Originally published May 2020
“It kind of felt like being in some kind of bizarre town centre, in a world where ravers had taken over. And always, in the background,the boom boom of the sound systems, reminding us why we were there.”
-Tim Knight (Rave Diaries, Castlemorton Common 12th May 1992)
Castlemorton Common Festival 1992, was arguably the high watermark of UK rave culture, and exemplified the subculture’s fusion of rave, DIY Jamaican sound system, nomadic traveler, and punk traditions. But for many, the week-long festival at Castlemorton, dubbed a “Village of Nightmares” subject to a “Hippy Invasion”in the tabloid press, would also sign the movement’s death certificate. As the comedown from Castlemorton loomed, few would have assumed a prosperous rebirth was on the horizon, but first, there would be much work and adversity to endure.
As revelers and organisers alike were evicted from Castlemorton Common, 13 members of anarcho-dance sound system ‘Spiral Tribe’, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit public nuisance. As the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (CJA)was being enacted to clamp down on parties “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. Spiral Tribe would also be subject to one of the longest and most expensive legal cases In British history, eventually ending with their acquittal on all charges in March 1994, at a cost of £4 million to the taxpayer.
By 1992, Spiral Tribe were already under constant surveillance. Their unique experimental sound, and ideas of land reclamation for ritual rites, had exposed a fragility and fear in the conservative government then under John Major. The Conservative Party had long been at odds with the acid house rave movement that bloomed during the second summer of love in 1988, largely in response to Margaret Thatcher’s unfolding vision of ‘no society’.
Exiled from the countryside, their vehicles, homes, and equipment impounded, Spiral Tribe would launch an act of reprisal in the then dilapidated Canary Wharf, which was soon to be the beating heart of capitalism. As property prices crashed, the multi billion pound unfinished financial district was emblematic of the Conservative party’s vanity, and of boom economics gone bust, making it the perfect spot for celebratory retribution.
With a rented 40kw sound system, the Spirals set up in Mudchute Farm on the Wharf’s perimeter. However, their most daring endeav-our was brought to a halt in the early hours, as police swiftly barricaded access roads and terminated proceedings. Whilst unlicensed events would continue after 1994, they were often subject to raidsand seizures, and the constant threat from the authorities fragment-ed the movement into a period of docility, in the UK at least.
Sowing The Seed
Fleeing the ongoing persecution and surveillance in the UK, Spiral Tribe would take their mobile sound system, recording studio, and record label ‘Network23’ across the channel as early as 1992, sowing the infectious seed of a style now dubbed ‘free tekno’, and its emancipatory potential across continental Europe. By 1994, large unlicensed gatherings called ‘Teknivals’ began to emerge, first in The Czech Republic, before proliferating across Europe. These large transient unlicensed gatherings would bear the the carnivalesque character of their DIY Jamaican sound system, and nomadic free festival forefathers. With the assistance of the internet in the late ‘90s, the culture would give rise to a new wave of travelling sound tribes across Europe.
In addition to the monochrome insignias, combative dress sense, and amalgamate musical styles, the Spirals also introduced occultist concepts to their aesthetic, which would also prove contagious. In interviews from Graham St John’s book ‘Technomad’, their signature grinning enigma set inside the number 23, is described by Spiral member ‘Prangsta’ as evoking “magical intrigue”. In addition to the edgeless profile of the number 23 representing the movement’s fluidity, theories surrounding the number’s magical properties, and possibility of being a tongue in cheek adaptation of similar numerology adopted by the Freemasons also circulated.
Throughout the ‘90s, Spiral Tribe would disseminate the ideals of common space and autonomy across Europe through the creation of free parties and free spaces, within a society where “every square cm is under control”, states Spiral member Mark Harrison. Rob Cleaver who has toured teknivals across Spain with his sound system ‘Dub Conscious’, explains that here the idea of a free party can often be misunderstood. “They’re free, not because the cost is free, indeed sometimes there is an entrance price, but it’s because you are free whilst you are there”, he explains.
Theories surrounding the idea of Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ) also began to gain traction in these environments, adopted most notably from the writings of anarchist writer and poet Hakim Bey.
The TAZ would embody a truly revelatory means of social organisation, a space where, if only for a temporary period, alternative economies could appear then relocate, and the processes of cultural cross pollination could continue to cultivate the movement’s musical textures and tribal character.
Corresponding with these themes of subversion and resistance, the Teknival experience too held its own unique spiritual dimension. “People often make unfathomable efforts to get to these parties and travel across continents”, explains Rob, who feels that the incredible journeys undertaken to arrive at teknivals are “analogous to the effort that religious people take to make a pilgrimage.” He adds.
The newly developing tribal forms of freetekno were increasingly borrowing from more industrial styles of ‘Gabber Techno’ from The Netherlands, and much of the music being created carried an increasingly menacing sound. “It might sound intimidating but it’s quite a funny juxtaposition with the atmosphere or the attitude of the people, which is the opposite”, Rob reflects. “For anyone that might fall over, there’s like ten hands trying to help pick them back up. So, people let off a lot of energy and steam to this quite militant and aggressive sounding music, but you know, the atmosphere is so communal and loving.”
As the sonic circuses of mobile tekno traveller outfits gained increasing popularity, France became the new centre of activity, but the movement was soon encountered the ugly face of militarised authority and draconian legislation. One particularly notorious incident in 2005 in Mlýnec, Czech Republic, witnessed the mobilisation of approximately 1000 riot police against attendees. The ensuing clashes involved water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades, destroyed vehicles and equipment, and left several dozen partygoers and fifty police officers with injuries.
