Mark Harrison tells Neil Transpontine about the origins of Spiral Tribe, their crucial role in formenting early 1990s free parties and teknivals, and what they did next… and are still doing
1. Spiral Tribe, and similar sound systems brought a different energy into the post-acid house scene, it felt like their roots were less in warehouse soul and funk (like many in that scene) and more in alternative sub/counter-cultures. Echoes of 1980s free festivals, anarcho-punk squatting, maybe even Psychic TV (importance of symbols etc). In that context, can you tell us a little about how Spiral Tribe came about? What kinds of things had people been involved in before it came together?
There were as many threads that wove together to form Spiral Tribe as there were different individuals involved. There are just too many people to list here in this short article.* Many people drifted in and out, others stayed, but without them all, working together as a collective, none of it would have been possible. Having said that, in the very beginning there were just four of us who were dedicated full time to making it happen.
Debbie Griffith, aged twenty-nine at the time, was a painter and decorator and occasional nanny, who lived just off Kilburn High Road. Simone Trevelyan, who was nineteen, worked in a disco equipment hire shop in Kentish Town. My brother, Zander Harrison, twenty-seven, a tree surgeon, worked all over West London. And then myself, Mark Harrison. I too was twenty-nine and had just moved down to London from Manchester where I’d lived for five years. Much of that time (if not all of it) I’d spent in the Hacienda and so I was at ground zero that Wednesday night when Acid House and ecstasy were unleashed. The world was never the same again.
Although myself and the rest of the crew were heavily into the dance scene, both Zander and myself had, in our teenage years, hitch-hiked to many of the free festivals of the mid 70s and early 80s – including Stonehenge.
Right from the start Spiral Tribe was always moving, always in flux. Even when we’d decided on the name, Spiral Tribe, and got the sound equipment together, it was never a clearly defined entity, though it certainly was an entity, all of its own. And that, I suppose, was one of the interesting things about it. It was always growing – open to new ideas, new directions, new people. As a collective we were able to channel ideas and bring them into being – quickly. We could be spontaneous. We could be inventive and experimental.
I think this was only possible because we were squatters and had no shortage of space. Where so many people found themselves creatively stifled by unaffordable rents, we were able to take things into our own hands. If we needed more space we just searched it out and opened it up. And therein lies another interesting thing about squatting: because it removes people from the hierarchical and restrictive system money imposes, it creates yet another layer of space. A layer that opens up possibilities of horizontal organisation and non-hierarchical structure. Squats are great places for social experiments – and without deliberately setting out to, there was more than just an element of that in Spiral Tribe.
Shortly after we’d all first met (in 1990/91), we were squatting in the Westbourne Park area of London, ironically an area that was under the jurisdiction of the Conservative counsellor, Shirley Porter. Although, at the time, we had no idea who she was or what she was up to (her criminal activities would only come to light a few years later) we did witness the scale of her property scam first hand. Every other building in the area was empty – doors and windows secured with grey steel Sitex panels. Her plan involved moving all the poorer families out of the area because they were less likely to vote Tory, then sell off the public housing to the rich, not only to make a tidy profit but to ensure the Tories kept control of the area. Gerrymandering is illegal. But selling off public resources to your business associates was, and apparently still is, a perfectly legitimate thing for politicians to do.
Porter’s crooked policies caused misery to many vulnerable people – families were split up, single mothers and their children were rehoused on the other side of the city – miles away from their local support network of family and friends. In my opinion, Porter was finally called to account and disgraced, not because she was corrupt, but because she was clumsy. She gave their game away.
For us, all those empty buildings, not only provided us with free space, but gave us an insight into how imperative community space is.
