Tribal Gathering

August, 1996: Court cases, conflict and controversy made this year’s Tribal Gathering the cause célèbre of British dance culture.

To celebrate the long-awaited return of The Face, we have selected a stand-out story from each year of our extensive archive, from 1980 to 2004.

Remembered by photographer Elaine Constantine

“It was my first cover story, and it was in two bits: the studio stuff of the girl covered in mud, which intro’d the bigger story inside, the covering of the Tribal Gathering festival. I can remember the excitement of going: ‘Right, we’re gonna do a Face cover, this is a huge responsibility, and we’ve got to really plan it well.’ I’d been working with [stylist] Polly Banks for a while, and we’d kind of created a look. She came along to Tribal Gathering with me and did interviews with people that I’d got impromptu photo sessions with, then that all went towards the whole thing. The casting for the cover meant finding someone who was not just going to agree to be naked and covered in mud, but who would throw herself into it. And we got a girl who was absolutely amazing, couldn’t get enough mud on her and couldn’t roll around in it enough. It was about finding the authentic. What The Face did that other magazines didn’t was, when they represented something, they made sure to go to the heart of it. It was that, rather than doing a horrible ‘this is what’s cool right now’ media version. It wasn’t patronising. Because I came from a background of social documentary, that was always my standpoint, too. That cover put me on a new level. Once The Face had given you their approval you didn’t need any more of a stamp. Every single photographer in the world who aspired to do cool photography wanted to work for The Face. No argument.”

Elaine Constantine’s colourful portrayals of British youth culture saw her shoot regularly for The Face, French, Italian and US Vogue, Vivienne Westwood, Diesel and Burberry. Her feature film Northern Soul (2015) was nominated for BAFTA’s Outstanding Debut Award. She has exhibited at the V&A, Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery.

Court cases, conflict and controversy made this year’s Tribal Gathering the cause célèbre of British dance culture. In the end, the most anticipated event of 1996 happened in June – and for one night, 30,000 people came together to define the shape of all tomorrow’s parties. This is how…

Is Tribal Gathering the end of the underground or the next step forward, asks Miranda Sawyer.

At 4am the normal world seemed very very far away. Far away from the mad lad in the big E T-shirt, waving his neon wands to the tune of the fairground bumper cars; from the post-Leftfielders, stumbling out of the Starship Universe tent to lie flat out beneath an almost-full moon; from the bungey nutters, rubber-balling between heaven and earth; from the dancers, the chancers, the chemically enhanced; miles and miles away from all of us. It was out there, somewhere, but far beyond our ken. And as for Ravey Davey, waving at the future with his £5-a-pair luminous white gloves... he was on a planet of his own design.

Yet, 12 hours later, tucked in under the normal world’s everyday duvet, it was like nothing had ever happened. We waited so long for Tribal Gathering ‘96 and then it came and went in the blink of a wide-awake eye. Now it feels as though you could never find your way back; and if you did, there’d be no evidence remaining, not a crushed beer cup or ripped Rizla to prove that, yes, there were 30,000 of us and, yes, we had the time of our lives.

The Sunday papers, even the Monday ones, despite their recently acquired house-happy attitudes, gave no more than a hands-in-the-air picture and a few lines of review. These last were muted, rather disappointed. They bemoaned the Gatherers’ good manners and queuing ability, clearly wondering why they weren’t sticking knives into one another or dying from overdoses or robbing or rioting or at least showing the camera their liberated, photogenic chests. “The E-generation,” sniffed the Guardian, “are polite, suburban and luvved-up”: and then went on to review the live acts as though they were performing in the Astoria. The verdict? These DJ types have no stage presence. Duh.

Perhaps you can’t blame the papers for feeling let down. Without Glastonbury as the cartoon-fest du festivals, without the backstage star hobnobbage, the beardies, the weirdies, the dealers, the didgeridooings, the media is stuck for a big Summer youth story. So it runs between The Who and Luton Hoo, comparing corpo-rock with get-down-on-it get-on-with-it dance culture, searching for the angle, spoiling for a fight; hoping that someone will cry, or at least try to fly, before they get cold. When no one does, they damn youth culture as boring. But they’ve missed the point.