Struggling to understand and contain teknivals, the French Government passed the ‘Mariani law’ in 2002, which equated Teknivals with terrorism and expanded the means of the authorities to shut them down.
From 2007 onwards, Teknivals in France would continue under a semi-legal status, requiring direct negotiation between organisers and the French Ministry of the Interior. Often dubbed ‘Sarkovals’ after then Minister of the Interior Nicholas Sarkozy, these events, often attracting over 100,000 attendees, would be allocated disused military air strips, which were ring fenced by the French security services, who ran ruthless search and seizure operations around its perimeter.
“There were police, guns, dogs. The French police were really scary” Rob recalls. “Standing around getting searched by people that are dressed like paramilitaries and are shoving a camera in your face to record you and take a photo of your driving licence, it’s all quite intimidating.”
As cooperation with the state began to bear more risks than benefits, the trajectory of the teknival scene would again invoke the resilient life of the movement. In the prelude to May Day 2016, A body of sound systems penned an open letter to the Ministry of the Interior, announcing a refusal to cooperate, demanding that the Mariani act be abolished. With negotiations stagnating, On April 29th, the convoys took to the road again from all corners of the continent, eventually arriving in a field in Salbris, much to dismay of the gendarmerie.
“There was something different when we weren’t sort of caged in, and it wasn’t teeming with police,” Rob recalls. “In terms of sort of tapping into that sense of freedom that free parties are there to provide, it definitely had that”. This reversion to essence was chosen for the event’s 23rd birthday, a fitting tribute to the movement’s mentors, the Spirals. “People like to talk about the Spirals that have continued to echo down through time, so the French have held onto that protest element, though it’s very much alive and kicking in the UK scene as well”, Rob points out.
While new underground networks were tunnelled across Europe, Spiral Tribe’s ideas of reclaiming a common future by reconnecting with our collective tribal heritage, would also catch root and flourish within the overground UK clubbing scene. The maintenance of the scene’s spirit in the face of commodification during this period would in itself represent its own form of resistance, and the culture would continue to share Spiral Tribe’s idealism and vision.
The Future is Now
“Thursday night 10-6, Friday night 10-6, Saturday night 10-6,” recalls Ross Harper, Owner of ‘City Wall Records’, when reflecting on his time clubbing in the ‘90s. “The kind of line the promoters were taking was, ‘this is something to do with the future, this is something to do with breaking new boundaries, doing new things,” he adds. Ross remembers one particular monthly techno party called ‘Escape from Samsara’ at ‘The Fridge’ club in Brixton, which demonstrated the extraordinary effort made to protect the character of the experience. “They had this policy where if you brought a drum or a didgeridoo or some kind of percussive instrument you could get in for like 3 quid and then have a drum ceremony for the first hour where they would kind of invite the spirit to dwell there”, he recounts.
Such ritual would be seldom seen in the popular multiplex clubs of today, but this character that lived on throughout the scene during the ‘90s, demonstrated that perhaps there could be a harmonious coexistence between the sacred and the sanctioned.
With late licence venues today up down the country coming under increasing threat from rising rents and noise complaints, an increasingly regulatory regime is also carrying with it an unwelcome presence of force. “In the UK you go into a club or a rave venue or party venue and there’s a bouncer every 20 yards”, Ross highlights. “There’s no smoking, basically feels like you’re dancing in a prison right, basically me and the security guards”.
Official shows of strength also still shadow unlicensed events. A Teknival in Lincolnshire in 2015 provoked an unsparing response from riot police who forcefully made 43 arrests, while an annual Halloween event ‘Scumtek’ in Lambeth the same year, witnessed the heavy deployment of riot police and 6 hours of skirmishes, involving projectiles and burning roadblocks set up by frustrated partygoers and local opportunists.
Force and legislation aside, a more insidious threat to dance music culture is perhaps also on the rise. Ross points out that in many of the infamous techno clubs of Berlin, a sticker over the camera phone lens is conditional of entry, which he feels “seems to have a positive impact on the vibe for people. There is something about the camera phone that is like a vacuum in a way. It sucks and draws people’s energy away from being in the present moment, and it also because it’s got a camera it means that privacy is lost.”
Underground or overground, the two parallel tracks have continually blended, complimented and borrowed from one another. The enduring spirit of UK club culture throughout the ‘90s, point to the resilience of the roots from which it grew, epitomising the inevitable counter currents that will always exist in the face of cultural homogenisation.
Whilst many felt an act of defiance like Castlemorton may never come again, perhaps the Spirals’ greatest final reprisal lies in their legacy. Despite the repressive attempts against them made by truncheons and bills alike, the prospering of free festival culture across Europe, stands testament to their imagination, that a universal will to unite, resist, and imagine another, could be set alight by the kick of the bass drum.
As communities attempt to draw breath again after the suffocation of lockdowns, it appears many draconian powers are here to stay, leaving the future of rave culture hanging in the balance. In addition to the complications posed by social distancing and heightened financial pressures on venues to stay in business, an uptick in authoritative policing also provides grave concern to the culture’s daring defiance. The questions remain open and the details uncertain, though by the pages of history, the answer is inevitably one of assurance and promise. As the Spirals would remind us on their track ‘Forward the Revolution’, “You might stop the party, but you can’t stop the future.”