The House is a Feeling exhibition honours the electronic dance music scene that emerged in the Midlands in the late 80s and 90s, resisting social injustice, racism, and violence
Up until now, the history of acid house, rave, and ecstasy in the UK has focused mainly on Manchester and London as the two epicentres of the movement. But cast your eyes to the Midlands, to the small industrial city of Coventry, and you’ll find quite a different story. There, in the late 80s and early 90s, fields and abandoned industrial estates were packed every weekend with euphoric partygoers from across the country, and from all cultural backgrounds. On at least one occasion, revellers were so desperate to keep the party going that they raved to the jingle of the ice cream van supplying drinks – so goes an anecdote from one of Coventry’s illegal rave linchpins Man Parris, a DJ and MC who went on to become the voice of the acid house movement in the UK.
Honouring this hedonistic time in the city’s history, Coventry-based filmmaker and documentarian Adi Dowling has curated a new exhibition, House Is A Feeling. Launching in conjunction with the city’s status as the 2021 City of Culture, the exhibition is a multimedia experience that tracks Coventry’s crucial influence on the development of UK rave culture. Featuring radio documentaries, moving image pieces, and installations that capture the feel of a mid-80s acid house club, Dowling takes care to capture the spirit of a time, both preserving it for younger generations and demonstrating to its originators just how special it was.
In the 1950s and 60s, Coventry was known as the “British Detroit” for its centrality to the UK’s motor industry. However, factory closures in 1980 and the 1982 recession hit Coventry hard, and unemployment climbed steadily. With that, racial tensions were high in the city, and social divisions were fuelled by the violence of Coventry City’s football firm, with fights sparked at the slightest provocation on a drunken Saturday night. Then, ecstasy arrived. “In about a six-week period, they went from fighting to dancing and caring about each other,” Dowling tells Dazed. “It sounds like science fiction.”
“Even though Coventry is one of the most multiracial places I’ve ever been to in England, there was social unrest and divides,” adds Mick Wilson, half of worldwide DJ duo Parks & Wilson and a third of dance music group Tilt. “Then the house music scene came, and we felt that we had something we could put a stamp on and claim as ours – and the government and the like couldn’t really tell us what to do.”
Dowling continues: “That period changed youth culture around the world, because young people who were (once) violent, racist, and homophobic started putting on illegal events for people and telling them, you’ll be safe. We want you to come, anyone’s welcome.”
Most of the work exhibited has been years in the making; Dowling has been creating work around Coventry’s dance music scene for over 30 years. He used to travel around with Wilson documenting tours, and has since been out on a limb creating and self-funding radio documentaries about Coventry’s rich dance music culture. It wasn’t until someone pointed out to Dowling that what he was doing could be classed as art that he was inspired to formulate it all into a cohesive exhibition with a singular vision: to bring Coventry back into the conversation about dance music history.
Those involved in Coventry’s rave scene remain infectiously enthusiastic about it, but regard their participation as commonplace. They reflect on it as a typical response to living through the effects of Thatcherism in the Midlands as a group of young people desperately searching for a creative outlet. On the contrary, Coventry was a particularly special hub for rave. It was home to The Eclipse (later known as The Edge), a key venue for the country’s acid house scene, and the UK’s first to have a 24-hour license – meaning the party could continue until 8AM. Dowling recalls how people would come from Manchester’s Haçienda, which was only open until 2AM, and from London to keep the party going at The Eclipse.
Local crew Amnesia House – a rave institution in their own right – also threw their own illegal raves in Coventry, attracting huge crowds from all over the UK, with 40-50 coaches arriving in the city every weekend. As well as taking over two years’ worth of Saturday nights at legendary acid house club Shelley’s Laserdome in Stoke-on-Trent, the group began putting on the UK’s first fully legal outdoor raves. They had discovered a legal loophole that meant if they set themselves up as a member’s club, people could turn up whenever they liked, have a drink, and stay all night. This was a formula that was then copied by promoters all over the country. As Wilson says with a smile: “Coventry had a big mouth for a small place!”