Though we did not know Porter by name, just by seeing so many buildings standing empty, it was clear that the same policies were still in play as when the Enclosure Acts were first introduced. The privatisation of all property is the ultimate aim of the proprietary system. Lock every one out of their own planet and then only grant them access (to what is already theirs) if they dedicate their lives to working for the gatekeepers. With no access to the land there is no food, no water, no shelter, no fuel, no resources – add to this, control over free assembly, and the commercial institutions have complete power. The word Democracy becomes nothing more than a marketing ploy. Disconnect the population from the land and you have a willing and compliant workforce. A workforce that will, in order to survive, even build and maintain the regime that exploits it.
But the steel vault doors intended to lock space away from the local community were no deterrent to us. By that point in our squatting careers we’d acquired the trade secrets of the locksmith. There was nothing more exciting that exploring the hidden internal structure of the city. Whether we went undercover of darkness, dressed in black, or in full daylight dressed in the florescent vests of workmen, there was no empty space out of our reach.
In that area of London there was another cultural current that enlivened the streets and people. Notting Hill Carnival. We were living in the very heart of sound system central and even though the carnival is held only once a year, its presence is felt all year round. It’s the biggest free party outside of Rio and has a fierce, sexy, untameable spirit.
When we first got our sound system we reopened a popular (and unlicensed) Afro-Caribbean Shebeen, which had recently been closed by the police. On our opening night we made a lot of new friends. Everyone came to dance together in celebration of the unsanctioned, spontaneous gathering. It was all inclusive. There were no social divides. And even though that small Elgin Avenue basement was crowded, hot and smoke-filled, inside there was a sense that we, as part of that community, had created a bigger space – a space that could not be measured by the confines of the walls.
The music at that moment was so new in style that it managed (very briefly) to escape genre-fication, which added to its pull as a unifying force. Electronic bass-heavy dance music can trace its roots back to any number of highly sexed ancestors, but the connection to dub and sound system culture is one that is often overlooked.
Integral to the sound was the technology. Though the music was immediately recognisable as a descendent of House and Acid, the technology allowed the styles to evolve far faster in new directions than had previously been possible.
Pre-digitalisation, monolithic institutions such as the music industry and the mainstream media were left far behind. These lumbering bureaucracies could not keep pace with the pirate radio stations, the independent record releases and the fly-by-night warehouse parties. Which meant that if you wanted to hear the very latest tunes, you’d have to participate in the scene: tune in your radio dial to the illegal frequencies or trawl the independent record shops for the freshly pressed vinyl. But if you really wanted to experience (feel the vibe!) the music as it was intended – at body pumping volume from stacks of black bass bins – then you’d have to go underground and immerse yourself in the outlawed party scene. And that was an adventure all of its own.
It was this participation that put the underground raves light years ahead of anything the leisure and entertainment industry could offer. But of course, that industry, along with the powerful brewery cartels, had contacts in high places. Opening up a free space and sharing everything you have will make you a lot of friends – but also some formidable enemies.
In 1990, standing, as we did, on the very brink of the technological revolution, we could feel its electromagnetic proximity. Our neurological pleasure circuits sparked as the music called us into a new and alluring future. Not a traditional idea of the future – but something no one had yet imagined. We didn’t know what is was but there had been some tantalising clues: cyberpunk; fractals; chaos theory; Acid House.
The graphics and symbolism. In those early days I was the artist who designed most of the symbols for Spiral Tribe and some of the fonts, as well as coining many of our project names – including the name Spiral Tribe and SP23. In fact it was me who first introduced the number 23 to the tribe. Which is odd, because I know exactly how the number presented itself (all is revealed in my book!), and it had nothing to do with any pre-existing individual, group or subculture. I had no idea that others already had a fascination with it – including Psychic TV, William Burroughs, Robert Anton Wilson et al. And that is the interesting thing about the 23 current. It’s out there – but what does it all mean?
