In the second part of the series, Mike Boorman looks back at some of the key battles in rave history, and what clues they may give about the situation today…
Last week we read about the escalating tension between the state and sections of the club business, which has been ramped up by new government legislation and some controversial decisions from certain local authorities. But in order to properly gauge just how threatening or not threatening this is to the future of our messy Saturday nights, it is worth seeing if history can teach us anything. Is modern-day clubland just a part of the same old loop of state rhetoric and city-centre gentrification that it always has been? Or should we be really worried about the future of the whole business?
Like many people reading, I wasn’t old enough to grasp some of the major clampdowns on the scene in the past. In fact, on the infamous day in 1990 that 836 ravers were arrested at a warehouse party in Gildersome (including a young Rob Tissera, who was subsequently jailed), I was celebrating my seventh birthday, so needless to say, the impact of the new anti-rave legislation didn’t exactly register.
But now there is an increasingly heated argument involving venues, their customers and the state that governs them (as outlined in part one of this piece), so it’s more important than ever to properly understand how previous wars between the state and its caning citizens were conducted, and what the impact turned out to be for future generations. Then we can better judge what it all means now, and while we’re at it, go off on a few historical tangents with Terry Farley (Boys Own), Tim Sheridan (Very Very Wrong Indeed), Bill Brewster (author, historian, DJ), and Alan Miller (Vibe Bar).
Bill Brewster begins with his memory of the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994 - the most famous example in statute of a clampdown on the scene:
“There will probably be in the annuls of history minor skirmishes and different bits of law to stop partying in different bits of the country, but I think it's fair to say that acid house was the first time that the state came together to legislate against one thing.”
And they literally did, for in the act they went as far as to define an ‘illegal gathering’ as more than 100 people listening to ‘repetitive beats’ in an unlicensed public place. But the biggest battles had actually taken place before then - the infamous act was essentially Westminster’s final word in the argument which pretty much began when the Acid House Parties Bill was passed through parliament and eventually became law as the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act 1990.
The police had already begun to make inroads in the early months of 1990 - most notably at the 10,000-attended Hardcore Uproar event in Nelson - but the act gave them more ammunition, such as the ability to fine promoters a maximum of £20,000, confiscate their equipment, and impose a six-month jail term on top of all that.
Haslingden Hardcore Uproar rave, February 1990.
The mass arrests at the Love Decade party in Gildersome mentioned in the intro came a matter of weeks after the new law was passed, and for the following couple of years it formed the backdrop for the cat and mouse between the state and ravers across the country. History most commonly remembers the raves in fields around the M25 from brands such as Fantasia, NASA, Raindance and Amnesia House, and then the rave to end all raves, Castlemorton Common: the week-long party in Worcestershire organised by a collective of free-party sound systems that is said to have compelled the government to draft the Criminal Justice Act 1994.
But while it could be said the major battle between the state and its ravers began, roughly, at the start of the 90s, it would be foolish to ignore the flash points surrounding DJ culture that came before then, albeit sporadically. Bill Brewster goes back to the 70s:
“If you look at northern soul, there were lots of people breaking in to chemists for example, nicking slimming pills, so there were certainly nefarious activities surrounding partying well before acid house, but they weren't legislated against in such a heavy-handed manner.”
Terry Farley remembers the soul era in a different part of the country:
“A lot of the clubs we went to were afternoon clubs that opened at one and finished at three… the licensing laws in London were fucking ridiculous back then. If you wanted to open a club on a Sunday night, you had to provide food, so we would go to Crackers on a Sunday night, it would open at eight, shut at twelve, and you’d be given free sausage and chips! It’d be one sausage and about four chips just to get around the licensing laws… you know… it was completely archaic!”
By the time the 80s came around, there were the beginnings of an illegal warehouse party scene in London, partly in reaction to the above laws, but also influenced by the burgeoning post-disco movement in New York, which was now more accessible than ever thanks to Laker Airways - the Easyjet of its day - offering £99 return flights from London. A young Norman Jay was one of the main protagonists, having experienced block parties in Brooklyn in the late 70s.
Terry Farley was there too:
“Almost every Warehouse party in London was raided. The police would turn up, there’d be a stand off, then it would get raided and the same thing would happen the next week. So the police were onto it then, but I don’t think the politicians were.
“If you read some of the old northern soul books, they’ll tell you The Torch was shut down, The Twisted Wheel, Catacoombs, a lot of the northern soul clubs, because of drugs.
“The difference when acid house came along was that instead of there being two warehouse parties in London on a Saturday night, there were 200, so police could only shut down ten of them if they were lucky, so you’ve got 180 going on all night. And that’s when questions started being asked in parliament and it got to the tabloids.
