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Bang Face Weekender, 2017
Bang Face Weekender, 2017Courtesy of Bang Face Weekender via

Happy hardcore will never die: the life of rave’s most juvenile subculture

Critics loathed it, but the UK rave genre never went away. Today, festivals like Bang Face Weekender are bringing a new generation to the party

Happy hardcore, the bastard progeny of Britain’s 90s rave explosion, was written off from the start: too juvenile, too cheesy, too fast, too stupid. It stands as one of history’s most puzzling dance phenomenons – not least because the music is so hard to actually dance to, with tracks revving to speeds of 160BPM and upwards as the decade progressed. Happy hardcore is emotional, euphoric, exhausting. It’s made for teenage drivers in souped-up Astras, bezzing around the town centre and refusing to ash out the window. A staple interest of working class kids from suburbs and small towns, happy hardcore was and remains a true subculture, drawing arena-sized crowds for years while remaining toxic to the critical class.

But trends are cyclical, and as a late-90s aesthetic has been rebooted in recent years by teens on Depop selling “vintage Y2K” garms – bucket hats, polyester sportswear, neon accents – so the subculture of that era has acquired a different cachet. Ripped out of context by a new generation, happy hardcore has a kind of illicit sheen to it, offering an untapped seam of confrontational retro cool. As the punisher-stomp of Dutch gabber has returned to serious dancefloors in places like Berlin and Copenhagen, happy hardcore has also been bubbling up in club sets via young crews and DJs like Spinee, who mixes hardcore with trance, breakcore, kooky pop edits, and various experimental club strains. It makes sense that happy hardcore would be coming back in a big way now, says the London DJ, with millennials channelling their own childhood nostalgia into music.

“I definitely had a happy hardcore phase when I was nine or ten,” she remembers, “when people used to have flip phones and we were listening to DJ Cammy’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and all the high-pitched remixes. We’d Bluetooth the songs to each other and go to the park after school to play music off our phones.” Spinee noticed happy hardcore spreading through Tumblr fan communities before emerging as an influence on crews like PC Music, the avant-pop collective whose affiliates have included Spinee and GFOTY, as well as Danny L Harle, a fan of hardcore – or ‘Harlecore’.

In some circles, though, happy hardcore never went out of style. Bang Face Weekender, an annual raveageddon held at a windswept holiday park near Southport, is the diehard spiritual home of dance music at its hardest, fastest, and wackiest. Every year, old school heroes like Altern-8, Slipmatt, and Ceephax Acid Crew share a bill with new gen faces like Helena Hauff, Perc, and Sherelle, plus a panoply of bizarro fantasists: Spongebob Squarewave, Trancey Beaker, DJ Drop a Cat on the Equipment.

“It was a spectacle to watch, from a DJ’s point of view – seeing people jumping up and down like that... you crave it more, so you sit in the studio and think, right, that’s gonna make them jump” – Hixxy

Even as rave nostalgia shaped much of the last decade in dance music, Bang Face was carrying the flame for the weirder, less palatable strains of UK rave. Alliances have formed between 90s happy hardcore architects like Hixxy, Dougal, and Slipmatt, and oddball rave crews like Chin Stroke, who gave Spinee her first Bang Face set. “The lineups haven’t strayed from the core feeling – they still book people who are fun and don’t take themselves too seriously,” says Spinee, who’s been coming to the festival for five years. “But it’s become more in tune with the weirder little subcultures that are happening (today). They’re giving a lot of people a platform to do whatever they want.”

That’s precisely the point of Bang Face, agrees festival founder James ‘St. Acid’ Gurney. Thinking back to the mid-90s, he remembers, “the scene got serious when it went indoors. One of the hopes that I had for Bang Face was to bring that fun element back.” The production is a serious, state-of-the-art operation, “but you’re there to have fun. We have fancy dress competitions, pool parties, inflatables – they’re designed to break down people’s seriousness and just make them laugh.”

