PIERS SANDERSON is a documentary filmmaker who has put together a feature-length film about the warehouse parties that took place in and around Blackburn in Lancashire from the end of the Eighties to the start of the Nineties.
As well as in-depth interviews with many of the people who organised and attended the Blackburn parties, High On Hope also features previously unseen footage shot in warehouses at the time.
Sanderson planned to release the film last year but ran into problems licensing the music used in the film. I got in touch with him via the High On Hope website and he agreed to answer a few questions about the project.
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WHAT inspired you to put together High On Hope?
Piers Sanderson: “The acid house scene was probably the biggest single influence of my life and I wanted to make a film that gave an honest testament to that time. I felt that although Blackburn was just one chapter of acid house, it best summed up the spirit and ethos that made it so special.”
What were you doing in 1989-91? Did you have any experience of the rave scene?
PS: “I grew up in south Manchester and the Hacienda was the club we used to go to. In 1987 I was at college in Wales and became good friends with the only other English guy on my course, a lad from Windsor called Sasha.
“Each weekend we would go back to Manchester and always to the Hacienda. Back in Wales we started putting on a few nights DJing together at Bangor University under the name Partners In Crime. In the summer of 1988 when I finished college I moved back to Manchester and Sasha came too.
“For a far too brief but incredibly wonderful time, the Blackburn parties were where we went after the Hacienda closed at 2 o’clock. By then Sasha and I were living in Salford with a guy called Dominic, who is sadly no longer with us, and a guy called Sparrow.
“Sasha had stuck at the DJing and was starting to get some local recognition. He began playing at the Blackburn parties and Sparrow ended up working for Tony Creft, one of the organisers, and actually moved to Blackburn.
“I was designing and selling t-shirts and hooded tops through Afflecks Palace and I did a design for the Blackburn parties – they were all confiscated by the police when they raided the last party at Nelson. When I went to collect them there were only about half left. I imagined all these coppers wearing Blackburn hooded tops on their days off!
“I ended up leaving Manchester for good shortly after Nelson but made a lifestyle and a living from the dance music scene in various guises and countries for the next 11 years.”
Did you decide to do a film and then tracked down the Blackburn footage or vice versa?
PS: “In 2003 I made a short 20-minute film about the Blackburn parties called High On Hope. It was the first proper documentary I had ever made. I had no idea about the footage that existed, I just wanted to make a film about acid house and Blackburn was the ideal way to tell that story.”
PS: “I was living in London by now and had lost contact with most of my old friends from the north west. The first person I spoke to was Rob Tissera as he was the most easily contactable. I interviewed him in Leeds and he gave me some numbers that eventually got to me to Tony Creft.
“Tony opened lots of doors for me and in the summer of 2003 over a two-week period I filmed a good proportion of the loose collective who had made the parties happen. Tommy, who was seen as the spokesman for the parties at the time, was away in India that summer so could not be filmed and although Tony helped me arrange the interviews he declined to be in the film at that point.”
Who did you talk to in the end?
PS: “The first people I filmed were Shack, who was the main DJ from Blackburn at the time, and Jack, who was Tony’s right hand man. They took me around some of the venues and explained how massive the change was for the lads in Blackburn when acid house came along.
“Then I interviewed Nathan who did the lights and Jane who was Tommy’s girlfriend and did the fanzine Ear To The Ground. Jane is a wonderful talker in front of camera and an important part of this film. I filmed Tracey who led some of the convoys and I had a great evening outside a pub in Blackburn with a bowling green, chatting to some of the girls who went or were involved in helping out.
“Finally I got a really good interview with a very bright guy called Damien who was only 15 at the time of the parties but managed to put in to words just how important the scene was.
“A few months later when I had finished the film I came back up to Blackburn to show the people who had contributed the finished documentary. Tony saw what I had put together and I think he realised that he should be in the film. Everyone in Blackburn is rightly protective about what they see as their story and they don’t want to be misrepresented.
