Reexamine Rave Culture With Simon Burstall

In new book, the fashion photographer unarchives an early chapter of EDM.

Since the dawn of rave culture, outsiders have tended to picture its followers as chronically blissed-out drones. But 93: Punching the Light, a new book from photographer and reformed raver Simon Burstall, offers a new vision of the once-subcultural movement. Preceding the maximalism of late-’90s-to-current-day EDM, the book’s nostalgic visuals hark back to an early, decidedly neon-free chapter in rave history: Sydney, Australia circa 1993. 

Having radiated out from the U.K., raving took hold Down Under in the late ’80s and early ’90s, initially offering young people like Burstall an alternative to mindless adolescent excess: “We didn’t want to go down to the local pubs, and drink Bacardi-cokes and throw up,” Burstall, now a fashion photographer and longtime New Yorker, tells us. “That didn’t appeal to us.”

From 1993, Burstall, then in his mid-teens, documented his underground awakening in photos and journal entries. These archives comprise the new book, a largely black-and-white account of a musical movement in its infancy, underscored with Burstall’s unvarnished musings. (“Tonight I’m going to try to get the feelings I used to get at a rave,” he admits. “I’m not having a good time…because I go every week. Same people, same music, and usually the same drugs.”) 

While Burstall attests to free-flowing drug use (as does his forward author, childhood friend and Game of Thrones actor Brendan Cowell) the book’s subjects seem light-hearted, unaffected and individualized. It may be the reason that Burstall’s images have resonated with today’s groupthink-averse youth—a sampling of whom showed up for the Lower East Side launch earlier this month. We caught up Burstall at that launch, as NYC-based photographer Ava Trilling shot Polaroids, capturing the event’s co-mingling of nostalgia and street style.

VMAN What about rave culture in the early ’90s most appealed to you at the time?

Simon Burstall The underground nature of it all [appealed to me]. It was a society that was, [un]to itself, a secret—a secret society of like-minded people. The fashion was all its own, and the music was so cool, [given] the influence of English DJs—and their drugs. Ecstasy was brought in, and that just made these parties so much fun… Although it wasn’t all about the drugs. It was also about the community is what appealed to us—being out in an abandoned warehouse until 8:00 a.m., dancing with your best friends for hours.

I started journaling after I went to boarding school at 16. I didn’t have too many friends there; finding new friends at [that age] is tough, [especially] at an all-boys school. Plus, I’d been sick with mono, and had to start school a month late.  

I spent a lot of time in the dark room, hand processing film and printing with all my free time. The journal became like a friend [with whom] I could discuss and resolve problems. I would take notes and describe my weekends—the parties [I’d been to] and what I was planning. I made mixtapes by writing down what I heard on the radio. I talked about my achievements and failures. I found a great resolve in those two years—1992 to ’93—by writing everything down. 

VMAN Where did raves in Sydney generally take place? Who organized them?

SB The raves were usually in Sydney’s inner west, an industrial area where all the warehouses were. The event organizers would take over these abandoned warehouses for the weekend. Sometimes they would take place hours outside of Sydney, in large fields or farms, hidden in nature. 

There were a variety of production companies alongside DJs who headlined most of these events and they collaborated with lighting and sound companies as well. DJs like Sugar Ray, Paul Holden, Phil Smart, Abel, Jumping Jack and Ming D—they led the charge. 

Each week, flyers advertising the raves were handed out. There was a local magazine as well, 3D World, which was considered the Bible of raves, it listed all of the parties as well. You would buy tickets from a variety of local record shops and on the evening of the rave, you would ring the phone number listed on the flyer for the location of the party after 10:00 pm.

VMAN How would you describe the music of Sydney’s rave culture?

SB  I never attended any other raves outside of Sydney. I think the music style molded into break-beat with influences of Italo-Disco. Which is a much more piano-driven anthem style of music. As opposed to the American sounds coming out of Detroit and Chicago, which were a bit more hardcore. 

VMAN To what extent do you keep in touch with friends from the rave scenes depicted in the book?

SB [Actor] Brendan Cowell was a dear friend then, and still is a dear friend now. We [talk] about every other day, in some way shape or form. He’s filming [the next] Avatar with James Cameron in New Zealand now… In these last three years of developing the book, he was there when I needed someone to talk to. Brendon’s forward book is as strong as the content of the book. It can stand on its own and sets the tone for the viewer, or reader. You really feel like you are there again when you read his words. 

We discussed only a few points and I let him take creative control. There was no real foundation or rule for his piece, it was written in a style that brought us back to a period that set the viewer up for what they were about to experience in the book. A lot of those friends I have stayed in touch with over the years and are still dear friends. 

VMAN To what extent have you paid attention to modern rave culture in Sydney? What is your attitude towards it?

SB To be honest, I have lived in New York for almost 20 years now. I am pretty out of touch with the Sydney rave scene.

There were a series of car accidents and fatalities [that occurred] around ’93, after officials [began] shutting parties down, forcing people to drive two hours in a state where they should definitely not been behind the wheel of a car. This made front page headlines and the secret was out. And next thing you know, there were 13-year-olds showing up to parties sucking on lollipops. It just got weird after that. 

Simon Burstall: ’93: Punching the Light (Courtesy: Damiani)
Simon Burstall: ’93: Punching the Light (Courtesy: Damiani)
Simon Burstall: ’93: Punching the Light (Photo: Simon Burstall Courtesy: Damiani)
Simon Burstall: ’93: Punching the Light (Photo: Simon Burstall Courtesy: Damiani)
Simon Burstall: ’93: Punching the Light (Photo: Simon Burstall Courtesy: Damiani)
Ed Martin (right) and guests at Punching the Light launch party in New York (Photo: Ava Trilling)
Brandon Veloria Giordano at Punching the Light launch party in New York (Photo: Ava Trilling)
Guest at Punching the Light launch party in New York (Photo: Ava Trilling)
Ed Martin at Punching the Light launch party in New York (Photo: Ava Trilling)
Ava Trilling at Punching the Light launch party in New York (Photo: Ava Trilling)
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