Directors: Terry Stone and Richard Turner
The most enduring of all UK Garage tracks must be Sweet Female Attitude’s Flowers, surely etched in the head of anyone who partied at the start of this millennium. Also holding a special space in Garage’s history is Craig David’s breakthrough song with Artful Dodger, Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta), but don’t come to 25 Years of UK Garage seeking to hear either of these songs or, indeed, any other Old Skool classic as this documentary features hardly any music at all and instead is talking head after talking head after talking head.
Terry Stone and Richard Turner have definitely collected a wide range of people, admittedly mainly men, to talk about the scene and lifestyle of those involved in the subculture. But as Stone is the founder of the legendary Garage Nation events it’s no surprise that he’s gathered such an impressive array of people involved in the production of Garage music. And it’s no surprise either that the film starts off by talking about the influence of Garage Nation, which took place in various English clubs in the late 1990s.
But UK Garage’s history is perhaps a little longer than that of Garage Nation. In the early 90s, a few years after Rave’s zenith, the dance scene had become too commercial. Once illegal, rebellious and underground, Rave was now mainstream, and the opening of London’s first superclub, The Ministry of Sound, in 1991 underlined that Rave’s recalcitrant edges had been made safe. Many young people ditched ecstasy for the beer-buzz of Britpop while others started to create a new kind of dance music, influenced by Rave, but British-made: Garage.
At early morning parties, after the Ministry of Sound had closed for the night, DJs started speeding up American house tracks in an attempt to keep the punters awake. The punters liked it and UK Garage was born. Strangely 25 Years of UK Garage doesn’t really talk about how the music sounds or how the music is made. It seems as if this film’s intended audience is those who already know the music.
But what the film does do well is explain the culture that grew up around the beats. If Rave was about dressing down then Garage was about dressing up. Baggy T-shirts and trainers – Rave’s uniform – were swapped for Versace and Moschino shirts and Patrick Cox loafers. Designer gear may not be the most comfortable clothes to dance in but they looked the business. The male talking heads fondly remember these labels, but we get little insight into what the women wore.
Reflecting the buoyant economy of the late 90s under Tony Blair’s New Labour, the Garage clubs were arenas for conspicuous consumption. To go with the clothes, the drink of choice was champagne – some revellers would drink nothing else – finished off with lines of cocaine. UK Garage was about looking good, and the gurning faces brought about from taking E just didn’t fit in with the new smart scene.
For a film that celebrates the heyday of Garage, Stone and co-director Richard Turner are not afraid to explore the darker side of the subculture as well, especially when the Cypriot resort Ayia Napa became Garage’s second home. At first it was paradise, but then fights would break out between the crowds and the police, the crowds and club security and then between the rival crews that supported the performers, DJs and MCs. Shootings became more common in England, too, and every talking head has a story to tell about hearing gunshots in a nightclub.
It’s a shame that Stone and Turner haven’t found more women to interview apart from So Solid Crew’s Lisa Maffia and, very occasionally, Ms. Dynamite, as it makes the scene seem very male and resolutely heterosexual. The male interviewees often talk about ‘the girls’ that went to the clubs and the ‘girls’ they took home to their Ayia Napa villas. As ever with subcultural histories, women’s roles are side-lined.
Regardless of its flaws, 25 Years of UK Garage is still a valuable testimony to a youth movement that is often overshadowed by Rave, which preceded it, and by Grime, which followed it, and the middle section of the film is a thrilling story of fun, energy and excess. In the present day, UK Garage is almost part of a heritage industry, full of nostalgia, but it’s a world that is worth remembering.
25 Years Of UK Garage will be available on Digital Download from 5th December.