The beat goes on
It’s 1am in a warehouse in Yate, a small village in South Gloucestershire, and more than 4,000 people are crammed into the building as Bristolian raggatek pounds out of two monolithic speaker stacks that have been constructed against one wall. Some attendees have climbed up into the rafters, dangling their feet above a sea of dancers while coloured lights sweep the ceiling. Everyone has come to share a night of electronic music played at brain-shuddering volume, despite new legislation that prescribes considerable penalties for those who organise and attend unlicensed music events.
It is three months since a similar illegal event at RAF Charmy Down in Somerset saw the UK’s underground rave scene make national headlines, with press claims that it was part of a “third summer of love”. Most in the scene think this is a wild overstatement. While large gatherings have been taking place they have been much less frequent than in recent years.
By September the parties were being held against a backdrop of the UK’s “second wave” of Covid-19 infections, which took off after the relaxation of national lockdown restrictions in late June. Between 6th July and 4th October the number of new cases recorded on a daily basis rose from 352 to 22,961.
Since the early stages of the pandemic, virologists have warned that mass gatherings have the capacity to dramatically hasten the spread of the virus. Music events have been linked to outbreaks of Covid-19 in other countries, with evidence that a single infected person can infect dozens of others when moving through crowded spaces without social distancing. In May 2020 South Korean authorities scrambled to contain an outbreak after a cluster of more than a hundred Covid cases was linked to a single man who visited several Seoul nightclubs.
But here in Yate on the final day of October there is no social distancing. There’s also no door charge, no maximum capacity, no volume limit, no age restrictions, no VIP area, no ban on smoking indoors, no dress code, no closing time and no formal security. To the side of the speakers, above a makeshift DJ booth surrounded by ravers, the words ‘Fuck Boris’ are scrawled on the wall amid a mishmash of spray-painted graffiti tags.
The crowd includes dreadlocked crusties, mohawked punks, factory workers, nurses, estate agents, students and teenagers in tracksuits. As Mandidextrous’s speedbass anthem ‘Ride The Lightning’ sparks a euphoric moshpit on the dance floor, a bare-chested teenager standing halfway up a steel staircase unleashes a fire hydrant over revellers dancing in front of one of the huge speaker stacks. More than a hundred metres away, at the back of the hot, crowded warehouse, shirtless 40-something hippies spin flaming staffs around their bodies inside a circle of spectators. As a remix of the jungle classic ‘Rubadub’, made by the Bristol-based producer Gray, thumps out across the room, thousands of arms are raised in unison and the densely packed dance floor becomes a bouncing, whirling vortex of sweat-covered bodies.
Rave against the machine
It is no surprise that the UK’s unlicensed rave scene hasn’t gone quiet for the duration of the pandemic. Ever since it emerged amidst an explosion of acid house and ecstasy in the summer of 1988, it has been infused with an anarchic, rule-breaking spirit. Over the decades this diverse subculture, with its roots in punk rock, Jamaican ‘sound systems’ and the new age traveller movement, has ebbed and flowed with the rise and fall of new musical styles, new drugs and changes in legislation.
Unlicensed raves are often called ‘free parties’, a nod to their origins in the free festival movement – a series of large countercultural gatherings that took place from the 1960s to the 1980s – and a reference to them being ‘free’ from the restrictions of commercial clubs and festivals. The raves are put on by ‘sound systems’, a term used to refer to a collective including DJs, engineers, speaker builders, drivers and MCs equipped with a mobile sound system, usually custom-built, at its core. After the first few large-scale raves in the late 1980s, many of the attendees set up their own grassroots sound systems across the country. These days the UK’s underground rave scene is a chaotic, decentralised movement consisting of hundreds of sound systems and tens of thousands of ravers
Before the pandemic these sound systems would put on dozens of unlicensed events across the UK every weekend, regularly drawing huge crowds. “People love to look back nostalgically to the late 1980s and the 1990s and talk about the significance of the early years of rave culture,” says John, a member of a London free party crew. “There are exhibitions and documentaries about the early days of the unlicensed rave scene, but the size and significance of the contemporary free party scene in the UK has been almost completely ignored by mainstream society.” There’s a good reason for that. Those involved seek to minimise exposure so events can be put on without receiving police attention. But despite the lack of publicity, in recent decades the unlicensed rave scene has thrived in the peripheries of society, from psytrance gatherings in woodlands to tekno parties in barns, and drum and bass raves in abandoned office blocks.
