Par­ty pol­i­tics: how the ille­gal rave is mak­ing a comeback

Illegal parties, Acid Corbynism and a police crackdown. 30 years after the Second Summer of Love are we in the midst of a rave renaissance?

Sat­ur­day, 11.58pm

The pub I’m in is clos­ing. I’m wait­ing for a friend to drop a pin, reveal­ing a secret loca­tion in an invite-only What­sApp group.

It doesn’t get good until after mid­night,” so I’m not wor­ried about being late.

The pin drops, my Uber arrives, and the dri­ver takes me as far as he can, end­ing the jour­ney at the edge of a dark indus­tri­al estate in Tot­ten­ham, North Lon­don. This is where halo­gen-lit tar­mac gives way to unland­scaped marsh land.

The group chat is alive, noti­fi­ca­tions light my way: Bring loo roll”, Bring cash”, Don’t arrive all at once, you’ll alert the police’” The air is damp, but the down­pour that seemed immi­nent at about 4pm has held off so the par­ty will go ahead, under the cov­er of dark­ness, con­cealed in a thicket. 

What shoes are you wear­ing?” a friend of a friend asks the group, tongue-in-cheek. Don’t for­get your kit­ten heels.”

Say ille­gal raves” to cer­tain mem­bers of Gen X and they’ll start talk­ing wist­ful­ly about the Sec­ond Sum­mer of Love. How it began 30 years ago, between 1988 and 1989, fuelled by acid house, a heap of drugs and the unique com­bi­na­tion of hope and resent­ment that comes when a coun­try is on the cusp of change. 

Biol­o­gy, Clapham Com­mon, July 1989

Few sub­cul­tures have been mythol­o­gised more than this. Books, like Exist to Resist and RAVE, have cast the ille­gal rave scene as a cul­tur­al rejec­tion of the then Con­ser­v­a­tive government’s polit­i­cal and social ide­olo­gies. Com­men­ta­tors and aca­d­e­mics alike have mused upon the pol­i­tics of dance music” or how club cul­ture can be an agent of change”.

And recent­ly we’ve seen a renais­sance in London’s ille­gal rave scene. In fact, offi­cial fig­ures show that the num­ber of planned unli­censed music events in Lon­don dou­bled between 2016 and 2017 alone. Two years on, we have secret What­sApp and Face­book groups where detailed maps lead us to seclud­ed arch­ways in the more run-down parts of Zone 3; as well as pri­vate Insta­gram accounts (with only one detail-sketchy post) that dis­ap­pear as soon as the par­ty kicks off. 

The rave scene of the late 80s and ear­ly 90s is often couched as a reac­tion to the Con­ser­v­a­tive Party’s long reign under Mar­garet Thatch­er and John Major; a peri­od of gov­er­nance that stretched from 1979 until the vic­to­ry of New Labour in 1997. It’s cer­tain­ly true that things were tough in the ear­ly 90s. There was reces­sion, ris­ing unem­ploy­ment, infla­tion in dou­ble dig­its and inter­est rates as high as 15%. There were poll tax riots, a war in the Mid­dle East. And, while the econ­o­my slow­ly start­ed to look up, the ben­e­fits weren’t imme­di­ate­ly, or ever, felt by all.

At the time, these par­ties – like the now leg­endary Castle­mor­ton Com­mon Fes­ti­val in 1992 – could draw crowds as big as 20,000 peo­ple or more. They were so pop­u­lar, in fact, that the tabloid news­pa­pers per­pet­u­at­ed moral pan­ic and per­turbed politi­cians made it their mis­sion to close them down. This cul­mi­nat­ed in the pass­ing of the Crim­i­nal Jus­tice and Pub­lic Order Act in 1994, which banned any large events fea­tur­ing music char­ac­terised by the emis­sion of a suc­ces­sion of repet­i­tive beats”. Of course, the noise made by four to the floor anthems didn’t go it away, it just went indoors. Peo­ple start­ed going club­bing”.

There’s a free­dom you have at these par­ties to do drugs with­out see­ing some­one you know being shep­herd­ed out by secu­ri­ty every 30 minutes.”

There are cer­tain­ly par­al­lels with the cur­rent polit­i­cal back­drop, where a suc­ces­sion of back-to-back Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ments have arrived, this time, with a Brex­it bow on top. For the young peo­ple of today, the future has often felt bleak, with wild­ly unaf­ford­able hous­ing, stag­nant wages and want­i­ng to stay in the EU but being forced to leave, topped off with relent­less head­lines remind­ing us that we are worse off than the gen­er­a­tions before us.

But, it would be lazy to call the surge in unli­censed par­ties in Lon­don right now a repeat of what went before. The polit­i­cal chaos we face today might be a sim­i­lar hellscape but, over the last decade, a more prac­ti­cal expla­na­tion can be found in the fact that tougher licens­ing laws have seen clubs clos­ing left, right and cen­tre; the mar­ket shrink­ing by 25%, accord­ing to research com­pa­ny, Ibis­World. It’s only nat­ur­al that peo­ple are tak­ing par­ty­ing into their own hands. 

