‘Spannered’ is a fictionalised account of the free party scene, spanning a lost weekend in the mid-1990s. In this conversation with Neil Transpontine, the novel’s author Bert Random reflects on free parties then and now, the famous Bristol scene and much more. The book is available from http://www.spanneredbooks.com/
1. Spannered reads very much like an insider’s account of the 1990s free party scene – written by somebody who was intimately involved in it, rather than by a writer who stumbled into a party in search of material for a novel. Can you say a bit about your involvement at the time and the squat party scene in Bristol (maybe mention some of the sound systems, places where parties happened etc.).
There had always been squat parties and random dances in Bristol, ever since I was a teenager. Like loads of Bristol kids of my age, I was first drawn into skateboarding when I was 13 or 14, which led to punk and graffiti and hip-hop, and then into dance music and raving. There were things happening everywhere: in squats where my mates were living, in places like the Pink Palace (which was a four-story building right in the middle of town that was filled with skate-ramps and painted with huge pink balloons on the outside), in the basements and back-rooms of dodgy pubs, and in weird, derelict, places tucked around the edges of Bristol’s inner-city. Lots of slightly older friends got involved in the first wave of acid, and loads of us got swept along in their wake. I’ve still got two tapes from that time with just ‘BLEEPS’ & ‘BLEEPS II’ written on them that I listened to over and over again, stuff like Renegade Soundwave, ‘The Gonzo’, LFO, and Unique 3. This was around 1990 and even after the bubble of acid house had burst it was just obvious that this was music that was going to carry on changing things and that it had a million potential ways to evolve. My mum and dad had been hippies when they were young, so I’d grown up listening to the Stones and Hendrix and was aware of the concept of musical movements, of pivotal moments in culture, so was more than happy to try and join in with one. I was always a punter, early on, but I did go out a lot – from huge do’s like Castlemorton to little parties with a few hundred people and a scaffolding set-up for the rig and the decks at the end of a random country lane. And just by being around everywhere you ended up chipping in, carrying stuff or doing décor, working bars or playing records, flyering or selling drugs. Doing little bits and pieces and being a small part of a much larger machine.
Straight after Castlemorton things were atomized by the reaction of the police to anything happening on their patch, with every force worried they might be the hosts of the next party that got national attention, and for a few years – it seemed to me at the time – unlicensed parties struggled to get going. There were a few big pay-parties like Universe’s ‘Tribal Gatherings’ which could be fun in their own way, either as a punter or better yet on the blag, doing some non-existent job really badly for an hour or two then getting shit-faced and wandering off. Things were much worse for people who were travelling, with the concerted attempt by settled society to stop them from travelling by systematically making it impossible to live the life many of them had for generations. Fucking tragic. And it was the beginning of the process of systematic infiltration of environmental and anti-capitalist protest groups by undercover policemen such as Bob Fisher, a long and sordid tale that is only now being exposed after the disgraced Mark Kennedy scandal came to light.
By 1994 a backlash against the ongoing demonization of squatters, travellers, hunt-sabs, and ravers seemed to have developed, driven both by hedonistic needs and by political stubbornness, reacting to the systematic attack on alternative ways of living by getting organised and stomping on regardless. There were lots of protests, road demos (which would be called Occupations now, I guess), lots of unrest, and a move from parties predominantly being held in countryside settings to more urban locations. It was a weird time – clearly the end of the Conservative parties empire, but the fucking monster just would not die – and a poor time as well, the UK was not long out of recession and life for most people was fucking hard.