While all these events have an intense enthusiasm for large bass-heavy speaker stacks, it’s never just been about the music. “The magic happens when people realise that they haven’t just come to a rave to see an act, and that the real act is everyone mixing up against each other,” says Alan Lodge, a photographer who has documented the free festival and free party movements since the 1970s. “The free festival movement was about organising a society amongst ourselves in which we could escape the unemployment and dereliction of the inner cities – even if these societies only lasted for a couple of weeks or even a couple of days. It was about creating an economy and a society that was based on consideration for each other’s feelings and cooperation instead of competition.”
“The free festival movement was about organising a society amongst ourselves”
“It’s also about taking control of land,” says Lodge, who is concerned about government plans to crack down on people who set up authorised settlements and to give police increased powers to remove people from privately owned land. “Unfortunately, the only way that you can dance at a free party is criminally and the only way that you can legally dance in a field in front of a large sound system is by paying £80 and being subjected to a whole range of security and policing activity,” adds Lodge. “Some people feel safer because of policing – but I won’t go to anything like it. This is because the high price and the security activity keeps out the riffraff, who are my sort of people.”
These sort of people are the ones who stayed on the periphery when the UK’s nascent electronic music scene moved into the mainstream in the 1990s and became a global industry worth tens of millions of pounds. Rather than being lured by ‘superclubs’ and ‘superstar DJs’, this diverse crowd is united by a desire to find an alternative to what they see as increasingly homogenised and regulated commercial events. “Often people will work in the music industry in some capacity and enjoy what legal festivals and raves have to offer, but their heart remains in the free party scene,” says free party organiser John. He believes the sense of community is the main draw. “Everybody attending looks after each other,” he says. “People will take turns behind the bar or behind the decks – and everyone who is on the dancefloor at the end of the party will help to tidy up. No one is excluded because they can’t afford to get in or they aren’t wearing the right clothes.”
This strong commitment to a community united by core beliefs such as autonomy and inclusivity is even more appealing in a period when many people feel lonely. “During a time of heightened isolation, alienation and fear it’s understandable that people would want to be in this kind of collective environment more than ever,” says John.
The pandemic has helped the UK’s illegal rave scene reach a new audience – for most of 2020 it’s been the only game in town where nightlife is concerned. And after years existing in the margins, the scene has also finally leapt into the public consciousness.
All tomorrow’s parties
After the introduction of a national lockdown across the United Kingdom on 23rd March, the majority of experienced illegal party sound systems stopped putting on events due to concerns about the spread of the virus. Most of the illegal events that took place in the early days of the pandemic were set up by people looking to make fast money by filling a gap in the market. These events often sought to emulate the experience of going to a legitimate nightclub, with high prices for entrance and drinks.
By late July, however, the mood in the underground rave scene was changing. The Return of Scumerset event, which saw around 3,000 people descend on an abandoned airfield near Bath on Saturday 18th July, marked a resumption of activities. Lasers shone through the drizzle at RAF Charmy Down, lighting up specks of water like subatomic particles and streaking colours across clusters of pine trees. Cars and vans were haphazardly parked across the sodden fields. Some had their boots open and were operating as makeshift bars, selling cans of beer for £2 each.
The only access road had turned into a jam of abandoned cars, forcing ravers to trudge for 45 minutes on foot through the rain to get the party. The police say they got a call alerting them to the event at 11pm on the Saturday night, but that by the time they got to the airbase – hampered by the gridlocked roads around the area – there were already hundreds of people on site and they didn’t have the resources to shut the event down. Avon and Somerset Police chief superintendent Ian Wylie told reporters that he didn’t have a “standing army waiting to deal with these issues”. The party continued late into Sunday before the sound systems packed up their equipment, tidied up the site and left.
“Raves break pretty much every single rule put in place to control the virus”
In the wake of the Return of Scumerset, a few bolder crews continued to hold smaller events in remote locations – but most of the parties remained scaled-down compared to previous years. Some crews that restarted activities decided to put their events on hold again as they became concerned that their reputations would be damaged due to becoming associated with fringe groups. “Anti-lockdown protesters and conspiracy theorists were celebrating any big raves that occurred – posting pictures of them online and co-opting them as a symbol of the anti-lockdown campaign,” says John. “Although we thought there was a valid argument to put on small outdoor raves in the summer, we stopped because we didn’t want to be associated with anti-vaxxers and things like that.”
