Nights out dancing, for all their intensity, leave few visible traces. Immersed in a multi sensory environment of noise, lights, encounters, movements, we emerge with only memories and half-memories. Of course there is a material culture of associated objects – items of clothing, flyers, vinyl – but much of it is ephemeral and on its own tells us little. Once everybody has gone home, the haunted dancehall refuses to give up its secrets.
So perhaps it is not surprising that we turn to the novel to get a sense of what it was like to be there, in different times and places. We turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald for the parties of the Jazz Age, to Colin MacInnes for 1950s London, or even to Jane Austen for the balls of regency England.
The electronic dance music scene that exploded through acid house and rave in the late 1980s and has mutated ever since now has its own library of fictional representations, much of it dating back to the period in the 1990s when the scene in the UK reached its somewhat overbloated commercial peak and publishers like everybody else were trying to get their share of the dance music pound.
The writers of such fictions may not always be reliable narrators – were they participants or voyeurs, or just chancers looking for edgy material on which to build a career? And the perspectives they offer are inevitably partial – as in many domains, male writers seem to be over-represented compared to female, and white voices more dominant than black. But these stories and novels undoubtedly tell us something even if in some cases it might only be how those in the literary world perceived what other people were getting up to at night. There is even an argument that the better writers have got closer to the reality of the experience than more conventional historical accounts. Sarah Champion, who edited the 1997 Disco Biscuits collection of short stories, asked: ‘how can you capture the madness of the last decade in facts and figures?… the true history is not about obscure white labels or DJ techniques or pop stars. It’s about personal stories of messiness, absurdity and excess – best captured in fiction’.
Places and spaces
In fact, much of the content is barely fictional at all with writers frequently referring to (then) actually existing clubs and parties – an obvious device for grounding a story in a specific context, as well as for the writer to indicate that they know what they are talking about.
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It is now twenty years since the British government first announced that it was bringing in new laws to prevent free parties and festivals. The legislation that ended up as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 prompted a mass movement of defiance with long lasting and sometimes unexpected consequences.
Many people would see the origins of the story in the Castlemorton free festival in May 1992. Thousands of people had headed into the English West Country in search of the planned Avon Free Festival. After a massive police initiative – Operation Nomad – they ended up at Castlemorton Common in the Malvern hills. The festival that kicked off there featured sound systems including Bedlam, Circus Warp, Spiral Tribe and DiY. It soon became too big for the police to stop as up to 40,000 people from all over the country gathered for a week long party – many of them attracted by sensationalist TV and newspaper coverage.
It was the biggest unlicensed gathering of this kind since the state had smashed the Stonehenge festival in the mid-1980s. What made Castlemorton different was not just the soundtrack but the crowd. The free festivals of the 1970s and early 1980s grew out of a post-hippy ‘freak’ counter culture, later reinvigorated with an infusion of anarcho-punks and ‘new age travelers’. The growing free party scene in the early 1990s included plenty of veterans from such scenes, but also attracted a much wider spectrum of ravers, clubbers and casuals. The traditional divide between marginal sub-cultures and mainstream youth scenes was breaking down as people from all kinds of social, cultural and style backgrounds converged to dance together in warehouses and fields. What’s more, the movement seemed to be expanding rapidly beyond anybody’s control.
Soon there were calls for new police powers. In a parliamentary debate in June 1992, the local Conservative MP, Michael Spicer, spoke of the festival as if it had been a military operation, describing it as ‘the invasion that took place at Castlemorton common in my constituency, on Friday 22 May… On that day, new age travellers, ravers and drugs racketeers arrived at a strength of two motorised army divisions, complete with several massed bands and, above all, a highly sophisticated command and signals system’. He went on, ‘The problem of mass gatherings must be dealt with before they take place… chief constables should be given discretionary powers to ban such gatherings altogether if they decide that they are a threat to public order’.
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Some pictures of the party taking place at the Datacide Thirteen launch event in Berlin on October 12, 2013 – if anyone has more pics, let us know! We will be uploading audio of the talks as well as video snippets of both talks and live acts/dj’s in the next days.
Yann Keller played an intense set…
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‘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. [Read more →]
The powers restricting “raves” in the Criminal Justice Act are not the first authoritarian response to a dance-based culture. The association of popular dancing with sex, intoxication, and black people has made it an object of moralist suspicion at various times in history. It was the jazz dance craze which swept across much of the west that was the source of both pleasure and panic in the 1920s, as Jill Matthews told a meeting of London History Workshop (an informal group of radical historians) in November. [Read more →]