Bristol’s geography is weird, it’s physically small for the amount of stuff that goes on, and when your on one you don’t think anything of walking a few miles across town to get to a party, no matter whose system it was. A crew called Circus Warp had a lot of Bristol links, as did one called Sunnyside. Mutant Dance were always putting things on, usually along with a group of DJs called Electrik Orgasm. Then there were loads of underground clubnights in weird venues, places like Easton Community Centre and an old church turned art-centre called Trinity. Lots of free parties grew from these kind of dances, with profits from pay-parties helping to pay for diesel and kit. There were always things going on in St Pauls, late night drinkers like La Boom, in the back room of a pub, dancing to ska and reggae til dawn. There were parties on biker-gang boats moored in the docks in the centre of town, in a disused railway tunnel in the beautiful Avon Gorge under Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s iconic Suspension Bridge, in empty car-showrooms, and in stunning countryside in the middle of nowhere barely an hours drive from the city on early morning empty roads. The partying was always the main thing, but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that if I didn’t write some of it down I would never remember it, so I did find myself scribbling little notes to myself while coming down – luckily I was never much of a drinker, so everyone else used to pass out and I’d still be wired, chain-smoking spliffs and writing things. There are lots of books about rave culture – some like ‘Energy Flash’ by Simon Reynolds looking at the musical side, others like told as dramas from the point of view of a promoter or a dealer, someone with a financial stake, or with bad comedy plots about relationships and erectile dysfunction. I liked George McKay’s books, like ‘DiY Culture’, and CJ Stones ‘Freaky Dancing; which pulled apart the social genetics of the scene, and always had a soft spot for ‘Boxy an Star’ by Daren King, although I know lots of people found the phonetically-written language a bit off-putting. When I dug out all those notes to try and make sense of them I decided I wanted Spannered to be different to all of these books, to be about the feeling of being involved, rather than the mechanics. I hope it’s an emotional book, rather than an intellectual one, because the emotion is often lost in the analysis of dance music.
2. Spannered is an account of one lost weekend in Bristol, in fact you even give the party a date: 14th – 15th May 1995. Was there a particular party you had in mind when you were writing it?
There was a series of five parties in the same warehouse in a place called Feeder Road in Bristol through the spring and summer of 1995, so that is where Spannered is set. I wanted to try and show how these things can develop as word spreads and people become more creative and work together, but with that progression compressed into a single night. At the beginning the warehouse is pretty bare, just the system and some strobes, but later, when the narrator and Goon get back from the 24-hour garage, it’s all much more elaborate, full of lights and inflatables and with a bigger system. This was the change that more of less happened between the first and the third of that series of parties, and was to show how parties can grow and evolve, even when they are held in the same place time after time. There were a few spots that were remote enough or undeveloped enough for us to keep returning to and this building, along with others just down the road, was one of them. Once I decided to set the book in one weekend, straight through and in first person (and without crow-barring in an unnecessary plot), a Feeder Road warehouse seemed like the most obvious setting, even though I went to parties in much more aesthetically pleasing locations. Doing it in the city also helped to gloss over the issue of characters driving back from parties shit-faced which, of all the things we did back then, seems the most dangerous and the least explicable when I know look at it now.
3. ‘Spannered’ captures the feel of the squat party scene as it has existed in many times and places, for me it was very evocative of nights out in Brixton, Hackney and other parts of London. But of course there is a specifically Bristol context to the book – you mention St Pauls, Smith & Mighty etc. How do you see the moment you describe in the book fitting into a broader historical trajectory of Bristol and its music?
The book is set in ’95 just for convenience, but draws on lots of little memories from before and after that year. I do love the fact that the same kind of thing was happening all over the country at the same time, something I, and I think everyone else, was very conscious of. There was a sense of being part of a greater whole, of thinking global and acting local, going on anti-CJA and road protests, only helped to reinforce that feeling. At around the same time as these warehouse parties on Feeder Road a group of us went to London for a birthday and ended up at a huge squat party next to a police station – somewhere beginning with ‘S’…? I can’t remember where exactly it was, but I do remember walking into the massive central courtyard and seeing beautiful freaky people perched in every window all the way up to the fifth or sixth floor of this abandoned warehouse, music blasting from every floor. What a rush! I still think now sometimes, during the summer, that someone somewhere is having the absolute time of their lives, an absolutely fundamental experience that will shape their lives differently. And that is another point of the book – raves & free-parties felt the way they did because of the ordinary punters. Like in Alan Moore’s comics masterpiece, the ‘Halo Jones’ trilogy, the point is that the narrator isn’t special, that anyone could do it, that this is just one story out of thousands. We could be in the heads of any other raver and have an equally intense and unique experience.
