Waltham Forest Echo

Waltham Forest Echo

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Bannerama party, c. 1991, courtesy of Tim Strudwick

Thank you for the music

The history of Waltham Forest rave and pirate radio from 1989-1994

By Victoria Munro 06 November 2021

If you believe the sensationalist tabloids of the time, then for five years in the late 80s and early 90s the young people of Waltham Forest were “hypnotised by a weird new cult”: the rave scene. Those who were actually there, however, know these parties were not dens of “devious drug barons” and “drug-crazed kids” but the work of musical pioneers contributing to a now globally-recognised British sound.

Rendezvous Projects researcher Katherine Green, who grew up alongside the borough’s DIY musical talent, has spent years ensuring there is finally a historical record of their hard work. Sweet Harmony: Radio, Rave & Waltham Forest, 1989-1994 gathered flyers, photos and oral histories from this period, culminating in an event at Patchworks in Leyton on 16th October and an exhibition, opening later this month.

Tim Strudwick and Sam Christie, founders of Bannerama, c. 1990, courtesy of Lynn Sefton

Katherine told the Echo: “It was an exciting time to grow up, there were a lot of underground parties. Without mobile phones, they were mostly advertised by word of mouth or through the radio.

“The bigger outdoor raves would usually be outside of London but, because Waltham Forest is near the M11, a lot of flyers would have a meeting point in Waltham Forest and you’d get on a coach or follow a convoy to the rave.

“It brought together people from different class backgrounds and cultures, it broke down a lot of barriers. I think there’s so many restrictions in place now that I do not think you would ever have that innocence again, really even by the mid-90s it was beginning to be lost.”

A 1988 Sunday Sport article about a Walthamstow rave

Articles like the one in The Sunday Sport, about a rave in the old Town Hall in Orford Road, Walthamstow, painted a “typically negative and sensational tale of what was a peaceful and friendly party”, she said. The event was organised by Hypnosis - made up of Linden C, Rob Acteson and Tim Strudwick, who designed the flyer - also the group who introduced dance music to Glastonbury festival, arriving one year with its first ever sound system. The former Town Hall had previously been used as an art college and was still filled with the students’ discarded mannequins, which the organisers decorated with fluorescent paint.

Tim Strudwick's flyer for the rave in the former Town Hall

But, alongside more illicit raves, legal parties filled every pub, bar and community centre available for hire, as well as club venues like Dungeons and Wonderland Arena. Dungeons, located in a railway arch on Lea Bridge Road, held its first recorded rave around 1987 and closed in 1994, although the space was re-opened on-and-off up to 2008.

Remembering the nights there, Chris Pilling, from the Early Riser Disco Centre in Beulah Road, Walthamstow, said: “They were as damp as damp could be... truly an awful-looking environment. But they blended themselves perfectly for the acid house and the rave scene, because of the brick wall and the curved nature of everything.”

“The sound was lovely, absolutely lovely... it had one hell of an atmosphere. Once people got dancing, there was that kind of dewy condensation.”

Flyer for Psychology at Wonderland, 1991, courtesy of Scott Rance

Linden C from Hypnosis told the Sweet Harmony project that Carl Cox, now world-famous, used to show up weekly asking to DJ and would sleep in his van outside when denied.

He said: “We’d be like, ‘No, we’ve got our DJs Carl’, not being horrible though... He had this white van, he’d park it in the forecourt of the Dungeons, he’d be asleep ‘til six o’clock.

“Done the same thing every week for like six months... he gave up asking in the end if he could DJ... Now, he’s probably the biggest DJ in the world.”

Perhaps even more integral to the scene than these parties, however, was the pirate radio stations that popped up in high-rise blocks around the borough, where the aerials their founders snuck onto the roof could get better signal. Katherine recalled one of the most popular, Dance FM, set up by Mike Stone, operated out of a flat in Northwood Tower but also reeled off a long list of names - like Friends, Erotic, Eruption and Quest - of FM stations from the area.

Lennie De Ice’s home studio, c.1989, courtesy of Lennie De Ice

“It was all illegal,” she said, “But mainstream radio stations at the time would never have played the music that young people were making and wanted to listen to.”

Perhaps the most famous pirate station to ever beam out of Waltham Forest was Kiss FM, which spent three months in the late 80s in the since-demolished Ernest Richards Tower in Boundary Road, Walthamstow.

Kiss founder Gordon Mac, who was using his wife’s flat on the 15th floor as a studio, recalled a visit from “the council, the welfare or whatever” one day, asking to speak to her. It quickly emerged they suspected she was a sex worker and that the men arriving every two hours with a bag - actually the DJs - were her customers.

He told Sweet Harmony: “I was so shocked. I went, ‘No, no, no, no, no. I’ve got a radio studio in there, and we kind of record shows.’ I took him down and showed them kind of the set up in there, and there were all the records, and they went, ‘You’re a pirate radio station aren’t you?’ and we went, ‘Nooo!’

“They knew, they wasn’t silly, but I didn’t have my wife on the game, which is the main thing!”

Scott Walker at Bannerama, c. 1990, courtesy of Scott Walker

The Sweet Harmony project began in April 2019, with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Katherine told the Echo she was motivated by the fact that while some talents who started in the borough - like DJ Rap, a world-renowned female DJ who learned to mix while living in Walthamstow - are still recognised, many local people who "put in the groundwork and… contributed to a British music scene that’s now exported worldwide... rarely get the credit they deserve".

She added: “The whole project is about celebrating people at the time who worked really hard to make music, to get it heard and to bring people together.”

The free Sweet Harmony exhibition will open at Vestry House Museum on 25th November and last until 25th May.