A pictorial and oral history of the twisted, rave-tinted art of Dr. Atomic – and other 1990s Brighton promoters – high on hedonism

On the south coast of England lies Brighton, a city one hour away from London which has long been a haven for those who are either tired of the capital or who live an itinerant, unorthodox lifestyle for whatever reason. And those who hunt newspapermen.

Historically known as simply a ‘seaside town’, Brighton has grown in population and landmass not least by annexing the more genteel Hove next door to it. However it has been classified as a conurbation, its population has always encompassed every social class and type. Brighton briefly boasted a squatting estate agents, such is the size, strength and general argy-bargyness of its counter-culture, in the Lanes shopping district not far from where well-heeled ladies with daughters at Roedean independent school [a fee-paying institution] bought their new Jane Birkin handbag.

When #mellow lived there at the start of the 1990s, the city oozed music. Norman Cook unveiled his Fatboy Slim alias whilst working with Freakpower; Bobby Gillespie took time out after the success of Primal Scream‘s Screamadelica album to soak up the musical vibes. Independent record shops such as Jellyjam [with Luke Slater on its staff] and Rounder [where Damien Harris, founder of Skint records, and graf head-turned-beatsmith Req would be behind the counter] were joined by an off-shoot of London’s celebrated Soul Jazz shop in offering an array of choice vinyl.

At night there seemed an almost inexhaustible choice of clubs and gigs to attend across the musical spectrum. Venues were overwhelmingly within walking distance and admission prices were uniformly low with free entry a common feature.

Shake Your Wig sticker

House, acid jazz and funk were well-represented and thick on the ground. Robert Luis ran a quality venture called Shake Yer Wig and the Mufflewuffle crew later showcased a blend of various black music genres topped by a soupçon of daftness. There were also weekly club nights dedicated to more arcane and niche pleasures: the Sixties Nuggets compilations and psychedelic seven-inches, George Clinton and his many P-Funk off-shoots, as examples.

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The ever-dapper and mischievous Raj

Promoter Raj, helped by Sean Sullivan at the outset, had The Bubblegum Factory at the Volks Tavern under the promenade where Ananda Shankar‘s version of Jumpin’ Jack Flash would be heard alongside the stomping drone of Nobody But Me by the Human Beinz.

Bubblegum Factory flyerBubblegum Factory flyer back

 

Dave Clarke hosted a weekly techno session at the Asylum, halfway between Brighton train station and the Seven Dials area, in an ominously-named black sweatbox which was cramped and narrow with a high ceiling from which condensation and perspiration dripped. This residency coincided with the release of his still-affecting and effective Directional Force 12” on R&S records.

 

Tonka back
Scribbles show attendance and pleasure at hearing Donna Summer in May.
Tonka front
Tonka at the Zap flyer (author’s own collection)

 

The Tonka sound system visited The Zap club on Brighton’s seafront once a month. Setting up the decks in the centre of the dance-floor with leads taped up to the ceiling, the combined and diverse music of Harvey, Choci and Rev [the latter was easily the most rewarding of the three DJs] would be followed by impromptu parties at either a disused power station at Shoreham or at Black Rock, a vacant concrete area adjoining Brighton Marina with the nudist beach to one side and amused or horrified promenaders staring down from above [One party at the latter saw #mellow have a particularly good try at climbing a lamp-post such was his need for to pay homage at an elevated height to the sound of Jam & Spoon‘s Stella at five in the morning].

Black Rock
1991 flyer (from author’s collection]
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A Bob Dobbs-affiliated party at Black Rock (Photo courtesy of @christ_stead at Pikdo.net)

Eager and enterprising sound systems such as Positive were prolific in the size and scale of their events as they alternated between commandeering vacant units in the town centre and decamping to the glorious Sussex Downs. Their parties had a healthy blend of sexuality and colour, eager interlopers and die-hard mainstays, whilst their flyers were always humorous, almost mocking in their self-promotion, and abounded with creativity, promising yogurt weaving and supermarket trolley racing.

Monroes Granny

DJ Mee, Positive
DJ Mee of Positive one early morning somewhere on the Downs. Speakers out of shot.
Positive
#mellow (left) and a friend at the same party (Photo courtesy of Positive Sound System.

 

Positive plough

 

And then there was Dr. Atomic, a loose collective of party promoters with links to Positive whose light briefly burnt brightly.

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The Dr. Atomic crew talk turkey (and Grouse).

Named after a 1970s typically subversive underground comic centred on a white-haired dope-smoking chemist, this crew put the necessary time and care into each event they threw at the Reform on Ship St: organised and wild in equal measure, these were much anticipated and great fun too.

 

Andy Weatherall played their first party. It and the later bashes always sounded wonderful, thanks to Blue Box Turbo Sound, with the full-colour laminated invites showing a personal and slightly quixotic touch too.

 

As well as dreaming up a theme for each party – with a planned outdoor rave or house party guaranteed – afterwards, dressing the venue and ensuring there were home-made bags of sweets (see below), they were as keen to dump on fascists (see bottom left of Mutiny invite) as they were to use a Latin phrase and liberally dispense nitrous oxide. These were joyous, imaginative and egalitarian affairs boasting few differences between promoter and punter.

 

Dr Atomic Spaced Out sweet bag
The sticker attached to a bag of sweets promoting an after-party.

 

Dr Atomic Ski

Dr Atomic Ski details

 

Dr Atomic fish

Dr Atomic Alien

 

After a year or so of successfully putting on parties, Dr. Atomic then put out a twelve-inch on Guerilla records, Schudelfloss. It had HAL9000‘s dialogue from 2001: A Space Odyssey – ‘I can feel it… my mind is going’ – as its lode stone with distant drums and swathes of sweeping synths moving through the track. Their only appearance on wax showed much promise amidst a sea of soggy proggy house and although there was talk of a subsequent album, that didn’t sadly materialise.

Dave Gadsden of Dr. Atomic went on to work on the video for One Love by The Prodigy [an amusing though brief MTV feature on that can be found here] whilst Steve Perret became Sojo Soul and still makes music today. Robert Luis runs the Tru Thoughts record labels; Luke Slater, Dave Clarke and DJ Harvey still DJ worldwide.

Using the concept of the gestalt, Dr. Atomic‘s only foray onto vinyl should be seen as constituting just one part of their then appeal and success. They are fondly remembered as unusual and musically-intrepid outliers who came to prominence when Brighton boasted of several other sonic adventurers keen to mine the past in order to provide the present with japes and good times, Psychic TV being one example. Their dionysiac debauchery and hedonism was redolent of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters of La Honda, California, another place synonymous with freedom, fun and freak flags, yet Dr. Atomic were fully in keeping with their English seaside home’s tradition of fun, freedom and a ‘naughty but nice’ ethos.