Featured Image ©Alan Lodge Photography
Okay, I confess, that’s a clickbait title, forced to make you shout, pantomime style, “oh yes it was!” On this, the thirtieth anniversary of The Castlemorton Free Festival I’m predicting vast quantities of media coverage, hailing its significance in the counterculture of the nineties, and indeed it was the largest illegal gathering in the UK, comparable with the Stonehenge Free Festivals a decade prior.….
And indeed, due to the knickers of a local Tory councillor getting in a twist, it heralded an act of law to prevent so much as four pixies gathering and listening to “repetitive beats,” a desperate last stand from fraying Thatcherism.
But arriving on the scene Friday, dusk had already befallen and we hadn’t a clue just how much it had blossomed. From its epicentre it seemed like just another, typical weekend for us, and in personal reflection, it was not my most memorable rave at all.
In the late eighties acid house was a secret, an exclusive collective no more than a couple of thousand strong. Pyramid promoting, predominately via word-of-mouth, but also by media overexposure, had created a monster; a burgeoning culture trend, an apolitical rebellion whose only ethos was carefree dance. But authorities could neither control it nor let it be. No one made any money from it, that infuriated them, so government made it political, the aftermath of Castlemorton was their Empire Strikes Back.
What was more important to me this weekend thirty years ago, was I finally passed my driving test; a catalyst to seeking raves easier than our only previous methods of blagging lifts or hitchhiking, both of which had unpredictable results. Devastating irony was this particular weekend would be the last of the great raves!
I had my Ford Escort, which I hadn’t fully paid my mum for, so it was legally still hers, and we headed off to Malvern in it; no motorway lesson nor taking-it-steady-on-local-roads starter kits for me!
This legendary party line phone message the Beeb published this week I never heard. On this occasion the usual method of a reliable source phone call was not needed; HTV broadcasted a bulletin about it, they made it too easy for us!
The common was positively buzzing, as more sound systems bolted on and revellers flocked to explode the population to city status. Just how many attended is the query for great debate, safety in numbers was our philosophy, but when we staggered up the hillside at sunrise, our rural chillout zone, the penny dropped.
I recall duly and rather dully contemplating, “they’re never going to live this one down, they’ll never let us get away with it,” it didn’t take Nostradamus, as this sprawling linear development metropolis of o’ bangers and hippy buses expanded like a Sim City game along across a single country track.
Yet the first evening proved unsuccessful in purchasing “rave necessities,” we were ripped off with duff “red & blacks,” soon to be aptly dubbed, “Dennis the Menaces.”
Financially this put us in deficit, and while the upside wasn’t so up, the downside seemed to be equally as prominent, as if the upside had of happened. Supply and demand reduced the potency, these were changing times. But we did it to ourselves, our own worst enemy in so effectively promoting this new way of life. Such was the effect of ecstasy, coming complete with an uncontrollable desire to share the experience, as standard. In this much, that is why we had come to this final kaboom; Castlemorton was the rave to end raves in the UK, least on the same scale.
Second downer for me was when a friend of a friend was badly injured, hanging off the side of a bus which was being pursued by police. The deep graze on her leg needed medical attention, a clean dressing, but the only car available was sporty without adequate room on the backseats. I was in no fit state to drive, so in a flash of unnerving planning, a friend had whisked away to an accident & emergency ward, in my car. We were stranded here for inestimable period. The sun was blazing with little shade, I couldn’t contemplate straying too far, eager to see my little red car returned safely.
I needn’t have worried, but understandably I did, I was a naïve 18-year-old, laughable now that I considered myself grownup. Feelings of doubt haunt the intoxicated teenage mind, but to give this story a happy ending, the car returned with injured passenger in fine fettle, and I was rewarded a gift for my assistance, the pick-me-up I sorely needed. So, because my friends didn’t receive a similar package, I had no choice but to temporarily abandon them, and head to the DIY tent for a dose of their celebrated trancey house grooves.
And for that moment it was an amazing experience, yet I’d argue no more than previous raves, like Lechlade the previous weekend, and so, so many others. Every time it just got bigger, but not necessarily better, Castlemorton was the breaking point, and for this, it deserves to be the one historically recorded and remembered. Though in turn we should use the anniversary of it to reminisce on the era as a whole, and the “happy daze” of our youth.
Rave continued regardless of the Criminal Justice Bill, albeit it took a shot in the leg, dispersing the scene into localised events, or, more agreeable to society, the great pay raves. But the most important factor of the importance of Castlemorton was the international media exposure, and the new ruling forcing sound systems to exile into Europe, for this only caused Britain’s enthusiastic tenet and attitude toward rave to go global.
In turn its effects on musical progression, the aesthetics of festival design, fashion, politics, and resurgence of counterculture are undeniably prominent today, and for those who attended this particular eruption, they’ll always make some fucking noise about Castlemorton; a raver’s Mecca; deservedly.
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