They call it acieeedddd.
The cute little yellow smiley face has become so entrenched in modern culture – used now on everything from text messages to boxer shorts – sometimes it may be forgivable to forget this innocuous little yellow face symbolised one of the biggest movements in modern music – Acid House. So where did it spring from as the icon wasn’t solely developed for the acid house movement, in fact can be traced right back to the USA in the swinging 60’s. What is the true history and story of the iconic Acid House smiley?
Many have laid claim to be the original creator of the smiley but it wasn’t really until the early 1970’s that the smily made it’s mark on popular culture. However; there are instances of it appearing throughout the 60’s, particularly on a popular children’s television show in the USA called The Funny Company, where it appeared on the end credits of the program and also on merchandise created for the show. A financial company in America called State Mutual also appear to have used a logo similar to the acid house smiley as part of a marketing campaign entitled ‘Keep Smiling’, this again was during the 60’s. These examples all indicate early usage of a smiley-esque emblem; however, the yellow icon didn’t fully make it’s way in mainstream culture until two brothers from Philadelphia – Bernard and Murray Spain – began using a smiley symbol on novelty goods they created and sold. The Vietnam war brought with it a social revolt and the 60’s saw an increase in outspoken people wearing t-shirts and badges showing logos such as CND and Greenpeace; openly displaying their proud political view or their social stand point. The Spain brothers took advantage of this cultural shift and pressed thousands of ‘smiley’ badges; featuring the then unknown yellow smiley face along with the (now famous) slogan ‘Have A Nice Day’. A simple slogan that spoke volumes in this extremely difficult era in American social and political life. Emerging from a dark and bleak period in US history these badges proved to be an instant hit; a stalwart on the lapels of hippies, hedonists and the strong minded political youth of this era. Society looked forward to a brighter time of hope, peace and when people could once again smile a smile like that of the cute yellow face from their badge. The badges were so popular that the Spain brothers are said to have sold 52 million of them in 1972, along with other items emblazoned with the icon; such as mugs, t-shirts and balloons.
Over the next decade the smiley would appear in different places and on different media; however, it wasn’t until 1985 when DC Comics decided to use a juxtaposition of the yellow icon with a blood splatter for their new comic Watchmen, that the link to the acid house movement develops. This one time symbol of hope and happiness had now taken on a sinister meaning in the darkness of Watchmen. This sinisterness of this one-time feel-good icon caught the attention of 1988 rave act Bomb Da Bass, who picked up the Watchmen smiley adaptation for the cover of their single Beat Dis; the rest as they say, is history. DJs like Danny Rampling and Paul Oakenfold would then champion the smiley on flyers promoting raves and acid house parties happening all over the UK; the smiley, all of a sudden exploded as the logo that represented Acid House and rave culture. Thatcherite Britain in the 80’s was a tough economic and social place to be; years of mass unemployment, miner strikes, terrorism and rioting created an angry, ignored youth who used Acid House and rave culture as a means of escapism. Similar to the hippy movement of the 60’s and the Punk movement in the 70’s, Acid House was a platform for the youth of late 1980’s Britain to rebel; and just as happened in the 1970’s, this unsuspecting cute smiley symbol once again provided a happy, feel-good logo for one of music’s most important cultural movements.
As Acid House gathered momentum, so did the popularity of the ‘recreational’ drugs that were part of it’s ethos and culture; suddenly the smiley not only represented a movement in culture and in music but it also inadvertently became the symbol, used by the media, to highlight drug issues that surrounded Acid House. Once a symbol of hope, it became an emblem for the drugs Ecstasy and LSD; it was then seen by the general public as a badge of representation for violence, criminality and stories of teenagers dying at drug fuelled raves. All of a sudden the cute yellow face had illegal connotations, which ironically, enhanced it’s meaning, appeal and further fuelled it’s popularity amongst ravers and promoters of acid house parties. British tabloid rag The Sun famously published a story about a young girl dying after taking drugs at a rave, this front page story contained a smiley symbol that was given as much prominence on the cover as the picture of the girl who had passed away.