Acid Techno: Drugs, squats, and protest

Cyberpunk music. Which tones and rhythms embody Cyberpunk? Which style defines the genre? As a Cyberpunk, which sound pulses relentlessly through your brain? Vaporwave perhaps? Maybe some Drum and Bass? Or are you chippin’ in?

But when you strip away the sonics, and you look at the genre as a whole, its culture, attitude and style, which one is truly Cyberpunk?

How about Acid Techno?

It’s Punk As Fuck.

Its genesis began in October 1990 when Chris Knowles, Julian Sandell and Aaron Northmore hosted their first event at Julian’s squat in North London.

As Chris states in his interview with Louder Than War, it was “a techno rave (courtesy of us) on the first floor, and a hole cut in the floor with a fireman’s pole leading to a basement with punk bands playing, and a big fire in the garden serving as a chill out!”

Friends from the North London/Stoke Newington squat scene, the three of them bonded over a love of techno and raving. Feeling out of place amongst the white-gloves and glow-stick culture of the burgeoning UK rave scene, they preferred to stick to their background of squat and punk culture, putting on parties in squats and underground venues, and doing their own illegal raves.

“By doing illegal raves you were challenging the status quo, but also making parties the way we felt they should be made, with a dirtier, edgier feel. They were political by their very nature, and the ‘Fuck You’ attitude was always there.”

Aaron recalls a lot of animosity at the start, “lot of the punk purists hated it at first”, but after putting on what they named a ‘Liberator party’, the Liberator DJs were born.

They were playing different forms of Techno, such as Belgium and Detroit Techno, and Hardcore from the UK. But the music they really gravitated towards was the ravey acid stuff, like some of the Underground Resistance output.

By 1993 they’d played everything from massive warehouse parties to Megadog, and the Castle Morton Free Festival, the largest ever illegal gathering in the UK, and decided they were going to put their first record out. Finding it difficult to buy the music they really liked, they set about it making it.

Chris used to play drums for anarcho-punk band Hagar the Womb, and brought the DIY ethic of punk to their productions. They created the Stay Up Forever label in 1994 and released their first EP with fellow Hagar The Womb member Paul Harding. It would take several releases, and the meeting of additional like-minded ex-punks before Stay Up Forever nailed the blueprint for the sound of Acid Techno. Joined by Henry Cullen (D.A.V.E. the Drummer) and later Guy McAffer (The Geezer) from another anarcho-punk band, Back to the Planet, it was Cullen in particular that helped the Liberators hone the beefier sound that would become Acid Techno. The Liberators and Back to the Planet shared stages on a number of occasions, and in ’95 Cullen acted as engineer on a side-release from Chris Liberator in 1995 on Bag Records, Spectrum.

By this point, Stay Up Forever was up to release number 10, and after their session on Spectrum, Cullen agreed to engineer a track for SUF11. That resulted in them co-producing the A side, Nothing Can Save Us, London! DDR took up the AA side, who Chris attributes as the one who pioneered the technique of writing harmonic 303 lines at Cullen’s studio. After meeting Lawrie Immersion and The Geezer, the acid heads had grown to include the Liberators, DDR, Gizelle, Immersion, The Geezer and Cullen (D.A.V.E. The Drummer). The collective of Acid Techno was born, encompassing Stay Up Forever, Smitten Records, Routemaster Records and Cluster Records. All setup, ran and produced by those involved in the free party squat scene, which was now firmly home to the sound of Acid Techno. And the collective kept on growing… “D.A.V.E. The Drummer’s seminal ‘HYDRAULIX’ techno label, Geezer’s train-track rolling beast R.A.W., Julian Liberator’s influential ‘4 x 4’ wonked-up hard techfunk ,Chris Liberator’s challenging analogue experiment ‘MAXIMUM MINIMUM’, and Ant’s chundering and groovy ‘POWERTOOLS’”.

By 1997, the Acid Techno sound was well and truly formed, and permanently fused into history with the release of the now classic mix CD, It’s Not Intelligent…And It’s Not From Detroit…But It’s F**king ‘avin It!

