30 years ago, Leeds got its first regular acid house nights. Three decades on, the city celebrates its dance music heritage with a string of club events and a new exhibition. Matt Anniss revisits the halcyon days of Yorkshire clubbing...
These days, we take it for granted that Leeds is one of the UK’s most vibrant dance music cities. It wasn’t always this way, though. By the summer of 1988, house music had yet to take the city by storm, though a handful of local DJs – Steve Luigi, DJ Martin and Nightmares On Wax among them – had already started incorporating Chicago records into their sets.
Then came Kaos at Ricky’s, a small but popular club beneath the Merrion Centre. The man behind it, promoter Tony Hannan, intended it to be a one-off. Instead, it ran for three years, initially competing with the more student-friendly Joy as the focal point of Leeds’ emerging acid house scene.
“When Kaos started it was mental,” Hannan says. “It was hot, sweaty and packed - a proper acid house club.”
Although there was a bit of an appetite for house in Leeds - and Nightmares On Wax had already released their take on the sound in the form of the first white label version of future bleep classic Dextrous - Kaos and its rival Joy were both inspired by frequent trips over the Pennines.
“Leeds has its own scene and its own vibe, but we were definitely inspired by the Hacienda,” Hannan admits. “There was a regular crew of people that would go over from Leeds almost every week. I was one of them. I started Kaos for these people.”
The people in question were a new generation of Yorkshire clubbers who had previously spent their weekends following Leeds United and kicking off with supporters of other teams. Now, thanks to discovering ecstasy, they were acid house converts. “When I first started going to the Hacienda with a few friends, there would be Man United in one corner, Man City in another corner and Leeds United in another," says Hannan. "Before, that would not have happened because all those kids hated each other - now they were selling pills and getting loved-up with each other.”
Order out of Kaos
Over the three years that followed, Kaos - whether at Ricky’s, the Warehouse or one-offs at Leeds Polytechnic - became the go-to acid house night in Leeds. Hannan then gave it a good send-off, launched the more vocal house-inspired Soak party, and watched on as a succession of other nights helped turn Leeds into the clubbing capital of the UK.
“Even Londoners were telling us how Leeds was the best place for a night out in the UK,” says Dave Beer, who launched the hugely influential and now iconic Back To Basics with the late Ali Cooke in November 1991. “There was a point in the mid 1990s when most of the top clubs in Europe were in Leeds. That’s not just us saying that - they were voted the best in Europe in a magazine poll.”
Back to Basics, which celebrated its 26th birthday at the end of 2017, was particularly influential. It was born out of a desire to present quality dance music to those who were bored of the silliness surrounding rave culture - “it was for people in sensible shoes and trousers, rather than nappies and white gloves,” Beer says - but quickly earned a reputation for blurring the boundaries between cutting edge house and techno.
The success of Basics, Steve Raine’s US garage-focused Hard Times night, legendary LGBT party Vague and Hannan’s most famous regular night, Up Yer Ronson, even forced Leeds City Council to abandon its hostility towards club culture and change the licensing laws. “Basics was key in getting the local licenses changed,” Beer says. “We were supported by a councilor called Lorna Cohen – she was known locally as 'the disco granny' – who spotted that there was nothing to stop the Council allowing clubs to stay open until five or six in the morning, provided they didn’t sell alcohol.”
These changes made an instant impact. At a time when most clubs shut at 2am, dancers in Leeds could stay out later. Thus the city became the UK’s prime clubbing destination, with a string of early superclubs to choose from. “We created the idea of branded clubs really,” Hannan says. “Nobody deliberately turned clubs like Ronson and Basics into brands, it just happened. Now it’s like there’s a formula, and all clubs have to be brands to survive.”
Paying homage to the past
The story of Leeds' unlikely rise to clubbing Mecca status in the 1990s is the subject of a new exhibition from Hannan - created with the assistance of Dave Beer, Vague’s Suzy Mason, Steve Raine and others - and an events series called One Foot In The Rave. Through photographs, documentary film footage, talks and DJ sets from original resident DJs, Hannan and his fellow promoters aim to celebrate just how much the city contributed to British club culture in the 1990s.
“It’s an idea I’ve had for about 15 years, so I’m happy that the Leeds International Festival team were keen to make it part of their programme,” Hannan says. “The story has never been told before and it should have been. I’ve worked out that around four million people came clubbing in Leeds during the decade covered in the exhibition. If you assume that they spent at least £20 a head while they were in Leeds, which is a conservative estimate, then that’s £75 to £80 million at least that was brought into the city’s economy. It could easily be double that.”
All of this talk of Leeds’ 90s clubbing success story makes iDJ wonder why the city has previously been so slow to celebrate this aspect of its civic story. “It’s a good question, as other British cities have done it really well,” Hannan muses. “I think it’s purely down to rivalry and petty disputes between promoters. In the end I just decided to get all these people in a headlock until they agreed!
Words: Matt Anniss
The One Foot In The Rave exhibition is at Trinity Leeds until 4 May, with associated parties taking place nightly until. For more information see their website.