For me (among other things) it’s an anti-icon icon. It doesn’t represent any belief system, religion, or political agenda. It just is. But that’s not to dismiss it as irrelevant. Quite the opposite. Its beauty for me is in its mystery. It defies meaning and control. It pops up everywhere and usually in peculiar circumstances – which puzzles and teases the observer – challenging them to find some kind of logic. But it defies meaning – or more accurately: any meaning that we try to impose on it. Make of that what you will…
By the summer of 1991, London was no longer big enough to contain our parties, so we went west. It was there, out in the wilds, that we discovered the scattered remains of the free festival movement. By then we’d developed a clear notion that our mission was to unlock and open up spaces – take back the commons – or, if they wouldn’t give them back, we’d just set up new ones.
The mainstream media of the time reported friction between us and the travellers. This is not true. We were immediately accepted by the travelling community as their own. After all, many of them had made a similar journey to us – a journey of personal revelation – seeing through the authoritarian’s greedy scams.
On the night of Summer Solstice, round the camp fire, an old traveller said to me, ‘We’re all travellers, spinning round the sun, anyone ever tells you different is a liar. What’s important is your journey towards freedom. You can dance, you can run, walk or crawl, I don’t give a fuck, just keep moving.’
Being welcomed into that community, we soon heard all about the brutality that had been suffered by the travellers at the hands of the British authorities – something we would experience ourselves, soon enough.
2. The late 1980s and 1990s was a time when more and more people from all kinds of backgrounds were being swept up into this expanding vortex of noise, chemicals and dance. For much of that time it felt quite unpredictable where this energy would lead in terms of social and cultural impact. How did it feel to you, at times close to the centre of this vortex? And what do you think it was that prompted the authorities to try and clamp down on it?
It was a creative whirlwind. There was an incredible optimism in the air. The music energised every molecule it collided with, which set off an unstoppable chain reaction. As we travelled the country, exploring the wilder parts of Britain, more and more people escaped the cities to join us. We still played a hugely diverse range of dance music and any DJs determined enough to drag their records around police road blocks, through hedges and up mountains, were always welcome.
Despite this diversity, there was a common undercurrent in the music. Deep, brooding bass lines and an ambiguous darkness, a darkness that could be both threatening and seductive. There were storm clouds gathering, but ahead of that storm the skipping breakbeats kept us dancing just out of reach of an ever more tangible danger.
Out on the road, in the back of live-in trucks and around camp fires, we began to piece together the full extent and history of the authority’s clamp down. The 1980s had seen a stepping up of police actions and attacks, and an increase in laws forbidding unlicensed gatherings and an erosion of the right to free assembly. For the most part, until the travellers told us their oral histories, we had been naïve to these crushing policies. It suddenly became clear why we were often the only sound system at so many of the free festivals advertised for 1991 – in recent years everyone else had taken a battering.
Along with our creativity and non-hierarchical structure, our naïvety was probably one of our greatest strengths.
Our new understanding of the situation was informed by living a life of movement – a nomadic, outdoors life, that was in tune with the landscape and the turn of the Earth. We were rarely in the same place longer than a few days and were always scouting ahead to search out the next secret location. This flow gave us an interesting relationship with the world and our perception of it. We had moved out of the confines of society’s architecture and shifted into a wider synaptic landscape.
This is a mysterious place to find yourself. Some might describe it simply as somewhere free of interference and the influence of mainstream society. Others might describe it as a shamanic place. Whatever one’s take on it is, when you’re there, you feel as if you’re behind the scenes, looking back in, seeing how human society has been hijacked by those seeking to exploit us. From outside you get an overview of their simple constructs and systems. The trickery is exposed.
Seeing society as a construct – manipulated and maintained for the enrichment of the few – is a double edged sword. This vision not only shaped Spiral Tribe but also mapped its position in relation to the mainstream. We weren’t just counter-culture, we were experimenting with an entirely new culture. Parts of that worked, other parts didn’t, but pre Open Source, we were enjoying our experiments in an open and sharing community. Anyone who came and participated in our events experienced the excitement of that community. Though we were perhaps a little over enthusiastic, perhaps even evangelical, we didn’t preach it and we had no manifesto. It was a first hand, face to face, word of mouth experience.
