The rise and repression of the free festival movement in the UK and some intersections with radical anti-politics.
This article is based on a series of talks held in Basel, Berlin, Graz and Rome in 2007, and has been revised for this issue of datacide.
It doesn’t attempt to present a definitive history, but follow some tracks of contamination and inspiration. Some readers will already be familiar with some of the described historical frames, others not at all. It was written in a way that should be accessible without prior knowledge in terms of the facts and factoids, but under the assumption of an understanding of the validity of counter cultures as possible antitheses to the capitalist culture industry.
It also leaves out many other strains that contributed to this antagonism, such as left communism, surrealism, lettrism, the situationists, communes, sexpol, anti-psychiatry, neoism etc, as it focusses on the festival.
“The festival is apt to end frantically in an orgy, a nocturnal debauch of sound and movement transformed into rhythm and dance by the crudest of instruments.” (Roger Caillois, 1938)
The ancient monoliths of Stonehenge (1) always had a special meaning in pagan circles in Britain, since it is the largest construction of its kind, and there were neo-pagan meetings there since at least the beginning of the 20th Century, although the “Ancient Order of Druids” had already been founded in 1781.
In the 1960’s the marginal pagan movement was reinforced by the growing interest in esotericism, paganism and occultism with a new generation of Hippies, and the site of Stonehenge became a place of pilgrimage especially around summer solstice.
At the beginning of the 1970’s these congregations were turned into the Stonehenge Free Festival, where revellers would listen to live bands and freak out.
They became an important mark in the development of a counter culture that was trying to disassociate itself from the state and bourgeois society, going hand in hand with the popularisation of a psychedelic anti-Capitalism inspired by Timothy Leary et. al.
The Hippie congregations at Stonehenge soon became a thorn in the side of the authorities. In 1974 a confrontation ensued, as the hippies didn’t just come this year, but stayed: They occupied the area permanently.
In Britain a land- or house-owner has to press charges against specific persons and name these in order to remove them from the property. Since on the other hand there is no duty to carry ID cards, it was possible that the hippies all adopted the multiple name Wally with the intention to turn the court case into a farce.
They not only succeeded in this, the Wallies also got a lot of media attention, especially “Wally Hope”, Phil Russell, a Hippie drop-out from an upper class family who held the opinion that he had met Christ and who acted as a kind of leader.
Although they lost the case, all they had to do was move on a few yards and there the camp existed until towards the end of the year.
In the first months of 1975 preparations began for the next festival. Phil Russell was also out and about promoting.
A little later there was a home search by the police which apparently had nothing to do with Russell directly, but he was present and was searched closely enough for 3 acid tabs to be found. He was arrested and after questioning put into a mental hospital where he was pumped full of such high doses of neuroleptics that he wasn’t only temporarily turned into a zombie. He also suffered some of the worst effects of neuroleptics: dyskenesia, a lasting motoric disturbance.
Russell was released a few days after the next Stonehenge festival had taken place. He died only a few weeks later, a broken man, suffocating from his own vomit after an overdose of sleeping pills.
A year later someone turned up at the Stonehenge festival with the ashes from Russell’s cremation. His ashes were scattered across the stones by a bunch of Hippies.
But Stonehenge was by no means the only festival. In fact there were 70-80 such festivals around the year. Of course this also created its own economy. Many travelling families lived off selling all kinds of merchandise at these events. It also dominated a life-style: People were following the festivals all year round, meeting up, trading goods and stories.
Christ – The Album
In the years 1975-77 the punk movement established itself. Supposedly there was a clean break with the hippie traditions, and many young punks proudly displayed “Never trust a hippie” buttons. But this was only partially true. One punk band that at least to some degree came right out of the Hippie festival milieu was the explicitly anarchist band Crass.
With their 1982 record “Christ – The Album” they set out to create a monument to Wally Hope. The liner notes feature an extensive description of Russell’s story, written by Crass member Penny Rimbaud, who had been involved with Wally since the early 70’s.
