giovedì 22 dicembre 2011

Free Parties- A cultural, sociological, ideological, political and historical study

A seminar someone did as part of their cultural studies component of their Media Production degree course. No points for spotting the deliberate mistakes and pretentious language ;)

“Then we were in the field where the sound system had set up, in a perfect bowl of land like an amphitheatre, bounded by trees, and with fires and lights twinkling all around. Ten minutes later I’d swallowed an E. Half an hour later I was dancing amid the shimmering lights and cascading sounds while little winds bustled about my body, sending ripples of pleasure up and down my spine. There were a couple of hundred people dancing beside me: travellers with dreadlocks and nose-rings, fashionable clubbers with stack-heeled shoes; a Rastafarian who’d shaved part of his head and looked like a shaman from some ancient tribe; young girls with slinky skirts and sunglasses; black people, white people, Asian people; and at least one middle-aged ex-hippie still yearning for the revolution.”

The middle-aged ex-hippie is C.J.Stone, author of the book ‘Fierce Dancing’. He is describing his first Free Party, a DiY event in 1991.

Antonio Melechi also made the point that raves were a crossroads for ‘unlikely subcultures’ to meet. He uses the examples of football, indie and traveller cultures, but I believe he underestimates the diversity of sub- and counter-cultures.

I would add a few more: punks, rastafarians, crusties, surfers, skateboarders, drug dealers, S&M enthusiasts, clubbers, new age travellers, bikers, gays, students, protesters. These could all be very loosely put in the category of ‘Free Party People’, but that is not to say that any of these groups are exclusively Free Party People. Anyone who enters the so-called Temporary Autonomous Zone of a Free Party enters a subculture that is by its very nature temporary. It is important that Melechi uses the word ‘crossroads’- it is not a place that people stay in or inhabit, but a place where they encounter each other before moving on.

These events were often ‘invisible’ to straight culture, in Rushkoff’s words,

“By the end of the 1980′s, House was everywhere in the United Kingdom, but it had never seen the light of day. Tens of thousands of kids were partying every weekend. Mainstream culture was not even aware of their existence.”

This meeting of subcultures harks back to the ’60′s and arguably beyond. Kristian Russell described the “gathering of tribes” as not just “differing youth factions”, but also “young and old”, signifying a dialogue between past and present generations of subcultures.

Douglas Rushkoff, in his book Cyberia- Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace, defines the present day Party scene as :

“…a giant, illegal…’rave’ where thousands of celebrants took psychedelics, danced to the blips of computer-generated music, and discussed the ways in which reality itself would soon conform to their own hallucinatory projections. No big deal. Bohemians have talked this way for years, even centuries.”

A music and youth resistance subculture is not a new occurrence by any means. Anthony Esler, in his book, Bombs, Beards and Barricades: 150 Years of Youth in Revolt, stated :

“Practically everything our insurrectionary youth have tried…has been tried before. The crucial importance of the Youth Revolution of our times lies not in its alleged uniqueness, but in that very continuity with history which the Movement itself -and most of its critics- have so vehemently denied.”

Even though this is actually referring to the ’60′s and before, this is still relevant in the 1990′s. The English rave, according to Rushkoff, “…has a quality of mediaevalism, tribal energy and Old World paganism..”, which signifies a stretch far beyond the ’60′s into the Dark Ages.

George McKay, in his book ‘Senseless Acts of Beauty’ defines free festivals and free parties as ‘the culture of resistance forming itself… around the construction of a zone or space..’, and this is why parties and festivals can be seen as deviant oppositional subcultures- because they create their own ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’, or ‘TAZ’s’. The TAZ’s exist in time as well as space- it is significant that the parties can last from 10 minutes (if they are broken up by the police) to 3 weeks. It is also noteworthy that the timezone is out of sync with the rest of the world- parties seldom start before midnight. This adds to the ‘invisibility’ of these events. The advantage of a Free Party is that the autonomous zone is exactly that, whereas at Pay Raves, where’s the autonomy in a £25 ticket for a night’s dancing?

The venues chosen do often have a significance- their appropriation for an alternative use can often be likened to beating swords into plow shares. For instance, Free Parties have taken place in such places as Ministry of Defence land, disused industrial warehouses, office blocks, common land, quarries , disused cinemas and old dole houses. The location of the event makes a point. It is a similar political point to that made by squatters- the reclamation and transformation of a space, in this case into an environment for entertainment rather than a living space. In recycling components of the industrial infrastructure as TAZ’s, the Free Party organisers are also demonstrating that, yes, there is enough space for everybody (another theory adapted from the squatting movement).

