Englands Dreaming #11: The Free Party Monster


This week saw the media, in the grip of a typically slow summer news cycle, offered a tragedy they were powerless to resist – the death of a teenager at an illegal South London rave. This sad accident allowed the press to indulge in their usual round of theatrics (missiles pelted at police, kids on the verge of a riot, drug dealers arrested), all in service of dusting off that well worn bogeyman – the free party.

For most of my life time I have been aware of THE FREE PARTY. I was born in ’79, so the orbital raves of ’88 arrived in my primary school psyche as garbled dayglo explosions, snippets cobbled together from hysterical news reports, my elder brother’s records and watching Normski prat about on Dance Energy.  There was the knowledge that somehow shouting ‘ACIEEEED’ was thrilling and naughty, the presence of smiley faces everywhere, and this mad sensation of an absolute coalition of music, fashion, art and life, where songs from Crystal Waters and 808 State sounded exactly like clothes bought from the Soul II Soul boutiques looked. I could go on, but there’s nothing worse than a misty-eyed old fucker. Suffice to say that those early years had somewhat of a profound effect on me. By the time I was raving in the mid-90s, the big bang had happened, and the government were on the offensive. With the Criminal Justice Act, war was actively declared on the notion of unlicensed partying – in a moment of hysterically dystopian fantasy, MPs ruled that mass groups of kids having fun outside of government approval was a crime. Unsurprisingly, this just made ravers more determined, and I can happily attest to attending, DJing and organising free raves every year of my life from 1995 to 2012 (at which point I became a dad. We’ve all got to take a break some time…).

So it’s interested me that this current tragedy has allowed the media to push one of it’s favourite scare narratives: ‘the return of the free party.’

It’s incredible how often the beast is evoked, to the point where, logically, anyone, even without any actual experience of UK’s illegal rave network, could only assume that free parties never actually went away. Unfortunately, logic went out the window the day the papers turned on the BBC for ‘enabling’ Jimmy Saville (I still find this incredible – a nation of investigative newspaper journalists, and not one of them had a scooby what Jim was fixing? Riiiiiight)

So we have a story that never gets tired – it’s either a useful fear tactic to wheel out whenever there’s no convenient Muslim ‘terror threat’ story to cow the public with, or a handy way of attributing some ‘counter culture’ cool to help market a scene. Let’s just look at the noughties alone. To start with, here’s an NME article from 2006, quoting the police as suggesting “free "rave" parties are on the rise again in the UK”, with the NME trying to tie this into the Klaxons new rave movement – fair play, Klaxons played a few free parties, but I think we can safely say that they weren’t cobbling together 30K stacks in Epping Forest. But it sounds good, right? A bit of sexy illegality to liven up your indie…  

Meanwhile, here’s the Telegraph in 2009 coming from the other angle and trying to put the fear up the blue rinse brigade by suggesting that the Tories might “unwittingly inspire a renaissance in the all-night, open-air parties.” (I guess they were unaware the renaissance had already happened back in 2006).This article comes from the opposing school – that the free party is an anarchy of commoners waiting to be unleashed on law abiding rural land owners. It taps straight into deep seated English upper class concerns, and I’d posit that you could find similar kinds of fear mongering stretching right back to Inclosure Act of 1773, when the fuckers first legitimised the aristocracy’s theft of common land.

The Guardian has been particularly busy. In 2005 The Grauniad posted a long column that managed to both eulogise raves, and play on their supposed threat to land owners – declaring that rural communities were quaking because – “free parties [are] making a comeback this summer”. The word on the street (or in the fields, as it were) was that a “new era of 'free parties'” was upon us in “a scene straight out of the early 90s.” Five years on and they were back at it – presumably the big free party splurge of ’05 never happened, because in 2010 The Guardian earnestly reported on the “return of underground rave culture” – whoda thought it?  “For some observers, last Saturday's scenes evoked memories of the.. early 90s”. Skip forward to this year, and amazingly, they’re there again. “Warehouse parties are back,” Matei Rosca enthusiastically trumpeted in April. Fair play, he (she?) avoids actually directly mentioning the 90s this time, instead settling for the rhetorical question: “thought illegal raves went out with stonewashed jeans and acid smileys?”

I genuinely don’t know what this all means. I guess, in general, the public is treated like a mug with a goldfish memory, happily chowing down on whatever fantasies editors think will shift units. Certain phrases have such a convenient subtext of danger and excitement they’re too good not to wheel out annually. ‘Free party’ sells papers almost as well as ‘sex scandal’ or ‘black criminal’. But really, wouldn’t the nation be better if we accepted that this is something that is never going to go away? Kids (and adults, probably more so) need to let off steam. They – we – clearly have an urge to disengage from our ridiculous capital-first free market lifestyle. And it’s pretty hard to do that when you’re paying a fiver for a thimble of warm piss in the O2 Arena while some cunt from Radio 1 plays Disclosure records (nothing against Disclosure yo, but y’know..). But as I’ve mentioned earlier, this land, our land, has largely been taken off us. Communal gatherings and collective festivities need to happen outside the controls of capital and our constantly compromised government to contain any deeper resonance. That’s not to say that they can’t have sublime moments whilst under those controls – but those moments have never once happened because of – for example – Red Bull sponsorship or health and safety regulations. And while we only report on a national past time (which, really, is what the illegal rave scene is) as a site for heartbreaking teen deaths and raging, angry disorder, we do ourselves a disservice. Seeing as I’m not young enough to think that anything’s going to change, I’ll console myself with the best, silliest piece of free party journalism ever created – Dave the Drummer’s ‘One Night in Hackney’