Tom Hodgkinson on the KLF and the meditative spaces of nineties raves
For those of you not acquainted with the customs of early nineties rave culture, the chill out room was a space adjoining the main dancefloor filled with comfy sofas and coloured lights and where soothing ambient music could be heard. It was designed as somewhere to rest in between long dancing sessions, and a nice sit-down almost acted as a sort of reward for the effort of dancing.
In the chill out room you were licensed to stare into space and do nothing. You might also meet new people and could end up chatting happily to a hod-carrier from Leatherhead (to quote a gag made by the late great Gavin Hills) or an ex-Etonian lawyer. It was by turns meditative and convivial, and was a place to hear fantastic music by Sven Väth, Aphex Twin, Brian Eno and a myriad others, plus the obligatory whalesong. In the chill out room you listened to music in a different way.
In 1990 the KLF released a brilliant and beautiful album called Chill Out which was entirely free of beats. In that year I went to interview them about it and the genre they defined, ambient house. The album cover featured a picture of a handful of placid sheep in a green, green meadow. It became a rarity because the KLF deleted their back catalogue (I still have my original vinyl copy). However I understand that they’re on the point of rereleasing it via streaming services.
The chill out room inspired a whole festival called the Big Chill, but later vanished almost entirely as house music clubs entered the mainstream and the chill out room was deemed unprofitable. It gets an honourable mention in Monolithic Undertow, an excellent new book about drone music by Harry Sword.
I was chatting pleasantly the other day about this laudable institution with a DJ called Matt Scott. He’s been running an online lockdown project called The Chill Out Tent, which attempts to bring back the atmosphere of the chill out room. Matt’s going to be putting together a piece for the summer issue of the Idler mag which will celebrate the chill out room and look at its history, present and future. Maybe the Idler can help create such a space at a festival one day.
These comments were mailed to us after an earlier version of the above piece was sent out as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your thoughts.
I do indeed remember the chill out room – something that could do with a revival. The music was a lot more varied and it was a great space for random conversations with strangers.
This is one of my all-time favourite albums and is one of the albums that I work to. (I am very dull. I listen to the same few albums on loop, and clearly have done since about 1991.)
Thanks for this, Tom. If you’re in search of further “cool” and even “cooler”, can I suggest checking out the playlists “db’s finestkind” on Spotify? Especially “The Threes”. Volume 3 of each year is mellow.
Thanks for the great memories. The Whirl-y-Gig, Club 414 in Brixton, Cloud 9 Vauxhall. I was going out with a girl who’d moved to London, and I used to travel there from rural Ireland every few weeks. Thank God there were no camera phones then.
Great piece. My working day is helped immeasurably by having SomaFM’s Groove Salad playing in noise-cancelling headphones. No ads, no DJ babble, no news.
Thanks for the memories Tom. I loved the chill out rooms, especially at the rough and ready Sky Club in Nottingham, derelict now. Fortunately I “retired” from clubbing in the late 1990s when I realised festivals and house parties (my own especially) were miles better, so I didn’t realise chill out rooms had been “streamlined” into oblivion! Never mind – delighted to have been young in the Nineties.
I too have a vinyl copy of that album and remember chill out rooms, albeit only vaguely for some reason. Today I transform my workspace into a chill out room by tuning into online radio station Fluid Electroacoustics, where they play ambient gubbins all the time as far as I can tell. There’s no speech to disturb the tranquility and some great “tunes” to enjoy.