Party Lines: Dance Music and the Making of Modern Britain 
by Ed Gillett.
Picador, 464 pp., £20, August 2023, 978 1 5290 7064 4
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On​ 21 July 1990 a rave ended in the biggest mass arrest in British history. To get to Love Decade, as the party was called, you first had to call a telephone hotline, which disclosed the location of the meeting point. From there, hundreds of cars made their way to an empty warehouse on the outskirts of Leeds. Having used bolt cutters to break in, the organisers installed a makeshift sound system, transforming the space into a club for the night. The helicopter overhead was the first sign of trouble. At 2 a.m. officers from the West Yorkshire Police descended in riot gear and forced their way into the venue. One dancer remembers the police ‘dealing with us just like the miners. They were blatantly attacking all of the partygoers. Everyone was pilled-up and loved-up and just wanted to dance.’ A total of 836 people were arrested, mostly for breach of the peace and drug offences. Only eight were eventually charged; one DJ, Rob Tissera, was sentenced to three months for inciting a riot and the ‘dishonest abstraction of electricity’.

The raid capped two years of escalating tension between ravers and the police. Acid house had exploded in 1987, the year Ecstasy started to become popular in Britain’s clubs. Dancefloors swayed to chopped-up drum samples and euphoric synthesiser melodies, to the sleazy pump of Chicago house and the cyborg bleeps of early UK techno. But acid house wasn’t a genre of dance music so much as a new way of experiencing it: audiences dressed down, parties ran all night and – so dancers reported – social divisions disintegrated, helped along by the empathetic rush of the new drug.

Raves were initially met with curiosity by local police officers stumbling across warehouses full of smiley, chatty people. But as the parties grew, they were soon deemed a threat. In 1988, the Sun’s Bizarre column released its own ‘Acid House T-shirt’ (‘It’s groovy and cool’); a few weeks later, after the death of Janet Mayes, a 21-year-old woman who had taken two Ecstasy tablets, the paper called for ‘evil acid barons’ to be shot. In July 1990, a week before Love Decade, Parliament passed the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Bill – known as the Bright Bill, after the MP who introduced it – which increased the maximum penalties for throwing illegal parties: promoters now faced fines as high as £20,000 and jail sentences of up to six months. Specialist police teams like the Pay Party Unit, which was based in Kent but operated across the country, were tasked with disrupting rave networks. The leader of the unit, Ken Tappenden, used many of the tactics that had been deployed during the miners’ strike, such as setting up roadblocks to halt convoys en route to raves.

By the end of 1990, illegal warehouse parties had been virtually eradicated. Constrained by the Bright Bill and eager to shake off organised criminals who had infiltrated the scene, promoters started putting on unticketed events in the open air. Ravers joined in a raggedy coalition with the New Travellers, whose knowledge of England’s green spaces proved crucial to evading the police. Out of this emerged the ‘free party’: an outdoor gathering that broadly resembled the free festivals of the 1970s and 1980s, but with space rock and campfires swapped for cutting-edge electronic music and supercharged sound systems. The fun lasted a while longer before the final crackdown. On a May bank holiday in 1992, several traveller convoys passing through the West Country were herded over to West Mercia, where local police had little experience of dealing with raves. The super-convoy converged on Castlemorton Common, just outside Malvern. Sound systems were set up, blasting out the tough new sounds of breakbeat hardcore and techno round the clock. Within hours the party was too big to shut down. As word spread, helped by news coverage, thousands more people made their way to the site; by the end of the week, around thirty thousand had gathered. Local residents were appalled; up until this point free parties had usually been held far from towns and cities. ‘I have never seen such filth and degradation,’ one councillor fumed. ‘These people have turned Castlemorton into a cesspit, a human rubbish tip.’

What was it about raves that had to be stopped? Breaking into warehouses was illegal, but there were already laws for that. Ecstasy had been banned in the UK since 1977. And it couldn’t simply have been the power of the sound systems or the youth of the partygoers. Less than a month after Castlemorton, a huge licensed event called Fantazia was celebrated in the Daily Mirror as ‘Britain’s biggest ever rave’: ‘Ten hours of non-stop grooving made Saturday nights at the local disco seem as quaint as a Victorian tea party.’ For Ed Gillett, in Party Lines, Castlemorton marks not just the pinnacle of illegal rave culture but a pivotal moment in modern British social history, an event that threw centuries-old antagonisms into sharp relief: conflicts between commoner and landowner, nomad and settler, noise and tranquillity, the rural and the urban.

Party Lines begins with an account of the subcultures that faced harassment from police and local authorities in the 1970s and 1980s: hippie free festivals, Jamaican sound systems, the New Travellers. Gillett maps the political vectors of dance music from its inception in the 1980s, through its commercialisation around the turn of the century, to the ‘plague raves’ of the Covid era. The book is a refutation of the claim, sometimes heard on the left, that partying isn’t political: Gillett’s sweep through British countercultural history leaves little doubt that dancing has long been the target of state repression, especially when gay or Black people are doing it.

