Paul Mac's guide to the Australian '90s rave scene
During the ‘90s, Sydney duo Itch-E & Scratch-E was at the forefront of Australia’s burgeoning dance music scene and soundtracked many a rave with their indelible hit ‘Sweetness & Light’.
Released in 1994, the seminal single would bridge the gap between the electronic underground and the mainstream – it broke into the charts, climbed to #21 of the 1994 Hottest 100, and won the second ever ARIA Award for Best Dance Release in 1995.
So, who better than Paul Mac, one half of Itch-E & Scratch-E, to provide a guided tour of Australia’s ‘90s underground club scene? An era that’s remembered fondly by those who were part of it but a period that still hasn’t received its dues from those outside of it for shaping the ubiquity of electronic music in today’s cultural landscape.
“For a lot of people into dance music, it did feel like a revolution – a completely new attitude towards music,” Mac told Double J’s Tim Shiel when he came in for 12’’ Tuesdays.
“A complete freedom from rock, male aggressive status quo… It provided some kind of glimpse into a beautiful future. There was an optimism and euphoria about it.”
To help Double J celebrate the ‘90s this month, here’s Paul Mac’s handpicked tracks from the era, along with some supplementary stories.
Severed Heads - 'Dead Eyes Opened' (1994 mix by Robert Racic)
Severed Heads: my heroes - the band that launched 100 techno bands and this is the Robert Racic mix. He was the most amazing DJ/producer who is, sadly, not with us anymore but was super-instrumental in getting Volition Records up and running, and for Itch-E & Scratch-E’s sound.
On the importance of Big Day Out’s Boiler Room
It’s really hard to think of it now, for kids today, that rock and dance music were two completely different tribes and never the two shall meet. The Boiler Room was, for a lot of people, their first exposure [to electronic music]. They’d come in with their heavy metal black t-shirts going ‘This is cool, what’s this!?’ It was a really important part in getting Australian dance music to cross over to a wider audience.
Vision Four 5 - 'Everything You Need' (1995)
All the different cities often had a different vibe, and Brisbane was really up for it and way ravey. Vision Four 5 were a really good example of that. Originally, they were three guys: Ben Suthers, Noel Burgess, and Tim Gruchy on visuals. They had their tech down and had such a killer 303-pumping, energetic live show.
On the wild frontier that was clandestine raves:
The scene was so new and unregulated that you didn’t really know what was going to happen. I remember going up to some massive rave, and you’d be on after the fire dancers - the whole stage would be covered in turpentine, like it was about to explode any second. My main memory was not being able to breathe and feeling like I was going to die in a flaming ball. But it was fun – good party!
You’d show up in Perth, and you didn’t really know the promoter or have a contract. You didn’t really know if you were going to get paid or shut down. It was so fly by the seat of your pants production. But the good thing was, out of that there was this incredible enthusiasm and energy to make this beautiful scene happen.
DJ HMC - 'Phreakin' (1995)
DJ HMC is from Adelaide; I think this was the first track he ever made. I remember, we spoke on an electronic music panel once, he was telling me he’d just got his mixing desk, whatever synths and sampler he’s using – everything’s going into the red. It’s so distorted but it’s funky as all. He’s still making incredible music now as Late Nite Tuff Guy and touring the world, killing it.
Happy Valley festival, 1992
That was probably the most legendary rave event I remember. It was a four hour drive down the South Coast from Sydney. In the early days when the police weren’t quite onto it yet, the organisers told the farmer that it was a videoshoot but they happened to have this massive stage. Then suddenly, 6,000 people arrive in cars.
Itch-E & Scratch-E played live at that. In those days we set the entire studio up live on ironing boards and milk crates. I was so terrified about going on stage in front of all those people in an unfamiliar environment. We were supposed to play at 4am but I asked if could go on at 6am instead?
"We went on and all the gear was covered in morning dew. I thought I was going to be electrocuted... but we did this classic sunrise set and it became this really beautiful moment. It’s probably one of my most favourite performances.
B(if)tek - 'We Think You’re Dishy' (1999)
The Canberra scene was a different kettle of fish. There was a collective called Client Analogue, they ran their own zine, Kronic Oscillator, release compilations, and organise nights where people would bring all their gear, pool equipment and have jam nights. It was way more collective and a scene with beautiful bands like Dark Network – too many to remember.