28-year-old Anna, who has attend­ed ille­gal par­ties in Tot­ten­ham, Manor House and Wood­ford says that they’re a wel­come break from over­priced” Lon­don clubs. The only club I would even con­sid­er going to now,” she says, is Fold in Can­ning Town”. 30-year-old Tim, who most recent­ly went to one way out in West London…kind of around Acton and sort of near a fly­over,” says he is drawn by the low cost too but adds there’s also some­thing entic­ing about the free­dom you have at these par­ties to do drugs with­out see­ing some­one you know being shep­herd­ed out by secu­ri­ty every 30 minutes.”

A selection of flyers from Pandemonium.

In the clubs that do remain, drinks are expen­sive, and cur­fews are tight. Last year Hack­ney Coun­cil announced unpop­u­lar and con­tro­ver­sial restric­tions which will mean that any new venues open­ing in the bor­ough have to close at mid­night. The effect is a Lon­don club scene that feels at best over­priced, and at worst non-existent. 

Out on the marsh­es, though, things are get­ting excit­ing. I’m not stand­ing in the pur­ga­to­ry of a freez­ing queue wait­ing to be searched from head to toe. The real world feels very far away and, for once, I doubt that I’ll sud­den­ly be over­come with waves of anx­i­ety at 3am in the mid­dle of the dance­floor when I remem­ber how much mon­ey I’ve spent on a, frankly, aver­age experience. 

The music leaves a lot to be desired, as does the mix­ing, but I don’t care. Anna and Tim both agree that the music at the par­ties they’ve been to was aver­age at best – dodgy house”, unrecog­nis­able euphor­ic tunes” or rub­bish knock off Adam Bey­er tech­no” – but they say they keep going back because of the fes­ti­val-like atmos­phere” and sense that any­thing can hap­pen”. In a city that has become increas­ing­ly unaf­ford­able (for most), at a time when rents have gone up 60 per cent faster than wages in less than a decade, this night out feels rare and, frankly, soothing.

Tim agrees. Look,” he says, life is hard. Will I ever buy a house? I don’t know. Our gen­er­a­tion has been shaft­ed. Big clubs in Lon­don have done to nightlife what Ama­zon has done to the high street. Tick­ets are expen­sive and clubs care about returns so they book big names and don’t care who they get through the door. They put on these all day par­ties’ but who can afford to buy drinks all day?”

Aca­d­e­mics often link dis­en­fran­chise­ment to dancing…but is par­ty­ing ever real­ly a protest?”

There are sev­er­al dif­fer­ent col­lec­tives (a.k.a. groups of mates) behind the unli­censed par­ties in Lon­don. I spoke to peo­ple from three of them. None want­ed to be iden­ti­fied by their real names but all were eager to pro­mote the scene despite its ille­gal­i­ty. They don’t all get on or rate one anoth­er. A mem­ber of one col­lec­tive tells me that they think it’s uneth­i­cal that anoth­er charges entry. We put our own mon­ey into these events,” he tells me. We don’t want costs to be a bar­ri­er for entry.”

We actu­al­ly don’t like to refer to these events as par­ties,” he adds. It’s more about bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er, giv­ing them a unique experience”.

Steve DJs at these par­ties and he also puts them on. He’s less squea­mish about mon­ey but just as clear that he is react­ing to how cor­po­rate nightlife in Lon­don has become, draw­ing direct­ly on the com­mu­ni­ty’ mantra that many asso­ciate with rave. It might sound clichéd but it’s the com­mu­ni­ty feel­ing,” he tells me. It’s so dif­fer­ent to play­ing some­where like XOYO [the Shored­itch club at which he reg­u­lar­ly per­forms]. Peo­ple are much more open-mind­ed and enthu­si­as­tic. They are there because they just love being part of it.”

When I play in Berlin,” he con­tin­ues, it takes a good half hour to win an audience’s trust – they assume you’re crap until you prove them wrong. Here I feel like we’re all in it togeth­er.” So, he wouldn’t com­pare it to Berlin? It’s a bit like Sisyphos, where I always play, but no, it’s in a league of its own.”

What sep­a­rates these par­ties from Berlin’s par­ty scene, or the leg­endary raves of the 80s and 90s, though, is that they are not epic, fly­ered events draw­ing peo­ple in their thou­sands. Nor are they played by the best DJs in town. They’re low-key and low-res. As Lau­ra, a friend who I’ve gone to ille­gal par­ties with over the years, explains: Peo­ple don’t real­ly care about what they’re lis­ten­ing to. It’s a guilt-free night out. One you’re not going to wor­ry about on Tues­day morn­ing when you check your bank account in the morning.”

I leave before the sun comes up. Mak­ing my way back across the marsh­es what strikes me is that, far from feel­ing knack­ered, I actu­al­ly feel refreshed. I’d for­got­ten what it feels like to go out and be cut off from real­i­ty for a bit.

Aca­d­e­mics often link dis­en­fran­chise­ment to danc­ing, last year’s attempts to make Acid Cor­bynism a thing were just the lat­est rein­car­na­tion of that. But, is par­ty­ing ever real­ly a protest? In the sense that these organ­is­ers and atten­dees are deter­mined to reclaim their right to go out, get off their faces and for­get about real life for a bit with­out spend­ing a small for­tune, yeah, I guess so. But are these raves like­ly to change the law? Are peo­ple like­ly to eulo­gise them in books and aca­d­e­m­ic texts? Prob­a­bly not. Still, it’s a fun night out.

Names in this arti­cle have been changed to pro­tect identities. 

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