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A collage of free party photos
Image: Time Out / Matthew Smith

‘People are annoyed at regular club culture’: inside the renaissance of Britain’s free party scene

As a new documentary shines a light on rave crews and the traveller community in the 90s, we meet the faces keeping the scene dancing in 2023

Daniel Dylan Wray
Written by
Daniel Dylan Wray

Today, the Roundhouse in Camden stands as a celebrated music venue that has seen the likes of Bob Dylan, The Doors, Patti Smith and the Ramones perform – but in 1991 it had been unused for almost a decade. The former railway engine shed existed simply as an vacant, rotting shell.

‘Walking into this vast space, it was just too good to be true,’ recalls Mark Angelo Harrison of the arts collective and free party sound system Spiral Tribe in a new documentary, ‘Free Party: A Folk History’. Over Christmas that year, entry was gained to the building and in collaboration with fellow sound system collective Circus Normal, a near week-long party was thrown. Thousands descended on the building for a festive rave, dancing to the burgeoning sounds of hardcore breakbeats and pummeling techno.  

People partying outside
Photograph: Matthew Smith

‘Originally, I just wanted to make a short film about that party because it was mad,’ says Aaron Trinder, director of ‘Free Party’, who was in attendance. ‘But then I realised, hang on a minute: nobody’s done the whole thing before and told the story of the free party scene.’ 

And so, over five years, Trinder set about doing just that. He traced the roots of the modern movement via various events and milestones such as Stonehenge, Glastonbury, the Battle of Beanfield, Avon Free Festival, and what would become known as the biggest ever illegal rave in the UK, Castlemorton – along with the implementation and impact of the subsequent Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, a bill that set out to stop such activities. 

Trinder interviewed numerous key figures involved with the scene and unearthed previously unseen archive footage. ‘I didn’t think there would be very much archive because it was not a cool thing to have a camera at an illegal party,’ he says. ‘But slowly it started to arrive and it was like peering into a hidden world. A lot of the people who did have cameras were living the life as well. So it wasn’t like the news footage, which was peering in from an outside perspective, it was from the inside.’

The contributions of new-age travellers in shaping modern dance music have definitely been overlooked 

One of the key narratives the film explores is how the new-age travellers and post-acid house rave crews came together to forge a unified community and throw some absolutely whopping parties while doing so. Shifting deeply embedded views was a focus for Trinder, especially around the traveller community. ‘Their contributions have definitely been overlooked,’ he says. ‘Partly because they were just so massively demonised in the eighties and basically seen as some kind of scourge of society.’ 

Along with recent books such as Ed Gillet’s ‘Party Lines’, the role of the traveller community in shaping modern dance music in Britain seems to be going through something of a public reassessment. ‘It’s very much been a neglected side of the story,’ says Trinder. ‘So hopefully the film goes someway to correcting that.’

Castle Morton 10th anniversary
Photograph: Matthew SmithCastle Morton 10th anniversary

While the film is primarily focused on the free party boom of the nineties, there are contemporary parallels to be found that make the footage feel timely. Most notably, that we’re in yet another peak period for free parties. ‘It had been 20 years since I’d been in a convoy like that,’ says Matthew Smith on going to the 3,000 strong free party UK Tek in Dorset earlier this year. ‘We were out on these country roads in the middle of night, with a convoy of two or three miles worth of vehicles. Then we had three days out in the field with 10 or 15 rigs [soundsystems] set up. It was amazing.’

Smith has been documenting the free party scene since the late 1980s as a photographer, with his sold-out book on the movement, ‘Exist To Resist’, currently raising funds via Kickstarter to release an expanded edition. As someone who’s been active in the world of illegal raves for decades, he’s noticing it spiking again. ‘It is absolutely vibrant out there at the moment,’ Smith says. ‘I find it really heartwarming that there are so many young, next-gen, free party rigs out there now.’ Last year, a free party in Cornwall was dubbed ‘the biggest illegal party in 20 years’ while earlier this year in Sheffield, two illegal parties going off simultaneously was said to have kept half the city awake. 