The tradition of free parties lives on in Bristol to this day, and is just an accepted part of the city, but because it underground in nature it’s easily overlooked from the outside, simply because of the scale of some of Bristol’s other music. There’s a rich history that splits neatly into the Pre-Massive Attack and the Post-Massive Attack era’s. Before they conquered the world it was a bit of a running in-joke that Bristol didn’t produce hit music like other cities had, with no real answer to London’s punk, the Mersey sound, or Madchester. Homegrown music could be argued to be influential or even successful enough to be played by John Peel – Mark Stewart and the Pop Group and Rig-Rig & Panic (featuring a young Neneh Cherry) being three examples – but not huge; big enough to survive but never breaking out. ‘Blue Lines’ by Massive Attack, ‘Maxinequay’ by Tricky, and the explosion of the Wild Bunch crew (with Nellee Hooper producing huge records by Bjork & Soul II Soul) changed all that. It was strange, and a total fucking buzz, to be eighteen-years-old and walk into a newsagent and see your home-town being named as the big thing in music on the front cover of all the music magazines. I lived with someone for a while who was involved in record distribution, and he bought home a promo copy of the first Portishead record a few months before it came out and said ‘This is going to be huge…’. When a year later it had sold millions of copies and won every award going it felt like we were momentarily on an inside track. That kind of thing sweeps everyone along and gives a place a remarkable momentum. Bristol has kind of surfed it ever since, through jungle, and techno, and now with it’s early development of dub-step and bass-music, it’s one of the essential underground music cities in the country. And one of the good things about Bristol is, like I said because of it’s size, you can dance to all of it if you want to. The music in the book is predominantly techno, but there were other parties where jungle ruled, others where house was the flavour of the night. Maybe it’s because I grew up here, but it always felt ok to go to all of them. The moment captured in the book is one that can be over-looked, because of the commercial success and profile of the ‘Bristol sound’ and then Roni Size and all that, but it was really all part of the same eco-system, part of the same soup of influences and opportunities.
You mentioned Smith & Mighty, and I’ve got to talk about them specifically. Their version of ‘Walk On’ was the first record I bought from a proper record shop. I was 14 and walking past Tonys Records on Park Street, when this bass rumble stopped me dead. I walked in and asked what was playing, spent the money I was supposed to be spending in the comic shop, and went home with a 12” record that produced noises I hadn’t heard before. They are such a thick thread running though Bristol’s musical life, all the way from those early 3-Stripe productions through the reggae-jungle of More Rockers right up to Rob Smiths bass experiments on the RSD label. The place genuinely wouldn’t be what it is without them, and there should be a bloody statue of a bass-speaker somewhere to commemorate them!.
4. A lot of people would have a stereotyped view of 90s ‘crusty ravers’ but as you say the people at these parties were ‘A proper bunch of randoms’. You mention ‘Survivors from the convoys; European techno-freaks who would follow a beat anywhere; Americans who spent their teens following the Grateful Dead; crazy Canadians on maxed out credit cards… the Old ’92 ravers out of retirement, house divas in fake fur, indie kids and students, travellers, punks and dreads’. That diverse social composition was, I think, quite new compared to many other ‘sub-cultural’ music scenes. I remember in South London there for instance there were a whole crowd of Italian squatters involved. I had been a punk for a while in the 80s and that felt a lot narrower…
Well, a lot of the UK techno and dance music came from ex-punks, and lots of ex-punks had ended up travelling and squatting, years before dance music came along. I think the free party scene, and dance music as a whole to a certain extent, just sucked in everyone, people from all kinds of musical heritages and youth cultures could cherry-pick something in it they liked about the scene and have a laugh. And I think the nature of the drugs being taken undoubtedly helped. The tales of rival football fans getting loved up and stopping the violence in the ‘90s are clichés because in many cases they were true. The actual potential physical and emotional effects of MDMA on individuals and groups of individuals are well documented, and the prevalence of good quality MDMA in late 1994 and 1995 after a few years of relative drought made it much easier for disparate groups to co-exist and even thrive together from the new connections made on the dancefloor and in the life that swirled around it. This meant that you had all sorts of people from across musical cultures crossing-over, at parties, in clubs, in record-shops. There were distinct scenes but they over-lapped like complicated Venn diagrams, mingling weird groups of technicians, and musicians and blaggers and hagglers. Things may have homogenised and separated over time, but that’s how it felt back then. Bristol is one of those places that is a bit of a black-hole for the not-quite-normal, a place where people who can’t find a niche elsewhere can sometimes find a groove that fits, that probably wouldn’t exist elsewhere (currently, an arts collective called the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft is a fantastic expression of this kind of thing, but there are numerous other examples). People find themselves settling and putting down roots, leading to a diverse city. (It’s also a big student town, with two huge universities delivering thousands of new students into the city every autumn, eager to explore and get involved.) Today more than ever I find myself talking to random people in cafes who have just arrived from Portugal or Spain or further away, looking for a place to stay for a while, and planning to build a life that’s a bit weird.