Tribal Gathering, despite its bongo-bothering name, was never searching for astral significance. It didn’t have to smear itself in woad and stick bells to its toes and slop lentil offerings around in order to give itself a sense of purpose. And it didn’t want to call anyone to revolution, or to vote Labour, or to be a Tomorrow Person, or to stutter stuff about the generation gap. In an era when even Noel Gallagher uses stage-time to tell you to support Tony Blair, this is rare and, frankly, restful.

What else didn’t Tribal Gathering do? It didn’t have comedians; it didn’t do massage; it didn’t make a special feature film to show during performance; it didn’t refuse to move on when everything shut down; it didn’t even complain when it couldn’t get out of the car park. All that happened was that everyone turned up except Underworld and the poetry tent; everyone got mashed and happy and danced till dawn; everyone went home.

And in a way, that was just as much of an achievement as a twatted Take Thatter gatecrashing Glastonbury. There were plenty of obstacles for the Gathering to negotiate: not least the cancellation, a week before its scheduled May kick-off, of the licence for the festival to be held in Oxford. Traffic problems, apparently: though no one worried about Central London being held up by 150,000 Hyde Park road-ragers.

According to Paul Shurey, Universe head honcho and man behind the Tribe, the only reason why TG 96 went ahead was luck. “Another organisation had already applied for a licence on the Luton site, but they hadn’t managed to get it together,” he explains. “They hadn’t any track record of holding big events but they’d still managed to get a licence – so we went in on the back of that. It was a one-in-a-million chance.”

Never mind one-in-a-million: the odds were incalculable that the party-goers were going to make it, let alone all the acts and DJs. Yet just a handful of tickets were returned, and only Underworld, of the headliners, couldn’t alter their commitments. Leftfield played the Roskilde festival in Belgium, then hopped on a plane to London to strut their stuff hours later in Luton. Everyone made the effort. As DJ Rap was later to pronounce: “Well, you’re a sad fucker if you miss it, aren’t ya?”

It’s more than that. If you miss it, it’s not only you that’s sad – everyone else is too. Not literally, not broken-hearted but, as ‘Dr Cliché’ says, the difference between a rock event and a dance one is that the former is all about the stars; the latter, the audience. If you, the ticket holder, don’t turn up, it’s everyone’s loss.

You could see this when Black Grape played. At a rock gig or festival, the point is to see the band: push to the front and sweat it out with the big mosh boys or you’re a part-timer. At Tribal Gathering, people were dancing outside the tent and having a top time. What mattered was not how close you were to Kermit's toes, but who was around you and how good you all felt when Shaun got his melons twisted round Pretty Vacant.

So was Tribal Gathering a festival, or just a one-night Brownie camp for DJ worshippers? Over the last few years, festival culture has warped out of all recognition. Neil “Old Man” Barnes from Leftfield can provide a potted history of sorts.

“Well, I used to go to Bracknell Jazz Festival and Womad,” he recalls mistily. “Just because of the diversity of music you’d get there. But coming from a punk background, festivals went out of favour for a long time. You know, Glastonbury was seen as just a hippy thing. It’s changed now, of course.”

Of course. The homogenisation of guitar music has meant that bands like Oasis, Ash, Skunk Anansie, The Manics, Radiohead, plus solo acts like Alanis Morissette, are straddling the music/generation/denim-wear gaps that have gaped between indie and rock for years (proof? Oasis choosing to play at Knebworth, for Jovi’s sake). These days, “alternative” bands see mainstream as something to be proud of, and festivals are big business. Frankly, where there’s muck, there’s buckets of brass. With Oasis rumoured to be insisting on the installation of dozens of temporary cash machines at Loch Lomond so the punters have enough notes to spend on merchandising, the only difference between their gig and The Who's Mastercard money-spinner is the age of the scooters they arrive on.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a thing. Music has always been a business. And these days, at least everyone likes music and wants to go to festivals – and everyone's welcome. Even Channel 4. Even Radio 1. Even (mother!) Johnny Rotten.

But against this money-machine backdrop, the dance scene seems innocent, inventive, diverse, to die for. It's mainstream all right – look at The Prodigy, Orbital, Massive Attack; Oakey, Sasha, Carl Cox; Tricky, Portishead, Björk – but on most levels it’s more independent, more creative, less crass, less in-yer-face-up-yer-nose than its guitar-wielding loadsamoney contemporaries.