Nigel Ayers of Nocturnal Emissions is putting this into perspective elsewhere (2) and even accuses Rimbaud of creating a death cult around Russell. Russell is clearly described as a martyr by Rimbaud. In fact, according to Ayers, it was Rimbaud who had arrived at that Stonehenge festival with Russell’s ashes and distributed them over the celtic stones…
Around the time they recorded the album, Crass had to go through an unpleasant experience at a Stonehenge festival. Several hundred punks – who usually would have stayed away from such Hippie events – were attracted to the festival due to the fact that the band was playing. According to Rimbaud it came to a sort of blood-night when a gang of bikers started to hunt down punks and brutally beat many of them up.
Thus, at the beginning of the 80’s, the different sub-cultures were not yet coming together in a way as it would happen a decade later, when hippies, ravers and crusties started congregating at festivals in the countryside playing acid and techno.
Not much later – in 1985 – the Stonehenge festival was made illegal. On June 1st that year traveller convoys were attacked by hundreds of police in what would go down in history as the “Battle of the Beanfields”.
Vehicles were vandalized by rampaging cops and many travellers – including pregnant women – were beaten, some in front of running cameras.
In the 80’s conservative Thatcher government was waging a class war from above. The combative working class and minorities were on the defensive. Again and again this lead to eruptions of social revolts, like in the “Summer with a thousand Julys” of 1981, when rioting tore apart some of the inner cities. The traditional radical working class movement suffered a heavy defeat in the Miners Strike of 1984/85.
By the end of the decade the government tried to introduce a poll tax where every person had to pay the same amount regardless of their income.
According to police about 200’000 people came to the demonstration against its introduction on March 31st 1990. It came to massive street fighting and mass militancy.
One consequence of the Poll Tax was that by 1992 about 1.8 million Britons had “disappeared”, i.e. were not in any way registered anymore.
Tribes and Posses
In the meantime, fundamental changes were happening in the music scene as well.
One of the consequences of Punk was on the one hand the establishment of countless independent labels and on the other hand changes in the general reception of new pop music. This expanded the possibilities of experimental productions. There is no doubt that particularly the first years of post-punk saw an explosion of creativity.
Some bands in the post punk scene were touring the country with a “tribe” of followers, such as Adam and the Ants, something that was somewhat commodified in the spin-off of Bow Wow Wow (with Malcolm McLaren as impressario), but also with bands such as Southern Death Cult.
Very quickly there was also a tendency to adapt conventional marketing techniques and create new ones.
While there were always those who attempted to counteract this development, the general development was clear by the mid-80’s. The “independent” market had started to reproduce itself more and more through the same mechanisms as the “mainstream”.
In this sad situation came unexpected innovations.
Lured by the obscure promise of pleasure by a flyer, you could find yourself suddenly in a warehouse in the industrial quarter at a party. A DJ who often was somewhere in the corner at the turntables – sometimes invisible to the party-goer – had replaced the performer.
Strobes and smoke contributed to the disorientation of the senses.
As strange as that may sound these days, it was really something crazy, new and different.
The whole mechanisms of mediation of music were turned upside down. The party was an event that unhinged the accepted hierarchies of the music business.
But not only was the DJ somebody in the corner who contributed to a whole experience without being in the centre of it, she or he also played all these records that as white labels had no author in the classic sense.
Like this the record was not a product that would be promoted in a conventional way so as many people as possible would buy it, the set of the DJ was not advertisement.
Rather the record was a tool for the DJ and the result of the set owed something to an exchange with the audience.
Just as important: The geography where this took place was mostly occupied urban space.
And: The sound systems which accomplished this were at least tendentially egalitarian collectives, trying to realize a collective practice.
Of course it didn’t happen from one day to the next that Acid House and Techno were just there, but it was the result of a process which again was social as well as musical. The social aspect was the use of urban space for so called warehouse parties. Initially – in the mid-80’s – the music that was played was Funk, Soul, early Electro and such (3). Certain aspects of electro were radicalized with the development of electronic instruments and through the fact that they became less and less expensive.
Important in our context is that – predominantly in London at first – the warehouse parties were starting to be a mass phenomenon around 1987. Not only that, it also drew the attention of the mass media which often turned into panic mongering, not too dissimilar to how Hippies in the first place and Punk later was received. (The Labour MP Marcus Lipton had said in 1977: “If pop music is going to be used to destroy our established institutions, then it ought to be destroyed first.”)