5. The narrator in the book takes a f*ck load of drugs in one night! Obviously that was and is closely linked to the dance music experience. But also with hindsight we have all seen various friends become casualties in one way or another, and not all have made it through. Did that colour how you wrote about the chemical aspects of the book?
I was very conscious of this, did the book make drugs sound risk-free, should we finish on mid-week comedown? In fact there was a draft that ended with the narrator waking up on Tuesday night, having slept for 15 hours and feeling awful, staggering around the filthy house, stepping over stinking people and piles of puke. Dreadful business. But then I thought about the point of the book, which was to try and capture the feelings that made us all keep on doing it. People don’t put that much time and effort and life into doing something if it’s just shit. And most books and movies about parties, raves, and 90’s youth culture, feeling a desperate need for a plot, have the inevitable moralistic tone, where people do drugs, have fun, then things go wrong, so they get ‘clean’ and it’s all ok again (or don’t get ‘clean’ and it doesn’t). And compressing that process into a single narrative – which undoubtedly did happen to too many people, but to hugely varying degrees and often over long periods of time – undercuts the basic truth that young people go out, take drugs of whatever form, and dance to music because it is fun. Nothing more complicated than that. The darker side of it all is intimated at, with the freak-out in chapter 10, and some other characters who obviously aren’t well, but that wasn’t the point of the book. It’s something that I am writing about at the moment, but this book was meant to be about the beautiful honeymoon of a good party scene – I wanted this book to be grimey, but to end high and happy, because I think that was the most common experience of generations of people in this country and across the world.
And, for the record, compared to most of his peers, the narrator was a fucking lightweight.
6. The descriptions of the ecstasy experience are very good – I particulary like the bit about falling in love with the bassbin. But the book also ventures into the notoriously difficult territory of writing about the details of the music itself, the effect on human bodies and minds of particular structures of snares, kickdrums, ‘Clanks and clicks and cymbals and samples’…
Everyone knows the (wrongly-attributed-to-Frank-Zappa) quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, and I think the same applies to writing about drugs, but there seemed no way into the feeling of a free-party without talking about both in some detail so I’m glad you thought some of it worked. Ever since the 60’s drug-takers have know the importance of set and setting – and even those who don’t know it consciously tend to know it instinctively. And at a party the music is, really, the be-all and end-all of set and setting. You can have the best drugs and the most up for it crowd, but play music that doesn’t press the right buttons and you will still have a shit night. So the music is essential, and describing it seemed a necessary evil. There are some sections we quite like, but the sections that describe the effect of the music on people are probably the bits we are happiest with – there’s a glowing golden couple near the end that I love, who are dancing together, oblivious to everything else, just twitching and staring into each other eyes. Saw that happen so many times in so many ways – that total connection. And the music, this tribal, hectic, intense, often maligned techno music, facilitated that, made that connection happen. I like the contradiction between this hammering, often discordant, music and the love that it could help trigger.
7. The narrator in ‘Spannered’ feels ‘a sense of belonging’ at the party, and indeed feels a connection not just with those around him but to ‘everyone who has ever been moved by music’, ‘pushed on by everybody I ever danced with, by everybody who has ever danced to garage or house or breaks or hardcore or jungle or trance or techno or acid’. It’s easy to dismiss that feeling, which I and many others have shared, as just the drugs talking. But the experience was/is real, and grounded in the fact of sharing a space with a whole load of other people moving to a beat, in this case outside of the usual commercial entertainment circuit of rip-off prices and bouncers. For me that sociability, that expression of what Marx calls our human ‘species being’, is what can stay with people long after the drugs wear off (even if they’ve never taken the drugs)…
This is a bit of the book that we are least happy with. We experimented with loads of metaphors for the reality of the feelings induced by the drugs, that the drugs don’t automatically undercut the honesty of the feelings, things like ‘the office isn’t unreal because you drink a coffee’ but in the end couldn’t find one that was good enough to leave in. It’s still something I wish we had been able to nail, because we didn’t really.
