Book ReviewsDatacide 19

Party Lines: Dance Music and the Making of Modern Britain (book review)

Review Article: ‘Party Lines: Dance Music and the Making of Modern Britain’ by Ed Gillett (London: Picador, 2023).

In a recent episode of the ‘Cursed Objects’ podcast, K Biswas from Resonance FM commented ‘Every single young person who went clubbing in the 1990s danced on a Friday or Saturday night to black led music and yet the memory of the 90s is white guitar bands’. It is certainly true that in mainstream media the 1990s in Britain are portrayed as primarily a time of the dominance of guitar based Britpop bands, with ‘rave’ packaged away as an ephemeral late 80s/early 90s phenomenon.

This misses the point that it never went away, even if most people had stopped calling it rave by 1992. Unlike other scenes which have faded and occasionally been revived, electronic dance music in its myriad forms has continuously evolved and continued to be massively popular throughout the last 35 years or more.

Ed Gillett’s Party Lines : Dance Music and the Making of Modern Britain seeks to cover this period with a focus on how it has been shaped by a ‘power struggle: between our collective urge to congregate and dance, to lose and find ourselves on the dance floor, and the political and economic authorities which seek to constrain or commodify those messy and unstable desires’. This echoes our interests at Datacide and History is Made at Night and it’s good to see some references in the book to some of our material.

Gillett is keen to disrupt what has become the default origin story of UK dance music which is centred around predominantly white London clubs influenced by Ibiza’s Balearic vibes, notably Shoom from 1987. He notes for example how house music was being played out at least a year earlier at Soul Control parties in Manchester, a street soul outfit with its roots in African Caribbean blues parties. He also shows how official efforts to clamp down on raves and parties had their origins in earlier ‘struggles over power, money and space’ including the ‘picket lines, policing tactics and moral panics of the earlier 1980s’. For instance the Pay Party Unit, a national anti-Acid House police team set up in 1989, was headed by an officer who had previously overseen an operation to prevent striking miners from Kent leaving their area to join picket lines elsewhere during their 1984 strike.

There were connections too with the earlier Free Festival scene which had peaked with the state’s violent crackdown on the Stonehenge festival in the mid-1980s. There was an affinity between festivals and the raves of a few years later with their ‘freeform and loosely politicized sense of transgression’ and their ‘occupation of rural space without state approval, using music to create spaces outside normal social expectations and restrictions, as well as a dedication to sensory pleasures and chemical excess’. Moreover the connections were not just symbolic.

As Party Lines documents, Stonehenge festival had included reggae and soul sound systems in its line ups, seemingly including Galaxy Soul Shuffle which was run by Winston Silcott (later framed for the 1985 killing of a policeman during the Broadwater Farm uprising). Tony Andrews, whose Turbosound and Funktion One rigs became ubiquitous at raves and clubs, was developing his home made sound system at Stonehenge in the mid-70s. And it was at the Travellers field at Glastonbury in 1990 that an alliance was cemented between free festival travellers and ravers, with DiY and Tonka crews playing house music in an ex-Stonehenge marquee on a sound system belonging to free festival veteran Nik Turner of Hawkwind.

The free festival/traveller/raver alliance was to culminate in the massive Castlemorton free festival which drew tens of thousands of people to party for a week with multiple sound systems and bands in 1992. For Gillett, ‘The entire history of UK dance music, if not modern British social history as a whole, hinges on that one blissfully stretched-out weekend in 1992’. It certainly prompted the UK Government to bring in its Criminal Justice Act with its notorious anti-rave causes and Gillett sees the end of the movement against this, in particular the final large anti-CJA demonstration, party and riot in London’s Hyde Park in 1994 as ‘the end of a far deeper and more meaningful lineage of anti-establishment revelry, in which the British working class could assert control over common land and reclaim it for their leisure regardless of upper-class disapproval’ – the ‘last full-scale free party in Britain’ no less.

If the movement against the CJA was certainly important I wonder now though how central the Criminal Justice Act really was to the development of dance music in Britain. There is a common narrative, which to an extent Gillett seems to subscribe to, which portrays a period of open air subversion being superseded by one of domesticated corporate clubbing as a result of the CJA and wider police repression. I worry that this plays into the hands of those cultural gatekeepers who have built their reputation on the nostalgic myth that parties were always better back in their day and that people coming to the music now can only imitate the past. The earlier parties were not all utopian revels, they were sometimes moody with violence and/or rip off prices. And most people before and after the Criminal Justice Act, as today, did most of their partying indoors – sometimes in squatted warehouses but more commonly in clubs. Not for the most part big corporate affairs but in spaces above pubs, in railway arches, queer clubs and anywhere else where there was space, often in a legal grey area of stretched licensing conditions. The continuity here is with earlier soul, funk, post punk, jazz and other clubbing scenes stretching back at least to the 1950s.

