As press and police report nights spent seizing sound systems, chasing down revellers, and
breaking up mass gatherings in woods and fields, many are asking whether we’re about to
see the return of the true UK Rave scene. But if these irresponsible acts of rebellion end up
costing lives and endangering communities, would it set back the progress of the Dance
scene after the decades it’s taken to be recognised for its cultural value?
The age of Raves came about in response to decades of austerity and social deprivation, it
was a true movement of the people, with nights of music and excess orchestrated on
landlines and answering machines. Now that the era has safely become a myth, the
image of rave is still summoned up every summer by promoters and advertisers flogging
tickets to corporately sponsored festivals. But at the time, news and public opinion were not
on the side of the ravers.
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."
Already portrayed as drug-addled hooligans and criminalised by the press, the decisive
moment came in the summer of ’92, when twenty-thousand partiers descended on
Castlemorton Common. The legendary moment in the history of UK music came about
solely through the spread of a single 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."
When twenty-thousand people can be called to action by that simple message, it should be
clear to see that there was already something in the culture waiting to be released. But
rather than examine the big picture, the government just came down even harder. Raves
were effectively criminalised in 1994 with the passage of new amendments to the Public
Order Act. The same law was used to arrest four men on a Saturday morning last month
after they were caught packing away sound equipment in the aftermath of a rave of over
two hundred people on the outskirts of Kirkby. They claimed they’d returned that morning to clean up, and that just like Castlemorton, they never realised so many people would turn up.
COVID Raves continue to pop up across the country, with organisers using Whatsapp,
Snapchat and Signal to make plans and evade the police. Despite the danger of the virus,
potentially thousands of bored and isolated people have been willing to risk infection for
some music and human contact. In fact, in some cases, the risk becomes part of the appeal,
with the Guardian reporting on organised lockdown parties marketed on danger, exclusivity, and glamour while charging £10 for entry and offering no guarantee of safety.
This kind of profiteering is nothing new, the corporatisation of the underground is the price
Dance culture has been paying for wider recognition in culture. Promoters tout the edgy
credentials of DIY artists to appeal to the mainstream. Historic clubs are paved over while
property investors spray-paint empty warehouses as venues with an under-the-radar
flavour, raising the neighbourhood’s cultural value so they can be shuttered and turned into
COVID Raves may have brought the darkest parts of the culture to the forefront, fetishizing
illegality and exploiting the need for something to look forward in a fearful time. In June,
two raves in Manchester saw three stabbings, an alleged sexual assault, and the death from
overdose of a 20-year-old man. Tragedies at the best of times, but with the NHS and emergency services as stretched as they are, the ripple effects may be even more serious. On top of that, consent, safety, and the relationship between drugs and club culture are all concerns that the Dance community has only been able to start openly addressing as we’ve become established and created our own institutions. Now it’s clear how the prospect of losing what’s been built would come at the cost of so much progress.
Rather than providing a hopeful escape from lockdown, one raver was quoted saying that
there was a sense of nihilism to the raves, blaming the governments’ irresponsible
quarantine guidelines. "You can’t go see your nana, but you can go to Primark? People are
thinking: if you can go to Primark and buy yourself some thongs for a quid, you can go get
some Es and get down a field and get out of your head."
That kind of thinking definitely rings true to the people in entertainment and hospitality,
who had been left with no support and little income for three months. After holding out for
the recent announcement of a £1.6 billion support package for the arts, it’s unclear how far
the money will go and how it will be divided. For context, the culture sector contributes £8.5
billion to the UK economy annually, generating £2.6 billion in tax revenue, five times what
costs in public funding. With the government’s record of prioritising big businesses and private investors over arts and communities, it seems unlikely that the bailout will trickle all the way down to every independent artist and venue that needs it.
With the supposedly ‘phased’ re-openings of bars leading to the kind of 'chaos' seen in
London last weekend the nihilistic view is that a second wave of infections is already inevitable. If that’s the case, we’re left waiting to see how the government responds. Whether a crackdown follows, and COVID Raves join BLM protests on the list of easy scapegoats; or if lessons can be learned from the past, and attempts made to address the deeper issues.
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