At the 2020 festival, happy hardcore feels louder than ever. Hixxy and Dougal are teaming up for a Bonkers reunion, in a nod to their genre-defining compilation series. The Inflataland party is a shoes-off event pairing a giant indoor inflatable with a “bouncy hardcore” soundtrack from DJ Dave Skywalker. That was inspired by “one of my ideas for the ultimate rave,” explains Gurney, “which was to take a TV programme like Takeshi’s Castle but do it to happy hardcore.” Gurney (his real name, brilliantly) grew up listening to every kind of rave music; the idea behind Bang Face was to throw his entire record collection into the pot and stir it around. Happy hardcore, he notes, “always carried a stigma with the genre purists, who dismissed it as not serious. It is serious – Hixxy is one of the best producers out there. But it’s fun, that’s the thing.”

Even this year’s fancy dress theme, kids’ TV, feels like a nod to hardcore history. Hixxy and Sharkey’s “Toytown” is a classic of the genre, a riot of scruffy breaks and sugar-sweet vocals that signalled a schism in rave history when it was released in 1995. By then, breakbeat hardcore, the sampladelic fuel of early 90s mega-raves, had been pushed to its limits by kick drum provocateurs like Slipmatt and Luna-C, and it was about to split in two for good. In one direction went jungle, the precision-tooled and critically adored sound of the big cities: moody, sophisticated, avant-garde. In the other, scooping up the leftover airhorns and whistles on its way, went happy hardcore.

Pursuing the logic of countless other kiddified hits of the era like Urban Hype’s “A Trip to Trumpton” and Sons of Bungle’s “Rainbow Vibes”, the breakneck silliness of “Toytown” was as definitive as it was divisive. “It was a Marmite moment for a lot of people. It was one of them tracks where you did either love it or hate it,” recalls Hixxy, AKA Ian Hicks. Did it bother him that people hated it? “No! I was fully in love with it. I go on how I feel about things. If I like something then I think a lot of other people will like it too.”

The happy hardcore movement created a new kind of dancefloor, which only pushed the sound harder. “It was a spectacle to watch, from a DJ’s point of view – seeing people jumping up and down like that,” he says. “It looks amazing and you crave it more, so you sit in the studio and think, right, that’s gonna make them jump.” Bang Face offers an eye-popping spectacle in the same grand tradition: as well as themed costumes, the ‘Hard Crew’ bring their own inflatables and jokey signs (“What Will My Children Think?”) and kit themselves out in neon, smiley faces, bucket hats, and baggy tees – maybe even a face mask and a chemical warfare suit, in the spirit of the original live rave act, Altern-8, who fused techno, electro, and breaks into a string of sample-heavy hits through the early 90s.

“The shackles are off. It’s OK to have fun!” – Bang Face’s James ‘St. Acid’ Gurney

“I don’t think we were the first people ever to wear (those suits) outside of the RAF, but it became our image,” explains Altern-8’s Mark Archer, who’s been a regular at Bang Face since 2005 (he even got married there – the couple had their first dance to Altern-8’s “E-Vapor-8”). “The first time we ever played, in 2005, we just thought, what on earth is going on? I’d been used to playing old school revival gigs and it was so different. I’ve always said Bang Face is as close to an old school crowd that you’ll find.”

The final Altern-8 single came out in the summer of 1993 as breakbeat hardcore was going into its ‘darkside’ phase, ready to mutate into jungle, and Archer was turning his attention to US house like Masters at Work and Roger Sanchez. Production gear had become cheaper and more accessible, and more artists were entering the scene, often just remixing material from recent hits or throwing breakbeats over samples from TV and films. Happy hardcore was germinating. “House had always been about recycling other people’s tunes,” says Archer. “But I think what I wasn’t keen on, when happy hardcore first came out, was that they were reusing (music) from six months to a year previous. There were some big tunes – but there were a lot of filler tracks.”