And the other edge of the sword? Sticking our fingers up at the authorities only pissed them off more. And once that evil eye is upon you, it is very difficult to shake off. But I don’t think it was just our rebellious nature that brought down the full force of the (so called) law. We were certainly high profile – I like to think because we organised great events with a wicked vibe – and I guess this was the reason we were singled out for persecution. But I’m certain that this was not a question of public order, even though that is how it was presented when later we had to defend ourselves in court. Then, on the courtroom steps, just before we went in for the first time, I was told, ‘I just want you to know this is a political stitch up – it’s got nothing to do with us’. Interesting words, coming as they did from the chief of police.
But there’s more. Remember Porter and her property scam? It turns out that Graham Bright, MP for Luton who introduced the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act of 1990 (or, as he himself called it, the Acid House Bill) had links with the brewery industry. His bill, which criminalised unlicensed pay-in parties, was the brewery’s response to a massive drop in alcohol sales to young people. As soon as our trial was over the Criminal Justice Bill was rushed in – and this drove much of the dance music scene back into the hands of The Industry.
3. As the movement against the Criminal Justice Act took off, many of the people around Spiral Tribe were caught up in their own tribulations in the long Castlemorton legal process. Obviously it must have been personally stressful for those involved. What impact did that have on people’s morale? Did if feel like they had to keep a low profile or did they find other ways of being involved in what was going on?
Several things happened around our arrest at Castlemorton in 1992. Firstly, a few weeks before, over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, we’d been in London doing a large warehouse party in an industrial estate on Acton Lane. On the last night, the warehouse was stormed by the Metropolitan Police’s TSG – the riot police. At least we think that’s who they were, they wore plain black body armour with no identifying numbers. Terrified party goers barricaded themselves inside the building.
The brutality of this attack left many people injured and most of our equipment smashed. Strangely, none of us were arrested. Clearly this operation’s purpose was to intimidate people – scare them away from unlicensed events.
The next morning a police helicopter hovered over the building. Rubble was strewn across what had been the dance floor (to get in, the police had broken through the walls). Pipes had been damaged and water sprayed from the ceiling flooding the building. We salvaged what equipment we could, loaded up our trucks and headed out of London. The helicopter stayed with us until we reached the M25. We just kept driving.
Because of the damage to equipment, we teamed up with Bedlam who had a site in Lechlade. We managed to pull off a huge outdoor party for Mayday, but for me something wasn’t quite right. It could have been the close proximity of the village, the dark drugs (DOET – not recommended) or a change in the music – which had an aggressive, territorial edge to it. Or it could have just been me – exhausted. Probably it was a combination of all those things.
Thousands of people attended – and the event drew the attention of the national newspapers. After Lechlade we continued west until we disappeared into the mountains of Wales. We were still in a state of shock from the TSG attack. We needed time out.
Hidden in a dark pine forest, we began to repair some of the damage and review our situation. It was clear to me that the trajectory we were on was unsustainable. We sat around the fire discussing possibilities. Go slower? Go horse-drawn? Go acoustic? Go to Europe? We knew something needed to change. It was then that we got a phone from a friend travelling with the Bedlam Sound System. They persuaded us to come along and ‘chill out’ at someone else’s party for a change.
We accepted the invitation, broke camp and headed off to meet them. What we hadn’t fully understood was that they were at the head of a thirty-five mile convoy that had been turned away from the Avon Free Festival site by a massive police operation. As the convoy moved across country, each police authority refused to let them stop and pushed them on into the next county. But the copper in charge of Castlemorton was a good bloke (the same one who told me on the courtroom steps that we were being stitched up). He felt it was inhuman to treat people in this way and decided to give the convoy sanctuary on the common.