Smokescreen sound system lorry during Kill the Bill protests, 1994
Photograph: Matthew SmithSmokescreen sound system lorry during Kill the Bill protests, 1994

So what’s driving demand for such events? ‘People are annoyed at regular club culture,’ says Josh Torrance, who has been going to free parties since he was 17 and is involved in running the welfare service Rave Aid Crew. ‘Clubs can be dank and dark with people in high vis who are employed to try and catch you doing drugs. So the whole experience, while sometimes very fun, is often quite beset by paranoia. It’s also just being contained in four tight walls with not enough space and having to pay seven pounds for a drink, when at a free party you just rock up with your own. Plus, I think people go because of a desire to do something outside of the framework of authority, and that results in a greater sense of release.’

Smith echoes this. ‘You provide your own entertainment and environment,’ he says. ‘You’ve not got anybody breathing down your neck. You take what you need and have fun on your own terms.’

Torrance compares the process of organising a free party to ‘a military operation.’ Private telephone lines are set up to announce the location which people call at the last minute. ‘There’s only a very small handful of people who know the location before the event,’ says Torrance. ‘There’s a lot of ducking and diving trying to get to a location and get set up before you can get shut down.’  

UK Tek 2023
Photograph: Matthew SmithUK Tek 2023

And given the itinerant nature of living on the road, free parties continue to be a place for the traveller community to gather. ‘A lot of people involved are new travellers,’ says Torrance. ‘There’s still a big overlap between the new traveller community and the free party scene.’

For many people involved in the scene who have been battling against everything from the police to their negative portrayals in the media, there’s also an inherently and explicitly political motivation. This is fervently embodied by Redtek, a collective based in London made up of young partiers as well as some of the free party old guard, who describe themselves as ‘a Marxist political group with a focus on spreading egalitarian ideas via culture.’

That spreading of ideas often manifests itself in some pretty wild free parties in locations that have varied from an abandoned luxury hotel to an empty central London office of a multinational corporation to a disused supermarket. ‘It is a direct challenge to the property relations of capitalism and it subverts the idea of who has a right to the city,’ they say via a joint response to questions. ‘As Marxists we assert the right of the people who create the wealth of the city – the workers – to full ownership of all that their labour created. We believe that the building of countercultures is integral to building identities that are opposed to the poverty, inequality, ecological and social destruction that is capitalism.’ 

People dancing
Photograph: Matthew Smith

But there’s also a generational, or in some instances familial, handover that has taken place. Given the family friendly nature of many free parties in the nineties, many people who attended as children are now throwing their own. ‘The free party crowd respects their elders, for sure,’ says Torrance. ‘We’ve got someone on our welfare crew who is 57 or 58 and she’s been going to illegal parties since forever. She’s still there and going past lunchtime the next day. One of the main reasons she got involved with us is because her son is now going to these parties and is DJing.’  

Smith says this kind of inter-generational bonding can supersede the relationships which take place within more conventional areas of the night time economy. ‘It’s much more about community, philanthropy and altruism,’ he says. ‘These gatherings of people spark friendships, stories, and consequences. They’re just incredibly valuable as community assets.’  

Field of travellers
Photograph: Matthew Smith

Trinder feels there’s a strong connection between what’s happening now and the periods his film captures – not only in terms of people rebelling against the political backdrop of the times in search of greater autonomy, but also in how it’s a reaction to the increasing commercialisation in dance music. ‘Everything we think of as the modern world of dance music, particularly the festival side of things, was really invented by this combination of the travellers and the rave scene,’ he says. ‘But they’re now so expensive. People will always want to gather and party and so they’ll always find other ways of doing that – because what’s the alternative for a lot of young people?’

While the spotlight on free parties may shine brighter from an outside perspective every now and again, for those who have been entrenched in it for years, it’s more a feeling of a decades-long continuation. ‘What shines through and leads to a renaissance every few years is that these events were and are about normal people creating culture for each other devoid of the profit motive,’ say Redtek. ‘People have made comparisons to punk but we’d argue punk was one, or several, moments – whereas this culture has been absolutely underground and relentless. Nonstop, full tilt, for three decades. Nothing comes close.’ 

Free Party: A Folk History is currently screening across the UK as part of Doc’n Roll Festival.

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