By: Dan Salter
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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (or at least, that’s what it felt like at the time) there was a club night in Manchester called Herbal Tea Party. At a time when dance music had started to move away from its origins in free parties and illegal raves in to the far more controlled and sanitised environments of the ‘superclubs’ like Cream and Ministry of Sound, Herbal Tea Party was part of a new wave of underground DIY nights playing harder, darker techno and the first of its ilk to spring up in Manchester.
I know everybody who is part of a thing like a scene or movement is convinced their thing is better than everyone else’s thing but, as someone that has been involved in all manner of scenes and movements and things over the last two and a half decades, I can honestly say it really was something truly special; a time outside of time itself. A time none of us who were there will ever forget. It somehow managed to bring together a crowd that was part students from Manchester’s many universities and part crusty travellers from the squats in nearby Hulme in to a diverse, sweaty melting pot where who you were and what you wore were irrelevant and all that was important was how hard you partied.
The Herbal’s founder, Rob Fletcher, one of the most modest and unassuming gentlemen I have ever met, has probably changed more lives, mine included, than your average heart surgeon. Because that’s what made Herbal what it was; it changed you. It certainly changed me. I first encountered the Herbal Tea Party maybe six months or so after it started when a housemate dragged us to see some band we’d never heard of before called Orbital, a night that I’ve documented on these pages before, and we never looked back. The spirit, the vibe, the music, the people all combined to make a heady brew that was hard to walk away from once you’d tasted it.
I spent the next three years or so attending religiously, but, as with all great things it could only last so long. Life, entropy, students graduating and moving on and the explosion of nights that came in its wake, largely started by people like myself who had been inspired by what Rob had done, meant that gradually the Herbal wound down until it finally closed its doors for the last time in 1997.
The sound of the laughter of friends who have not seen each other for 10, 15, even 20 years fills the air, along with the electric crackle of anticipation, as we sit outside the Thirsty Scholar waiting for the doors of Sound Control to open on the first Herbal Tea Party in 19 years. Over the course of the few hours we’ve been sat there more and more faces from our joyous shared past have been arriving. Faces that have developed a few extras lines, a few more grey hairs, but are all instantly recognisable by the beaming smiles plastered all over them. The excitement is palpable.
Finally the doors open and we flock inside; eager and more than willing to get the show on the road.
After all that anticipation, all that build up, it could quite easily have been a massive anti-climax. I’ve been to reunions and revivals over the years that have left nothing but the sad taste of disappointment. Not tonight though, not tonight. Tonight is just magical.
It flashes by in a blur of pounding beats, sweating, grinning faces, screaming 303s and laser light. Rob, Tim Taylor, Empirion, the four headed acid beast downstairs, Billy Nasty; all of it is just perfect. It’s hard to describe with mere words the events and feelings of the night, suffice to say when Rob has dropped Sabres Of Paradise’s ‘Smokebelch’ and Underworld’s ‘Rez’ within the first half an hour you know it’s going to be something special and by the time Mr Nasty played Orbital right at the end I was gone, tears streaming, hugging anyone that came in to range.
Then all too soon it is over. We stumble out in to pre-dawn Manchester, saying our good byes and making our promises not to leave it so long next time, and make our way home. It was as good as any of us could have hoped. A night as special as any of those twenty years ago, and that in itself is amazing.
However, as I sit here a few days on and now that the euphoria has faded, I have been almost overwhelmed by a profound sense of loss. The passing of time had dimmed my memory of just how much I loved doing this thing with these people and I’m left with the feeling that despite how brilliant it was somehow I didn’t make the most of it, that I didn’t spend enough time talking to all of these wonderful people. So Rob, if you’re reading this, the campaign to do it all again next year starts right here, right now.