Because we were coming in from Wales we almost headed off the convoy and arrived just behind Bedlam. Smiling policemen waved us onto site. We set up what equipment we’d managed to repair.
Castlemorton attracted some 50,000 people – partly because the media broke with their normal policy and reported it as the headline news on the Friday six o’clock news. This had the effect of causing many thousands of people to abandon their half eaten teas, put on their dancing shoes and drive down to the common for the weekend.
It was a great festival, but I still felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t happy about how close we were to several cottages. If we’d chosen the site ourselves, we’d have found somewhere more secluded.
After the festival we were ambushed by plain clothes police in the lane outside. I don’t think any of us were surprised. They made thirteen arrests and seized most of our vehicles and all our equipment.
At first, morale was high. After we’d been charged, we were released, but only with the clothes that we had on. The police kept everything else as evidence. We set up camp opposite the police station where we’d been charged. This was part protest camp, part refugee camp. We had nowhere else to go. Well wishers brought us food and blankets. After a week of sleeping rough we managed to get lifts back to London. It was here that we were shown the front pages of the national newspapers. Castlemorton and Spiral Tribe were a hot topic.
With all this notoriety we were offered a record deal by Killing Joke’s Youth. We were cautious. Already we’d had two close friends spirited away by record companies. After a lot of soul searching we decided on a plan. We’d do a limited deal and, with the advance, buy studio equipment and convert our showman’s trailer to house it.
As soon as the deal was done we joined the rest of the crew in Europe. We were now in a position to make all our own music and set up our own labels and distribution networks. The SP23 studio quickly became the creative heart of the newly revitalised Spiral Tribe.
It would take the prosecution two years to prepare their case against us. Though we weren’t supposed to leave the UK, we all went to Berlin. The crew members that hadn’t been caught in the Castlemorton ambush had continued travelling – abroad. The TSG attack and the charges against us were negative baggage that it was a relief to leave behind.
At the time we didn’t know that the Criminal Justice Bill was about to be drafted, but nevertheless we felt it was important to fight our case. After all, this wasn’t just about us. It was about the establishment trying to criminalise a culture. And why did they want to do that? Follow the money. In my opinion, it was purely to benefit commercial interests. The same-old same-old: enclose the land, control the resources and the gatekeepers grow rich.
4. How did the move to continental Europe come about? Obviously it was partly driven by a kind of exodus from what was happening in Britain, but what were the connections/similar scenes in France and elsewhere that made it possible?
There was nothing like Spiral Tribe in Europe. The large travelling pirate convoy seems to have been a mainly British phenomenon. But that was all about to change. The unifying ethos of Spiral resonated with people from all over the continent. Spiral’s Debbie Griffith coined the word Teknival and the idea spread like wild fire. Soon we were joined by other multi-national groups who had built their own rigs, shaved their heads and got on the road.
Those early Teknivals were fantastic collaborative events – everyone sharing their equipment, their skills, their music. Although nothing quite like the free-party sound systems had existed in France before we arrived, they did at least have an outdoor culture of music and camping. But perhaps not quite the kind of music and camping we had in mind.
5. The Teknival scene grew to be fairly massive quite quickly with huge events on a similar scale to Castlemorton. In France, there was a similar crackdown with new ‘public safety’ laws. What did you learn from your experience in the UK when you were involved in all this? Did you do anything differently?
There’s not only more space in France there is also an important history and culture of resistance. Spiral Tribe resonates with that culture and something deep within the French psyche. It was only years later when Teknivals had become enormous (bigger than Castlemorton), and the atmosphere at them changed from creative collaborations to competitive sound-clashes, that the new laws came in. And even then, the French free party scene continues today – out in the wilds, in squatted venues, and sometimes it’s even been embraced by supportive town councils. It’s a whole different political scene here, and a part of French society (certainly not all of it) still has a deep respect for resistance.
