If like me, you were born a little too late, the chance of experiencing the Australian rave scene of the late 80s & early 90s would have passed you by before learning to ride a bike.
Instead, you are left to feel its infectious personality through retold stories of a youthful revolution that swept Europe and the US.
When listening to such gripping narratives, it’s clear that rave culture is aligned with the famous UK warehouse parties and Madchester’s acid house nights.
But this culture travelled the globe. And what isn’t as widely known is Australia’s once-booming rave scene that was hidden away from the rest of the world.
The Aussies’ tend to be forgotten when reminiscing this iconic era, so I wanted to rewind back to the eighties and take a look at how the country’s two biggest cities stumbled upon, embraced, and ultimately stamped their own personality on this celebrated movement.
Sydney – The Traveller’s Paradise
To paint a better picture, we must go back to the early eighties – a point in time when Sydney started laying the groundwork for an explosive rave scene.
A flourishing dance party culture emerged from the city’s gay community and club scene. A community which boasted the only clubs where electronic underground music was being played at the time.
Coming out of a pop-rock and punk music era, a young promoter called Jac Vidgen began organising gay-friendly parties in 1983, which brought together extravagant fashion, live performances, and the city’s top DJs.
These parties grew at a rapid rate, with Vidgen going on to front a core alliance of promotors, collectively known as the Recreational Art Team. This team would bring more than thirty events to Sydney – better known as ‘RAT’ parties.
In tandem with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, these parties rose from inner-city gatherings of around 250, and by the late eighties found themselves being hosted at the social landmark of the Hordern Pavilion in front of 15,000 strong crowds.
The parties would welcome different people and cultures into the same space, creating a sense of open-mindedness and acceptance of the gay and lesbian community within a musical forum.
A new community emerged where people felt empowered to express themselves through their unique dress and dance, with one common love of music. Frequent exposure on the social pages of newspapers and magazines followed, and RAT parties took their place in mainstream Sydney culture.
This was the beginning of Sydney’s very own electronic music culture starting to blossom!
On the back of the RAT movement and acceptance of the LGBT community (not to mention Sydney’s overall laidback lifestyle), the city drew pleasure-seeking travellers like moths to a flame.
Suddenly Sydney was at the top of every raver’s bucket list as a major party destination by the late eighties.
Coming out of the Second Summer of Love, in 1989, Brit backpackers and expats made their way down under through ‘the Asia trail’, stopping at other party destinations on the way.
Eventually they all converged on Sydney, bringing with them a taste of their musical experiences from their travels. There was a real influence from the Goa beach parties and full moon parties of Ko Pha Ngan, which is before we mention the Dutch arriving with their own Techno sounds.
Coinciding with a local recession at the time, there were an abundance of empty warehouses just west of the inner-city. As Sydney locals continued to attend the big parties at Hordern Pavilion, the expats and other travellers took their musical culture to the more underground outskirts, and the warehouse phenomenon from the UK began to manifest itself.
Small raves were being held in abandoned buildings and underground clubs, and it wasn’t long until promotors would take advantage of the desperate state of the property market.
Agents were willing to hand over the keys of vacant commercial buildings for a small fee, and weekend-long raves suddenly had a place to call home.
Different from the large-scale RAT parties, there was a certain mystery attached to these underground events. Flyers would be handed out at local record stores with a 0055 number on, which the patrons were instructed to call on the night to find out the location.
At the start, raves were mostly hosted and attended by the expats. The interest from Aussie locals grew more profound as the RAT parties came under pressure from the government, and ultimately began to scale back in 1990. This pushed the dance party and rave communities together, and as the two intercontinental cultures collided, the scene started to explode into something huge.
The raves would go all night into the early hours of the next morning, with the sun rising and breaking through the big warehouse windows as the beats continued to sound across the dancefloor.
The secrecy and mystery of it gave a unique feeling of being a part of something underground. There was a real focus on the music, which created a sense of community within this emerging sub-culture.
For the most part, the police were kept in the dark or at least turned a blind eye. Because there was rarely any trouble it was difficult for them to intervene.
You could live your perfectly normal life, and never know of what went on in the warehouses, and of the adventure of going to find out. And of what it meant to find people and a place away from the main track, who just wanted to dance. The relationship with a DJ who could make that happen – the anticipation and release of the perfect drop.Rob (Sydney rave punter)
The Sydney rave scene also brought with it a change in fashion. The way people dressed had a real British influence, with partygoers wearing big baggy jeans and long-sleeved t-shirts.
It was Sydney’s first look at Madchester; a scene which had turned UK dancefloors into a frenzy through the eighties. There was also this hippie flavour coming from overseas travellers and the Asia trail.