Post-CJA there has never been a large, continuous open air unlicensed free festival in Britain, but smaller scale one or two night free parties in fields and warehouses have never stopped. In August 2023 alone, to take a random sample, police turned out to parties at the Uisk reservoir and the Rhigos Mountains in Wales and Whitewebbs Park in Enfield, north London. As is often the case, breaking up the parties was seen as too risky so they continued overnight.

Logo of the Pay Party Unit (anti-rave police squad set up in 1989)

The Criminal Justice Act was neither the first, nor the last legal measure used to target dance music and as with policing in general black people have been disproportionately affected. Gillett looks at the notorious Form 696, a Metropolitan Police bureaucratic procedure used to restrict grime and drill artists and events in London, and sees echoes of earlier tropes around jazz ‘that Black music is a corrupting, dehumanizing force with either sex or violence at its core’. Still black music cultures have been resilient and among other things it is hard to argue that the last large free party has happened when two million people head to Notting Hill Carnival each year, albeit circumscribed by a large police presence and strict rules about when the music must be turned off.

What is undeniable though is that in the 21st century dance music has been increasingly integrated not only into the culture industry but into wider circuits of venture capital investment and property development. 1990s superclubs with their branded bomber jackets seem like amateurs compared with the multinational events promoters now managing huge music venues and festivals, such as Live Nation and AEG. The UK firm Broadwick Live has partnered with both of these US based corporations in its festival operations but it is its ‘high-volume high-spectacle developer-clubber model’ that particularly interests Gillett.

It is Broadwick that established Printworks in south London, a massive dance music club in an industrial space once used to print the Daily Mail newspaper, working closely with the property developer British Land that is planning to redevelop the area for offices, retail and private housing. Having done this in Rotherhithe they are now applying a similar template in other areas, their latest project being a plan to convert a former Ikea store in north London into a vast ‘cultural space’ called Drumsheds.

Gillett argues that ‘this consolidation of spatial control, under a decreasing number of increasingly wealthy, powerful and inter-linked entities, has served to homogenize the wider experience of being in a club’ with corporate interests dictating ‘where, when and with whom we’re able to dance, catering to the more affluent, cosmopolitan audiences who’ll give their investors bigger returns, rather than the weirdos and the already-marginalized: a gentrification of the dance floor itself, not just the neighbourhood it occupies’. He goes further to suggest that music has evolved to soundtrack this shift with the emergence of what has been termed ‘business techno’, defined here as ‘dance music designed expressly for the exposed-concrete developer-funded superclub and the inner-city day festival, tailored specifically to the tastes and interests of the people attending those venues: predominantly young urban professionals, largely straight and/or white, majority male’.

This is not the whole story of course and Gillett remains optimistic about the ‘re-establishment of club culture’s roots in queer, trans, feminist, Black, Asian and other marginalized experiences, and a recognition of its associated political power’. He highlights collectives such as Pxssy Palace and Daytimers as examples of dance music doing ‘what it’s always done: mutated, refocused and found new ways to tease social and political meaning from the act of losing yourself in the crowd’.

Nevertheless Gillett implies that the political energies of dance music had been largely contained by the mid-1990s with their biggest impact seen in the rise of New Labour: ‘the 1997 election was won by house music’. Plainly this was not a causal relationship, but a sense of a reassertion of community after years of Thatcherite individualism was part of the shift and for many this had been embodied in the rave experience. But was 1994 really the last time that ‘dance music had been a flag around which anarchists and revolutionaries might gather’? The book doesn’t give much attention to the question of how dance music and sound system culture have been utilised in radical movements. I was surprised that there is little mention of Reclaim the Streets who in the aftermath of the Criminal Justice Act took the oppositional use of dance music to another level with street parties in city centres culminating in the ‘Carnival against Capital’ in 1999, when thousands danced, protested and rioted in the heart of the financial centre of London.

Since the student protests of 2010 the mobile sound system threading through the streets on a shopping trolley or the back of a bike has become a regular feature of political demonstrations, bringing together crowds and focusing energy. For Gillett, Orbital’s televised headline set at the 1994 Glastonbury festival marked the ‘the end of rave as a monolithic countercultural force, and the beginning of something else entirely. UK dance music would never again threaten or promise the single-handed overthrow of society’. In 2019 though Orbital were playing in the midst of an Extinction Rebellion occupation of streets in central London.

Party Lines covers a lot of ground and includes many astute reflections on aspects of dance music cultures as they have mutated over the decades. In moving beyond some of the stale familiar narratives it opens up the field to other voices, though in the process it demonstrates that even 400 pages can only be a starting point. There are many other stories still to be told, not just from the UK, and many parties still to be held which will be as good as any that have taken place before.

Neil Transpontine

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