKG BY EWEN SPENCER
We have Ewen Spencer to thank not only for cracking UK Garage documentary Brandy & Coke, but the first episode of Music Nation’s new series, Open Mic. In his book UKG, the legendary nightlife photographer gives us a visual snapshot of the dressed-up, label-heavy dance movement that swamped the mainstream around 2000. Happy days.
RAVE ART BY CHELSEA LOUISE BERLIN
The yellow smiley face on this book’s cover is a reminder that the peak years of acid house and hardcore was also a design era: since flyers, invitations, and membership cards were the way of advertising raves, their particular aesthetic seeped into the mainstream along with the music. Those bits of paper represent the flotsam and jetsam remainder of a truly remarkable word-of-mouth movement, which grew overheated little underground club nights into massive outdoor events. This book is a remarkable act of conservation, since most of that paper ephemera was lost (trodden into 5am mud, I suppose).
A SCENE IN BETWEEN BY SAM KNEE
The Glasgow School of Art indie-pop scene is the subject of one of the upcoming Music Nation docs – and you will probably not be very surprised by the garments on show in it. Very bad and somehow very good, you might call this look. Sam Knee’s photography book documents the sartorial trends accompanying the fuzzy/indie/twee/pop boom of the 80s and onwards, with a top-notch introduction by Stephen Pastel (of The Pastels).
THE CELESTIAL CAFÉ BY STUART MURDOCH
And if Glasgow’s your thing, you should get hold of Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s collected diaries, The Celestial Café. Originally blogposts but edited into a very pleasing book, this little compendium of memory takes us all over town and back again.
THE HAÇIENDA: HOW NOT TO RUN A RAVE CLUB BY PETER HOOK
Factory Records’ cathedral to Acid House, The Haçienda, had to be one of the most gloriously badly-run nightclubs of all time. Here, Peter Hook (of Joy Division and New Order, obviously) tells of the rise and fall of the club that changed dance culture and also briefly contained a hairdressers. A club entirely attended by people on drugs will never make enough money at the bar to stay afloat, but while it survived it was magic. The Haçienda is now a block of flats.
NINE LIVES BY GOLDIE
It might not surprise you to learn that the glinty-toothed producer had a bit of a rough start in life, or that this book was actually written by a ghostwriter named Paul Gorman. But this is an amazing set of reminiscences from the junglist hero. For example, did you know he played roller hockey for the UK B team? A rare insight into the backstory of an underground icon.
ACID CASUALS BY NICHOLAS BLINCOE
There are a lot of novels about doing drugs and going clubbing, but this one is a neo-noir mystery thriller set in a Manchester club called ‘Gravity’ and thus a lot more fun than your usual smack-and-heartbreak fare. Transgender gangster Estela Santos returns from Brazil to take out her old boss — but things go wrong. Turns out an Acid House club makes a great setting for thrilling capers and also a really believable one considering all the speed.
BHANGRA AND ASIAN UNDERGROUND BY FALU BAKRANIA
This book is pretty academic (it has the subtitle ‘South Asian Music and the Politics of Belonging in Britain’) but is also one of the only good books ever written about the influential Bhangra subculture. Bakrania opens the book recalling her cousins playing Bally Sagoo’s ‘Star Megamix’, following all the strands that made up that moment in history until she has assembled a rich portrait of a unique movement in British culture.
SUBCULTURE: THE MEANING OF STYLE BY DICK HEBDIGE
Hebdige’s book is, again, academic: but it is also a classic of “subculture” thought and thus required reading for anybody digging deeper into the form and function of the underground. It came out in 1979 so obviously can’t speak to the youth movements of today, but Hebdige’s theories about the importance of class and race consciousness in the formation of subcultures is still useful and fascinating reading.
PARTY MONSTER: A FABULOUS BUT TRUE TALE OF MURDER IN CLUBLAND BY JAMES ST JAMES
Finally, one from long ago and all the way across the pond. Iconic party-goer James St. James remembers the chaotic scene leading up to the murder and dismemberment of Angel Melendez by Michael Alig, the so-called king of the Club Kids. The prose is kind of YA frenzied, but truly gripping. The late 80s and early 90s New York club scene has been romanticised over and over, but this book makes it very clear why.