Eventually the locals caught on, which added a punk edge into the mix, with everyone fitting into the feral and edgy crowd which had transpired.
By 1991, the parties had started to move outdoors, moving away from the dark industrial buildings of Alexandria and into the beauty of Wisemans Ferry (…a good hours’ drive north of Sydney.)
The first outdoor rave that took place was called Happy Valley—which has also been described as ”Our Generation’s Woodstock”—pulling in over 1000 people.
Not only did its success allow Sydney rave culture to evolve into something bigger, it also encouraged other outdoor events to follow suit in the years to come.
This was Sydney’s rave culture at its peak.
Melbourne – Rise Of The Working-Class City
Down in the state of Victoria you had the pioneers of the scene in Melbourne going about things in a different way. Because backpackers and expats didn’t tend to travel as far south, a more do-it-yourself approach was adopted by the early producers and promoters.
Whilst there were no big dance parties in Melbourne at the time, there was a thriving gay scene, similar to Sydney, which had any edgier palette for underground music. This differed drastically from the mainstream nightclubs playing a mixture of disco, hip hop and commercial stuff.
A modest circle of Melbourne DJs would converge on city record stores as they started to grow extensive & diverse record collections. They were exploring new technology and hardware, experimenting with never-heard-before sounds while early techno music was catching their attention from abroad.
The sourcing of records from overseas became a massive influence as local DJs searched for that record that nobody in Australia had heard.
Two well-known DJs at the time, Davide Carbone and David Haberfeld, spent time finding new house & techno records – distributing them across the city to other DJs.
Melbourne’s music men and women were now being introduced to what was being played across Europe and the US at an increasing rate, and Aussie partygoers quickly started hearing the latest ‘hard to find’ tracks on the dancefloors.
It was between 89 & 91 when house and acid house filtered into the clubs. From the clubs within the gay community playing the more underground stuff, to the DJs introducing foreign records on the graveyard shifts (3-9am), the nightclubs converged to embrace a changing of the guard.
A tolerance for house music began to build, with more Melbourne venues moving away from the commercial scene. There was a noticeable change happening on the dancefloor as rave culture began to spring up through the city clubs, with more U.S. artists such as Todd Terry releasing new music and influencing what was being played.
Melbourne radio station 3RRR provided local DJ David Carbone with his own show called Rhythmatic after hearing him play house and techno at a city club. This was absolutely leftfield in Aussie radio culture at the time, which to this point had steered clear of anything remotely underground or with a house & techno edge. This created a space for people to listen to different music, and soon enough other DJs jumped on board.
With the clubs now welcoming it, the music was suddenly accessible for everyone in the city, and as the rave scene continued it’s decent in the northern hemisphere, Australia’s southern city was about to benefit first hand.
This is when the Melbourne rave scene really started to take hold!
Warehouse raves really started to catch on at this point, largely helped along by travellers from the UK bringing their experiences to Aussie shores.
Fresh from the second summer of love, a British couple called Richard and Hydi John travelled to Australia with an impressive rave resume after hosting their own parties in London’s East End. It was 1991 when Richard and Hydi started hosting parties of their own, with the expats equipped to take Melbourne’s early rave community to the next level.
Melbourne was similar to Sydney, in that a vast number of old warehouses and commercial buildings were vacant. Property agents were approached for short term weekend leases, which were obviously perfect for these kind of venues.
You now had the music, a growing community, and an abundance of DJs & promotors ready to embrace the movement.
At the same time, ecstasy was driving ravers away from expensive alcohol, which created an inevitable migration to a more underground scene with an even stronger sense of togetherness and exclusivity.
It was ultimately this recipe that fuelled the growth of the Melbourne rave scene dramatically from the early nineties.
We weren’t doing the party to get the most out of people, we was doing it for us to have a big party, and listen to the music we want to listen to, and if anyone else wants to come they’re welcome. And that was our philosophy.Richard John (event organiser)
Things grew dramatically from the early nineties. There was Every Picture Tells A Story: a series of raves put on by Richard and Hydi John.
The venues were starting to get bigger, with more high-end sound systems, performance artists, and yes, lasers.
It wasn’t just Richard and Hydi, though. Different events were being held, with other city promotors getting in on the action. A promotor called Richard Maher was eager to be a part of this building culture and started to work with Every Picture Tells A Story on a production and promotional basis.
His significant network in the community soon led him to start his own company, and after a trip to Sydney’s outdoor rave ‘Happy Valley 2’ in 1992 (with Richard and Hydi amongst others), he returned to Melbourne full of inspiration having sampled Sydney’s (at the time) ‘’bigger’’ rave scene.
In promoting terms, the two cities were now brought together.
Like other promoters, Maher was importing records from the US–primarily record labels from Detroit, Chicago and New York–all the while creating ties with American promoters.
