Thirty Years a Raver: Part 5: The Final Frontier

“If you’re hanging on to a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision – let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope? They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.”

Danny from Withnail and I.

I could read back on last week’s part of this series; definitely donning my designer rose-tinted specs. For it was our rave honeymoon, and we had not a care in the world. We partied, that was it. Ignoring the government ousted their iron lady, the first war for oil had escalated from Operation Desert Shield, and tensions were raging in Northern Ireland, we partied. We partied until the cows come home, and if they did come home, to find twenty thousand madcap ravers gyrating in their field, well, we’d have worked around them, and carried on the party.

If I recounted the incident at the Banbury rave, with the careless driver taking heed of a crusty and significantly slowing down, someone on a Facebook group, DOCU FREE PARTY ERA 1990-1994 – WERE YOU THERE? reminded me of a tragic 1991 rave on Roundway Hill, near to my now hometown of Devizes. A young girl was seriously injured when a car run her over as she laid in long grass. An aide-memoire, not everything that glitters is gold.

Myself, I didn’t attend it. So myopic, my vision extended no further than my own perception of the movement, naïvely assuming because I saw no issue, I could freely wheel-off my illicit activities to my old folks, and they’d be content. Unfortunately, they didn’t see it the same way, family tensions reached a peak, so I steered clear of the party that particular weekend; mates filled me in on the upsetting details.

To push aside the parties, and think back to 1991 with clarity, it was a terrible year for me. I went into it with a girlfriend, a part-time job and place in art college. By the end of it I was filled with teenage anguish, lost girlfriend, job and was kicked out of college. The only truly fond memories were the parties, but Autumn was settling, raves continued, but as winter fell it waned.

A party on New Year’s Eve would, in later years be my only winter cert, the rest fell into hibernation. But I’m struggling to recall what I did for it in 1991. We awaited 1992, assuming it will be the same, but bigger, better, and at the beginning, you’d have been fooled into thinking it would be so. 1992 vastly differed.

Schemes to detect and prevent raves had stepped up a notch, as police waivered serious crime to focus on averting people having illegal fun. They put their foot down at the prospect of Hungerford common being invaded, but as sure as the Belthane came, the only thing they achieved was to move the party north, to Lechlade.

Just as today, life in the Cotswold gateway was filled with conservative thinkers and powerful politicians, bombarded with complaints as the quarry was conquered and the party went on for days. For us, inside the compound, it was a magical moment, proof of strength in numbers. The media pounced more than ever, but, like all other things, be they current affairs, our own personal issues, none of it mattered.

In fact, I, and I don’t think many others did either, contemplate the significance of the next bank holiday bash on Castlemorton common, near Malvern in Worcestershire, until the point we climbed a hillside and looked down on how much it had grown. An estimated forty thousand, so they reckoned. A fear shuddered over me; they were not going to let us get away with this.

Only now, as they bashed the idea of the Criminal Justice Act around parliament in Castlemorton’s aftermath, did we become political, fighting for the right to party. But for the large-scale rave, it was the last. The government smashed the last nail in its coffin, and quashed an upcoming generation of rebellious, potential travelling folk.

You see, raves were organised by sound systems, and folk from all walks of life flocked to attend, but whenever something went wrong at an illegal rave, the travellers took the blame from the media. At Romsey’s regular Torpedo Town not long after Castlemorton, the police were not playing ball, and consequently there was an aura of anarchy in the air. Under instruction, they set up road blocks, which ravers simply parked alongside and walked to the site. This moved the commotion from the site to the town, and ITV News invited everyone to join in, including troublemakers, who torched a rubbish incinerator.

Outright, TV news teams blamed the travellers, and only a small report without apology followed some weeks later when they arrested two men from Birmingham, who had homes, and were not really defined as “ravers,” or “travellers” at all.

