A while ago I caught a brilliant Radio 4 documentary called ‘Rave: The Beat goes on’. It chartered the path over 25 years of a rave collective and sound system that became notorious for putting on ‘free’ parties in the early 90’s, many of which went on for days.
As the narrator comments, these were people who had ‘a serious commitment to freedom’. One of the founders, (who is now 53). has never had a ‘proper’ job, has never signed on, and for a long time had no fixed abode, living and partying out the back of a truck on the road.
They thought they had found a new way of living, powered by ‘music, dancing and love’. And drugs…lots of drugs…
This group of reactionary hedonists, sought to eschew the traditions of the mainstream – the life that is considered normal. They lived off grid and partied, all in a quest for a utopian freedom not countenanced by their parents generation.
They organised parties in squats, warehouses, festivals and fields. They joined forces with a particularly demonised faction of the time, so called ‘new age travellers’. And they believed in one love (not free love), and that where possible the party should never end…
As their popularity and notoriety grew, so did the establishment resistance. The police began taking a keen interest and started shutting down their parties. In 1992, at Castlemorton in Worcestershire, an impromptu gathering of sound systems including Spiral Tribe became a watershed moment.
The party went on for seven days, and hit the main national tv news which only helped swell numbers up to some 40,000 people. Up to that point, to some extent the travellers had relied on the goodwill of landowners to maintain their way of life. And the sound system needed a little restraint from the police to exist. When things got this big, noisy, long, and messy it became too much for the establishment to ignore.
As the party wound down, the police arrested members of the Spiral Tribe for disturbance of the peace, and impounded their equipment. The event became a cause célèbre for the tory government, who used it to justify a wider crack down on the free party scene and traveller movement. This eventually led to the Criminal Justice act in 1994 that notoriously gave police officers the power to remove people from events at which music “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.
Yes kids, that really happened….
So far this is all a matter of public record. What really interested me about the documentary was what happened next. What happens when the free party is over? What happens when kids come along, life moves on, and the notoriety inevitably dangles a few monetary shaped carrots?
Using money from a record deal, for a while they carried on living the dream, this time taking the newly acquired studio and sound system around Europe, introducing techno to grateful audiences in the newly opened up east.
However, parts of the group started splintering off, going back to England, engaging with schools and normal life, indadvertedly getting kids hooked on a diet of regular warm baths. Members started doing paid gigs using the name, in conflict with their ‘free’ ethos, and an ill fated tour of the US eventually split the group in two. And so the story ended…
Except it didn’t. In 2012 the members reformed around a new label SP23, a name devised to both reference and differentiate from their past in the ‘illegal’ free party scene. They make music and do gigs for money, at ticketed events, and when away from home, stay in hotels. The truck convoys have gone, they have meetings, and by all measures have become a business, albeit a workers cooperative business, who make music and still put on parties.
Interestingly, one of their founders tells how in reality this actually has given them more freedom not less. Being off grid, and on the road sounds great and free. But the reality is, it was a ‘bit of a drudge’. They constantly had to think about where to get food, money, water and diesel, and in the winter it was a constant battle simply to keep warm. They now mostly live in the south of France, have showers, and clean socks. Their kids have grown up and some of them have joined the group as artist and DJ’s.
When they were young, they thought that their version of love and freedom meant having to live outside the system and the law. Over 25 years they describe how they each worked out their own relationship with freedom. In the end the thing they cite as having kept them together over 25 years was a ‘true and sincere love and respect for each other.’ What they really wanted most of all, was to be with each other.
So if their version of freedom means doing what you love, with people you love and respect….that’s good enough for me.