The history of illegal raves, and why they’ve been making a comeback

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The closure of nightclubs and other music venues in response to the coronavirus pandemic has led to the return of a controversial cultural phenomenon that first appeared in Britain during the late 1980s.

Up and down the country, illegal raves have been talking place in disused airfields, forests and abandoned warehouses, despite police and public safety warnings.

In July, police were unable to shutdown a “quarantine rave” near Bath that was attended by 3,000 people, and during the same month a 6,000-person strong rave in Manchester hit the headlines after police reported three stabbings, a rape and an overdose death.

Events such as these were outlawed in 1994 by The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which defines an illegal rave as 20 or more people “gathering on land in the open air” with music “that includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats,” at a level where it is loud enough to cause “serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality”.

But when did unlicensed parties like this start, and why did they become illegal in the first place?

To answer that question, we need to go back to the 1980s, and to Britain under Margaret Thatcher.

“There’s no such thing as society”

Serving as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, Margret Thatcher’s neoliberal policies set the societal backdrop for the rise of rave culture.

Thatcher’s promotion of free markets and individualism over workers’ rights and state support saw the rich get richer and the poor become worse off than ever.

Proclaiming that “there’s no such thing as society,” her policies destroyed whole communities and pitted individuals against each other in a race to the top.

Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year reign as Prime Minister saw Britain shift to a free-market, small-state economy.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

By the time Thatcher was elected for a 3rd consecutive term in 1987, a sense of apathy had spread amongst a generation of young people, who longed to break out of the ruthless, individualistic, competition-driven world she had created but felt powerless to change anything.

Acid house arrives in Britain

While Thatcher was busy dismantling the state, a new kind of music was rapidly growing in popularity in Britain.

Characterised by a four-to-the-floor beat and high tempo, house, acid house and techno arrived on our shores from DJs in America. By tinkering with synthesizers and drum machines in their houses, DJs in Chicago and Detroit started a musical revolution.

The decline of the manufacturing industry in both these cities had left many people without work and struggling to get by. This new music, which came predominantly from working-class, black DJs, provided an escape for people left behind by the proliferation of free markets. The underground, all-night parties it brought with it provided a space where people from racial and sexual minorities could congregate safely and without judgement.

By 1987, acid house was a firmly established part of the British cultural scene. Politicians hated it and young people could not get enough.

Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s “Jack Your Body” climbed to the top of the charts in the UK and thousands of people flocked to venues like Manchester’s legendary Hacienda to get their acid house fix.

The Hacienda in Manchester, known as the “people’s palace,” helped fuel the rise of acid house music and rave culture in the UK. Photo: Wikipedia.

An essential ingredient for the acid house scene’s success was the happy, loved-up state of consciousness unleashed by drugs such as LSD and ecstasy.

While government propaganda warned of irreversible brain damage and laws threatened severe punishment, these drugs became almost universally popular among young ravers, who longed to escape from the grim reality of Thatcherism for just a few hours and feel a sense of connection towards other people, rather than competition.

With its underground nature and rebellious roots, the acid house movement created a  community that challenged the values of Thatcher’s Britain. A disillusioned generation had finally found its expression.

“The Second Summer of Love” and “M25 raves”

Dubbed “The Second Summer of Love” in homage to the 1967 “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, the summer of 1989 saw an explosion in ecstasy-fuelled, unlicensed outdoor parties across the UK.

Making the most of the hottest UK summer for 300 years and links to the home counties provided by the new M25 motorway, young people flocked to huge acid house parties organised by established promoters in overgrown fields and abandoned warehouses in the countryside.

These were not simply small-scale raves; they were sophisticated events with professional sound-systems and state-of-the-art lighting.

Initially, the police took a relatively lenient approach when confronted with these parties, but the tide began to turn when journalists from The Sun infiltrated a rave at a disused aircraft hanger in Berkshire, which was attended by 11,000 people.

The next day, this “drug crazy acid party” was front-page news, sparking moral outrage amongst many people in Britain, who demanded an immediate crackdown and heavier policing.

Investigative journalists at The Sun infiltrated an 11,000-person rave in Berkshire and broke the story to the country. Photo: Wikimedia.

In 1990, the UK Government passed the Entertainment (increased Penalties) Act, allowing fines of up to £20,000 for hosting illegal raves or parties.

Organisers got around this law however by keeping the location of events secret until the very last minute. Ravers would gather at service stations and wait for details to be broadcast on pirate radio stations or on the voicemail of a secret “party line” phone number.

Castlemorton Common

The real crackdown came after a rave that took place on Castlemorton Common in Worcestershire in 1992. What was supposed to be just a small festival for travellers turned into the biggest illegal rave in UK history.

The word was spread by an answering machine message: “Right, listen up revellers. It’s happening now and for the rest of the weekend, so get yourself out of the house and on to Castlemorton Common… Be there, all weekend, hardcore.”

20,000 people turned up. The police were powerless to shut it down.

The media interest and controversy surrounding the event, and concerns regarding the police’s inability to stop it, inspired the legislation that would eventually become the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

This legislation expanded the definition of illegal raves, and gave police enhanced powers to deal with them.

The return of the rave?

Although they have hit the headlines again during lockdown, illegal raves never really went away. Most modern raves, however, are as underground and as private as possible, unlike some of the massive events of the 80s and early 90s.

Last month, renowned house and techno DJ, Carl Cox, told Sky News that the surge in illegal raves sweeping the UK is down to young people feeling “frustrated” that there is still no timeline for nightclubs re-opening, despite lockdown having been lifted.

On May 30th, the UK’s first socially-distanced legal rave took place in Nottingham, where ravers were given face masks and hand sanitiser upon arrival told to stay two metres apart.

Many in the music industry think that such events could be the way forward if we are to avoid a third “Summer of Love”.

As we come out of lockdown, could providing a safe, controlled space for dance music revellers to get their fix be the answer?

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