Saturday, 21 February 2009


Joseph Grant investigates the local free party scene...

It’s your typical Saturday night in the city of Salford: cold, unexciting and bleak. The aluminous aura of Manchester city centre looks very inviting from the top floor of a tower block in Pendleton, and although I am only a fifteen minute drive away, the two neighbouring areas seem worlds apart. The high-rise blocks, council estates, and numerous abandoned buildings that litter the Salford landscape are a harsh reminder of how much this once prevalent industrial centre of the north has degenerated over the years, succumbing to commercial competition from overseas, and national economic instability. Tonight however, I am genuinely excited to be in Salford.

Over the past week, rumours have been spreading about an illegal rave that is taking place somewhere near the university. The supposed organisers are well established in the Manchester scene, so our expectations are high. According to some sources we can expect several rigs playing an eclectic mix of drum and bass, dubstep, techno, punk, metal and even ska (an assortment of which I have never come across before).

Many, many phone calls later, I eventually find out where the rave is being held and after a short walk through the dreary streets I arrive at an abandoned hotel. An assorted mass of people ranging from hippies, students, punks, scallies and just plain looking weirdo’s can be seen bundling through a tiny door at the back of the derelict building. I patiently wait in line to enter the squat.

The arduous procedures a raver must endure in order to get to a party is something I have always found very intriguing. You often end up waiting around for hours making an endless amount of phone calls, driving further and further into the abyss in your clapped out Fiesta with nothing but the most absurd directions to guide you to your destination. For example: “What you want to do right is...errr…umm…take a left turn after the small bush that looks a bit like that bloke that used to present Blue Peter”. Carl from Essex, a keen raver for the past five years, describes the process as “frustrating but exciting at the same time” and “never sure if your night is going to be a complete disappointment or if it will be one of the best of your life.”

Eventually, however, I emerge inside the desolate building to witness what seems like hundreds of people packed in like sardines, manically pogoing to the ominous and sludgy beats of Dj Stenchman’s dubstep. The rumours about this party were indeed true. The ground floor is divided by two separate speaker systems and a third rig is being set up on the top floor. It seems quite an impressive feat when one considers the amount of organisation that goes into these events. Considering that the majority of the organisers are strictly non-profit, it makes you wonder what compels them to keep arranging them, week after week, and year after year.

“It’s not about making money for us and it never will be. We’ll leave that to the clubs in town” says Martin, a party organiser based in Manchester. “The reason I’ve been putting these parties on for such a long time is for the love of the music and people that come along. The atmosphere of a free party is like no other I’ve come across. Everyone is there for the sole purpose of having a good time and not be constricted by any rules or regulations.” Martin, who has been involved in the scene since the mid-nineties, explains how it has changed and developed overtime. “I think there has definitely been a shift in the overall vibe of parties, especially in the past ten years or so.” He goes on to say that “the whole, loved up, ecstasy driven thing has kind of faded away, but that’s not to say that raves are intimidating places to be now. I guess there’s just more of a blasé attitude amongst the crowd.”

When asked about the musical developments within rave culture, Martin claims that the music has become a lot more “dark and aggressive” with the rise of “hard techno and dubstep, which seem to be the preferred choice for all the party goers at the moment.” He also claims that this is “probably linked to the drugs that are being taken nowadays. It’s gone from everyone taking ecstasy, to everyone taking ketamine, which have completely opposite effects.” Although some of the factors may have changed since the original acid house warehouse parties of the late eighties, it seems that the raves of today are still as hedonistic as they were twenty years ago, which is one of the main reasons for much of the negative press that the rave scene has been victim to.

Drug use amongst counter-culture movements is not exactly ground breaking news, but it makes me question the motives behind the whole free party ‘ethos’. Is the entire rave scene built upon the self-indulgent desires of drug fuelled, disenfranchised youths as the media would have us believe? Or is there a genuine empathy to create an autonomous zone where people can freely express themselves in whatever manner they please without fear of persecution? A political activist and avid raver, who wishes to remain anonymous, who I questioned regarding this suggests that “drugs are an ingrained revolutionary aspect of dance culture an offer us an explanation of the genres longevity and popularity” and that “drugs are the last stand of rebellion in the United Kingdom and they are vital to the survival of dance culture.”

These statements are fairly bold and are certainly subject to debate but it does make you wonder about the co-existence between drugs and dance music. I find it almost impossible to imagine the Madchester and London squat scenes ever coming to fruition without the introduction of ecstasy. “Drugs and sub-cultures are so inexplicably linked”, says Martin. “People who seek alternate lifestyle choices often want a fresh perspective on their overall outlook, and I guess drugs are one way for them to achieve that.” When asked about the dependence of the free party movement on recreational drug use he replies “it’s not as simple as that. People are getting really sick of the drunken yob mentality and boring nightlife that you find in the town centres. Clubs and pubs are getting more expensive, and the music is becoming less and less diverse.”

I can’t say I whole heartedly agree with that final statement, with regards to Manchester at least, where alternative music seems to flourish. I can appreciate Martin’s point though, considering my own personal introduction into free parties was purely sheer boredom at the local nightlife in my small seaside town in Essex. Even the occasional night out in the larger, nearby towns proved to be bland and unexciting, which makes me wonder if we would see a decrease in the popularity of raves if the more ‘traditional’ club scene catered for my diverse tastes? “It’s a possibility, but not very likely” explains Martin. “They have their target audience, the norms!” he laughs. “Most of the free party crowd are pretty hardcore; they won’t give in so easily. It’s not just about musical preference.”

A seminal moment in the history of rave was the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994. The sections regarding raves and trespassing was considered by some to be a reaction to the Castle Morton ‘mega-rave’ two years previously where up to 40,000 people where said to have attended. According to the bill, a rave is defined as a gathering of a 100 or more people, where amplified music is played “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”

“The law hasn’t really changed anything” according to Martin. “Organisers have had to wise up a lot by knowing the law and their rights but it won’t stop us from putting parties on.” To me the laws that prohibit raves are completely ridiculous and unjust, and trying to outlaw so called ‘anti-social behaviour’ such as this seems like a waste of time. In my opinion, ravers should be regarded with high esteem as the people who actually stand up to political legislation and commercial pressures whilst the majority of us sit back and do nothing. Ravers are remarkable in the fact that they do this without having any real political agenda. They merely want to be left in peace for two nights a week to escape the harsh realities of every day life. Is that so much to ask?

One thing is for certain, free parties are as relevant as they were twenty years ago and I am fairly confident they will be around for a long time yet. I just hope the masses eventually realize that they are not to be feared, and most importantly that the government realizes that compromise is the best solution to a problem.

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