The founding legend of rave concerns the ‘Ibiza Four’: the DJs Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold, Johnny Walker and Nicky Holloway, who in 1987 went on holiday to Ibiza, took Ecstasy under the stars at the open-air club Amnesia, and watched DJ Alfredo play an unusually eclectic mix of pop, new wave, disco and US house as the sun came up. They came back to London and started their own parties, kickstarting the ‘second summer of love’ the following year: a time when dancers dressed in dungarees and baggy T-shirts, football hooligans laid down their arms, and smiley faces became the emblem of acid house.

All this is true, or true enough (even the bit about the football hooligans: members of West Ham’s Inter City Firm launched the pirate radio station Centreforce FM). But Gillett complicates the story. He points out that dance music didn’t suddenly arrive in Britain in 1987; house, imported from Chicago a few years earlier, already had a following, particularly in Northern hotspots like Blackburn and Manchester. The focus on Ecstasy has also tended to pathologise the phenomenon, as if it were the accidental side-effect of a chemistry experiment. There was even a control group: Gilles Peterson, now a veteran DJ on BBC 6 Music, went on the same trip to Ibiza but didn’t take a pill. On his return to the UK, he continued to play the same rare groove records he’d always played. The first half of Party Lines is packed with such nuggets: we learn that the Pay Party Unit’s logo was a police badge, its centre replaced by a smiley face with a line crossed through it; about the bulk order of tie-dye T-shirts billed to Scotland Yard ahead of an undercover trip to the Haçienda club in Manchester; and about the rave-inspired church service in Sheffield that turned out to be a sex cult.

By the start of the 1990s, the nationwide network of free parties was bringing urban ravers into contact with travellers, squatters, anarcho-punks, hunt saboteurs, peace activists and anti-road protesters: a loose scene with roots in the free festival movement. Thatcher’s government identified this motley coalition as politically dangerous, and the feeling was mutual. It wasn’t only that ravers’ fringe lifestyle was repugnant to many politicians and voters; it was also that a significant proportion of them had links to radical politics, from squatting to animal rights activism. (At the same time, plenty of rave organisers, like Sunrise promoter turned cybercriminal Tony Colston-Hayter, were straight-up capitalists.) When John Major launched his ‘Back to Basics’ campaign in 1993, ravers were an obvious target. A year later, his government passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which gave the police the power to shut down any nocturnal open-air gathering of more than a hundred people at which amplified music was played – specifically, ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’.

Just two paragraphs of the Criminal Justice Act mention raves. Even the sections targeting other public order offences – squatting, hunt sabotage, environmental protest – account for less than half the text. The remainder is dedicated to listing increased police powers, including legislation to remove criminal defendants’ right to silence, expanded provision for the retention of DNA and CCTV evidence, and the creation of new powers to stop and search people without suspicion of a crime. Ravers, Gillett writes, were only ‘the most visible scapegoat for an extraordinarily broad incursion into the rights of the individual’. In the months before the Criminal Justice Bill was passed, the traveller-raver coalition transformed into a nationwide protest movement, which culminated in three demonstrations in central London. Gillett speculates that, like numerous left-wing groups at the time, this campaign was infiltrated by undercover police officers. Mark Harrison, a DJ and activist from the radical Spiral Tribe sound system collective, remembers two individuals who were heavily involved in the protests and then vanished as soon as the bill passed.

One effect of the Criminal Justice Act was that rave was stripped of its radical egalitarian properties and limited to neat, regulated doses of abandon. Dance music moved away from fields and edgelands and back into towns and cities, aided by the loosening of laws around the sale of alcohol (from 1988 pubs were permitted to stay open throughout the afternoon, in line with the deregulatory mindset of the decade). ‘If nothing else,’ Gillett writes, ‘the explosion of dance music’s mainstream popularity in the second half of the 1990s demonstrates that it wasn’t the dancefloor itself which most vexed those responsible for drafting and passing the Criminal Justice Act, but the contextual elements of the free party scene.’ The music evolved too, splintering into distinct genres with their own tribes: drum and bass, trance, hard house, UK garage. This was partly the result of technological acceleration, as producers adopted ever more powerful hardware and software. Meanwhile, bigger audiences stamped their own aesthetic on new styles and tempos, from the ‘champagne and loafers’ glamour of garage to the daft energy of Scouse house.