“When Tony saw that I had made an genuine film I think he knew he could trust me to edit his contribution honestly. Tommy had returned from India and he also agreed to be interviewed. Tommy is a brilliant story-teller and is still passionately living the ethos of acid house.
“Tony took me to all the warehouses they had used, explained how he got in to each one and gave me an incredible insight into just how far these guys went to get the party off and how pure their motivation was.
“The thing that really sets Blackburn apart from what was happening around the M25 at the same time is that these guys were not in it for the money. They had some amazing exploits, very brave and incredibly innovative acts that would have got them in a lot of trouble had they been caught and all for £3 in on the door, which just about covered the costs of the party.
“Through the help of Jane, I tracked down the guys who made the sound systems, Jo and Jules. Jules actually ended up going to prison for his part in the organising. Their ingenuity was integral to getting the parties off the ground each week and the fact that they had paid with their liberty is an incredible story.
“Then I got into film school and had to put the film on hold while I spent two years learning how to make documentaries properly. When I graduated in 2007 I spent a year trying to get finance to make the film in to feature length version for TV and a DVD release.
“I had the new footage with Tommy, Tony and the sound guys and knew it had the potential for a great film – one that I hoped would have appeal not just to people who went to the parties but also those who used to dance in warehouses across the country and then into the mainstream.
“I believed that I had a film that was an important part of British history and that one of the TV channels would want to make it. The problem was that I had only just left film school and there is no way a broadcaster will trust you with hundreds of thousands of pounds to make a film unless you have a proven track record.
“I really wanted to make this film though and although I was relatively inexperienced, I knew I could tell this story as it was one that I had lived. So I thought, fuck it, I will just make it myself.
“With that original acid house attitude, I got together with some like-minded people I knew, people I had been at film school with, borrowed some money and together we spent six months cutting the footage, finding archive, animating the back story and just made it the way we wanted to, without having to compromise the story in any way.
“Its a really painful way to make a film – having no money creates many challenges and requires lots of favours – but so rewarding when you have finished.”
How did you come across the Blackburn footage? Who shot it? How much of it was there? And what kind of quality?
PS: “Everyone told me about a guy called Preston Bob whose parents owned a corner shop that rented out a video camera for weddings and christenings. When the camera wasn’t out on a Saturday, Bob would take it and film the parties.
“In 2003, when I was making the short version of High On Hope, Bob had not been well, was recovering in a private hospital and wasn’t taking any visitors. I left notes at his parents and with all his old friends saying that I really wanted to chat with him.
“On the last day of filming I got a call on my mobile and it was Bob. After speaking for a few minutes he agreed to let me come and see him. He was only allowed two visits a month and by letting me come in it meant he did not see his son, so it was a huge favour.
“After speaking for a while I realised that everyone had been after this footage he had filmed and rightly he was incredibly protective of it. He didn’t want it being used for something that trivialised a time he felt very strongly about.
“Once he realised my motivation for making the film was not about money but a real love for the scene he called a friend and she dropped a big box of VHS tapes off to me. He had known me lest than an hour and yet he trusted me with all the original footage he had shot. I am extremely grateful to Bob.
Did you approach Sasha about appearing in the film?
PS: “I didn’t interview Sasha for the film for several reasons. Firstly, he is someone who likes to stay at the forefront of what is going on in dance music, he is not one to look back. Secondly, and more importantly, I wanted to interview the people to whom Blackburn was a particularly dominant event in their lives or people like Rob Tissera who gave up their liberty for the party. These are the characters who really bring the film to life.
“The parties were such a massive and never to be seen again event in Blackburn that those who were there from its start to finish could really elucidate just how important it had been in their lives. Also Sasha and I only caught the last few months of the parties. I wanted to tell the story from when there was just 50 people involved, as the growth and subsequent halting of the parties mirrored the birth and backlash of acid house nationally. This was the story I really wanted to tell.