However, clashes have occurred between groups trying to share the same zone. Travellers and ravers trying to co-exist at the same festival, Castlemorton for instance, have conflicts of interest. Spiral Tribe Sound System for instance, have a policy of sonic terrorism, an extreme attitude, typified by their “Make Some Fuckin’ Noise” slogan -this was directly in opposition to the ideals of traditional travellers who often want nothing more than a ‘quiet life’. On Castlemorton Common in 1992, it wasn’t just the locals who were disturbed by the music, but some travellers as well. Spiral Tribe, even though asked to turn the sound system off politely, kept it going 24 hours a day. They had already earned nicknames from the traditional travelling community- “Spiral Bribe”, “Spiral Tripe”, or, more accurately, “Spiral Headache”.

Less problems occur when the Temporary Autonomous Zone is exclusively for one purpose rather than two. The residents of Castlemorton knew better than anyone that loud music and sleeping peacefully do not mix and so too do the travellers and ravers, who on the whole are more independent from each other nowadays. The problem with something like Castlemorton, for the authorities, was its visibility to ‘straight’ society. This too, ironically, was something that troubled the Party People as well, because their preferred habitat was a place that was both ‘underground’ and ‘invisible’.

Is rave radical or oppositional? Not according to Stuart Cosgrove, who believes that “the pleasures of rave come not from resistance but surrender”. This picture from the Prodigy’s album ‘Music for the Jilted Generation’ tells a different story.

The youth of this country have recently been accused of being politically apathetic. The critic Sarah Thornton said this in the NME: “the vast majority of British youth subcultures, past, and present, do not espouse overt political projects.” This seems to have changed- the CJ&PO Act attempted to turn the members of several such subcultures into criminals, and they have reacted to this by a process of politicization. It is, ironically, the government which has turned these apathetic minority groups of outsiders into a politically-motivated ‘rainbow coalition’.

The government has been legislating against Free Parties since 1988′s Licensing Act. The Entertainment (increased penalties) Act 1990 (also known as the ‘Bright Bill’ after the MP Graham Bright), struck a blow against money-making illegal events such as Sunrise, Biology and many others.

The most recent Act is perhaps the best-known of all- the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This Act was not specifically about raves, travellers or even subcultures, but a very broad-ranging piece of legislation that covered just about everything -child pornography, ticket touts, sex offenders etc. It was such a broad range that the Labour opposition abstained rather than voting against it. It was a ‘bitter pill’ that, because of its inclusiveness, all the parties swallowed. However, Michael Mansfield QC, a respected judge, described the Act as “the most draconian act this government has put through”.

It seems the CJ&PO Act had been in the pipeline for a long time, as part of the history of legislature against this sort of event, but some sources claim it was Castlemorton Free Festival in 1992 that really precipitated the making of a new law.

At Castlemorton Common in Hereford and Worcestershire in May 1992, somewhere between 20 and 80,000 people gathered for the ultimate Free Party/ Festival crossover, the biggest countercultural gathering since the last Stonehenge Free Festival in 1984. 14 People (mostly from the noisy Spiral Tribe collective) were taken to court and accused of creating a Public Nuisance. The trial took 3 months and cost the tax-payer £4 million. All those accused were found Not Guilty. A Spiral Tribe spokesperson, speaking in underground fanzine The Active Constituent said: “We believe the authorities were looking for a scapegoat, to deter others from participating or attending free events”.

Section 63 of the Act was developed as a reaction to the evasiveness of the ravers and travellers and was designed to leave them with hardly any scope to party or travel . Some of the most noxious sections of the Act include the requirement that an owner of a travelling vehicle or sound system actually pays for its destruction if they are contravening certain parts of the Act. 10 or more people attending a party, or any single person on their way to it is acting, theoretically, against the law. According to the European Court of Human Rights this contravenes Article 10 of the ECHR, the right to freedom of assembly.

In a historical context there is no precedent for legislation against types of music in the UK. Punk was frowned upon and reacted to, for instance by MP Marcus Lipton, as quoted in Hebdidge’s ‘Subculture -the Meaning of Style’:” If pop music is going to be used to destroy our established institutions, then it ought to be destroyed first.” There were often outbursts by public figures about Youth Cultures, but they wouldn’t usually legislate against it.

Rave (defined in Section 63, sub-section 1(b) of the CJ&PO Act as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” ) is the very first kind of music to be legislated against in Britain. The only other example of legislation against styles of music comes from Nazi Germany in the 1940′s. One of The Nazi Party’s laws stated that:

“…so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the music of the barbarian races and conducive to dark instincts.”

