Spectacle, Fashion and the Dancing Experience in Britain, 1960–1990

Jon Stratton
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.
ISBN: 978-3-031-09011-0
RRP: €117.69 (hardcover), €93.08 (eBook)

Tara Hill

University of Hamburg (Germany)

Telling the whole history of dance music in a book seems like no mean feat. So even if Jon Stratton’s Spectacle, Fashion and the Dancing Experience in Britain, 1960–1990 limits itself to the usually labelled “crucial years” of the development of postmodern youth culture—or at least its roots after rock‘n’roll restarted the 1950s youngsters’ life with a mixture of middle class romance and rebelliousness—covering all three decades of the dance movement comes across as an ambitious project.

Yet reading Stratton’s succinct account still comes across as curiously pleasing read. As an almost lexical text, ticking the boxes of the whos, the whens, the wheres and the whys, it caters to a college freshman or an introductory youth culture class just as well as to the senior pop culture zine editor or sophomore style blogger. Providing an overview of the subculture styles which—overtly or covertly, overground or underground—formed the face of a generation, or more important: its image. It performs kind of a double stunt: it’s not classic subculture research, Stratton claims, which can explain what distinguishes these new movements, but more its relation to a politics of aesthetics and its relation to the “wilder” conceptual brother, a politics of the ecstatic. Therefore, the theoretical framework of the book centres around Guy Debord’s (1967) Situationist movement and especially its centrepiece Society of the Spectacle (La société du spectacle). Herein, the cultural turn after the 1960s, sort of a “technicolour” explosion of creativity after the black and white movie era (you could similarly compare it to the evolution from silent to spoken movies) was performed by the rise of two key factors: fashion and dancing.

In the 1980s, in the increasingly seamless society of the spectacle, a lifeworld was formed which was commodified, mediated by colour television and other media, though not yet by computers; an experiential world where surveillance was becoming normalised and increasingly extensive. Clubs, with their rituals for entry, and their electronic dance music and lighting often linked to the beat, seemed like an alternative world, indeed a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ). For many, dancing along with others in the apparently safe space of a club appeared to offer escape and existential meaning, ecstasy, in an alienated reality. The DJ became the shamanic guide taking the dancers through this experience.

While the first chapter tells of the rise of the DJ with records starting to replace live music sessions and ballrooms where standard dances in couples became discos and clubs, Twist was the first dance introducing heavy pelvic movements from African Americans to the UK. The second chapter sets the scene with the Beatles hysteria, The Dave Clarke Five and introduces the genre of “Stomp”—proving the Brits needed some help with the transition from partner dances to solo and improvisational, as well as more and more ecstatic dancing. As the Rolling Stones introduced African Drumming in their (up to this day) legendary live shows, the phenomenal Gary Glitter turned into the icon of the emerging Glam Rock scene.

While middle class kids learnt how to sit down to listen to Prog Rock—Genesis, Yes and King Crimson—like their parents might have listened to a classic record or chamber music with fully but passively immersing themselves into the quadrophonic and stereophonic sound spectacular of the 1970s, Glam Rock came to life with cult bandleader Marc Bolan, a.k.a. the legendary T-Rex, and took to a crowd that loved extravagant outfits, more over the top than the hippies ever were, and huge showmanship. David Bowie came up next and started his own, very influential Ziggy Stardust cult, a persona well-loved into the early 1980s (Chapter 4 and 5).

The New Romantics, Stratton explains, who flocked into the nightlife at that time weren’t so much a scene of their own, but a remnant of early club culture. Their heavy focus on styling and outfit can be traced back to Saint Martin’s, the London Art School. Androgyny and heavy make-up, theatrics and gender role reversal were established in mainstream culture, through hit projects like Ultravox.

The last chapter deals with the now pretty much established bond between rave culture and the Temporary Autonomous Zone. It starts off tracing the often-overlooked influence New York disco and the early club scene had on the UK warehouse and later acid house movement. Compared to the watering holes of past decades, David Mancuso’s Loft and the Paradise Garage, which spawned the first superstar technoshaman DJ, Larry Levan, did not sell alcohol but focused on an impeccable living room and after hour spot with psychedelics and/or designer drugs. This encouraged ecstatic dancing through the night:

It was the quality of immersion that made dancing at The Loft and Paradise Garage so special. UK sound engineers and clubs were developing similar systems. For example, Tony Andrews, the co-founder of the sound system company, specialising in speakers, Funktion-One, and who has been designing speakers since the late 1960s, comments: “When [a sound system] is good, it puts you into a meditative state.” (Rothlein 2014)
Funktion-One systems have been installed in many of the most highly regarded clubs such as Space on Ibiza and Berghain in Berlin. It is immersion that heightens the possibility of the ecstatic experience. Here we have the technological basis for the transformation in clubbing that began in the late 1970s and morphed into rave culture. (28)

The now legendary myth of the four Englishmen who went to Ibiza to come back and revolutionise British society is retold here, too. Though the story of the legendary night when Nicky Holloway, Johnny Walker and Danny Rampling went to Ibiza’s infamous late night powerhouse Amnesia and took the new drug ecstasy for the first time to afterwards bring it back to Great Britain, open the clubs Hacienda, Shoom and Heaven and create the “Second Summer of Love”, UK’s acid house revolution, Stratton is careful to remind us of the “whitewashing” which is done by excluding Detroit Techno and Chicago House’s black and Disco’s gay roots.

The history of Dance Music (206–210) then tells another story: The one from the Jazz Ballroom being replaced by cheaper record collection spinning nights everyone could afford. While Stomp and Twist made the Brits move their pelvis, the quality of sound hugely profited by the sound systems built by the religiously inspired dub music collectives in Jamaica, before they moved to Notting Hill Carnival. As the merits of the UK’s minorities become clearer, one wonders what the closing with Thatcher’s brutal rave ban meant for society. Also, newer discussions like Jimmy Saville’s behaviour as a sex offender would have proven interesting for the proposed change in nightlife—from a dirty pick-up place for cheap thrills to a meditative, spiritual cleansing practice or festivities of joy, explained with help of Bey’s TAZ—where exactly Big Beat belongs here, which Stratton mentions in the end of this highly entertaining, short read, remains as unclear as the exact role of fashion mentioned in the title. Apart from that, Stratton delivers a good overview of the main movements in 30 years of dance history which have left its mark on humanity.


Bey, Hakim. 1991. T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone. New York: Autonomedia.

Debord, Guy. 1967. La société du spectacle. Paris: Buchet-Chastel.

Rothlein, Jordan. 2014, March 24. “Industry Standards: Funktion-One”. Resident Advisor. <https://ra.co/features/1836>, (Accessed 25 October 2023).