"If They Don’t Let Us Do Them Safely And Legally, They’ll Happen Regardless" – The Battle Over North East Rave Culture Rages On
I went to my first rave back in my late teens, and ever since I’ve always wound up talking to some “old school” raver in a field/barn/warehouse in the middle of nowhere, eager to explain to me in full detail the decline of the rave scene. “Yeah man, tonight’s pretty good, but it’ll never be like the old days.” If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard words to that effect, I would be a very rich man. But is there any truth in the claims of the spaced-out party veterans? And if raves are dying, who’s the murderer?
I still remember the buzz I got from my first rave experience. The anticipation of waiting for a phone number (or party-line) directing us to the location, not knowing what to expect when a friend and I turned up to our first illegal party. It wasn’t much of a success: around 50 people (at most) gathered around a small stack of speakers, and the fun came to an end after only a few hours once the local police turned up in a van, threatening to arrest trespassers and seize equipment. But it didn’t matter; I was hooked. As someone with a passion for underground dance music, I’d found an outlet that fulfilled my needs. I’d grown sick of nights out in traditional nightclubs: Top 40 chart music, piss-flooded toilets, fights in smoking areas and a stench of M-Cat. Not for me.
Raves were the opposite, and I wanted to be as involved as much possible. Back in the early 1990s the UK had a groundbreaking and easily accessible rave movement, promoting artists who would later go on to dominate dance music. Steve Lawler, owner of renowned house music record label VIVa MUSiC, made his name playing at free parties under the M42 motorway as a youth. However, living in the North-East of England in 2010, there wasn’t much of a scene to be involved in. That’s until I met Peter Craig, founder of Seven Sounds.
“A friend used to tell me about free parties he’d gone to in London which sparked my curiosity about it all, then I started to look into doing something along those lines myself. It started off as a small group of people putting on music anywhere we could,” says Pete.
“The first ever party was in a swimming pool in Durham, 2009. No idea why we picked the location. We had no crowd; no name or previous parties behind us, so it was a bit of an odd move looking back. Armed police raided it after five hours: all the equipment was seized but then later given back to us”. It was clear already that the police didn’t take too kindly to Pete’s efforts to fill the void. “Threatening to shoot as people were on the roof was absolutely mental. The inspector changed the situation when he arrived, and allowed everyone to leave. I remember him saying that his kids may even attend one of my events in the future. The whole armed and threatening to shoot business was mental and not needed, being violent with people who just wanted to leave was pretty out of order.”
The word rave has gained almost infamous connotations since the days of Acid House, Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. The propaganda that spread among the media painted the picture of an almost occult movement, fuelled by drugs and destined for no good. There was no occultism. There were drugs, that can’t be denied; but they were there to make dancers in tune with the music and on a level with each other. And in all my years of going to raves, I’ve never seen a fight between pill-heads. Plenty of hugs, handshakes and pats on the back, but never anything sinister. Pressure from the Conservative government and mainstream media culminated in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, giving police officers the right to arrest anyone involved in the organisation or attendance of an unlicensed party playing “electronic, repetitive beats”. In the words of The Streets’ Mike Skinner, “To the government, I stick my middle finger up with regards to the criminal justice bill.”
Almost 20 years down the line, and it’s blatant that the police still see raves as a threat. Pete faced constant problems from authorities, but remained persistent and strived to provide likeminded people with a means to come together through Seven Sounds. Deciding to put on parties further south proved no easier: “At one event, a nightclub got wind of the party, and sent someone along as a double-agent to give the police the exact location. We’d taken months cleaning this abandoned nightclub out. A crack-den. It’s not often you meet people who are willing to pick up used heroin needles and removes bottles of piss and bags of shit to make for a safe party.”
By this time, Seven Sounds had become a well-known name throughout the party scene. I was helping Pete at the time, mainly driving around the country searching for quarries and barns we’d found on Google Maps: anywhere suitable for a rave. I remember packing my poor Volkswagen Lupo full of sound equipment and driving miles along country roads and dirt tracks, scraping the bodywork as we went. But the money and damage to our own property wasn’t important; putting on a party better than the last for the hundreds of followers was the only objective.
By the time it came to the last two illegal Seven parties, Pete and I knew that the bubble was soon to burst. Fake Facebook accounts, allegedly ran by the police, tracked our moves on social networking; officers paid visits to our houses. I received a letter from the police to say that my car had been associated with illegal activity, and was constantly getting stopped. We thought nothing of it, and carried on regardless.
“We setup a party in a three-storey student place, five sound-systems in one house,” Pete says. “We had to turn away over 200 people, there wasn’t an inch of space left in the house. Ultimately, it ruined what Seven was about: the location meant that everyone who we didn’t want to find out about us; wannabe gangsters; idiots; dealers ended up sticking their noses in over the next few events we ran. The last proper party was in an abandoned aircraft hangar on the Yorkshire moors: over 500 people. We only had two DJs due to mass amounts of people being stopped by the police, although they did help us bring out equipment down once everyone had been cleared. It was at this point I started to lose faith in running seven.”
