Guy on shoulders in a crowd, Hardcore Heaven Sanctuary, UK 1997
© Tristan O'Neill
Music

White gloves on, whistles out: Photos capturing the thrill of hardcore rave

Tristan O’Neill captured the period where the fashions were as out there as the tunes – and a hi-vis vest was the height of fashion.
Written by Louis Pattison
6 min readPublished on
Hardcore rave burned briefly, but brightly. A rude and rowdy European spin on the Detroit techno sound issuing over the Atlantic in the early ‘90s, hardcore sounded bright and cartoonish – a fairground rush of sped-up vocals, droning synths and clattering breakbeats – and came with fashions to match. Look back at photos of early ‘90s raves and you see a whole subculture exploding into life: sweaty dancers in white gloves and whistles, Kangol hats and gleaming white pumps, dust masks and of course the ever-present high-vis jacket, typically worn over a bare chest.
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Nowadays, of course, everyone’s got a smartphone to capture every inch of their night out – and perhaps because of that, the fashions are somewhat dull in comparison. Back in the ‘90s, it took true dedication to lug a camera and flash around the club when everyone around you was going out of their minds. But Tristan O’Neill was one of those dedicated souls. The photos he took as hardcore swept the length and breadth of the UK stand as an amazing time capsule of one of the defining moments of British clubland, capturing the joy and elation of rave as it exploded overground. “Even though I really liked the music, I used to go there as a photographer – I never used to drink or anything,” he recalls. “Taking pictures of other people having fun, getting off on the high of the people – that always used to give me a lot of satisfaction.”
Born in the UK, Tristan’s family moved to Belgium when he was a few months old. He returned aged 13, and immediately got the photography bug. “I pretty much got a camera straight away and started taking pictures of anything and everything,” he remembers. “When I went to college, I spent all my time in the library reading every single photography book and magazine he could find.” Around the same time, he started tuning into London pirate radio. “I’d listen with my friends every weekend. Dream FM, Kool FM, Don FM – there were literally so many. We had an analogue radio, and I would put little ticks with a pen every time we found a station… at one point I must have had about 30 different ticks.”
Soon, Tristan found ways to combine his passions. “One of my friends said, ‘Why don't you contact one of these places – a magazine or a club or whatever, and see if they want us to do some pictures at a rave?’ At this point, I had never been to a rave before, I had just been listening to the radio. But that's how I started.” Before he was a face on the scene, he’d have to blag it. He remembers a night out taking pictures was at the Hippodrome in Leicester Square. “I had a huge puffa jacket in those days and I hid my camera underneath my jacket – they wouldn’t have let me in otherwise!” But before long, Tristan had befriended a number of DJs and promoters, and was going out every weekend, driving across the country to take photos for a number of fanzines and scene magazines whose names – Dream, Atmosphere, Scene, M8, Eternity – echoed the heady spirit of the clubs that they so lovingly documented.
Taking pictures of other people having fun, getting off on the high of the people – that always used to give me a lot of satisfaction
Tristan O'Neill
The punters that Tristan met at clubs like Desire, World Dance and Helter Skelter were receptive to the photographer in their midst. “Everybody was always happy to have their picture taken – 99% of people, as soon as you’d get your camera out they’d all be posing, get their friends together,” he remembers. The fashions, meanwhile, were a photographer’s dream. “Fluorescent jackets, make-up, things in your hair, mad hats – stuff that you just wouldn't wear anywhere else… it wasn't about being fashionable-cool – it was its own fashion, the way [the scene] identified with each other.”
But there was no uniform to hardcore. One of Tristan’s most striking photos captures DJ DNA, a hardcore DJ whose buttoned-down shirt and intense stare stands in stark contrast to the carnivalesque ravers around him. “With this one, I've lit it from the side with my camera flash – the flash is just off camera. It gives you the shadows – it’s something I discovered after a year or so, and it really transformed my pictures, made them a lot more atmospheric.”
DJ DNA with ravers, Skegness

DJ DNA with ravers, Skegness

© Tristan O'Neill

Tristan still looks back at the hardcore years with some fondness. While he didn’t partake in the partying himself, more inclined to play the role of observer, he’d often take friends along for the ride – and even met his wife Sarah raving (they’ve been together 22 years).
As the mid-‘90s gave way to the late-‘90s, the music was changing – hardcore gave way to jungle and happy hardcore, and the fashions changed with it. Around the turn of the century, Tristan found himself shooting big house raves for mainstream magazines like Mixmag and Ministry. But although he still loved taking photos in the club, the music wasn’t for him, so around the turn of the century, he retrained as a carpenter and furniture fitter, and set down his camera for good.
Well, almost. After meeting Saul Milton at Chase & Status’ Super Sharp Reloaded exhibition at London’s Selfridges in 2018, he came out of retirement to take photos of the drum’n’bass group at Hastings Pier. He’s also been working closely with YOUTH CLUB, a London-based photo archive who will be integrating his photos into their proposed Museum Of Youth Culture. That there’s still public interest in the photos he took all those years ago, he says, feels like a special thing. “It's a period in time that's just there and you can't bring it back – it wouldn’t be the same. That in itself makes it quite an emotional thing. It’s a point in time that I’m glad I documented, and I’m glad I could be a part of.”
Follow Tristan O'Neill on Instagram at @tristanoneillphoto
Visit YOUTH CLUB Archive at youthclubarchive.com and find out more about their plans for a Museum Of Youth Culture
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