“The house music scene came and we felt that we had something we could put a stamp on and claim as ours, and the government couldn’t tell us what to do” – Mick Wilson
What happened in Coventry was key to how rave swept feverishly across the UK during the late 80s and early 90s. With all these firsts, there is surprisingly little acknowledgement within Coventry itself of its own dance music culture. “Coventry takes things for granted,” Dowling says. “The city, the council, and the powers that be could have stepped in and seen that we had something good here, like Manchester did, but instead it was seen as young people dancing all night and taking drugs. How does a city celebrate a thing like that?” Dowling believes Coventry has struggled to see past the illegality of the time and embrace rave’s momentous role in the UK’s cultural history. With the authorities failing to safeguard dance music culture – as Manchester and Liverpool did with the Haçienda and Cream – Coventry has become “whitewashed”, according to both Dowling and Wilson, out of dance music history altogether.
Man Parris speculates that Coventry’s music scene began to crumble after music venues closed following the 1982 recession hit, meaning the city simply didn’t have the infrastructure to support a variety of music. “We had a really big music culture which got strangled, so the last good thing to come out of Coventry on the music scene was The Specials,” he says. “The music scene was dying. It was getting to be very poppy and normal, which is no good to anyone when you’re a youth anyway.”
Without any recognition, the key people in the scene left Coventry to pursue the rush of rave elsewhere. “We left the city because we thought it was cramped and we needed to experience a bigger, wider world,” says Wilson. “Maybe that’s why Coventry’s been whitewashed: anybody who wanted to get on or move further out, they went everywhere but Coventry, so there’s never been a continuous line that’s gone through keeping this thing going.”
Coventry’s rave scene was created largely by working class people from areas like Hill Fields and Wood End, who didn’t – and still don’t necessarily – see what they were doing as an important cultural movement. Dowling recalls trying to get the original Amnesia House crew to get involved in the exhibition, playing versions of themselves in a theatre performance, and being met with confusion – ‘Why would anyone want to put on a performance about us?’ To reinsert the voices of the movement’s working class originators back into history, Dowling has ensured that 50 per cent of all tickets to the exhibition are free, and has offered the exhibition to local and university libraries so that it can live on for future generations to explore and marvel at.
With local figures like Pa Salieu – whose stellar debut album is titled Send Them To Coventry – global attention is being drawn back to Coventry again, albeit slowly. “What’s happening with people like him is very much the timeline continuing – these young people who have made something out of nothing,” Dowling enthuses.
Though Wilson sees this as a slower process, he’s excited about people rediscovering Coventry. “People are finding out that there’s an alternative, indie side to Coventry, and that something good can come and grow out of it.”
“That period changed youth culture around the world, because young people who were (once) violent, racist, and homophobic started putting on illegal events for people and telling them, you’ll be safe” – Adi Dowling
As well as the exciting new acts bubbling out of Coventry, Man Parris is sure that the old rave spirit is getting rekindled. To launch the exhibition back in September, he played a gig at Coventry’s Memorial Park as The Man Parris Experience. “I opened the curtain, and honestly my legs went (to jelly when I saw) 6,000 kids out there moshing,” he tells Dazed. “It’s in these kids’ blood – the parents played them the music when they got (into the scene themselves). They were probably made from the rave scene!” He adds: “We’re going to have a second coming – it has to be done!” As a new exhibition about Milton Keynes’ 90s and 00s rave scene prepares to launch, and British south Asian collective Daytimers reignites the spirit of Birmingham’s (and beyond) 80s daytime raves, it feels like the second coming is already here, finally giving the Midlands the credit it deserves in sculpting this key period of British popular culture.
What’s certain is that as a new history of rave is being written, a simultaneous process is happening of renegotiating Coventry’s relationship to arts and culture. Dowling and Wilson are both adamant that without structural support and funding, Coventry’s emerging music scene cannot thrive in the way that it has the potential to.
House Is A Feeling is itself exemplary of that – Dowling mostly self-funded its production, and feels that the narratives he’s been shouting about for years are only now getting attention because they’re attached to the City of Culture status. While House Is A Feeling is a rousing call to create your own institutions when the ones in place fail you, it’s also a reminder that without formal remembrance, these self-made histories risk fading away, and with them a city’s underground history of its inhabitants.
House is a Feeling will run at the former IKEA building in Coventry between November 11 and 28. You can find out more and buy tickets here.