As part of a recent project, WA researched the heritage significance of the Grade II* listed Highdown Tower, a 19th-century country house near Worthing in West Sussex. The house and gardens at Highdown are fine, befitting a gentleman’s residence of the mid-19th century, later converted to a comfortable family home. Perhaps surprisingly, however, it was in the 1980s and ‘90s that Highdown had its greatest cultural impact, hosting raves from the late ‘80s, and open as Sterns nightclub from 1990-4. A major centre of the UK’s rave scene, known as the ‘Second Summer of Love’, Sterns’ four club rooms were internationally recognised, and have since been cited as hugely influential in the development of rave culture and multiple genres of electronic dance music. While Sterns provided an undoubted moment in the sun for the UK rave scene, however, looked back on fondly as a trailblazing open space, the very nature of the culture and music developed around Sterns was as an underground movement, and the voices crucial to these histories have been largely forgotten. Sterns’ cultural impact provokes questions about how we record and monument our cultural history, and how certain communities themselves are most easily pushed to the sidelines. Today, archival groups and community museum projects aim to remedy this, and the increased opportunities of the digital age provide glimmers of hope to restore the history of these lost communities.
Image by: Rachel Jones
Sterns’ cultural impact comes from its public, relatively open position in the early UK rave scene, riding the wave of a movement which was to be effectively outlawed through political and police action. Licensed as a members-only club with over 12,000 members, Sterns boasted four rooms, each playing a different genre of EDM, spread over three floors of the manor house, and the space itself has been explored in more detail in a video here (insert link). While the unique nature of the club was key to its identity, Sterns held just as much importance for the new forms of music played there. EDM was being created by people at home for the first time, and didn’t appear at traditional venues or on the radio. Mensa – the driving force behind Sterns who ran the promoter Interdance – is described as having to drive to London to pick up the pirate radio whose signal didn’t reach down to Sussex. Mensa himself was key at distributing new music to which Sterns gave an opportunity, but the nature of these new cultures meant that this was achieved through personal relationships, with white tapes passed on by hand and played at a certain night. Producers would meet up in person, or go on to Chaffinches Farm, from where Interdance was run, to record at the studio there.
Flyer: Marmite - Tony Ladd
Sterns itself was forced to close in 1994 over drug concerns, but the closure of such a hub only further accelerated the movement of the rave scene underground, which came to be defined by large, unregulated parties off the M25 Orbital motorway. Looking back at the scene now, it is all too easy to connect the acts who went on to achieve commercial success in the decades after playing at Sterns with a simplistic, linear evolution of EDM’s various genres. Of the 50 acts cited on the Sterns Wikipedia page, however, only 3 are women, a vast misrepresentation of the movement itself. Such movements could only ever have been powered by a much broader groundswell of voices from a wide variety of backgrounds. The underground nature of the movement was definitive to its evolution, but has also meant that the major history of each genre went unrecorded at the time. Backdated approaches to telling the story of EDM – centred on big-name individuals alone – often erode the very soul of the movement as exciting and evolving – centred on personal relationships.
Mike De Underground, Randall, Marly Marl, MC Fats, Cool Hand Flex, and Jonny 2 Bad outside De Underground Records, July 1995. Image courtesy and copyright, Eddie Otchere.
Recently, various archival projects have sought to create a new history of the mainstream launch of electronic music, aimed at oral histories and first-hand accounts of how underground networks grew and developed, rather than imposing stories upon them. The history of jungle, key to the later development of drum’n’bass, has been a recent focus of Rendezvous Projects, who aim to connect ‘creative projects’ with the social histories of places. Focussing on De Underground Records in Forest Gate – a hub of jungle in the mid-90s which formed part of the same network as Sterns – the project has recorded podcasts with the shop’s founders, relating the real lived experience of the movement – something which would otherwise be lost to the ether. De Underground Records was awarded a blue heritage plaque in June of this year as part of Newnham Heritage Month, but the understanding of the early jungle movement as one which sprang from communities and underground networks, and the drive to record this, has even greater importance than the recognition of a space itself.
Desmond Fearon (Uncle 22), 2021. Image courtesy of Katherine Green
Equally crucial to recording lost histories is that the under-represented communities themselves have the opportunity to tell their own story. Julia Toppin is an academic focusing on the history of drum’n’bass, and has explored how the problem of recording the genre’s history runs far deeper than acknowledging the movement’s development as complex and underground. Instead, the museums and historians recording these stories are often totally unrepresentative of the multicultural communities which drove various movements forwards. When attempting to restore these voices to the centre of their own histories, this is a problematic and uncomfortable position.
Toppin is highly critical of ‘gatekeepers’, and the extreme difficulties faced by BAME applicants to Ph.D. and research funding to help tell these stories. While doubtful over the opportunities for meaningful change in white male-dominated academic sectors, Toppin finds glimmers of hope in two main ways for underrepresented communities moving forwards. The first is in increased accessibility to grasp and reclaim these traditional sources of funding available, and the second is to move past them altogether. Toppin believes digitalisation allows previously suppressed voices the chance to set up their own networks, and tell their own stories. Jungle itself grew as a community movement, relying on these personal networks alongside more public events at clubs such as Sterns. In the digital age, the strength of these creative networks is further enhanced, and Toppin sees a declining reliance on traditional labels as exciting and progressive. The opportunity for exceptional communities to come together in their own creative spaces echoes jungle’s foundations, but is all the stronger moving forwards.
In Brighton, a world-leading community collecting project at the Museum of Transology provides an example of how a community can tell their own story through a physical archive. Founded in 2014, the museum has grown to become the largest current collection of objects relating to trans peoples’ lives. Crucial to the project was the vision of the founder to use pre-existing queer community spaces as collecting workshops, rather than ask trans people to come forward into a subjective museum environment which has often been misrepresentative. The museum holds open-source values at its heart, with all collections free to use or replicate. In these ways, a truly evolving and representative collection has been put together, built both by and for the trans community. Ultimately, the Museum of Transology aims both to create a lasting, representative archive, but also to shift the recognition of the museum environment among trans communities as a more welcoming space.
Sterns, like the recent recognition of De Underground Records, deserves cultural acknowledgment for its role as a hub for the development of EDM, and should be celebrated as an open space where different creative genres could be expressed. In recognising Sterns’ history, however, we should take the opportunity to look past the flashiest names towards the communities which made the scene as a whole possible, and celebrate its ‘underground’ nature. In archiving and remembering lost stories, and recording the lived experiences of these movements, we can aspire to shift the cultural narratives back towards the creative communities themselves. In today’s world, digital connections mean that new, exciting networks can come together in safe spaces creatively, while projects such as the Museum of Transology mean that previously misrepresented communities can take control of their own histories, and be celebrated.
By William Blackburn