B(if)tek were probably one of my favourites and they got signed to Sony, when the record labels were like ‘what’s this dance music thing! We should get on to this.’ The clip for this beautiful track was filmed at the iconic Club Kooky in Sydney, back in 1995 on 77 Williams Street.
RELATED: What Australian electronica really sounded like in the 90s, according to Nicole Skeltys of B(if)tek
Quench - 'Dreams' (1993)
Quench were from the Melbourne scene, which was, like the architecture, way more European. It was way more heavily produced, trancier – the kick drums were way more pounding. ‘Dreams’ is such a good track, love those bells. It lends this epic-ness and the spoken word never goes astray either. Whenever I heard that part of the song, all I can see is a laser tunnel through fog, and you’re in the middle of it making mouth actions.
Nasenbluten - 'Blows T' The Nose' (1995)
Nasenbluten is German for ‘nosebleed’, which was one of the many, many sub-genres of techno as it evolved. You had Gabba, Happy Hardcore, and one point it got to Nosebleed, because it was stupidly fast and mega-aggressive.
Hailing from Newcastle, the thing about Nasenbluten is they have this Aussie sense of humour, it’s bogan in a really delightful way. Just when you think ‘Blows T The Nose’ can’t get any weirder, harder and faster, it does – the next section happens, gets more ridiculously full-on. I still get goosebumps from it.
Going back to Severed Heads, I played live with them for a minute and remember playing in Newcastle and Nasenbluten were the support. Not only was it that hardcore but it was all done on 8-bit samplers, it was this screamingly harsh digital sound. Amazing.
On the link between Sydney's party scene and queer culture:
In Sydney, you could argue before the rave scene was the Hordern scene, this explosion of dance music with weekly mega parties like The Rat Party and Sweatbox. Let's not forget where that came from and was tied into: Mardi Gras and SleazeBall. Essentially, the gay community had this incredible after party for Mardi Gras, and a fundraising party for that called SleazeBall, which was 10,000 people or whatever packed into the Hordern Pavilion and Royal Hall of Industries, in Centennial Park.
Other people went ‘hang on, we could have a party there as well’. That came into every weekend, which turned into this massive craze of Hordern parties, which was the birth of the big dance event. After that, it spread out to the bush and rave culture was born.
I think from the get-go in Sydney, it was very much based on a different angle to what rock music was, because of the whole nature of ‘the crowd is the act, the crowd is the event’. You’re not standing, punching the air looking towards a stage, which unfortunately is how dance music is nowadays, through DJ worship. Back then, it was dancing to each other, the people were the act, the entertainment. So it was built around a non-sexually, non-aggressive, loving and playful experience of exploring people’s sensualilty and joy.
Yeah, you can’t deny there was also MDMA. But it was a breaking down of barriers between an audience, which was in fact the star of the show. It was a different way of experiencing entertainment, coupling that with revolutionary new music that changed every summer – there was always a new sound, always a new genre. Always evolving into this utopian future ideal.
On one-hit wonders:
It was the nature of the scene; what would happen is a band would come along with an incredible, radical new idea – like that one – there would be 100 copycats and then you had a genre. If you were lucky, you were the genius in the scenius, as Brian Eno would say. You were the first to come up with some cutting edge new angle and then it got boring because everyone else did it because it faded off.
Warp Records act LFO for example, they were kind of a one-hit wonder to be honest. They had a self-titled track, which was part of this classic first wave of techno called bleep - really just sine waves, super-bassy, and simple sonics. It became ‘How low can you go without blowing the speakers?' Hearing 'LFO' in a club, it was a really good test of the soundsystem. The whole art of it was getting it to be so bass-y but so under control that it didn't fart and blow out your subs. That was the radical idea and that track they just nailed it.
RELATED: The J Files: Warp Records
Join Tim Shiel for Arvos, 3pm weekdays on Double J.
Each day in September he's taking you deep into the Rave-Cave for a bona fide '90s dancefloor banger. On Tuesdays, he's joined by a noteable DJ to spin a classic (or two) for 12'' Tuesdays.