On 28th August new laws were put in place across England and Wales meaning anyone found to have organised an unlicensed music event could face a £10,000 on-the-spot fine. The legislation also introduced £100 fines for anyone caught attending such an event. A day later, however, more than 3,000 ravers descended on a mountain on the peripheries of the Brecon Beacons in south Wales for a bank holiday weekend rave, the Great British Teknival. On the same weekend, another large illegal rave put on by experienced crews took place in Norfolk’s Thetford forest before being shut down by police in riot gear. Sound equipment worth thousands of pounds was seized from both events by police and it was reported that several people connected with the raves had been handed £10,000 fines.
Assistant chief constable Nick Davison of the Norfolk police told the press that the Thetford forest rave was “extremely disappointing” because “coronavirus is still with us and continues to be a real threat”.
Davison’s concerns that illegal raves have the potential to be spreader events are echoed by Julian Tang, a consultant virologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary. He warns that continued mass gatherings have the potential to cause a major setback to efforts to control the spread of Covid-19. He does, however, empathise with those in the UK that want to ignore the government’s rules. “Public Health England (PHE) have got everything wrong about this Covid-19 pandemic from the beginning,” he says. “They said masks didn’t work, but they do. They said asymptomatic patients might not transmit, but they do. They said we didn’t need to test on the community, but now it’s clear that we do. A lot of the reversals from the beginning of the pandemic came from PHE – and this means that it is very hard for people to trust any official advice any more.”
“But the facts are now clear,” Tang continues. “If you bring people into close proximity, especially with no masks, there is the potential for the virus to spread extremely quickly. Raves are not a good thing for public health. They break pretty much every single rule put in place to control the virus. Raving in the middle of a pandemic is extremely irresponsible.”
Not everyone connected to the UK’s unlicensed rave scene is comfortable with parties taking place during the pandemic. “People are dying every day because of a virus that thrives on large groups of people gathering,” says photographer Alan Lodge. “The likes of home secretary Priti Patel are using the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate the ongoing clampdown on people’s freedom to gather and make use of land, but pushing against this with large events is not appropriate right now.”
“The spirit of the original free festivals was not about pushing for individual liberties and the right to do whatever you want as an individual at the expense of other people – it was about the rights to act as a group to make decisions that benefit the community,” continues Lodge. “Once the pandemic is over, maybe after a vaccine has been distributed, this is when people should put on more events and take control of land”.
Other stalwarts of the rave scene are unapologetic about staging events during the Covid crisis. Pointing to what they see as the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic they say that the risks involved in putting on events pale in comparison to keeping the country’s borders open or the launch of the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme to subsidise millions of restaurant meals in August which, according to research conducted at the University of Warwick, contributed to the second Covid wave.
“It’s the government that has been really reckless,” says a well-known DJ, who requested to remain anonymous. “It has repeatedly made U-turns, issued guidelines that don’t make any sense, and wasted billions on a track and trace system that doesn’t work. It said we were all in this together but has implemented emergency economic policies that are skewed so that they disproportionately benefit those who are already wealthy and well connected. People want to get on with normal life. Why should we stick to the rules when the government hasn’t kept its promises?”
Like many other workers in the music industry and other creative sectors, the DJ we spoke to has received virtually no financial support. They are among the estimated third of self-employed people that have applied for government support and have been told that they are not eligible. During the pandemic they have put their work in the music industry on hold and taken on a job delivering parcels in order to pay the rent. “Like so many other people, I’ve been forced to take on a role where I come into contact with hundreds of different people every day so that I can survive financially, and the government thinks this is an acceptable risk,” they say.
“But when it comes to activities that involve creativity and unifying human experiences, like a rave, coming into contact with others is deemed unacceptable by the government. I don’t agree with this at all.”
A fight for your right to party
As the shafts of morning light filtering through the Yate warehouse skylights get brighter, the music rapidly transitions between genres, moving from dancehall to garage, donk and jungle. The crowd no longer stretches all the way to the back of the warehouse, but in front of the speaker stacks more than a thousand ravers remain dancing, embracing and tumbling over one another on the dancefloor. Some wear masks, most do not.
Standing on the top of the biggest speaker stack, a young woman dances frenetically alongside a man in a green shirt, who pauses to take off one of his shoes and throw it out into the crowd in a small act of hedonistic delirium. Elsewhere, ravers are recharging their batteries. Despite the pounding music, bodies in colourful clothes lie sleeping along the edge of the dancefloor and in the small rooms located at the top of the warehouse’s steel staircases.
While breakcore thunders out of the warehouse a student from Oxford, Greg, smokes with his friends outdoors. “There have been so few raves this year but when there is a good one people care more,” he says. “They really get stuck in. The energy on the dancefloor is more intense.”