This enabled him to mould a collective of DJs in Melbourne who he’d supply records for, sourcing all the latest house and techno tracks from the States.
As early as 1990, the city had already welcomed popular DJs from Detroit such as Jeff Mills and Underground Resistance, although it was all low budget at the time.
Taking advice from his American counterparts, Maher decided to grow a network of promotors who would come together to fly over international DJs to tour Australia.
In 1994 Maher reaped the benefits of his forward-thinking, first bringing over Derrick May from Detroit. Soon there was Stacey Pullen, Richie Hawtin, Carl Craig, and Every Picture Tells A Story would regularly host Claude Young.
Huge American DJs were now gracing Melbourne’s clubs and backstreet raves with regularity.
From here, Melbourne boasted this rapidly evolving rave scene which was heavily influenced by Detroit Techno, and dancefloors filled with a breed of ravers who would showcase their original shuffling moves.
Yes, Melbourne was the birthplace of ‘’the shuffle’’, or ‘’the Melbourne Shuffle’’ as it was called in the nineties.
Everyone was obsessed with mastering their moves to show off on the weekend. Quick foot shuffle inwards, outwards, arms thrusting, and even a modified running man sequence. It became a phenomenon!
Riding the success of their earlier raves, Richard and Hydi John secured an old warehouse building from 1993 where they hosted their parties. This fully licenced venue known as Global Village spanned three levels, providing a unique space to accommodate the growing demand of the community and impressive artists secured from overseas.
Keeping crowds of over 2000 past 6am it would last five years before being shut down. Its greatest ever event was arguably Land Of The Giants in 1995, where Maher toured Stacey Pullen and Derrick May together.
It was Global Village that really typified exactly what the Melbourne rave scene had become at its peak: large scale events filled with colour, artistic performances, and sharp flickering lasers to accompany the beat.
Sydney’s rise to large-scale outdoor productions soon paved the way for the wider community, and inevitably brought change to the rave scene. Interest and crowds grew with a different breed of partygoer, attracting a younger clientele.
It became much more mainstream and pulled away from its underground and mysterious vibe. By the mid-nineties it was common to see people as young as thirteen at these events, and with it came a change in the music. With a faster, harder edge to it.
The expats passed the baton to the Aussie’s in a way. The travellers and English rave scene headed back to the clubs while the Aussie influence took hold with the bigger events staged in small sports stadiums. They went their own way. The music and the culture branched out in different directions with new variants and genres. Breakaway scenes started to emerge like the ‘’bush doof’’ trance parties. It was the start of a new era.
Down in Melbourne, the scene managed to ride the rave wave a little longer with Global Village lasting until 1997. But a similar theme eventually migrated south, with the bigger events pushing it into the mainstream.
Richard Maher put on a mammoth warehouse party called ‘Where The Wild Things Are‘, attracting 3,500. On the same day an event called ‘Northern Exposure’ headlined with Sasha & John Digweed — both of which were hugely successful. It was testament to where the scene had gone, to the top.
But as they say: what goes up, must come down…
More and more promoters wanted to hop on the gravy train. It became a ‘’whatever you can do, I can do better’’ mentality. If you have 4 DJs, we’ll bring 8. If you have 10 lasers, we’ll have 20.
Unfortunately the core promotors that were doing it for the music just couldn’t keep going. Richard and Hydi John were left with no choice but to throw in the towel.
The music changed, just like in Sydney. Local DJs headed back to the clubs and followed the new genres which sprouted – with David Carbone warming to Drum & Bass. The scene progressed, then died – ultimately welcoming in the new.
Who did it better?
Now let me be honest here, I haven’t been lucky enough to experience either.
Hell, I was only a toddler in Manchester as the battle-hardened ravers came out of the second summer of love and took to the Asia trail. But based on my research, Melbourne just about tips it for me.
In the shadow of Sydney’s bigger scene (and no, bigger isn’t always better!), Melbourne created something which just seemed more unique than its big sister. There were no established pre-rave parties like the RAT parties of Sydney, and there were very few travellers, so hard work was spent finding and bringing the new music genre to the city.
The sourcing of new records from the UK and US, breaking the radio trend, the great Detroit and techno connection, and ultimately bringing the biggest international techno DJs from overseas helped mould an impressive culture.
And let’s not forget its very own dance move!
That’s right, the Melbourne Shuffle would go on to be an internet sensation—racking up over a billion views on YouTube—having migrated to the US and Europe in the 2000s.
Melbourne really has stamped its mark on electronic dance music culture, globally…
And even today, it’s true that Melbourne has the ‘’cultural’’ edge on Sydney. Certainly when it comes to music.
Related: The history of electronic dance music.
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