6. In the confrontation with the authorities, Spiral Tribe embodied an attitude of defiance and also became folk devils for the media and police. But sometimes that one dimensional image of Spiral Tribe as a kind of hardcore techno war machine overshadows some of it achievements other than putting on fuck off parties – producing music, distributing other people’s records, making connections. Do you want to say anything about that broader field of (sometimes less visible) creative activity and its impact?
Yes, we had a defiant attitude towards authority. We continually questioned its legitimacy and its motives. I think that’s a necessary and healthy thing to do on a daily basis.
But I’ve never thought of Spiral Tribe as a hardcore techno war machine. That’s an interesting image! I suppose that comes from our travels from Berlin when – after teaming up with Joe Rush and a faction of Mutoid Waste – we acquired a huge amount of Soviet hardware, including tank transporters and two Mig 21 fighter jets. But for us, that journey was more about the collapse of a war machine and the dissolving of borders – not only in a literal sense (the Berlin wall had recently come down and we were able to move east into countries that had been closed), but also in the sense that our Spiral network and the Teknival movement was crossing borders and opening up people to the idea of DIY culture.
The fact that we had a huge convoy of matt black military vehicles and a monster sound system was all part of our unique style of showmanship. After all, we were (and still are), following a long tradition of travelling artists and musicians (all folk devils in their time I’m sure). That doesn’t mean to say that we are show business people. We were never about passive spectacle, it’s always been about equality and participation.
Perhaps having such a strong public identity may have obscured some of our other creative activities. For example, it’s not widely known that our studio was very much a community space: Simon Carter, aka Crystal Distortion; Sebastian Vaughan, aka 69DB, and Ixy, aka Ixindamix – tirelessly worked on their own music and taught many others how to use the equipment.
We were also involved in hundreds of collaborative records that were released under pseudonyms and different identities, this enabled many new artists to produce and distribute their own vinyl, which financed a huge network of independent studios, labels and sound systems.
But generally speaking, I think Spiral Tribe was upfront and clear about its message. It was all about what people can achieve together if they share their resources and knowledge and connect with their creativity. With this sort of community collaboration, all things are possible.
7. Some of you have begun working again as SP23, what kinds of things are you up to and what are your plans for the future?
There are eight original members of Spiral Tribe still working together as SP23 and some new blood too. We work as a co-op and use consensus to make all our decisions. Now that there is so much less trade in vinyl, we all depend on gigs to make a living. We are all working full time at our various trades (live musicians, DJs, producers, VJs, Graphic artists, writers, etc) for SP23 and as individuals. We are also involved in the European DIY Skill Sharing Network, where we organise collaborative events with other artists.
To give an example of the gigs we’re now doing, over the last year we’ve held an event on board the ship, MS Stubnitz, while she was on the Thames in London. The huge burlesque big top of Paris’s Cabaret Savage. For 20 Tek (the mutant spawn of Teknival, which is now a sound clash of monster rigs) we teamed up with old friends Tim Spiral and Steve Bedlam and the beautiful systems they hand build. Being surrounded by their 123K of quadraphonic Noise Control Audio, was definitely the place to be on that Saturday night. Then there was the Tribes Gathering in Belgium. The Village Underground in London, which with the SP23 live sound played over a D&B system and the creative vision of Julian (our lighting engineer) we transformed the high brick railway warehouse into some kind of inter-dimensional portal of dance energy. The Rennes Free Festival last weekend attracted some 10,000 and it was a pleasure working with such cool people from the Brittany underground.
Coming up: on November 9th we’re doing a big Paris squat party and next July we’re planning a large event in Bern, Switzerland. We’ll also be organising a small summer festival in the South of France. The festival will (of course) include a weekend of Dionysian raving, but will also be a family friendly event with a focus on creative participation – yep, we do it all! Other performers and artists who might be interested in this festival, are invited to contact us via our website: sp23.org
* I am writing a book entitled A Darker Electricity which tells the full story of Spiral Tribe and credits all those involved.
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