Far from promising to overturn the Criminal Justice Act, New Labour identified a third way for dance music: it would be refashioned as a pillar of the ‘creative industries’. The 1997 election wasn’t soundtracked by Noel Gallagher’s Union Jack guitar, but by ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, a gospel house number by D:Ream. The following year, the newly created Department for Culture, Media and Sport published a ‘mapping document’ emphasising the ‘potential for wealth creation through the generation of intellectual property’. The era of the superclub – slick, aspirational and neatly branded – had begun. Cream started in 1992 as a weekly club night in Liverpool and became a media empire, with CDs, billboards and bouncers dressed in bomber jackets featuring its futuristic logo. In London, Ministry of Sound had already taken advantage of the relaxation of licensing laws to become the city’s first all-night superclub. One of its founders, James Palumbo (the son of Conservative peer Peter Palumbo), occasionally lent his chauffeur-driven car to Peter Mandelson. He even pitched, unsuccessfully, that Ministry be adopted as the corporate sponsor of the Millennium Dome’s Faith Zone, on the grounds that ‘dance was the religion of the new millennium.’

Ten years after Castlemorton, another type of free party embodied dance music’s new commercial aspirations. On a sweltering day in July 2002, a quarter of a million people descended onto Brighton seafront for the Big Beach Boutique, a day-long rave headlined by Fatboy Slim. The previous year’s event had been a relatively spontaneous affair, drawing 65,000 people. This time, however, the city wasn’t prepared for the crowds. Stewards positioned by the water had to abandon their posts or risk being swept away; pickpocketing was rife. After the party ended a woman fell from the upper to the lower promenade and later died from her injuries; in the rush for the last train to London, several people fell onto the tracks. Yet despite scathing press coverage, there was no attempt to hold the organisers to account or to ban councils from putting on similar events. By the end of the year, Brighton Council had even drawn up a road map for hosting future beach parties. The Big Beach Boutique resulted in far more damage, disorder, physical injury, rubbish and public urination than Castlemorton. Yet these failings were outweighed, Gillett writes, ‘by the economic imperatives of Fatboy Slim’s global DJ career and Brighton Council’s civic branding: no longer a threat to the very fabric of British society, but merely the regrettable costs of doing business’.

By the early 2000s, clubbing was starting to lose its cultural significance. Ibiza had become synonymous with debauchery for its own sake – as depicted in Harry Enfield’s gross-out comedy Kevin and Perry Go Large – rather than musical discovery. Rave’s anti-establishment attitude was now easily mocked: on the TV series Peep Show, two characters, Jez and Super Hans, formed an electronic duo with a sentence-long manifesto, ‘Big beats are the best, get high all the time.’ Once-groundbreaking forms like drum and bass had reached a creative stasis, while ‘big room’ styles like trance and hard house were largely reduced to replicating past glories.

If the eradication of rave seemed at first like a case of moral policing, it was ultimately a process of what the late cultural critic Mark Fisher called ‘commercial purification’. Dance music’s absorption into capitalist enterprise saw it ‘swiftly repositioned as good, clean fun’, Gillett writes, while the instrumentalisation of the arts under New Labour dangled the hope that Britain’s cultural production and intellectual property ‘might generate the same wealth and envy as its steel and cotton had done centuries before’. The story of the former pirate radio station Kiss FM is instructive. Founded by Gordon McNamee in 1985, when the pirates were the only stations that would play the new dance music being made by Black artists, Kiss FM was home to many of the best DJs of the era, including Danny Rampling and the future Radio 1 star Trevor Nelson. But the pirate radio scene was a Wild West of stolen transmitters and police raids, and McNamee wanted legitimacy. With enormous effort, Kiss managed to win a broadcasting licence in 1989 – the first dance station to do so. Yet within a few years it had switched to mass-market playlists and lost its best DJs to the BBC. By 1999 all of its presenters were white.

The repression of Black cultural life is a thread that runs through Gillett’s book, from the racist policing of blues dances to the hand-wringing around Notting Hill Carnival that continues to this day. In 2005, the Metropolitan Police introduced Form 696, a blatantly racist bit of paperwork demanding that promoters list the genres to be played at parties, along with the ethnicity of performers and attendees. Form 696 wasn’t scrapped until 2017, depriving an entire generation of MCs of the chance to perform to club audiences. More recently, the Met has set its sights on drill – a variant of rap notable for its references to gang violence – by leaning on YouTube to take down music videos, attempting to use lyrics as evidence in court hearings, and banning artists from playing their own songs live. A pre-emptive Criminal Behaviour Order prevented the rapper Digga D from alluding to real-life incidents of violence, or even from referencing London postcodes in his songs – the first time a CBO has been used to restrict a musician’s output.