“As soon as the media gets into something, it’s like this big shouting match, where the media starts shouting, then the MPs start shouting at the police and then the police start shouting back, and it all escalates.”
Even though the Criminal Justice Act and associated laws are still in place (and indeed have been built upon), the scale of the shouting match is nothing like what it was. The illegal rave scene being significantly smaller than when the laws were made is one major reason why, but also, the concept of people raving is clearly not as high on the state agenda as it was 20+ years ago (where even PA hire companies were threatened with legal action). So it would figure that, despite some of the recent conjecture in law, the overall threat to the scene nowadays is reduced. Alan Miller disagrees:
“Thatcher was clear - Thatcher would say ‘is he or she one of us?’. But they don’t fucking know who is ‘one of us’ anymore, so everything seems to be ‘problemetised’ if you like. If you look at Thatcher, Thatcher said ‘this is where we’re going, this is how we’re going to organise society: we’re going to encourage the working class to buy their own council houses, we’re going to go to war with the trade unions etcetera.’ and they won those battles, rightly or wrongly. They’re not doing that now. They’re not having an open debate.
“Politicians don’t seem to have ideas any more; they don’t talk about projects like building schools and building hospitals, building infrastructure, transforming poverty into wealth. Even though we’re coming up to elections and people are saying they’re about business, I think it’s very low horizons. The one thing that they can look strong around is restrictions. And that becomes a default position of restriction.”
The point about the open severity of Thatcher’s government is an interesting one, but probably carries more weight when taking the laws that were passed and the justification for them at face value. However, according to Tim Sheridan, and as per last week’s discussion, the underlying factors are perhaps more important than the official line:
“For me, if you look at it hard enough, politicians are just looking for revenue as well as votes. New laws usually come with new costs and new penalties. All the 'Criminal’ Justice Act did was drive what we did in fields into a paddock that earned. You can't stop kids having a good time but you can make them pay for it. In both senses of the word.”
“Really, I think the Criminal Justice Bill was all about the breweries wresting back control of youth. You can say it was to stop people having fun in fields and well maybe that was a part of it, but really it was about big business getting control of young people.”
And this is a commonly held view. The shift towards partying in places where alcohol wasn’t sold - or if it was, it was less appealing to most of the crowd than the other untaxable vices on offer - saw the government of the day accused of colluding with the big breweries to arrest the decline in tax revenue.
In an episode of The Cook Report that was pulled just before it was due to be broadcast, the MP who tabled the original Increased Penalties Act, Graham Bright, was found to have links with the political lobbying firm, Ian Greer Associates, who were soon to be disgraced as part of the ‘cash for questions’ scandal. Internal documents found by the programme listed Bright as somebody Ian Greer Associates thought they could use for political influence, and also that they were receiving £30,000 per year from Whitbread at the same time as the formation of ‘The Parliamentary Beer Club’; a cross-party group in Westminster with the brief of protecting the alcohol industry.
But as grubby as all that may look, it hadn’t taken the rave scene very long to become pretty grubby itself. By that time there were many stories of promoters being fleeced by gangsters for some or all of their door money; there was the seizure of four sawn-off shotguns at a rave in Essex; and one of the main rave promoters, Sunrise, complained of rogue operators copying their name and distributing thousands of flyers for events impersonating them.
“The M25 rave thing was kind of like a second or third generation of acid house kids and we would turn our noses up at it. But I played at one of the first Sunrises actually in a gas works in East London and it just wasn’t for me. There were some bad-looking drug dealers selling drugs to very young kids and that just didn’t happen at somewhere like Shoom or Spectrum. You felt at Shoom etcetera there was some kind of consensus, but at those big things I feel it had broken down.
“I totally understand why Thatcher and her people were clamping down on what they saw, because there were proper criminals involved. You had gangsters and people like the ICF involved [West Ham United's 'Inter City Firm']. I think the reason why Boys Own escaped this was that we kept our events under a thousand, so no real money could be made by gangs moving in and running the doors and stuff. We would get gangsters in, but mainly it was on their night off.”
Looking at the evidence one way, you could say that some kind of regulation was absolutely necessary in order to keep the scene alive - that a business often run by gangsters and hooligan firms was hardly going to be sustainable in the long term, and forcing it into regulated clubs was what ultimately saved it. But Terry alludes to the fundamental point that even by the early 90s, there were already a number of different factions, so referring to ‘the scene’ as a single entity is a bit of a red herring.
As obvious as this notion might appear now, if you weren’t there and only have knockabout-TV programmes to go on for musical history, then it is easy to assume that it was all one movement; but clearly an institution like The Ministry Of Sound opening a full three years before the Criminal Justice Act became law suggests that plenty of ‘the scene’ already had commercial vision, irrespective of what the government and police were up to. There was some crossover between the crowds, but it wasn’t as simple as the government shutting down the raves in fields/warehouses one day and clubland sprouting up the next.