Greg says that he tried to organise a party for 16 friends for his 21st birthday in June, but it was shut down by riot police who used drones to film the event. The police seized a generator he had rented and a borrowed sound system. “The consequences are harsher,” he says. “But people feel so isolated right now – they are chomping at the bit to get together and dance.”
Standing in a small shed outside the warehouse is Anthony, a member of a Bristol-based crew, who says that despite the new legislation introduced in late August, no one is sure of the actual consequences of putting on a rave like this. “Because the rules are changing all the time and because there aren’t many big raves going on right now there’s no real precedent for what will happen in court or how the police are going to react,” he says. A few weeks later the issuing of £10,000 fines is briefly put on hold over concerns the penalties could be challenged in court, before being swiftly resumed.
Prior to the pandemic, police officers typically waited for an illegal rave to run its course and wind down by itself rather than risk a riot by breaking it up, but as they face increased pressure to stop mass gatherings they have become more willing to use force. Anthony says that this Yate rave was always destined to cost thousands of pounds in lost equipment, with no remuneration for those who provided the hardware. Sound systems made out of old equipment and constructed for just one party with the knowledge that they are likely to be seized by the police are known as ‘suicide rigs’. They have been increasingly used by rave crews as the police crackdown has intensified during the pandemic.
“It can be hard for those outside the scene to understand why people would take personal risks and financial losses just to organise an illegal rave,” says Anthony. As an example he points to the actions of Keith Robinson and the party crew Desert Storm, who travelled to Bosnia during the Balkans conflict in the 1990s to hold raves near the frontline as what they saw as a form of humanitarian aid. “What Desert Storm did wouldn’t make any sense to most people,” Anthony says. “But there’s always been a militant edge to the scene and crews that believe that dancing is a human need that is just as essential as food, clothes and shelter – whatever the situation is and whatever the personal risk is.”
At around 2pm on the second day of the Yate event, the personal risk to the ravers becomes shockingly apparent. As a set of old-school jungle thumps out of the sound system a whisper circulates around the dancefloor, now populated by just a couple of hundred die-hard ravers who aren’t ready to stop the party, that police have entered the warehouse.
Moments later two rows of riot officers fan out along the back wall of the building. Dogs strain on their leads and bark over the clamour of the music. Every few minutes they edge forward a couple of metres, until the remaining ravers are compressed into a small space on the dance floor. With the riot police around ten metres from the speakers a police dog bursts out from between two officers and plunges its teeth into the leg of a woman dancing in a skin-tight Lycra jumpsuit. The raver drops to the floor, writhing as the dog continues to maul her. Another woman comes to her aid, clinging onto her hands as the dog whips its head back and forth, and locks its teeth into her ankle. The attack would result in serious injuries including a fractured bone, and require skin grafts as well as reconstructive surgery.
The riot police sweep to the right-hand side of the warehouse, pushing the remaining ravers and pressing them against the wall with their shields. With no one left to protect the sound system, a team of riot police start ripping out cables from the back of the speakers and dismantling equipment. The music stops and the only noise is the sound of brawling police officers and ravers, along with the constant barking of dogs.
In a statement released following the Yate clashes the police said that they faced threats, intimidation and “all sorts of really significant violence” at the event. According to Avon and Somerset police chief constable Andy Marsh, “there were missiles thrown, bottles, punches, kicks, fireworks fired at officers.” On 10th November, Avon and Somerset police responded to our enquiry about the incident with the police dog. “Last week we referred a dog bite incident involving a member of the public that occurred in Yate on Sunday 1st November to the IOPC [Independent Office for Police Conduct]. The IOPC adjudged the matter was suitable to be investigated locally by Avon and Somerset Police. That process is ongoing and will include reviewing body worn footage. Our final report will be provided to the IOPC. To date, no public complaint about the incident has been received.”
Two days after Yate, Anthony says that he thinks the police crackdown on unlicensed events will probably mean very few illegal raves will go ahead in the final weeks of 2020. Yet despite the threat of fines and the possibility of violence, a minority of crews have made it clear that they are still committed to putting on events even if the police crackdown intensifies. The authorities won’t be able to stop the events entirely.
“When the police change their tactics the rave crews change their tactics as well,” Anthony says. There’s one strategy that has always worked well for organisers of illegal raves: strength in numbers. The bigger the party, the harder it is to stop.
At the request of interviewees, some of the names in this feature have been changed
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