The only youth groups acceptable to the Nazi government were officially sanctioned groups. There was also a law forbidding young people from “loitering on streets or in public houses”.

In the case of the CJ&PO Act the legislation against the music is a kind of side-stepping, the real fear is the fear of illegal drugs, the lack of a Public Entertainments License, and the fear that young people are spending their taxable drinking money on un-taxable commodities from the black market that exists at Free Parties. An independent survey by The Henley Centre showed that an estimated £1.8 billion per year is being spent at raves. What exactly was this money being spent on? Ravers normally eschew conventional intoxicants such as alcohol, and the drug of choice is usually Ecstacy. In the late ’80′s hysteria about Acid House, though, the tabloid press whipped themselves up into a frenzy about the abuse of LSD. In actual fact, E was the drug of choice at this stage too- the word ‘Acid’ had its roots in American slang, it meant ‘stolen’ and referred to a style of music that stole a beat here, a vocal there, and made itself up out of other tunes and songs.

Ecstacy was first synthesised in 1912, and then patented in 1914 as a slimming drug, nearly thirty years before the first ever LSD trip. The appeal of E (or 3,4-Methylenedioxy-n-methylamphetamine) is compared to LSD by Nicholas Saunders in his book ‘Ecstacy and the Dance Culture’. He describes it as “a kind of uplifting religious experience of unity that I have felt only once before”. The effect of E is described by it’s ‘godfather’, American chemist Alexander Shulgin, as making him feel like he was “a citizen of the universe”. This feeling of unity is what makes E so relevant to the Free Party scene. It unites, albeit temporarily, all the subcultures present.

However, at Free Parties as opposed to Pay Raves, a wider range of drugs is usually available- the more underground the event , the more underground the narcotics. The chemicals emerging now- 2CB, DMT, Ketamine, DOET, and DOM represent a kind of Pandora’s box for the next millenium. The rapid emergence of these new chemicals is worrying because, effective and psychoactive as they are, they are new and even less tested than E was. The E generation are guinea pigs, but not in comparison to the next generation of drug-takers who are taking a dangerous leap into the unknown.

On the 9th of October 1994 the third national demonstration against the CJ&PO Act took place in central London . The 50,000-strong march ended in Hyde Park where the demonstrators were set on having a party. The police had a different idea. One senior officer described the presence of sound systems as ‘focal point(s) for those intent on causing disorder’. This in itself is what caused the disorder. McKay describes this strategy as ‘not terribly intelligent’. It was also not very intelligent, in my opinion at least, to make enemies with the press in such a drastic way. It was reported in The Independent the following day that:

“An Independent reporter …was hit by a policeman across the forehead with a truncheon. Two other policemen came from behind and swiped him across the legs and the stomach with batons.”

On the very same day the Independent published this scathing attack on the government in their editorial:

“A rainbow coalition has been created that none of the main parties can call its own. Once united, it is likely to have a political impact that outlasts controversy over this particular bill. It is a liberal force of predominantly young people that the authoritarian streak in Toryism attacks partly to help it to define its own agenda.”

Most other sections of the press were sympathetic, apart from the Sun, who offered rewards for the main ‘agitators’.

This event was not without precedent- in 1985 a group of travellers on their way to the 11th Stonehenge Free Festival were attacked by police. Accounts of the event vary, but the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ is still talked about as one of the worse episodes of police brutality this century has seen in the UK. According to the NME:

“On June 1, 1985, the Wiltshire Police diverted a Stonehenge-bound convoy off the A303 near Cholderton. Four hours after they’d jammed the vans into a field, more than 800 riot police moved in. They trashed old coaches and ambulances, seemingly oblivious to the fate of the children inside. They used one (traveller’s) bus as a ram to knock others out of commission.” Lord Cardigan, who’d ridden alongside the convoy through his land earlier on, said that he saw “truncheons going in like nobody’s business.”

The next major violent episode of note was at a Spiral Tribe Easter Party in Acton in 1992, with truncheon-wielding riot police ( with their PC numbers hidden) doing not inconsiderable damage to several people and a sound system- not the first recorded brutality against ravers, and possibly not the last.

The ideology of Free Party organisations can perhaps best be ascertained by looking at the symbolism of the words they use for their names and also on their flyers. The actual typefaces and imagery used also give us clues about how they see themselves .

DiY is one of the most famous Free Sound Systems and their name, short for Do it Yourself, points not just to their own ideology, but to the ideology of a whole subculture. With licensing laws making night clubs restrictive environments, the people who want a party have to do it themselves. In inner city and rural areas dissatisfied youth have given themselves something to do. It has been argued by some that these groups are taking to heart Thatcher’s ‘enterprise culture’.