But there is another possible justification for why state intervention could have been a good thing historically, and thus why there might be positives to be drawn from the unrest of today. Perhaps the anger it caused actually inspired people to rebel and generally make things happen?
“I’m sure a lot of people just went because the drugs were great and the music was great, and a lot of acid house people were naturally entrepreneurial… however, it did still feel like an act of rebellion in some ways. And it's weird saying it because you think 'how the hell can dancing to gay post disco be rebelling against anything?' but it did feel like it, and at the time I was active in the trade union movement, so for me, I was going to Troll on a Saturday, doing an e and then getting up and picketing at Wapping. That was going on at the same time as acid house.”
A 'scab' worker crosses the Wapping picket line.
Terry Farley picks up the point:
“It depends where you come from whether acid house was a really political thing or not. Acid house drew a lot of people into the dance scene who were not soul boys. So it drew in a lot of people from bands; you know, Primal Scream, Happy Mondays etcetera and then of course the journalists writing for NME about it; so to a lot of them it was political.
“But if you come to it from where we came to it which was from a soul side of things; it was just a continuation of what we’d always done. Looking back on it we never saw any of what we did as political, but I think if you look back to 1978, say, when there were a load of black boys, gay boys and white boys all dancing together while there were National Front marches going on; I guess it was a political statement in itself, but by accident really.
“Acid house bringing people into the dance scene that hadn’t experienced the earlier stuff is what made it be viewed as more political. So years later people see it as this ‘right on’ anti-Thatcher thing, but the truth is it doesn’t matter who was in government. If it was a Labour government, they’d still be knocking the door down. In the 70s when it was a Labour government, they’d still shut down the fucking party!
“Obviously we had a fanzine and I’m pleased we made a stance on certain things that we disagreed with, but really, the biggest statement you can make is just for everyone to got out and dance.
“I think also, living in London in the 80s, you could make a lot of money. I was working as a gas fitter and getting home really early, and all those industries had ridiculous fiddles. Every time you took a meter out… all the lead piping… you put in the back of the van, and at the end of the week you could earn more money from the lead piping than your wage!
“I think acid house - and people won’t like me saying this - but a lot of people in acid house were self-made, cockney Essex boys, and a lot were public school as well, like Tony Colston-Hayter, and a lot of them were very sharp. I think a lot of the acid house thing in London… they were Thatcher’s children. Up north, maybe they were fighting more of a class war, but in London, if you came from that kind of soul boy background, you were very aspirational. You wanted to shop - you would save a week’s money and spend it on one shirt on South Molton Street.
“But in between ’88 and ’91 I don’t think anyone I knew really thought that the ‘ooh, I’m gonna make a fortune out of this’ was Thatcherite, and I don’t think anyone really thought that dancing in a field was anti-Thatcher; it was just ‘this is a great laugh - I’m gonna make loads of fucking money’.
“I think once it got into the 90s and the free-rave party scene, it was more political. By then though, most people who had been the first acid house vanguard had brought it back into clubs.
“At the time of those free raves in places like Castlemorton, we were very much back into designer clothes again, so we just thought they were a load of soap dodgers! It’s not something I would say about them now… looking back I think much more of them. What they were doing was very very worthy.
“But I think the kind of people that went to Castlemorton would never have gone to the Ministry or Cream or whatever. I think it was completely against what they stood for.”
Despite the fully-taxable likes of the Ministry and Cream becoming the dominant force in DJ culture as the 90s wore on, the superclub era was not without state incident, and it’s probably fair to say that the battle lines we see today were drawn during this time, i.e. the argument becoming a more localised one. Home in Leicester Square was probably the highest-profile superclub to lose their particular argument.
The former home of Home, Leicester Square
Resident DJ Tim Sheridan tells the story from his perspective:
“In a nutshell the backers of Home put down fourteen million, a lot of money in 1996 [the club eventually opened in 1999], on the proviso that they would get a 6am license. Westminster Council, I am reliably informed, said from the get-go ‘yes of course you can have a 6am license! but we will give you a 3am for a trial month just to see you have kept your end up’ - that end being insanely draconian door searches etcetera.
“Basically every single week after that first month, Home went cap in hand to them saying ‘can we have our 6am license as promised?’ and Westminster were like ‘ask us next week’. Cunts kept it up for over a year.
“I mean you're a clubber and you've come from Birmingham to London's Leicester Square for the night of your life, you get turfed out at 3am. All you can do is get a black cab back to Birmingham if you don't know London well enough to go elsewhere. You need at least a 5am kick-out just to be economically viable to your punters so they can use public transport. It's safer too.
