Raves from the grave: lost 90s subculture is back in the spotlight

It is perhaps one of the most ignored subcultures in modern British history, but rave music and the free party movement of the early 90s is coming back into focus.

Over the next few months, a series of films, exhibitions, memoirs and podcasts will reappraise free parties and the crackdown on them by John Major’s government, as well as their modern echoes.

“We are in a somewhat similar political situation,” said Aaron Trinder, whose documentary film Free Party: A Folk History will be released next year. “We’ve had seemingly endless years of Tory government, which is creating new rules on trespass and a new bill [the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill] that is going to criminalise protest. It’s squaring the circle that began with the Public Order Act of 1986 that attacked travellers, then the Criminal Justice Act of 1994. There are a lot of parallels and people feel it.”

Trinder’s film will be released to coincide with the anniversary of the Castlemorton Common festival, a week-long free event that was a watershed in the battle between the government and what ministers called “new age” travellers and ravers.

“It was multiple different scenes and cultures that came together in one key moment,” said Trinder, who has interviewed dozens of people involved, including the organisers of sound systems and free parties such as Spiral Tribe, Bedlam and DiY. “That combination made it very immediate and special, and possibly scared the powers that be.”

Urban ravers had run out of places to go after the flurry of acid house parties in 1988 and 1989, which had been effectively shut down by the Pay Party Unit, a police taskforce, he said. In response, some set up illegal free parties in disused warehouses and squats that were harder to police – “empty spaces created by the post-Thatcherite death of industry”, Trinder said.

The key moment was the 1990 Glastonbury festival, when the free party sound systems encountered travellers, the inheritors of 1960s hippy culture, who would travel around the UK to free festivals. They too had seen their lifestyles criminalised. The low point for them was the notorious so-called Battle of the Beanfield in 1985 when about 1,300 police clashed violently with 600 travellers near Stonehenge.

“They all met at Glastonbury 1990 and it was a lightbulb going off,” Trinder said. “’You’ve got this amazing new music and excitement and mad new clothes and you’ve got nowhere to go. But we’ve got the tents, the countryside, and the guts to take a site in the middle of nowhere.”

A scene from the notorious week-long free festival at Castlemorton Common in Worcestershire in 1992
A scene from the notorious week-long free festival at Castlemorton Common in Worcestershire in 1992 Photograph: Alan Tash Lodge

The flurry of free parties became the topic of a tabloid storm that culminated at Castlemorton Common in May 1992. Police in Wiltshire had refused to let the Spiral Tribe convoy stop in the county, so it continued into Worcestershire to Castlemorton.

“It was the high-water mark of the movement,” Trinder said. “The amazing thing is the incredible diversity – there is every colour, creed, race, age, subculture all in one field. City people, country people, travellers, punks, ravers, posh people from the fancy school down the road. It was probably the last unifying youth movement.”

Trinder, 49, was a DJ on the fringes of the free party movement before he became a film-maker. “I always thought ‘why does no one talk about that period when this was the lead on the Nine O’Clock News’,” he said.

Others agree. Tom Latchem, a former TalkSport presenter, launched ROAR: The Rave Channel last year to interview some of the DJs and music-makers at the heart of hardcore and jungle, from Fabio and Grooverider to Jumping Jack Frost and Luna-C.

“There wasn’t anything like it,” Latchem said. “Not many people were talking about it and I’ve spoken to DJs who had never really done any kind of interview at all. It was all at risk of being lost.” Now the podcast is being archived in the British Library. Other podcasts have sprung up in the past year, including Rave to the Grave by Vivian Host.

Matthew Smith, a photographer from Bristol who documented many of the free parties, has created an archive of photographs from the period. His new book Full On. Non-Stop. All Over is published tomorrow and looks at the post-rave club culture that emerged after Spiral Tribe and others were forced out of the UK.

“At the end of the day people love to go out and celebrate and be with each other,” he said. “I just wanted to remind people what it was like before smartphones took over.”

The Museum of Youth Culture will stage an exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry next summer. Rave and electronic music will be a major part of it, according to Jamie Brett, the museum’s creative projects manager. “Rave culture is our most well-covered collection, from 1988 to 1994,” he said. “Lockdown has made people very nostalgic – we’ve had 4,000 people … contribute material.”

Interest is not only coming from fortysomethings who are nostalgic for their youth, according to Latchem.

“It’s surprising how much is coming from people under 30,” he said. “There’s a lot of young producers making old school hardcore and jungle now, people like DJ Semah, who’s just 14 and got into hardcore after hearing a Prodigy track on a CD he found in his parents’ garage. Now he’s releasing his own tunes.” Illegal raves are being staged for the young, he added. “There’s a real groundswell happening.”

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