Hardcore began to divide the country. The central hub was The Sanctuary in Milton Keynes at nights like Evolution, and there were hotspots along the south coast, around Hixxy’s hometown of Portsmouth, and through the north into Scotland. “If I was in London I knew there were things I just couldn’t play,” says Hixxy. “It was about the kick drums – if you went to London and played something too heavy with a kick drum you would see people just stop and look at you as if to say, what are you doing? It was the same if you went up north and played breakbeat stuff – you’d see the dancefloor stop. So for some tracks we’d do two versions, to play in different places.” For a brief moment after “Toytown”, the 4x4 smack of happy hardcore was in the ascendant. Hixxy remembers getting a call from his DJ partner Dougal after a set at Bagleys in London. “He’d played the kick drum version of ‘Toytown’ and it worked. I was like, ‘What? You played the full-on kick version?’ ‘Yep, it worked.’ Then it became more of a national sound. The lines got blurred around 1995, 1996.”

By the end of the 90s, happy hardcore had almost exhausted itself. Lots of fans and DJs turned towards hard house and, as in Hixxy’s case, trance. But when Bang Face invited him to play a classic happy hardcore set at their 2011 event, his love for helium vocals and high BPMs was reignited. Bang Face is “one of my favourite events ever,” he says with a glow. “I was going there under no illusions that it was my normal audience – they were there for the whole Bang Face experience, and I just found them so open. I could go all over the show – I didn’t stick to what I’m known for playing. As a DJ, there’s nothing better.”

He’s even playing “Toytown” again. “I did really go off it for a while, but listening back to the breakbeat version now I think, ‘Ah, brilliant.’ It’s the memories of how great an era that was,” he says. “With some of my tunes I listen now and it’s like, whatever was I thinking? But there’s others that have stood the test of time.” Happy hardcore had always been perceived as ‘childish music’, he points out. “It felt like people were turning their nose up at it, not giving themselves a chance to just enjoy it for what it is. With the Bang Face crowd, what I liked was that they didn’t care. They didn’t stand there and go, ‘This isn’t me’ – it was just, ‘Here we go!’”

Just like the 90s generation whose minds were blown by breakbeat pile-ups and brain-warping samples, the Hard Crew are dedicated seekers of extreme sensations. Genres are just incidental – show them the fastest, harshest, weirdest, grossest of the repetitive beats and turn it up to 11. “My first time at Bang Face reminded me of being a kid and going to a funfair,” laughs Spinee. “You feel a bit sick – but excited, and a bit scared. You know something good’s going to happen because you feel uncomfortable.”

Happy hardcore is thriving among revivalists like DJ Fingerblast and his Planet Fun collective (who play Bang Face this year) and via the sensational Facebook hub known as The Shit Music Group. The Bang Face line-up is also packed with younger DJs who’ve graduated from punter to performer. “I’ll give them a set purely based on their dedication to the event. That’s the whole nature of the Hard Crew,” says James. “Sometimes they start coming to the event as a kid and ten years later they’re arguing with me over fees!” The younger DJs weren’t even born when happy hardcore first exploded, but the internet has kept it alive, thinks Gurney. “I see it as the same thing as the same thing as something like Comic-Con, it’s an appreciation of a fun youth culture. Even memes – they’re very ravey in their essence.”

There are more avant-garde musical mutations coming through too, as the new generation takes hardcore into the future by chasing brain-scrambling sensations rather than reproducing familiar sounds. A distinctly queer subculture of hardcore and anime-inspired nightcore artists is thriving online through artists like Kilbourne and 99jakes. Listen carefully and you can hear it in the radical intensities of artists as diverse as SOPHIE, W00dy, Tanzania’s Bamba Pana, or Mali’s DJ Diaki. “Back in the early 90s it was all brand new and no one knew where it was going week after week,” says Archer, by way of comparison. “But everyone got into it and just let go. It was escapism against how crap the country was at the time.” Nearly 30 years on, with Britain stuck in a rut that feels like a grey echo of the miserable post-Thatcher years, that thrill-seeking energy is sorely needed. “The shackles are off,” laughs Gurney. “It’s OK to have fun!”

Bang Face Weekender takes place at Southport Holiday Park from March 12 to 16