The United Kingdom’s entrance into the ’90s was far from smooth. After a decade under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s iron rule, mines closed at an accelerated rate, a poll tax placed a heavy cost on the working class, and a recession engulfed the sovereign nation. At the same time, a second summer of love created a new youth movement with a pumping electronic soundtrack that kept hopes high.
Director Brian Welsh and writer Kieran Hurley document this period in their feature film Beats through the story of friends Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald). Set in 1994 in Scotland, the teenagers form a bond over rave beats beamed from pirate radio stations. Meanwhile, Prime Minister John Major’s Tory government are trying to pass the Criminal Justice And Public Order Act 1994, a draconian piece of legislation designed to suppress the supposed ‘moral decline’ brought by raves. As Johnno’s family prepares to leave the working-class area, and the crackdowns on raves become harder, the friends decide to make their final days together meaningful by journeying to their first rave.
The film’s black and white cinematography gives the post-recession industrial setting of West Lothian a bleak appearance, but it is coloured by its soundtrack of rave hits curated by Scottish rave veteran Keith McIvor, aka Optimo’s JD Twitch. Here are four of the film’s best bangers:
Ultra-Sonic – ‘Annihilating Rhythm’
Leading figures of Scotland’s Tartan Techno scene and a direct link to the film’s location, Ultra-Sonic open the film with the pumping kick drum of their track ‘Annihilating Rhythm’. The record captures the adrenalin rush of raving with its changing tempos, crowd noises and a DJ shouting phrases like “Do you love your hardcore?”
Spanner shares the track over the phone to Johnno, sending the friends into a frenzy as they dance in their underwear in their bedrooms. The track distils the rave experience into seven heart-racing minutes, and the pair’s excitement for the song shows rave was about more than drugs.
The Prodigy – ‘Wind It Up’
Of all the acts featured on the Beats soundtrack, Essex group The Prodigy are the biggest. Three of the chart-topper’s tracks are featured in the film, including their fifth single ‘Wind It Up’.
Initially a solo endeavour for producer Liam Howlett, they debuted with the cartoon-sampling ‘Charly’. The track led to their being labelled a novelty act, but that fell to the wayside with their 1992 debut album Experience becoming the toast of the rave scene.
The band have long maintained they’re not political, telling The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis, “It’s never political for us. We just write music for people to go ‘yeah!’ to”. Despite this, politics have subconsciously featured in their music, beginning with the lyrical refrain on ‘Wind It Up’: “Equal rights and justice in this time”. That lyric is sampled from reggae artist Anthony Johnson’s ‘Equal Rights’, a call for racial harmony.
The band clung to the apolitical stance even as the Criminal Justice Bill emboldened police to raid raves. An anti-authoritarian streak ran across their 1994 second album, Music For The Jilted Generation, from the track ‘Their Law’ to artwork of a raver flipping off police and the unambiguous liner-note reading, “How can the government stop young people from having a good time?” This led to the band becoming unwitting heroes for a generation fighting for their right to party.
Inner City – ‘Big Fun’
“From our brothers in the ghettos of Detroit to us in the skids of West Lothian,” pirate radio DJ D-Man (Ross Man) announces in the film, acknowledging Detroit as the birthplace of techno.
The sound was pioneered by a trio of kids dubbed The Belleville Three; childhood friends united by their passion for the innovative electronic sounds of George Clinton and Kraftwerk. In 1988, one of the trio, Kevin Saunderson, made a beat on his Roland 909 drum machine and invited singer Paris Grey to add her voice and lyrics, giving the song pop appeal. Its inclusion on a UK techno compilation led to the song becoming a UK Top Ten hit, introducing a country to a whole new sound and laying the foundations for young DJs to build new and exciting beats on.
Autechre – ‘Flutter’
British electronic duo Autechre may find the label ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ “silly”, but the reasoning behind their track ‘Flutter’ showcases a load of intelligence.
The most widely mocked element of the Criminal Justice And Public Order Act 1994 was its definition of rave music as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. The duo, signed to the adventurous Warp Records, saw a challenge, and began constructing their boldest record yet. The pair programmed 65 distinct drum machine patterns, stringing them together for 10 minutes of electronic music where no two bars were the same.
‘Flutter’ was released on the Anti EP, with a sticker on the cover advising DJs “to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non-repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment”. The sticker was a challenge to the mainstream of what electronic music could be, and the track an exhilarating post-modern protest song.
Listen to the full Beats soundtrack here.
Beats is now streaming at SBS On Demand.