You are so right about the socialbility being something that seeps into the bones of many people who experience it – something about helping each other out, working together, sharing an experience that wasn’t mediated through commercial sensibilities or legal restrictions was very powerful on an instinctive level. (In his book ‘Ecstasy and the dance culture’ Nicholas Saunders talks a lot about how the communal atmosphere of raves can be easily understood in light of the psychiatric experiments into the effects of MDMA on individuals and couples in the 70’s and 80’s, who demonstrated all of the lowering of inhibitions, feelings of togetherness, and desire to share that are the clichéd hallmarks of raves.) I didn’t often analyse it like this while dancing, it was just felt. It was only afterwards, mid-week and in the years since I slowed down that I’ve chewed it over. The friends made during those times are undoubtedly still the best friends I have ever had; in fact it was love for one of these friends – the character ‘Gonzo’ in the book – that finally got the book written. It had been knocking around on my computers in various forms for a year or two, with a variety of not-working plots crowbarred in (the typical relationship dramas or drug-deals-gone-wrong) when he got really ill, and by chance at the time I had a bit of spare time in the evenings to work on it. I decided to strip everything out to try to finish it to give to him as a reminder of good times. Didn’t quite manage it in time, but the book is jointly dedicated to him and he is undoubtedly one of it’s stars. Those are the kind of human friendships that grew from that scene, and outsiders who belittle them simply don’t know what they are talking about. The level of partying depicted in the book is fairly unsustainable after a few years, some people stop altogether, some people keep living it, and some people just slow down, have kids, or get creative and drift into other areas. But that doesn’t then invalidate the experiences they had when they were there, living it and breathing it. The adrenaline rush you get from a parachute jump doesn’t become unreal just because eventually you stand on the ground again. (Yet another attempt there at finding a metaphor for this slippery concept…)
8. In a very different context the philosopher Kierkegaard once wrote of ‘dancing in the service of thought’. One of the things I liked about the book was the way it pays attention to what’s going on inside people’s heads when they are dancing… that sometimes we are having the wildest ideas rather than just moving ‘mindlessly’…
This is something else that we hope we managed to capture, the fact that the drug/dance experience isn’t static, that your experience of it changes from party to party and during each individual party – set and setting again, and how you are, how your mind is working. We quite like the line in the book where the narrator spends a moment thinking about their own dancing (“…No matter how hectic the music gets my mind seems to anticipate its changes, giving me time to dance, time to move randomly, but to still land something back on the beat, sharp, every single time. My lolloping motion disguises a fanatical devotion to the structure of the drums…“), and the bit where three dancers in separate parts of the dancefloor share an experience and dance together “…connections lazering across the room from fried synapse to fried synapse, a glowing triangle of fucked-up-ness that zings between us…”. MDMA and lots of the other drugs taken at the time (before ketamine really took over large chunks of the free-party scene in the early-00’s) are uppers, making your mind race. It may be gibberish, and it may be confusing, but there was always a lot of it, and the occasional rare gem of insight or comedy would fight though the noise to give a blast of pure signal.
I’d not heard the Kierkegaard quote before, but it reminded me of something I read in a book called ‘Why Music Moves Us’ by Jeanette Bicknell. She discusses the concept of ‘the sublime’ and how this relates to music, and argues that great music (or music that affects us greatly, which may not be the same thing) sidesteps reason and interacts with us in a completely different way, which is clearly true. I think this can help contribute to the weird, random thoughts that you can have while dancing, swept along in the slip-stream of the non-reasoned experiencing of the music that is surrounding you, one moment tightly focussed, the next scattered far and wide.
9. During the period the book was set the Criminal Justice Act had just come into effect with its legislation against unlicensed ‘raves’. Yet in 2012, people who weren’t even born then are partying in warehouses, fields and beaches in defiance of the authorities. Do you have a sense of what has changed and what has stayed the same?