“Anyway, Home did some things wrong, it did some right but the main and only reason it didn't survive was Westminster killed it. Not just with the coup de grace of erroneously claiming it had a drug problem... well it did have one, you couldn't fucking get any!... but a slow death by strangulation. At the end, everyone at the top at Home had left the ship because everyone knew that Westminster had decided they didn't want a superclub there and made it abundantly clear.
“A very similar thing happened to Matter too. They were strangled to death by Transport for London and to a lesser extent by Blackwall tunnel being shut most weekends too. Pray you don't ever have to deal with councils, politicians and developers.”
The most recent superclub in the firing line was Fabric, but they are a salient example of somewhere that, from the beginning, appeared to tick their council’s boxes better than Matter or Home ever did. Current scrutiny of their operation might well be due to them now ticking fewer boxes for what is an increasingly prosperous area, but when they first pitched up with the idea of a nightclub they were probably grateful for the fact that just opposite them sat Smithfield Market; a place that, because of nocturnal working hours, has accommodated venues licensed to sell alcohol in the early hours of the morning for literally centuries.
Terry Farley goes back into the countryside:
“It is what it is when it comes to the law - they’re little golden moments in time that are golden for someone and fucking hell for someone else. The people who lived near Castlemorton would have been clearing up for weeks and their garden would have stunk of piss, but the people who were raving there would remember that as the best time of their lives - that they were part of history.
“I was watching this video the other day from a woods party in Hackney Wick and it just looked like the best thing you’d ever seen. It’s still going on. Nothing’s changed really! It’s all about playing the game!”
Terry would no doubt admit that some of the detail surrounding the game has changed since the old rave and acid house days, but there is not much evidence to suggest that the core concept of thousands of people being able to get away with breaking the law at the weekend has changed very much at all. Whether it’s throwing a party in the woods somewhere or smuggling a couple of pills into a nightclub, the game is very much alive. And looking at the multitude of venues that operate within the law, it all looks same-old same-old too, with venues like Fabric and the Ministry continually evading capture from gentrification/authority clampdown attempts, but Vibe Bar taking the hit like Matter and Home did back in the day.
Alan Miller looks towards a future without Vibe Bar:
“Thankfully there’s always going to be younger people who are ambitious and think they can make a go of things. We live in a more ambitious and go-for-it society than before. When I was doing this 20 years ago you’d go to a bank to get a loan and they’d just laugh at us.
“What will happen is, Brick Lane [the former home of Vibe Bar] will continue to be successful - I still have a lot of friends who have bars there - but it will become more like Carnaby Street and Covent Garden. I think plenty of young people have already moved out. I’ve got friends in Hackney Wick and Dalston, but the licensing etcetera are already on them - they haven’t even had the five years to get going.”
But what about Peckham? With the emerging night-time activity there, the area’s economy is clearly benefiting from young people’s money, so surely the new Alan Millers in Peckham are getting a better deal from the authorities?
“I think they will for a while, and hopefully if we [Alan Miller and his group of lobbying licensees] can all have a big enough comment and impact, we can get everyone up to speed. It’s not like everyone’s against it. There will be people in councils and the authorities who have lived through acid house or have gone through this whole experience like we have and have been influenced by it. We just need to have a sensible discussion.”
Even if you agree that history seems to point towards a future where the status quo trumps radical change on either side of the fence - be that change in the law or change in the ambitions of the industry - Alan’s campaign to ensure clubland fights its corner as part of a proper dialogue with authority is certainly a worthy one. As previously discussed, the lobbying of politicians and law makers has played an important role in the history of the business, and the kind of creative and political anger that surrounds such lobbying has played its part also. So the debate must continue, but it’s probably wise to temper it with financial reality, and not just assume that the authorities are out to get us because they want to spoil our fun (if there is a part three to this piece, they will be given the chance to make that point themselves).
So however impassioned a campaign might be to save a venue or change the ways of a local authority, it is fanciful to expect much change to occur unless it makes absolute financial sense for all parties involved in the debate. And using the same logic, if new legislation and recent problems obtaining late licenses are merely the beginning of a sustained attack on the industry after all, then the state will have to make the numbers add up in that scenario too, which surely isn’t going to be possible a lot of the time, given that the only people capable of attacking the night-time economy are heavily funded by taxes from its very existence.
Where this particular history lesson might fall down though, is with the ‘we’re doomed because of the pre-emptive, risk averse culture in authority’ argument. There has to be an element of guess work about what this will mean going forward, because there has yet to be an era of such covert governance to compare it against, or if there has been, it was sufficiently covert to not be documented. But covert governance could easily just mean there is simply not the will from those in power to rock the boat - that barring the odd blip, the status quo - ‘the game’ - will just roll on as usual, because both sides need it to. Well that’s what happens in The Wire anyway…