Many sound systems jumped the sinking ship, trekking across Europe and further, which, in turn, spread the culture, but for us, we were just kids, I don’t think I even had a passport! But life did get better, I passed my driving test fortunately the week before Castlemorton, and I’d eventually flee the family nest. But as my facilities to attend raves improved, the free party scene drowned in its own popularity.

The problem for authorities, was despite killing the physical party, they couldn’t cure the bug; the desire to carry on regardless. We only had to source other avenues. The first was the pay-rave, large-scale organised events saw a sudden influx.

By the end of the year 92, not one for the officialness the epoch had become with pay raves, one on our doorstep seemed viable, a nice, easy ticket to see in 1993 seemed like a good idea. Fantazia had a good rep, but little did we know it had been swallowed by big businessmen. At Littlecote House they promised free parking, but made us cough up a fiver; should have been a clue. A number of broken promises let it down, but if disillusioning the punters, they aimed for, dumping the contents of the port-a-loos on a farmer’s track nearby was a step too far.

Why did it matter to anyone other than the farmer? Because it projected bad on the scene, via media, it cast a shadow over our moral standards, all of us. Did Littlecote ever host another rave?

For the most part, though, the pay raves dedicated loyally to the raver. The scene grew stronger for this, against the businessman capitalising on the trend, those pay events with morals could erect stages and effects which took on concert and festival proportions, and was largely responsible for the compatible atmosphere of today’s festival scene.

But for the demise of the freedom, the self-determination of do-it-yourself counterculture and autonomy of the society it created within it, we paid the cost.

For the record, while any specific event can not be singled out, many illegal events were indeed well, if not better, organised than the pay ones, they were policed in their own special way, i.e.; one respected the travellers for being on their site, or the sound systems for their efforts, else risk an almost mediaeval punishment.

And for what it is worth, there was always an effort to clean up afterwards. Hard to imagine, after a heady night, these illegal ravers were handed bin bags, and they got onto the task without persuasion or wages, rather for the genuine want to return the land to how it was before their arrival, but it did. I can assure you; this didn’t happen at pay raves.

Other avenues worthy of exploring was Glastonbury, bunk the fence and you were in a whole new world, a city of tents, but it took some years for the Eavis family to accept an incursion of ravers, with their electronic bleeps. Prior to a time when The Prodigy would headline, ravers were a lost entity at the festival, wandering miles with only the rumour of an apt party to hand. Being they too had driven the travellers off with riotous consequences, a rave remained a rumour, and most made do standing outside a stall selling blankets, marching to their small sound system.

As we progressed through the nineties, smaller localised raves would break out. These were great, communal and friendly, and local police, while casting a beady eye, bypassed the Justice Bill rulings, acknowledging making a fuss about them was far more destructive than effective.

The safest bet to party though, was the club. Prepared to travel some distance to go clubbing, we’d eventually explore London and Brighton, but for the beginnings we stayed closer. The UFO Club at Longleat’s Berkley Suite would be a fluorescent trancey techno ball, Swindon’s Brunel Rooms presented hardcore, with a side order of house, whereas the hall of Golddiggers in Chippenham blew full-on hardcore out of the arena and into the carpark, and it was free with a little flyer.

It was in that same carpark, in conversation with an unknown straggler I had an epiphany. We asked him if he was having a good night, but he was negative. “I’m not going back in there,” he whined, “it’s all that jungle music.”

It occurred to me then, the hardcore was splitting. The solemn shadowy drum n bass was dividing from the merry hi-hats, crashing pianos and squeaky female vocals of what the younger raver deemed “happy hardcore.” If it tended to be racially motivated, or just socially, I couldn’t pick a side, appreciating them both for their dividing differences. Now considered a more mature raver, we shipped into the steady house and let the factions pull apart into the thousands of subgenres electronic music now finds itself with.

As we come to our final part of the series next week, I’m contemplating the effect and impact the free rave scene had, but lest we remember, for us it was over, and whatever avenue we did explore to satisfy our craving, it would never be the same.


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