As the inlay states, “one sound above all has dominated the scene in 95-96 this being acid techno trance – spearheaded by labels like Stay Up Forever and Choci’s Chewns, and more recently Routemaster, Smitten and Bag. The DJ’s and activists involved in the scene were now making the music for it, a true and unique London acid sound, and the perfect soundtrack for the parties – exciting, hard and acidic! This collection of tracks represents the best of the music from 95-96 . It’s a no-holds barred feast of blistering 303’s and driving basslines, reflecting the energy and dynamism of London’s real alternative current, the parties and clubs of London’s dispossessed.
It’s not Intelligent,
It’s not from Detroit,
But it’s fucking ‘avin it!!!”

Image from Molly Macindoe

Low Life

When you look at the definition of Low Life on Wikipedia, it’s less than complementary, citing examples of criminals, drug dealers, freeloaders, hobos and gangsters. But there are two neon lights of truth in the article, Low Life’s being both the anti-heroes of Cyberpunk, and those considered morally unacceptable by their own community. And that’s where Acid Techno culture again fits into the Cyberpunk ethos.

“…when our thing became acid techno, it really got sniffed at by these techno people.”

“it was really frowned on by the mainstream techno community, the people that kind of pulled strings didn’t like us.”

“this is not proper Techno.”

And so, after working together trying to find the sound that became Acid Techno, their scene was sniffed at by the Techno purists. But in true anti-hero style, they got their own back on the scene that rejected their sound, refused to book them and called their music “generic fucking acid techno, really shit.”

From an interview with Lawrie Dunster, he called this out as one of the reasons why his Pounding Grooves label started anonymously. “People write shit in the press if your name is out there. There was period of time when I seemed to be in Mixmag, etc; every month, often with bullshit written… So I decided that ‘fame’ was not for me. I’ve never been a big fan of excessive adulation, I only want to make people dance, not for my ‘name’ to be big. So anonymousness was for me…”

As one reviewer over at Discogs states about Pounding Grooves, “Filthiest, darkest and purest techno I have ever heard. Legendary.” And the Techno purists lapped it up. So much so in fact that the anonymous nature of the label and its releases drew interest as to who was really behind it all.

There was speculation that Techno heavyweights like Cari Lekebush, Adam Beyer or Chris Liebing were behind Pounding Grooves.

Instead of course, it was the Squat party, Acid Techno bad boy of the time, Lawrie Immersion, either working on his own, or in cahoots with underground heroes such as D.A.V.E the Drummer or Geezer, so when the secret was revealed it caused quite a stir.”

London. Acid. City. Our time is now.

A key member of the scene from the start, Lawrie was infamous for his Immersion Sound System. A mainstay of the free party scene, and also a regular at Reclaim the Streets, ‘a resistance movement opposed to the dominance of corporate forces in globalisation’. In 1997 an eye-witness was front and centre at the Never Mind The Ballots social justice demonstration.

“Lawrie Immersion drove through a number of police roadblocks to get into Trafalgar square that day and when he tried to leave (we had to push his van as it would not start) the police took him off and accused him of attempted murder LOL, a number of solicitors turned up at the police station and he was released I think without charge.”

Together as Lochi, Lawrence Dunster and Chris Liberator released London Acid City on Lawrie’s newly formed Routemaster Records label. It soon became the anthem of Reclaim the Streets and was the first track blasted out by Lawrie’s system at the Trafalgar Square protest.

Battling with the authorities was a permanent part of the Acid Techno scene, living up to its anarchic roots from squat parties, illegal warehouse raves and social movements. Sometimes the Police would leave them alone, other times they would come in hard and confiscate equipment. And that political stance was replayed through their releases, such as the 1998 release of Hackney Council Bunch of Cunts on TeC in 1998 and then a different track named Hackney Council : Bunch Of__ on Routemaster in 1999. Released after Hackney council seized Lawrie’s equipment.

Punks and anarchists built a vibrant counterculture to resist the unemployment and despair of Thatcher’s Britain during the 1980s.” And Hackney, in London, was one of the permanent locations for squat parties, including this huge one at Number 1 Brick Lane. With an amazing account of the night over at NR32 definitely worth a read.

