There have always been gatherings of people who want to let off steam – and there always will be. Our generation seems to prefer massive speakers and bass that shakes your chest to tie-dye and Rock through your parent’s gramophone. For me though, underground events have always been interesting because of the spaces they were in. Abandoned warehouses were brought back to life with an echo of their industrial past; factories next to beaches were blasted with the music of machines, a soundtrack to what that place had now become.
This creation of space, something that we had or could have had a hand in making, is something that makes a free party more personal. No matter how hard you try, every movement invents its own rules, even if these are anti-rules. Through the semblance of chaos there is always order; maybe we were just happy with less order in general. Every human society, no matter how small, eventually grows its own laws, etiquette and behavior that must be maintained. If that’s the case, is there a point in this desire of disorder? Ronin, who used to be part of Headfuk sound and now does stuff with NFA, had this to say: “Even in a legitimate place with a relaxed policy towards drugs etc. you are still on good behavior because you are in someone else’s place – fair enough. When you have a TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone) situation it’s your place and nobody’s place at the same time. Often enough not even the police are interested in what goes on inside the party — as long as it stays inside the party. In a world which is becoming increasingly disparate, we need to feel like it’s our world, even just on a weekend, because it is.”
Underground parties with electronic music have been happening since there were synthesisers. The advent of raves was due to many factors; from the mutation of punk, the innovation of strong dance-friendly narcotics, as well as the upsurge in new-age travellers and a host of other things; from the gay club scene to gangster bloc parties. The travellers, who largely live in converted vans and trucks, can generally be found at the heart of most of the big free party events and teknivals that have occurred over the last ten years. Not only is this due to the implicit act of living somewhere to occupy it, it’s the travellers and squatters who have been the lifeblood of rave and who have in general stored and transported the equipment, found the locations and occupied the space. Travelling and squatting (the occupation of a residential property) gets harder to do every year. It is also something that you will never be able to transpose to clubs, however down with things the patron of an establishment is.
Some, mainly British old skool ravers, would call the height of the rave scene Castlemorton in 1992, which was the largest outdoor unlicensed party that took place in the UK. This was considered the summit of underground dance in the UK; the event that kick started the Criminal Justice Act, which in turn provided the impetus for Spiral Tribe, Bedlam, Vox Populi and other sound systems to leave the country. This slightly patriotic view ignores significant events that came later, such as the French teknivals, which were at their largest double the size of Castlemorton. If you were a Czech raver, you would probably call the beginning of the new century the peak of the rave era due to the quality and capacity of the Czech teknivals in this period. These were the greatest ever events according to some, but these 3-7 day festivals have now been commercialised and abandoned by the Czech sounds, who last year issued a statement that there would be no further CzechTeks.
Ten years ago in 1998, the biggest European sound system, Spiral Tribe, had split up and the various members were on their way back to Europe after their ill-fated trip to the US. Only the crew with money could go to the States, which meant that even the main live-sets and musicians got left behind (Crystal Distortion, 69db, etc.) as well as all the skint bods who danced all night and gave the Spirals their vibe. Maybe the trip would have still been unsuccessful even if they had managed to bring the whole crew – free parties were hard to pull off over there; ‘free’ was linked to ‘substandard’ and a depleted Spiral Tribe in a club was a very watered down version of the parties they had pulled off before.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the rave scene was blooming across the continent. In France, Sarkozy had not yet entered the political fray and new sound systems were sprouting like flies on shit. In Italy, Fintek, a squat founded on the death of Sasha Headcleaner (one of the front runners in a broken, experimental sound that would eventually give birth to breakcore) was just getting started and was in its honeymoon period. Mutoid Waste, whose style of junk sculptures has never been recreated, had recently disbanded and pretty much refused (with the odd exception) to go near the free party scene. Sound Conspiracy, Kernel Panik, Desert Storm and many other big sound systems were just getting going.
In London, United Systems were providing an infoline for those looking for squat parties every Saturday night. Although the infoline eventually died a death, these parties continued and generally still go on every Saturday in London. The police don’t much care, having too many other problems on a Saturday night to worry about a small rave. Unfortunately, the ravers don’t care much about the tunes either and are on the most part there to sell or indulge in narcotics rather than beats. Ronin pointed out: “When I get a glimpse of what’s going on in Europe or the outdoor party scene in the UK I think shit, there is still a rave scene, it’s still strong, people are still passionate about it. It kinda puts me in the dumps about a lot of the parties in London though!” This is not to say that London has not had its fair share of fat events; the annual Synthetic Circus Halloween fancy dress rave-up being among the more memorable.
