What impact does place and space have on the evolution of musical cultures? It’s a question that academics have long wrestled with. Over the years, the role of towns and cities – and the venues and off-grid spaces utilised for events within them – has been viewed through a variety of theoretical perspectives, with various scholars looking into specific musical cultures – punk and post-punk being a particular favourite in the last decade – within single or, in some cases, multiple cities.
Dance music culture has, of course, been viewed through this prism, but nowhere near as regularly as you might expect. Journalists and music writers – yours truly included – more often than not choose to tell the stories of sonic movements, scenes (and to a lesser extent, the communities they emerge from) and either specific regions, or notable clubs such as the Hacienda (which, as you’ll no doubt be aware, has been the subject of countless books).
Three cheers then for Jim Ottewill, whose new book Out of Space: How UK Cities Shaped Rave Culture, seeks to present dance music histories of multiple cities and towns across Britain. The book is not explicitly academic – although it is thoroughly researched, with numerous academic citations and links to sometimes harrowing statistics about the past and present of nightclubs – and should probably be viewed as a very personal love letter to club culture on the British mainland, inspired by very real and current issues.
Ottewill’s concern for the future of nightlife and club culture in the UK, in an era of global pandemics, increased city centre living and gentrification, is shared by many. This is the narrative theme that runs through Out of Space, with each of the detailed (but in some ways understandably brief) histories of places such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Manchester, Coalville and Todmorden ending not in some dim and distant nostalgic past, but the present day. Ottewill’s eventual conclusions are surprisingly positive, though the misery-guts within me wonders whether this is false hope; after all, recent statistics show not only a drop in club attendances since the entertainment sector re-opened post-COVID lockdowns, but also a decline in interest (one stat Ottewill cites is a survey undertaken during the worst of the pandemic, in which a surprisingly large number of respondents stated that nightclubs should not reopen after the pandemic at all).
It is, then, a bit of a hybrid book, but one that’s packed with historical information and due credit given to people, places and spaces that for so long have been written out of the narrative. Ottewill is particularly good at contextualising the sounds of music and club scenes within the wider story of these (often post-industrial) towns and cities, providing suggested reasons (rooted in social, political and economic histories) for why and how different musical communities developed they ways they did.
Some of this will be familiar – I and many other writers have trodden a similar path when it comes to cities such as Sheffield and Manchester – but other parts are more revelatory. Plus, the fact that Ottewill has chosen to showcase the stories of a wider number of places, while touching on the stories of more “provincial” (I.E smaller, less celebrated) towns and cities – Margate, Coventry, the brilliant but undeniably odd Todmorden – is worth noting. I’ve banged on about the role of clubs and events in lesser-known towns, cities and regions have played in British dance music culture – as regular readers and listeners will attest – so it’s great to see a book that attempts to reflect that.
Yes, there are places and spaces missing, but Out of Space was never meant to be authoritative. Even so, it does a better job representing Britain as a dance music nation, over 30-plus years, than most books that have come before. It should also be noted that it takes him roughly two thirds of the book to get around to looking at London, which is a nice bonus (and before anyone starts, I know London has played a significant role, my issue is with how it – or more accurately certain sounds, scenes, clubs and people within it – have disproportionately hogged the limelight).
After reading Out of Space, I was inspired enough to reach out to Jim Ottewill – someone I first encountered when he was a young scribe doing work experience at IDJ magazine many years ago – and ask him if he fancied discussing it on an episode of the monthly Join The Future show on Noods Radio. Happily he said yes, and you can listen to the resultant episode via the embedded Mixcloud player below, and via the Noods Radio website. A track list for the music featured in the show can be found below the audio player.
If you’d like to order a copy of Out of Space: How UK Cities Shaped Rave Culture (and I’d recommend it), head over to the Velocity Press website.
Join The Future: S2E8 – Out of Space w/ Jim Ottewill
• Daniel Paul – Outta Space (Join The Future Edit)
• Mike Dunn – Magic Feet
• Myzlkypop – Ursula In (Bent Crooked 2)
• Jolly Roger – Acid Man
• Slam – Positive Education
• Cabaret Voltaire – What Is Real (Virtual Reality Mix)
• Ladycop – To Be Real
• Lennie D’Ice – We Are I.E (Horsepower Productions Remix)
• Orbital – Belfast (David Holmes Remix)