The sound of leather on willow, the tinkle of a Morris dancer’s bell and the distance thud of a 50k rig as Joey Beltram’s ‘Energy Flash’ is blasted in to the next field. The British countryside has given us many things, but few as revolutionary as the illegal rave scene.
In contrast to Detroit and Berlin’s warehouse dwelling party people, the UK in the late 80s and early 90s was ‘aving it large’ in much more al fresco fashion. With the birth of Acid House, the countries youth flocked to mammoth gatherings nestled in the English countryside. Events powered by big systems, big tunes and bigger buzzes. Fast-forward five years however and the scene was all but dead. Sweeping legal changes in the form of the Criminal Justice Bill made it all but impossible to host such events, driving the scene to attempt legitimacy in the countries less than desirable clubs. The illegal scene had had it’s day... until now?
For those who aren’t in the know, (which by the very nature of a clandestine illegal event, includes almost everyone) the illegal party scene is having something of a revival. Gatherings of ravers, reported to sometimes be in the thousands are becoming a regular occurrence. Warehouses, underpasses, even a river islets and a disused branch of Morrison’s have all become scenes of youthful abandon and excess, but why the sudden interest in this most British of past times?
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Much has been publicised on the plight of the UK’s clubs and unless you live the life of a hermit you’ll have no doubt heard stories of clubland’s woes. Startlingly, figures estimate that a little under half of all clubs in the UK have closed in the last 10 years. Adding insult to injury, this seems to have taken the greatest toll on clubs promoting dance culture; clubs that operate on tight profit margins and aim to deliver an experience beyond two for one drinks and an endless playlist of commercial hits. Among the casualties Dance Tunnel, Plastic People, Cable and Passing Clouds in London and Glasgow’s The Arches have all played ‘one last tune’. However, as bleak as the outlook might be our cities aren’t totally bereft of nightlife, and while the obvious story connects these closures with a need to liberate new party spaces (illegal or otherwise), the dots don’t always line-up.
It’s perhaps a folly to assume that all illegal raves and the clubbers that attend them are the same. Equally, motives to put on such events vary greatly. It was reported that a recent party held in Hounslow’s disused Morrisons supermarket was attended by some 1,500 16 to 18 year olds; clearly a crowd too young to attend a formal establishment (fake I.Ds aside) and as such probably not affected by clubland’s downward spiral. Like many illegal events word was spread through social media and the use of private online groups.
Clearly though this particular promoter’s network fed directly into the schools and colleagues, with word spreading quickly to an audience hungry and no doubt grateful for somewhere to party. Rather than a crowd reeling from the untimely demise of Passing Clouds this seems more like an extension of a teenage house party. Akin to your parents leaving you in charge for the weekend, only you happen to live in a massive supermarket!
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The occupation of disused buildings in potentially high profile locations is a favourite of a more political minded party organiser, and one that certainly attracts a confrontational attitude where the authorities are concerned. Scum Tek, the party crew featured in Vice’s ‘Locked Out’ documentary seem, at points, more concerned with causing aggravation than dancing. When interviewed promoter Jimmy Whyte says: “I do it for what it is: anarchy. I love anarchy. I’m happy to organise it and put a middle finger up to the police and say: ‘Fuck you’.” And indeed multiple events have ended with ravers and police in pitched street battles! While rave has always been a pollicised form of music, the message born from the second summer of love seems to have been somewhat lost in the fray.
But not all promoters are wannabe revolutionaries, and not all ravers are teenagers. Hackney Wick in London and Pomona Island in Manchester have both been sites for decidedly more refined parties. Attendees run in the hundreds rather than thousands and parties are more likely to end in a bout of mass litter picking than a riot. Here promoters aim to deliver a unique experience to their devoted fan base.
Protective of the exclusive nature of these events, one party promoter explains via their invite only Facebook page: "For us it’s very important that we maintain the beautiful vibe that make our events so special. So please only invite friends that will resonate with our concept."
This emphasiseon a vibe and a shared understanding from participating no doubt explains much of the allure. It also has to be said that for many the term ‘underground’ has become something of a misnomer in today's dance scene - think DJs enjoying five figure fees, first class flights and rock star treatment - perhaps the need to seek thrills outside the usual clubbing landscape has become more essential. And of course great dance floor moments are not always made in front of Resident Advisor’s best and brightest.
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World Unknown party starter Andy Blake (now as legit as they come but no stranger to a secret knees up) has spoken passionately of hard to find locations (to increase party anticipation) and hiding the decks away from the crowd (to encourage people to engage with each other rather than stare at the DJ). In a world filled with instant gratification it’s perhaps these trickier to come by experiences with a ‘get out what you put in’ attitude that become ultimately more rewarding.
Speak to anyone who’s rummaged for a mile or more through the wilderness to attend such an event and they will eagerly tell of the furtive looks and beaming smiles that greeted them on the dance floor, as to say ‘ah... you made it... Welcome’.
From pent up youthful frustrations to quests for beat driven nirvana, there are no doubt endless reasons people find themselves following the white rabbit of illegal raves. One thing’s for sure though, there will always be an appetite for the unique thrill they offer and while people share a passion to put them on, it’s unlikely they’ll stop anytime soon.
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Words: Richard Lodge
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