Mind you, the warehouse parties that started attracting regular numbers like 10’000 in North London were not free parties, nor were they even cheap. A rather large underground economy developed from this where a quite Thatcher-compatible entrepreneurial spirit developed. The ideology of anything-goes capitalism was extended to dealing drugs and organizing large scale events.
On Top Non Stop
Around this time, ca. 1990, there were new developments. Crews of people got together who were socialized both through the Hippie festivals and the urban Acid House events. Often these were squatters. Also there was a fluctuation between squatters and travellers as many travellers moved into town in the hard winter months into occupied houses or industrial areas.
Another historical line that comes into play here is the history of the Jamaican Reggae and Dub sound systems, which I can only mention in passing (4).
Who was first to have the idea of taking a sound system to one of these festivals and to play techno instead of hippie music is the stuff of legends.
In any case at this time there were quickly some larger, and many smaller sound systems who started to do exactly that: Circus Lunatek, Circus Warp, Bedlam, DiY, Spiral Tribe.
Despite their legendary stature, the history of the actual Spiral Tribe – its original incarnation – is quite short.
Activities start around 1990 with a succession of parties and end – for a time – already in 1992 with the arrest of 13 key members after the festival of Castlemorton.
Spiral Tribe set themselves apart in several respects from the other sound systems by projecting a different image with their shaved heads, black combat clothes and their graphic concepts.
Their backdrops were designed with an extreme recognition value in silver and black creating a sort of corporate identity. There were the large Mercedes vans and a generally confrontative attitude.
Their ideology was shaped by a psychedelic messianism which had much more to do with LSD than with the Ecstasy that had fuelled the initial House scene, and thus reached back to the early days of the Hippie festivals while embracing the latest technology.
While other sound systems were more interested in surviving unrecognized, therefore more in tune with the sub-proletarian attitude of “ducking and diving”, one of the Spiral Tribe slogans was “on top non stop”.
A situation that is “on top” is one that is almost out of control. It is crisis, a state of emergency.
Easter Monday 1992 – Violent break-up of a Spiral Tribe party at Acton Lane by special police unit, the Territorial Support Group. After a bloody 2 1/2 hour siege, they break through the concrete wall, all partygoers are beaten down and made to lay on the ground, a boy who tried to escape to the roof was thrown off by police, breaking both arms and legs.
The next day the Spirals convoy is escorted out of London by a low flying helicopter.
Convinced to be part of a revolutionary new development, they were quite willing to seek the confrontation with the state power. And they wouldn’t initially reject the responsibility for something they couldn’t actually have done on their own, as was the case with Castlemorton.
But what they couldn’t know is that the state power wanted to get them for exactly that reason.
Castlemorton became the biggest free festival with at least two dozen sound systems – also thanks to the police who prevented another festival from happening and diverted thousands of visitors to Castlemorton who otherwise wouldn’t have even gone there.
Shortly afterwards, on June 4, instead of returning to the countryside Spirals attempted to do a party in Canary Wharf, right at the heart of capitalist London, which was swiftly stopped by police.
The court case about Castlemorton where Spiral Tribe were getting the blame for being the instigators became one of the most costly cases in British legal history and ended only two years later in 1994 with the acquittal of all defendants.
But this was by no means the only example of repression, already on July 22, 1990 – soon after the Poll Tax riot and before Spiral Tribe had even done their first party, 836 people had been arrested when police busted a rave party in Gildersome near Leeds, constituting one of the largest peace time arrests in Europe in the last century.
Another example – after Castlemorton – is “Operation Anagram”, when on January 31, 1993, Exodus Sound System in Luton were raided “to prevent a breach of the peace”. 36 people arrested, PA impounded. Between four and five thousand people surrounded the police station with the result that all arrested were released without charges.
Kill the Bill
A new Criminal Justice Bill (which eventually became law as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994) was drawn up and began its process of becoming law. It contained a number of measures that were directed specifically against the scenes I’m describing: ravers, squatters, travellers, hunt saboteurs.