Hackney would be immortalised in a number of Acid Techno tracks, such as Tardis to Hackney, Hackney Soap Box, and the classic One Night in Hackney, itself a parody of The Horrorist’s One Night in New York City.

Although compared to The Horrorist’s protagonist taking just one pill, the Stay Up Forever crew hits more of an excess…

“And as I found my way to the dancefloor someone stopped me and said.
Take this pill.
So I took it and said – What was that.
And they said EXSTACY.
And then they offered me a line, and I said.
What was that (snort) And they said KETAMINE.
So I took it, and then I took some cocaine, and then some speed, and then some acid and then I drank 15 cans of stella.

Escaping Reality Through Drugs

As Shadowlink explored previously on ND, “In a fully cyberpunk world, the hazards, inconveniences, and consequently, the hesitations of drug use, whether legal or illegal, no longer exist—only the effects. Consume at your own risk.”

And consumption goes hand in hand with Acid Techno. So much so that the use of ketamine on the free party scene was the subject of an academic paper back in 2008.

And the releases themselves made constant reference to drug use. From One Night in Hackney above to Gizelle’s release as Rebel Yelle with Purple Heart, track names often pulled from the drug scene of Acid Techno. Two Lines of K…, The ‘E’ Spot, T.H.C., Mushrooms on Daleks, White Widow, B.4.U. (Come Down), Cocaine, the list goes on and on. It was the track names, and the lyrics, such as Inner City Junkies, on ROUTE 17

“got my spoon cookin’ brown, bangin’ skunk, smokin’ rock, tokin’ ket, sniffin’ coke, choppin’ base, poppin’ E! Tequila slammin’, blunt rollin’, innner city junkies!”

Just look at Stay Up Forever, the record label logo is adorned with a pill and the letter e is highlighted.

The Routemaster Records logo is the bus that was Lawrie Immersions home and studio, snorting a line of ketamine off a record as it plays on the 1210s.

It doesn’t seem that it was glorifying drug use, more that it was such an intrinsic part of the anarchic scene, that like it’s anti-establishment stance, it ran through everything connected with Acid Techno, squat and free party culture. Possibly a nod to constantly trying to live outside the system. They ran the labels, they made the music, they could do whatever they want. It did sometimes cause problems though. Notably the cover for It’s Not Intelligent…

It wasn’t the wrap of speed that was the problem. It was the, now masked, logo from the packet of skins that drew the ire of Rizla. Why? Because it was too close to the word Fucking for their liking. The cover was reprinted, although apparently Rizla still weren’t happy.

High Tech

Acid Techno. It’s made with machines. Technology constantly pushing the frontiers of what’s possible with music. That’s the high tech. Job done. But Acid Techno manages to take it one step further.

“The Street Finds Its Own Use For Things” – The classic quote from Gibson in Neuromancer, but what does it actually mean in practice?

I’ve mentioned the word acid 27 times in this article so far, but haven’t explained what it is. If you’ve listened to some of the links, you may have noticed a distinct squelching, throbbing and bubbling sound running through many of the tracks. That’s the 303. That’s the acid.

The Roland Transistor Bass 303 was a failed product. Based in Osaka, Japan, Roland was less that ten years old when it released the Roland TB-303 Bass Line in 1982. It was designed by engineer Tadao Kikumoto with one purpose in mind, to provide a synthetic and distinctive sound akin to an electric bass guitar. Roland’s initial aim was to take on Fender, the number one manufacturer of bass guitars at the time. It was a spectacular failure. In the US, it only shipped with manuals in Japanese, making the machine even trickier to program and sequence. It sounded nothing like a bass guitar, cost $395 and ultimately that meant its quirky nature and unrealistic sound failed to find an audience. After only 18 months of production it was cancelled, and the remaining units were sold off cheaply by Roland. It did find some form of commercial success, with a few tracks featuring its distinctive sound, such as Orange Juice’s 1983 release, Rip It Up. After its demise, the only places experiencing its bubbling acid were bargain bins and second-hand music stores.