Other names of sound systems point the other way- Lazy House, Slack, Bedlam, Sketchy Crew, Jiba, Ooops!, LSDiezel, Sativa, Sugarlump- these names suggest an untogetherness, a druggy chaotic feeling that belies the fact that they are organisations that get things done in difficult circumstances (these people are so-called ‘criminals’, remember).

Circus Warp and Circus Normal’s names use the idea of a space for performing in- a Very Temporary Autonomous Zone that has been around for centuries- the circus. Incidentally, several sound systems have ‘Big Top’-style circus tents.

The Kamikaze Sound System in Brighton is just what it says it is. Because of the risks of confiscation that plague so many collectives, the Kamikaze Sound System has its financial risk spread over a large number of people, so that if it does get confiscated, the shock is lessened somewhat. Often when sound systems are confiscated it leaves two or three people without the means to earn a living legally or illegally.

Other names point towards mysticism-Black Moon, Tribal Energy, or politics- Democracy, Exodus, or simply an attitude or feeling- eZe Love, Up Front, Vibe, Open Mind.

Spiral Tribe’s name signifies a return to paganism, tribalism, shamanism, earth worship, dancing and a strong group identity. In ancient Britain there was actually an original ‘Spiral Tribe’ and this is where they got their name. Of all the Sound System collectives, Spiral Tribe, (‘Spiral’ for short) have the most recognisable group image – part-shaved ‘festi-haircuts’, army surplus clothing, stencils and symbols. This militaristic image comes from their oppositional nature- they are a tribe, an army, opposed to the traditional values of Middle England, but also part of the historical picture. They were opposed by the police as soon as they started organising parties in squatted venues, and they reacted. The names of their records reflect this- Forward the Revolution, Breach The Peace. Spiral Tribe were the forerunners of organisations such as Reclaim the Streets in that they used the Party as a Protest.

Mark, one of the pivotal members of Spiral Tribe, describes the techno music they play as “Folk music. Never has folk music been so accessible or so loud.” This is a direct indicator of how they are trying to make a link between their past and their future.

Techno music is primarily a music without lyrics- how can this music make any valid points, like punk or protest music does through its lyrics? In the words of DJ Aztek, who has played for both Bedlam and Spiral Tribe- “Don’t make a point, make a feeling”. This sounds like a cop-out, but isn’t. The feeling that is made can be a valid political feeling, the fact that it is not a ‘point’ does not limit its importance to any extent. McKay has this to say on the subject:

“Instrumental be-bop or free jazz never prevented African-American musicians from contributing to the civil rights movement, for instance.”

To conclude, I believe that, even if the Free Party counterculture is by its nature temporary and ‘invisible’, it will have far-reaching effects well into the future. It offers an alternative not just to the monotony of day-to-day life, but to all night licensed raves and clubs where the emphasis is on profit-generation rather than autonomy, diversity, creativity and total freedom. Although not originally oppositional, the Free Party has been transformed into an illegal event by a piece of poorly thought-out Government legislation. In creating this ‘rainbow coalition’, the government has forced a hitherto hedonistic, apathetic scene to make points, or rather ‘feelings’ about politics. These ‘feelings’ are the events themselves, which are not just ‘parties’ any more, although whether C.J.Stone’s yearned-for revolution will arrive as a result is debatable.



The Bible, Isiaiah Book 2 Verse 4

Bombs, Beards and Barricades: 150 Years of Youth in Revolt by Anthony Esler (New York 1971)

Cyberia- Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace by Douglas Rushkoff (Flamingo Original, 1994)

Ecstacy and the Dance Culture by Nicholas Saunders (London 1995)

Equinox: Rave New World, an Edited Transcript ed. Derek Jones (Broadcast C4 6th November 1994)

Fierce Dancing- Adventures in the Underground by C.J.Stone (Faber and Faber 1996)

PIHKAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved) by Ann and Alexander Shulgin (Transform Press 1991)

Rave Off: Politics and Deviance in Contemporary Youth Culture by Steve Redhead (Aldershot 1993) (contains Antonio Melechi’s piece- The Ecstacy of Disappearance)

Senseless Acts of Beauty- Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties by George McKay (Verso 1996)

Subculture- the Meaning of Style by Dick Hebdidge (Methuen 1979)

TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism by Hakim Bey (Brooklyn, NY 1991)

Magazines/ Newspapers

‘Convoy Clampdown’, New Musical Express 8th May 1993

Leading Article and front page, Independent 10th October 1994

Small feature, The Active Ingredient Fanzine, 1995

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