I love the defiance, but the reality is the state has many more tools, both legally and physically, to shut down parties, protests, and other communal gatherings if it wants to. It’s hard to see where the next large scale party will ever come from, I mean I can’t imagine another Castlemorton being allowed to develop, can you? I hope I’m wrong, but the openly discussed monitoring of rave organisers by police, the powers to restrict gatherings (even on private land), the draconian powers to seize sound-systems, all makes putting on parties really hard. (As a small indication of the state and commercial interests desire to stop people gathering on their own terms, have you seen the ‘mosquito’ sirens that are being installed in shopping centres and places where teenagers hang out – they emit high-pitched noises, beyond the hearing range of most older people, but designed to annoy youngsters and move them on and stop them gathering in certain places. Anti-social public architecture aimed at what the state calls anti-social behaviour, but a generation ago would have just been called ‘playing-out’) But I love that parties still happen; there are still squat parties in and around London most weekends, and around in other places around the country, occasionally bursting into public consciousness like the Scumoween party in 2010, where a 72-hour-rave in a warehouse in central tourist-belt London drew horrified tabloid photographers on a slow-news-day. And, as I said earlier, at each of those parties there will be people being inspired by the greatest nights out of their lives, the greatest feelings of community, the greatest feelings of happiness they will have ever experienced. And that makes us smile.
There is no denying that the fluff has gone from the early free-parties. Even dances like Castlemorton, which were raw as fuck, had big dollops of fluff. Twenty years of repression and commercial appropriation of a youth culture leaves its scars on those who are living it. As life gets harder people become harder. Drugs change, music changes, and what was once an exercise in communal celebration can sometimes drift into atomised, narcotic degradation. Lots of older party-heads don’t want to deal with the aggravation of the police, so have moved onto more private parties, camping weekends where there just happens to be a marquee and a system in the next field, with word of mouth spreading through a tree of friends, but no party-line to call or convoy on it’s way. I’m too old and broken by parenting to go out these days anyway, so hear about most Bristol parties these days from my neighbours twenty-something cider-punk son!
10. I assume ‘Bert Random’ is one person, but the book is very much a collective effort with illustrations by six people and I assume others involved in the design and production process. Can you say a bit about that… (maybe mention any other plans you have with Spannered Books)
Yes, there is only one writer for the book, though lots of people commented on it, or component parts of it, over the years, and contributed ideas and scenes and encouragement. We did have a professional edit done by someone dispassionate, as we knew we were too close to it to pull out some of the weaker bits, which made it a shorter, but tighter and punchier book. Originally we’d thought we would only print twenty or thirty copies for a few friends and friends of friends, but it’s taken on a life of it’s own really. I mean, being stocked in Foyles and in the fantastic Housmans radical bookshop, where we spent a lot of time when we lived in London, just wasn’t something we really contemplated when we decided to publish. I think the art has really helped with that, really gets peoples attentions. We picked a handful of people whose work we really liked, most of them locals, and let them do what they want. We particularly love the Rose Sanderson illustration for chapter 11 – she just captured something about the puke and the hugging and the weirdness of being that shit-faced with a group of friends at a party at dawn that makes me laugh every time I look at it.
We’ve plans for a few other books, including one on Castlemorton Festival that we are hoping to release on the 23rd anniversary and a strange limited edition fold-out art book that we are just trying to work out how to afford to produce. We had planned to do a book of free-party photos, but some-one beat us to it and did a better job than we ever could (it’s a beautiful 450-page book of pictures taken in the scene across Europe from 1996 to 2007 called ‘Out of Order, by a photographer called Molly Macindoe). But at the moment most of our time is spent putting together a book called ‘The Secret Life of Freaks’, due to come out in late-2012. It’s a compilation of short-stories, non-fiction, and weird art, all with some grounding in music, or protests, or parties, submitted by all kinds of people. I wanted some non-fiction in their as well, because I think it compliments the fiction, they can make us think in different ways. o we have pieces from musicologists about predicting the effects of different drum patterns on peoples dancing; on a lifetime as a music collector and what that means in the current online glut; and about being part of a small tight-knit scene that’s suddenly explodes to prominence. We really pleased with how it’s developing, and think it’s become a really interesting book. There are loads of other things we’d like to publish, but there’s not enough hours in the day to do everything at the moment – and we are kind of planned through to late 2013 – so we just write everything down and hope we’ll get to it eventually!