By 1985 the street was about to find its own use for the failed silver box. In Chicago, Phuture, founded by DJ Pierre, Earl ‘Spanky’ Smith and Herbert ‘Herb J’ Jackson would discover a sound that has defined electronic music ever since.

Spanky bought it used because you couldn’t get it new anymore, and he had it hooked up, running with the drum machine, but it wasn’t [working]. If you get one of those 303s it’s not going to have any baseline sounds in it, so you got to squeak and squack it till it makes some noise. He said he didn’t know what was wrong with it, how to program it right, so he said, “Could you figure it out?” So when I came over by it, I started twisting the knobs, seeing what they do, because that’s what I do: twist knobs. So I was doing that and we fell in love with the sounds it was making. We fell in love with how I was twisting the knobs with the beat. And then I started twisting them a certain way, and putting emotion and feeling behind it, and Spanky was like, “Yo Pierre, keep doing that, I like that.” I was like, “Yeah, this is something!” We were like, “Yo, that’s style.” We said forget trying to make a baseline, let’s program it like this and just twist the knobs. And so that’s what we did, you know.”

Acid house was born.

Their debut, Acid Tracks, destroyed dance floors with its pounding rhythms, rolling percussion, and of course, the raging acid line. According to DJ Pierre they gave it to Chicago DJ Ron Hardy. “he dropped it four times. The first two times, people were like “What the heck is this?” The third time people were like, “Okay, this sounds alright, I guess.” Then the fourth time, people went crazy. So he literally broke the record. He could have played it twice and been like, forget it, these people don’t get it. But he got it, and he had the vision that it was something. So really, he’s very important. Almost as important as we are in the creation of acid and acid house, because he broke it and he made it a sound that the whole city of Chicago was singing.”

By 1987 Acid house was invading the United Kingdom and was one of the catalysts that fuelled the Second Summer of Love. The same social phenomena that brought the Liberators and the rest of the squat scene crews together. And when the Liberators were searching for that sound, it was the sound of the 303 more than anything that they latched onto.

Chirs Liberator: “We started to get obsessive about the records we were buying, and by 93/94 there was a kind of European acid sound made by a few people, it got faster. It was a bit more trance. We didn’t like the keyboards, we didn’t like the trancey bits, we liked the acid and the fastness of the beat. We liked the Detroit acid, the heavy stuff but we didn’t like the softer, more melodic stuff.”

Have a go yourself. Twist some knobs. See if you can come up with some raging acid lines:

Then the street made it even squelchier

Synth mods. The act of diving into the internals of a synthesiser and modifying it.

The Quicksilver 303 mod replaces the original’s CPU. “With a completely rewritten operating system, all of the creative obstacles to programming amazing sequences have been removed. The experience still remains uniquely ‘303’.”

The Borg mod, now discontinued, gave the 303 some extra squelch.

And probably the most famous is the Devil Fish mod, for when the insane acid of the original 303 isn’t enough, you can push it even further with this mod. As witnessed in the Acid Techno track Around The Bend by Devil Fish Fury.

And where else can you find releases by Devil Fish Fury, pushing the 303 to its limits? Why of course, the site jointly setup by the Stay Up Forever crew to showcase all the latest Acid Techno.

Because Acid Techno is as strong as ever.

As Chris Liberator says here in this interview, “you can’t kill the spirit.”

Time to turn on, tune in, drop out, cook brown, bang skunk, smoke rock, toke ket, sniff coke, chop base, pop E, slam tequila, get blunt rolling and channel your innner city junky.


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  1. Now that’s a genre that I haven’t heard before but am now currently loving it. Great article!

  2. Glad to see the site is still alive.

    Tbh, calling the TB303 high tech is a stretch. From a purely technical point of view the sound producing part was more or less a cheap knockoff of the 70s moog design. They even used especially cheap parts, so tolerances were very bad and no two TB303 sound the same, ironically making this thing more unique and beloved by the few people actually using it.

  3. The author does a fantastic job of exploring the origins and evolution of this subculture, and the cultural and political movements that have influenced it. It’s a refreshing and unique take on cyberpunk that highlights the importance of community and activism in shaping our society. Overall, a great read that left me feeling inspired and energized!


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