Worries that the reports about Tribal Gathering’s licensing problems would lead to too much publicity and, horrors, over-commercialisation were completely unfounded. And we’re still a way off from a full-blown three-day dance music festival. Though Paul Shurey has named this as his express intention – a long weekend of outdoor sounds, with perhaps one teeny stage for alternative rock, sidelined in the way the dance stage always is at mainstream festivals – police and public attitudes suggest that this is still some time away.

Tribal Gathering, when it comes down to it, didn’t really feel like a festival for a couple of reasons. One: everything was under canvas, so there was nothing that could capture the heaven-soaring, all-uniting sensation of a Glastonbury Orbital ’94 or Prodigy ’95. Two: it was only one night. You need at least two days for that true festival sensation, at least 48 hours to get really down and dirty, to lose the plot and never think of looking for it, to live a lifetime in a night-time, to come home and not recognise the door to your room.

“You didn’t traipse for miles to find the only sound system was powered by bicycle.”

But what it did feel was good. Midnight came and you didn’t have to search for a party. You weren’t turfed into a separate field to trip over tents and choke on the smoke from students burning plastic bags. You didn’t traipse for miles to find the only sound system was powered by bicycle. You weren’t harassed by dealers, worried by drug virgins, mithered by chippy crusties, forced to endure bagpipes at five in the morning.

What Tribal Gathering was about, pure and simple, was pleasure. If we’ve learned anything in the eight years since house music turned us round, it’s that dancing till tomorrow with a generation of strangers is just a really fantastic laugh. We’re well aware that it’s not a political act: at least not in a way that gets transformed into votes or direct action. We’ve got no time for the pseudo accessories: crystals and hair-wrapping are about as intelligent as trying to fly by astral plane. And we know that drugs won’t change the world. Of course everyone was out of it: it’s just that they weren’t making a fuss about it, or telling you about how charged they were. OK, some did.

No one who stayed up all night on June 29 thought that it was going to change their life. It was just part of their life. Thanks to its size and profile, Tribal Gathering provided an unprecedented demonstration that what would have once been strange, underground and exceptional events were now just single nights in heaven, enjoyed not by marginalised demimonders but by a mass of well-balanced everyday people who believe that having fun is as important as having a baby, or a job, or friends, or your health. It’s this that confounds the media, brought up as it is on hippies and punks and show-offs and big mouths. Not everyone who stays up all night has an agenda. Or a stupid wardrobe. Or a problem with self-esteem. No wonder the reviewers were confused. An event that’s about the people there but the people don’t even dress funny? Like the man says, it’s not rock’n’roll.

What Tribal Gathering did was to move popular culture on, quietly but significantly, bringing together remarkably diverse strands of dance music, and thus entirely different sets of people, in a way that would have seemed unthinkable even two years ago. Who’d have thought that jungle could sit so nicely next to happy house? That The Chemical Brothers could shake of their indie boots so successfully? That strangers could hug each other and not think they’re government-toppling? No more, no less. In the end it’s turned out that 30,000 people standing in a field is an excellent way to feel for the future.

James Lavelle

4:00

(Fired up after his set in the Planet Phunk tent)

How are you feeling? My feeling is daylight madness. If you want to know, that is my feeling at this precise moment in time.

You played a very hard set for a Mo’ Wax boss. I wanted to keep everybody up today. We had a good sound system and a lot of people so I wanted to fuck around. I enjoyed it a lot actually. I was pleasantly surprised. I thought it might be just another one of those chill-out dodgy back rooms with a really bad sound system, but it was hitting.

It’s rare for you to play at a festival isn’t it? This isn’t a festival, it’s more like a rave. I wanted to do it last year but I couldn’t because I was in Japan. I was really pleased to do it. I really like the people who set it up. They were really good to work with. I’ll come again if I’m asked back. Definitely.

Shaun Ryder

03:25

(Chilling in his trailer van)

We came here straight from Copenhagen and we’re going to Ireland tomorrow. I make a hundred new friends a night doing this. Do you like Kermit’s kilt? We watched the football at the BBC wearing kilts – the dinner ladies loved it. Am I gonna be on the cover?