Ravers became a target insofar that their events were criminalised. In fact there are specifically musical criteria to justify the intervention of the state in the event of a rave taking place, defined through a “succession of repetive beats” in the presence of a certain number of people under clear sky.
The CJB was a document of class struggle against marginalized segments of society.
“Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less. New age travellers? Not in this age! Not in any age!” – John Major, Prime Minister.
7 June 1993 – Daily Telegraph editorial describes squatters and travellers as a “swarming tribe of human locusts”.
Despite the fact that the CJB also contained a number of segments eroding civil liberties under the guise of “anti-terrorist” measures, there was remarkably little criticism against the bill, particularly not from the left-liberal circles who should in principle have opposed it. However the Labour Party didn’t want at any cost to be associated with marginal elements in society after losing the elections of the 80’s and early 90’s and trying to profile themselves as a “new” people’s party.
Thus it was up to the concerned groups to fight the introduction of the bill.
In general, ravers, travellers and squatters were not per se politically organised. That being said, there were many political tendencies, probably too many to put under one umbrella.
A large one could be described with the then current term of “life style anarchism”. This describes a diffuse kind of anarchism with a rather instinctive hostility towards the state and the police. This attitude could be found with punks as well as travellers and ravers.
Another was a very mild psychedelic hippiedom which was more recruited from the middle class and was crystallized around the club Megatripolis. This scene also had direct connections to the old festival scene, but tried to realize their project in Heaven, one of the trendiest clubs in London which had been bought by Richard Branson, the entrepreneur behind Virgin.
The Socialist Workers Party and other Trots in the meantime tried to jump onto the bandwagon of the emerging grassroots movement against the bill.
The SWP had already met a lot of rejection in the scene at the time. Nevertheless they managed repeatedly to give the demonstrations a “face” by printing thousands of placards and handing them out. This type of interference was also evident more recently at anti-Iraq-War demonstrations.
Viewed more sympathetically in at least a part of the scene was the Class War Federation, the militant anarchist organisation grouped around the “proletarian” tabloid newspaper Class War.
Other organisations that had a certain influence on the scene were the various factions of “green” anarchism, including Animal Liberation Front, Earth First! and Green Anarchist. It is especially the latter whose dubious ideology has to be criticised.
Self-sufficient villages, regression of technology, the “destruction of civilisation” was their aim. It was only consequent that its founder Richard Hunt ended in the far right after leaving GA in 1991. Thus it could be argued that GA fostered far right ideologies all along.(5)
However in our context it has to be mentioned that due to its hostility to technology, GA made few inroads into the techno scene.
There were new organisations such as the Advance Party which were set up to combat the CJB and recruited mostly free party people. The driving force behind it was the person who had run the info line for free parties in London for years.
Some surprisingly large demonstrations took place. These usually – and with it the Criminal Justice Bill – received very little media attention unless they turned into a riot.
Unfortunately some took a nasty pacifist stance, with publishing a leaflet titled “Keep it Fluffy”, calling for violent demonstrators to be marked with paint so the police could arrest them. Far from being just despicable or even ridiculous, there were actual arrests made and people ended up in prison. This scandal shows that the movement was very diverse, to say the least, in its political outlooks. Class War answered back with a leaflet called “Keep it Spikey”.
By the time the new CJB became law and Spiral Tribe were acquitted at Wolverhampton Crown Court, the situation had become a completely different one. It had become practically impossible to organize illegal festivals with techno. Although the CJA barely touched on illegal parties in urban areas, it had a negative effect on travellers and squatters.
For Spiral Tribe themselves it was clear that it had become impossible to act in Britain.
Instead of giving up, they – and other sound systems – quite on the contrary began exporting the idea of festivals to the continent.
Especially in France the resonance was enormous, which led in turn to a social phenomenon and repression by the state. There were analogous developments in Italy, Czech and other countries.
Temporary Autonomous Zones
A book that had a lot of influence was T.A.Z. – The Temporary Autonomous Zone by Hakim Bey, a pseudonym of the author Peter Lamborn Wilson, published by Autonomedia in 1991.