Pete decided to go down a new route, a way that could allow the movement to continue enjoying events and promoting underground culture: going legal. Rave communities provide art and procure talent from within their circles: from the DJs that wouldn’t get a break in nightclubs, to the producers of the diverse genres of music that definitely wouldn’t have their tracks played in the local boozer.
“We submitted a Temporary Event Notice to the police and council for a warehouse party in 2012, the license was accepted and there was a similar event in the same location a week before ours. On the day, the police came down to talk to us and implied that we had no license and were acting illegally. Once they realised we had the licenses in place, they got the fire service to evaluate the building, shutting it down an hour before it was meant to start due to the building being unfit for use; even though the owners of the warehouse were themselves members of fire service.”
No matter how much he played by the book, Pete’s efforts were met with total disregard from various police forces. “A year later under a new name, we put on an event at a nightclub. This time the police decided to raid it, with 16 officers. They found nothing so left, we lost our money and Seven died.”
Pete has his own views when it comes to who, or what, is killing raves, “I think licensing laws need to be drastically changed. We’re not in Thatcher’s Britain anymore, and the media needn’t portray rave culture in a negative light. The licensing act kills culture and expression. It makes it extremely difficult to put on temporary events, pushing people to do things illegally. Councils and police forces should work with organisers to put on safe and free events. The UK started a movement that’s still going today with music scene that is like no other. It’s a culture, a way of life that people aren’t willing to let go of.”
The story of Seven isn’t a one-off either. More recently I’ve followed the progress of Unknown, a rave movement in the North East. After attending a number of their illegal parties and their legal club nights, I made the acquaintance Chris Bungoni, one of the organisers of the events: “Going to college with a lad who told me about the raves further south. For the first party, I asked each DJ for 15 phone numbers of friends who would come, and they became the first people invited. That way we could guarantee everyone was there for the same reason: the music. It was never intended to become a big deal, that happened by accident.”
Because of the lack of raves in the North East, Unknown caused a stir in a short period of time. Often holding their events in scenic and secluded locations, they attempted to create outdoor parties that were safe for ravers, without causing a nuisance to the surrounding area. “I remember we had a run-in with a Nature Reserve ranger after he’d received a complaint from a dog-walker who’d seen us one time,” says Chris, “by the time he got there, the party was over and he praised us for the cleanliness of the area. But you don’t hear about that, the word rave only ever causes negative feelings.”
After a few successful nights, the police began to crack down on Unknown. “They asked us to make things legal; they said if we did our homework and came up with a legitimate business plan they’d be on our side,” says Chris. So they did exactly that, “when I went for the first hearing with the council and the police, I had no idea how in-depth it would be. I owned up to being unprepared, but made it clear that I wanted to work with them in order to create something positive for the area. But those responsible for the events license made it clear that their intentions were to ensure that our plan didn’t go through”. Unknown’s reputation suffered another setback when the local media got wind of the story. Chris says, “when I saw the press at the hearing, I knew it was tits up. I know what happens in the papers, everything gets twisted, but at least we got the chance to put across our side of the story a little.”
Unperturbed by the blatant objections of the local authorities, Unknown set about creating a bombproof business plan. “They pretended to be on our side but they’re not,” claims Chris, “I’ve spent months working with experienced charity event organisers, security staff, CCTV companies. The police are trying to make out that we’re not working in unison with the owner of the warehouse we plan to use, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re doing everything physically possible to make something positive come from this.”
I ask Chris what the effects the actions and behaviour of councils and police forces will have on raves: “They’re going to make people rebel. The police don’t leave anybody an option. It’s hard to put it into words for them to understand: if they don’t let us do them safely and legally, they’ll happen regardless. I’m not saying it’s going to be us doing them, but hundreds of people have had a taste, and that’s not going to go away.” So does that mean Unknown will revert back to putting on illegal raves? “Ha… That’s a question innit,” Chris replies.
The rave scene is far from dead, despite the distinct efforts from the authorities. There have always been individuals keen to point out that nothing’s been the same since the 90s, and they’re right. The Criminal Justice Bill, recently introduced dispersal orders and other laws have made it increasingly difficult for illegal raves to take place. A veteran rave organiser, who goes by the alias of Milk the Cow, has even gone to the trouble of writing a concise how-to guide for holding raves within the restrictions of the law. The man himself politely refused to deliver his personal views, “I’ve retired,” being his only comment.
Strong-willed groups continue to stick it to the system in pursuit of a good time. Passionate organisers, DJs and producers persevere at the risk of arrest, prosecution and seizure of equipment solely to provide an alternative to the typical city centre piss-up tradition. Chris says, “It’s as if it’s a necessity to have an ego if you’re in town. Our followers don’t want to have to deal with looking over their shoulder for trouble all night. We don’t want to down three trebles for two quid each and then crack someone. We just want to dance.” The rave scene isn’t dying; it continues to thrive regardless of what hurdles those involved must overcome.