Goldie

02:15

(In his tour van, hyped after his set)

What's your reaction to people who say you've gone commercial?

You’re always going to have the dogs barking at your heels to do whatever, but what happens is people become Corona bubbles. They go to the surface and they can’t get back down again. Smith and Mighty made it good for me. So did Shades Of Rhythm make it good for me. They were doing it. Grooverider and Fabio were playing 15 years ago. We’ve stuck to our guns about what this music is about and we’re now finally realising that you can go platinum but also have integrity.

We’ve heard you’re doing a film project.

It’s based around an eight-year-old kid and over a certain amount of time he becomes Father Time. This kid’s in a serious accident and while he’s in hospital it all gets freaky from there. It’s really about the integration of the UK from smackers down fucking King’s Cross to the old fucking geezer doing locks in wherever. Trainspotting is a remarkable film, right, and now it's time for that version to come from this angle: soundtrack, fucking underground interior! People on the fucking underground will play very strong cameo roles.

What’s next for Goldie?

The next album Sounds Return is another double album. There’s going to be a 64-bar loop track that’s just going to run. At the end of the day you throw the ball as far as you can because you know you can run and pick it up. I’m going through my own sounds return – I’m 30 and if you only knew me from an astrological perspective, mine is a heavy one because it’s all in line at the moment. I'm Virgo. 1965.

So there are a few surprises to come...

You have to do your homework and realise that when you get on a train there’s fucking five carriages before you. We all put our rollers on at Rage and then get up the next morning and listen to flamenco from Spain. I’m a window that’s reflecting and I can deal with that. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that but I still go out and hear new cuts and plates.

The Chemical Brothers

19:10

(Tom and Ed checking equipment for their live set)

What have you got planned for tonight?

Tom: (Big sigh and grimace as though it's overstepping the mark to ask) I don’t know. We’re going to find out, but the thing is we’ve just done loads of new stuff. We’ve recorded bits of our next album and this is quite a good way to find out if people like it or not... It could also be quite a bad way (laughs).

What’s the new stuff like?

Tom: We think it’s quite a lot different, but I'm sure other people will go: “Oh well, same old shit”.

Are you going to change your name again to be consistent?

Ed: Yeah. Maybe. I don’t want to be in a band called The Chemical Brothers when we’re 30. That is if we’re still doing it together by then – we’ll have to see. We’re totally drug-free because there were huge warning notices all over the stuff sent out saying: “Don't bring drugs on to the site. Police are searching the vans and buses.” So we didn’t. I’m in a drug-free van now. The Chemicalless Brothers

LTJ Bukem

18:00

(Chilling in his Vauxhall) How did you find Planet Phunk?

My hands got really cold because of the wind. It was far colder than last year.

What do you like best about big events like this then?

It all began with these things, from ’89-’90, that's all it was. I used to do four or five a night. I was in Denmark last night for a festival for 90,000 people – the biggest festival in the world! And tonight we're going up to play the drum and bass room at Cream in Liverpool.

What’s the most important thing to bring to Tribal Gathering?

Fuck knows. Good directions, yeah. That’s the best thing. Also, I’ve got this pillow in the car and I’ll sleep on the way up to Liverpool.

What about a change of specs?

(Laughs) I haven’t got that many, have I?

Every time your picture’s taken, you’ve got a different set of specs.

I’ve just got to wear them all the time so... I’ve got about seven or eight, actually. But I just treat them like underwear. You’ve got to wear pants every day; I’ve got to wear glasses every day. I don’t want to always wear the same pair so I change them.

Dusk ’til Dawn

Picking up the pieces. The Tribal diary of Helen Benson, aged 26¼

12.10 SCRATCHWOOD SERVICE STATION, M1, BETWEEN LONDON AND LUTON Well, these things always seem to begin and end in a service station. As I climb out of the van my friends and I have hired, I notice that we are being regarded with some curiosity by a coach-load of old people from Kent whose idea of a good time is possibly somewhat different to ours. Buy Volvic and chewing-gum. Climb back into van. Or should that be space ship, ho ho.

12.50 THE A1081, NEAR LUTON Noticing how attractive the countryside is, I remember a Thomas Hardy poem we did at school. It was about people dancing in fields all night, and going home at dawn. Reflect that whatever you think of all the nonsense talked about raves, dancing in fields is probably a very basic instinct. Or bass-ic instinct. Ho ho again.