Over the last two decades, dance music in Britain has fulfilled its role as a ‘creative industry’ with little complaint. It has rebranded itself as an economic engine, with ‘night tsars’ – like cabaret performer-turned-politician Amy Lamé in London and events entrepreneur Sacha Lord in Manchester – supposedly advocating on its behalf in meetings with local authorities, residents and businesses. Gillett is dismissive of Boiler Room, a London-based company that streams DJ sets from its parties around the world, flattening club culture into a screen-sized image destined for social media. But he reserves his greatest ire for the bargain made between dance music and property developers. In 2017 the former Daily Mail printing press in South-East London was reopened as Printworks, a six-thousand-capacity club, in a temporary deal between British Land and the events company Broadwick Live. It closed last year to make way for offices. The two companies have now teamed up again at Drumsheds, a colossal 15,000-capacity club on the site of a former Ikea in Tottenham, which will eventually be razed for residential tower blocks.

Once imagined as an instance of what the anarchist writer Hakim Bey called a ‘temporary autonomous zone’, the rave has now become a tightly regulated space, with many clubs policed by body scanners and sniffer dogs. The excesses of dance music have been brought under the control of Britain’s ‘property-based monoculture’, Gillett writes, resulting in a bland style mockingly known as ‘business techno’. Increasingly, the memory of rave is itself the product, the subject of misty-eyed films (Beats, Eden, 24 Hour Party People) and exhibitions (Sweet Harmony at the Saatchi Gallery in 2019 and Electronic at the Design Museum in 2020; a Museum of Modern Electronic Music opened in Frankfurt last year). Gillett dons a VR headset at the National Theatre to experience a recreation of a rave in Coventry in 1992, and immediately regrets it: ‘The whole thing is expertly produced and thrillingly immersive, but feels conceptually and creatively inert: the reification of “rave” as a static, historical artefact.’ He notes that the VR project received funding from the Arts Council and BFI, while one in three real clubs didn’t survive the pandemic.

Clubs were struggling even before Covid. In 2005 there were more than three thousand across the UK; by 2015 that number had nearly halved. At the latest count it’s down to 875. A number of explanations have been put forward, including the rise of dating apps, millennials drinking less than previous generations, and the broader embrace of clean living (even if dancing all night makes short work of your daily steps). More concretely, councils have imposed tighter licensing restrictions, designating ‘special policy areas’ where opening hours are limited and new licences rarely awarded, in an attempt to limit noise, litter and bad behaviour. As luxury flats spring up in former commercial zones like Manchester’s Northern Quarter, councils are under pressure to respond to the needs of their new residents. The legendary East London basement club Plastic People spent years fending off noise complaints and licensing reviews – despite its reputation as the most relaxed, music-focused venue in an increasingly rowdy Shoreditch – until its owners finally decided to close it in 2015. Inflation and rising energy prices have also taken their toll: CODE in Sheffield blamed its closure in 2022 on a 500 per cent hike in electricity costs.

If all this amounts to ‘cultural exorcism’ in Fisher’s terms, another consequence of the ‘campaign against rave’ is the shift towards what he called ‘mandatory individualism’, with crowds increasingly ‘decomposed into solitary consumers’. The rise of ‘superstar DJs’ like David Guetta and Fatboy Slim displaced the ranks of faceless techno artists who hid behind pseudonyms like T99, LFO and B12. Dancers have been increasingly monitored and vetted, steered into ticketed venues and subjected to invasive security checks, often including the mandatory scanning of ID. Gillett describes a typical night out in the 2020s, with its algorithmic ticket sales, exposed steel beams, £7 cans of beer and ‘urban professionals wearing monochrome clothes’. ‘The experience is always the same,’ he writes.

For the forces of law and order, the prospect of someone becoming one with the group, or simply getting out of their head, remains undesirable. As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in Dancing in the Streets (2007), the ruling classes are always on alert for large gatherings. After all, a boisterous throng might become a revolutionary mob; throw in the disinhibiting effects of drugs and the dangers only multiply. In 2016 the government brought in the Psychoactive Substances Act, effectively outlawing every drug currently in existence or yet to be discovered except caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, food and medicine – an ‘enclosure of the periodic table’, as Gillett puts it. During lockdown, the media started to use ‘rave’ as shorthand for any suspicious gathering of young people.

It would be easy to conclude on a depressing note, so Gillett heads out for a dance – a proper one. Business techno may flourish wherever audiences believe there is no alternative, but there are still signs that the hedonistic spirit of rave hasn’t been totally extinguished: the recent reclamation of techno’s Black roots, for instance, or the resurgence of free parties like Teknival. If rave isn’t inherently anti-capitalist, it still tends towards the anti-hierarchical, remaking us as participants rather than spectators through the synchronising power of rhythm and, sometimes, through the touchy-feely effects of drugs. Under the coloured lights Gillett experiences ‘that same glimpse of some alternative social structure that so many before me have seen’, and which for a few moments feels ‘euphorically real’.

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