The TAZ became a much used slogan for mobilisation and provided a theoretical framework for some in the free party scene. Apparently no one noticed what a hotchpotch the book was, deriving ideas from anarchism, neo-primitivism, post-structuralism, 17th century pirates, dropouts of the american west, Gabriele D’Annunzio and the first Munich council republic, to arrive in the present with Cyberpunk and the first manifestations of the internet.
The basic idea is not unappealing:
‘The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the state, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen BEFORE the State can crush it.’
However, the historical examples used in the book often don’t withstand closer scrutiny.
Little reliable information is available about pirate settlements and newly formed nomadic tribes of escaped slaves, deserters, outlaws and Indians in the North America of the 18th century. As such they can serve as a projection screen for some of the sound system crews seeing themselves as “tribes”.
But where there is enough information Bey’s descriptions often turn out to be totally falsified.
For example he describes Gabriele D’Annunzio as a ‘decadent poet, artist, musician, aesthete, womanizer, pioneer daredevil aeronautist, black magician, genius and cad’ and trivializes his conquest of the city of Fiume at the end of WW1 as an anarchist prank, when in reality it was done out of nationalistic motives and with the help of Freikorps-type formations of disgruntled ex-soldiers. I can not reconstruct in what way music supposedly served as an “organisational principle” as it said in the constitution of Fiume.
That the 18 months of Fiume were a permanent party becomes rather dubious if one learns that D’Annunzio’s strongmen introduced the practice of beating up opponents and forcing them to imbibe castor oil, a practice copied a little later by Mussolini’s thugs.
The SS-type uniforms and the roman salute were also an inspiration for the fascist terror that would soon break loose in Italy.
A TAZ as a stage rehearsal for fascism?
Bey is twisting the history to such a degree that he turns all this into a great party, makes D’Annunzio become a fascist only years later and even has Mussolini kill him, which is as far removed from the truth as most other claims he makes.
This doesn’t mean one can insinuate a fascist ideology in the concept of the TAZ as such, but we have to mention that it’s not automatically linked with emancipatory aims.
Bey discredited himself quite thoroughly with his following book Millennium in 1996 , but with T.A.Z. he has created more of a buzzword than a coherent theory, and has managed to remain somewhat influencial.
A smaller and more heterogenous scene, which was not connected to a particular organisation but was rooted in the post-situationist, ultra-left tendency of the communist movement, was comprised of people who were grouped around magazines, papers and newsletters such as TechNet, Underground, Fatuous Times, Break/Flow, Communist Headache, Autotoxicity, and of course the Praxis Newsletter, Alien Underground and later Datacide.
There were many more or less interconnected groupuscules and projects such as the Neoist Alliance, London Psychogeographic Association, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, Luther Blisset Project, Decadent Action, etc.
From 1994-96, a collective with members from Adverse, TechNet, and Praxis organized the monthly Dead By Dawn parties in the squatted anarchist centre in 121 Railton Road in Brixton, London. By combining talks before the party with the sonic intensifications of the latest hardcore beats, they tried to contribute to a radicalization of consciousness.
Especially worth mentioning is TechNet, a collective project which produced newsletters consisting of a mix of poetry, manifesto and theory, postulating techno as “Psycho-Social Tumult”, a collective practice of intensification standing in an irreconcilable antagonism towards the celebrity machine.
The music and its practice was described as unstable and cataclysmic, and there was a certain confidence that it would be able to defy the mechanisms of recuperation.
In the context of the CJA, TechNet wrote:
“Techno is the cultural contaminant that propels us towards the collectivity of the rave party with the resultant group-noise being the catalyst for a game of risk, gambling on slavery or freedom. This is the threat to the government.”
Reclaim the Streets
In the meantime there were also new forms of political action such as the Reclaim the Streets actions starting around 1996.
The main idea of RTS was to occupy urban space, often streets and junctions, and turn them into lively parties. Sound systems thus became an integral part of these illegal party-demonstrations, and clearly this was a continuity from the anti-CJB protests, while other aspects drew inspiration from the ‘80ies “Stop the City” and “Bash the Rich”-marches and the ideas of situationists like Raoul Vaneigem: “make Carneval the revolutionary moment”.