14.50 THE GATE Have a little group chat about the extensiveness of the searches, which have been considerable. Share particular lack of enthusiasm for the “finger round the waistband” tactic.

15.15 THE BAR Order drinks, and make “Lager lager lager” jokes to each other. As, no doubt, approximately 10,000 people will today.

16.50 LTJ BUKEM, PLANET PHUNK Packed and brilliant. A bit of a shame to hear Conrad – the best MC there by a long way – first, since the memory of him will serve as a reminder of how bad the bad ones are. “Let your mind explode,” he keeps saying, over records that make it seem plausible.

17.25 STILL THERE The tent gets very packed, and I wonder for the first but not the last time if I have a tattoo on my forehead which reads: “Looking for a way through the crowd? Why not just try to knock me over?”

19.20 JON CARTER, PLANET PHUNK I am dancing with my friends when one of them notices a pool of sunshine appearing outside the tent. We go outside to dance and the sun comes from behind a cloud and there’s this other group of people dancing and we dance with them, laughing, and I’m sorry to sound like a sentimental old cow but I have a lovely, non-stimulant-induced moment of just feeling very happy. It’s a shame there’s not much more you can say about moments like that. If there was you could explain better why this whole thing means something. Jon Carter plays one of the best sets I hear all night.

22.00 BT AND SASHA, EROTICA Waiting for Sasha, I catch the end of BT’s set. Someone next to me says it stands for “bloody terrible”.

22.50 NOWHERE IN PARTICULAR Lose half of our party. The fall of darkness brings a new, exciting atmosphere to the site.

23.40 BLACK GRAPE, STARSHIP UNIVERSE It starts with Black Grape slightly the worse for wear and unable to locate a groove, and ends with old hippy thug Shaun Ryder urging everyone to kiss each other. Which sums the whole day up, really.

00.30 OUTSIDE NEXUS Contemplate the jumbo jets passing overhead on their way to land at Luton airport. They're low enough to let passengers see the site, so conceivably this could be someone’s first glimpse of life in Britain. If they heard BT they’ll probably catch the next plane back. Joke.

01:45 THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS, STARSHIP UNIVERSE Someone once said that trying to write about music is like trying to dance about architecture. If this is true, I point you towards the vigorous jig I performed in honour of the towering edifice that was The Chemical Brothers that night. Just brilliant.

03.30 THE BAR Meet lost friends. Greet each other as if we have been separated for the last two years.

04.30 TRIBAL TEMPLE What happened to the last hour? Why do some parts of the night go so quickly and others so slowly? Head off to seek the answer from the last bit of Leftfield, who are great.

05:30 THE OPEN AIR Stepping out of the tent in which Laurent Garnier has been playing his excellent end-of-night set, I am slapped in the face by daylight. There should be a word for the feeling you get on emerging from a darkened club into the wan morning sunlight. A word other than “shagged”, anyway.

09.00 HOME Two hours later I wake up as the van shudders to a stop outside my house. I have another one of those festival feelings, this time the one where you don’t know what – the weekend or your normal life – is the real thing and what feels unreal. I go in and put an Underworld record on and think about Thomas Hardy. Like I said, sorry for being a sentimental old cow.

Lost weekend: 10 things you did at Tribal Gathering

  1. Lost all your mates in the Erotica tent...
  2. ...and bumped into them hours later just as Leftfield dropped Not Forgotten. Told them it was fate. Kissed them
  3. Found yourself drinking Hooch because it seemed a refreshing and healthy alternative after eight pints of beer
  4. Gave two ravers from Belgium your number and invited them to stay for a week in September
  5. Danced to handbag at the fairground despite insisting that all you’re really into is intelligent techno
  6. Kept hearing Born Slippy and wished Underworld were playing
  7. Got searched. Remember when Mr Fingers used to make records? Now he’s on the gate
  8. Almost fell asleep waiting for DJs to stop “building” their set and start playing some tunes
  9. Got so into building a log fire outside the Astral Nuts tent that you missed Laurent Garnier
  10. Wondered if you’d ever find your blue car among all the other blue cars. Wondered how many days it would take to make it out the car park
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