“The only exception to this is Dr Drew Hemment. He was the very last person I filmed and I got in touch with him when I was in the middle of the edit. He DJed at some of the parties but as importantly for the film he is an academic who validates the importance of Blackburn to those who were not there. He gives the film a gravitas that the editor and I believed was needed for those who have no knowledge of northern dance music history. He was another great speaker.”
Are your music licensing problems to do with finding rights-holders or with rights-holders asking for large amounts of money? What kind of sums are we talking about?
PS: “All of the artists I have spoken to have been very helpful. Some I have spoken to directly – Bill Drummond from KLF, for example, was brilliant. He never lets anyone use their music but once he saw the short version of the film that I had made in 2003 he has given me full usage.
“The problem is you have to deal with the publishing companies for clearance and in these times of file-sharing the music industry has to maximise its ability to earn money and films are seen as one way to do this.
“I am looking at several ways to raise the required funds at the moment but if anyone is reading this and they know someone who really cares about this time and is prepared to invest in the film, please get in touch. They would be the first to get their money back when the film recouped or sold to TV.”
What tracks have you succeeded in licensing so far? Are you confident you’ll be able to use everything you need without having to compromise too much?
PS: “I have agreements for all the music tracks for the film and have all the permissions in place – I just need the money to pay for them. I was very strict with myself, each track had to have been played at Blackburn. There are a lot of big tunes from around that time but when you check the release dates you see that some were later than you remembered.
“It was great fun going through all my favourite warehouse records with some old friends that I used to party with. Once I had a selection that I knew were definitely played it was just a case of using the ones that work best with the story and images of the film.”
What are your plans for releasing the film? Is it likely to be a theatrical, TV, internet or DVD release – or a combination of all of them? Do you plan to enter it into any festivals?
PS: “Once the music is cleared I have some great ideas about how to show the film. I don’t want to say too much at the moment but as soon as I can I will let you know what we are going to do in terms of screening – it will be very special though, as all encompassing as the parties were. Keep your eye on the website www.highonhope.com It’s being redesigned in the new year and will be constantly updated with what is going on. All the information about screenings will be on that.”
Did you come to any conclusions about the significance of the Blackburn parties while making High On Hope? Why do you think we’re still talking about that scene 20 years later?
PS: “There are lots of arguments about which party or parties represent acid house. There is a good case for Castlemorton, I am sure some of the Boys Own parties were incredible and if you lived in London or Glasgow at that time then you would have your own perspective too. Blackburn was the best example of the spirit of acid house through the prism of my own experience.
“I think acid house was more than just a music genre. It was more than the parties we went to, more than the clothes we wore, the drugs we took, it’s more than the sum of its parts. But it’s hard to define exactly what it was.
“When you think of the Sixties you think of hippies, you think of peace and love. When you think of punk, you think of aggression, of anarchy, of challenging the system.
“What is acid house? Perhaps its challenging the system through peace and love? At least that’s what it may have been before the gangsters moved in, the drugs changed and the press got hold of it.
“I don’t think there has been enough debate yet about the legacy of dance music culture but perhaps the 20th anniversary of acid house will bring about a clear idea of what it was.
“Personally, I believe that there are a few moments in history when you can look back and say that that was really significant, socially. For me, the legacy of acid house is more than just music, it made a mind set. It opened people’s eyes to what was possible, it showed those that were there that you did not need to follow society’s rules, you could make your own and if society didn’t like it, then fuck ’em and do it anyway.
“It was about challenging the status quo. The teddy boys did it, the hippies did it, punk did it, then we did it. The difference with acid house was that it was properly inclusive. The whole class structure, that Britain seemed to be obsessed with, collapsed on a scale that had not been seen before. I think punk came close but it was nowhere near as big and did not have time to make a lasting impression.
“I would love someone to do some proper research about acid house’s effects culturally, spiritually and economically. I know that a lot of people, who previously had thought that life was just about having a shit, low paid job, or conversely a shit, high paid job, saw options that they would never have seen if this scene had not come along. It changed a lot of people.
“I know, I was one of them.”