The idea was applied in different places with growing success.
Initially it was mainly ecological issues that were important. But more and more the attempt was made to link up with what was left of the radical working class movement.
There was a collaboration with Liverpool dockers in the election year 1997 which ended with a party on Trafalgar Square. In the following years there was a focus on May 1st.
The most spectacular RTS was the Carneval Against Capitalism in the City of London on June 18, 1999.
I was prepared with a lot of time and energy. For example a spoof-newspaper was printed – Evading Standards which copied the look of the popular Evening Standard newspaper.
Also a little guide through the City of London, one of the most important financial centres in the world, was produced
The meeting point was Liverpool Street station. Thousands came.
The police as well as the majority of the attendees were completely in the dark as far as the plans were concerned.
The police believed that the plan would be to bring a sound system into the station and have a big party there. For this reason it was impossible to even get close to the station with a vehicle. However the plan was completely different. Masks that had 4 different colours were distributed. Soon 4 different marches moved through the city, there were numerous actions at different institutions. Hours later the four marches united at a pre-arranged place where the sound system was already playing.
The police had been so outmanoeuvered that their reaction was all the more violent.
Hours of street fighting ensued, a trail of destruction was blazed from the City of London to Trafalgar Square. There was considerable damage.
This massive success of RTS was also its last one.
The government announced a “war of attrition” against RTS.
The following action in November was simply surrounded by police and many activists from the carnival that had been identified in the meantime were arrested.
On Mayday 2000 there was a memorable action of “guerilla gardening”, but the police strategy of containment was successfully applied. If I remember right there was also no sound system on Parliament Square.
In the runup to Mayday a two-day conference with workshops and discussions had taken place.
In London, the RTS type of direct action had run its course by Mayday 2001. There was simply no room to manoeuvre anymore, the element of surprise no longer worked.
Later the brand name “Reclaim the Streets” was and is often used for completely legal demonstration with some trucks with sound systems. Obviously this is a travesty of the original idea.
A travesty was also the way it was attempted to register the names “Spiral Tribe” and “Teknival” as trade marks by a commercial distributor in the late ‘90ies… and a larger than life myth that for a while manifested itself in exorbitant prices for their early record releases.
Police patrolled “Sarkovals” (legalised teknivals ironically called after the then interior minister and now president Sarkozy) have become the rule in France…
Teknival culture has not been completely defeated, but I think it’s safe to say that it has lost its character as an actual counter-culture.
It has rather become a small sub-culture in the last few years, carving out an existence on the margins of the culture industry, a sub-culture with its own specific sound, hair-dos and clothing.
So if the virulent intersection of sound systems and protest seems to have run its course for now, this just means the discontent it expressed has been covered up, but not that it has disappeared. In the current climate of crisis it can be expected to raise its head once more, but more than likely with a completely different look, sound and smell…
Listen up to detect in noise fragments of the future.
(1) Lionel Sims of the Radical Anthropology Group argues in an article in the Weekly Worker (http://cpgb.org.uk/worker/740/stonehenge.html) from Oct. 9, 2008, that Stonehenge indeed represents “neolithic counterrevolution”, the transformation of society from matriarchal communism to patriarchy:
“Stonehenge is not just about the sun. It also shows complex knowledge of the moon, suitable for explaining a lunar-solar cosmology, in which the sun is appropriating, at its setting at winter solstice, exactly the magical properties of the dark moon that would fit an ancient lunar timescale respecting dark moon symbolism. Stonehenge was designed to continue that tradition, but confiscate it for the new purpose of an emerging agricultural society ruled by priests and cattle-owning wealthy men.”
This of course puts the Hippie pilgrimages in an ironic light.
(2) Nigel Ayers on the Wallys:
(3) see DJ Controlled Weirdness’ article in this issue.
(4) see Howard Slater’s “Lotta Continua: Roots Music and the Politics of Production” in Datacide 9 and online here:
as well as John Eden’s talk at the 2008 datacide conference (to be published):
“Shaking The Foundations: Reggae soundsystems meet ‘Big Ben British values’ downtown”
(5) see Luther Blissett and Stewart Home: Green Apocalypse, Unpopular Books.