Although over the last ten years Londoners have been largely apathetic as far as music is concerned, there have been other interesting forces at work. There were the actions of protestors like Reclaim the Streets, who, amongst other things, managed to squat and throw a party on a motorway, a roundabout, and a central city road (if only for a day), and the squat-art movement through Random Artists, who kick-started the free, open-access art exhibitions in squatted buildings around the UK known as TAA (Temporary Autonomous Art).
Over the next ten years things changed in France. Tekno with a k exploded, becoming the youth movement of the time, which was great if you wanted to sell records but not so amazing if you went to parties to get away from commercialism only to find more burger bars than Leicester Square and more stabbings than your local football match. Of course the crackdown that was started by Sarkozy created an atmosphere where it was no longer easy to get away with doing a party, and from 2004, a lot of sounds had their rigs seized. Conflict with the authorities has never stopped the French, who even at rave parties have not been adverse to a running battle. This was true even if it meant Molotov cocktails at dawn. Nowadays there are still parties that go on all around the French countryside; often called barbecues because they are such small events. Without a massive crowd to appease, the music is often more interesting and diverse and the atmosphere more congenial. Notably, the two or three that I have been to have been left spotless of rubbish by those in attendance — a thing unheard of in the good ol’ days of the late nineties.
The Spanish have never quite got into raves, even with their strong squatting culture (Barcelona has more squats and social centers than anywhere else in the world) and a large travelling community. Yet in my opinion, some of the best raves of the last ten years have happened there, my favourite being the New Years Eve party 2001. This had a great mix of enormous sound systems, good music, performance, sculptures, as well as travellers and ravers from all over Europe.
On the issue of whether music has got better or worse, most of the DJs and organisers questioned typically perched on the fence. One artist I questioned said, “To try and be objective in my answer to such a subjective question, I’m gonna say that music is better nowadays because we have all the music that’s been made over the last ten years, as well as new and fresh sounds just breaking through.” This is similar but not as honest as Keith from Desert Storm’s answer: “Better? Another hard question… technically yes it’s better due to the technology available to musicians these days, but does it have more heart…? I don’t know.” Unfortunately at free or pay parties, clubs or tiny squat parties, cutting edge tunes being invented by musicians are rarely what are being played on the dance floors. This was, is, and will remain a constant as the underground scene in the UK and abroad has always been plagued by the ‘cool’ factor. Rick Spor agrees: “The shock of the new in dance music and parties has mostly evaporated in the race to copy each other and retread old styles across the board – behaviour, music, etc. However, for those coming in fresh and provocative, it’s still possible to be inspired and become creative, to find and make outlets for creative activities and resistance to the programmed minds and bodies that are seemingly everywhere.”
I asked Keith Desert Storm if there was a decline in the quality of parties: “Is there a decline? I was at a wicked warehouse rave in Glasgow [Scotland] at New Year… I think it goes in cycles. The old guard have retired, got kids, etc… and now the new generation are coming up, and so it starts again.” I asked Will from Dead Silence the same question. “This is a biased question that assumes there has been a decline in quality events. The rave scene lives on and, considering it’s a global scene now with events in China to Argentina, that’s a lot of events! For me, raving and rave music are not associated exclusively with illegal parties. I should think the decline in quality events – at free parties and Teknivals – is due to the fact that nothing lasts forever.”
Others were quick to point out that with more police in operation in all countries, and ‘stop and search’ becoming a less problematic issue for the authorities under the banner of terrorism, it is harder to break into empty buildings, drive illegal vehicles and sell contraband – which in turn makes it harder to fund and organise free events.
The question that surely leads on from this is ‘Where do we go from here?’ Personally I am not going to stop liking industrial, experimental music or needing a place away from CCTV to meet up with my friends and escape from reality, if only for a moment. Ronin had this to say: “Illegal parties are becoming harder and harder to put on, but I think people will always keep trying because that’s what really sparked our minds and got us involved in the first place. There wouldn’t be a ‘scene’ from the beginning if we only had clubs to develop in.”
So what are the options? Staging events in rented spaces; continuing to fight to squat places; doing smaller scale events; combining parties with art exhibitions; travelling further afield (free parties are still happening; from Australia, India, Russia and Brazil to darkest Hackney Wick) or maybe a mix of all the above? Even though it’s becoming harder to live our lives, there is always a way. As Yann from Hekate sound system and Spine Records puts it: “You always have to fight for your freedom and for the freedom of the others; to show that there are alternative cultures and not just a conventional way of life.”
Mutate to survive…