Book review from UK Free Parties and Free Festivals 1988-1994
First off, a disclaimer: this review is going to be biased. Why? Firstly, because Dreaming in Yellow is a veritable treasure trove for anyone documenting the free party scene of the early 1990s. When I started reading it I did so with a pad of post it notes next to me, and by the end there were over twenty stuck to its margins to indicate events that weren’t yet on my radar or existing entries to which I would add quotes from the book. Part of the reason for this is that few details on their parties have been offered up by DiY peeps on this page. So if you’re out there, let me know! I’ll be adding quotes from the book in the future but if you can help me fill in the gaps that would be very helpful, ta! The second reason for this bias is that it’s impossible to separate my personal connection to DiY from the reading experience.
Dreaming in Yellow is a heartfelt account of a memorable era, and it’s so humorous that it’s up there with Jane Bussmann’s Once In A Lifetime in terms of rave books that convey the sheer unbridled reckless euphoric fun we had back then. Sure, it’s balanced out with some political rants, but the sense of enjoyment never really disappears. The story takes the DiY bunch from ‘wide-eyed idealistic chancers’ to ‘battle hardened, veteran chancers’. One of the myriad reasons the publication of Dreaming is welcome is that no-one who ran a soundsystem back then had written their own account. Another reason, and it’s related to the first, is that there hasn’t been too much written about DiY. They were wary about playing the fame game and keen to be seen as what they really were, a collective, refusing requests for ‘a couple of faces’ to put on their magazine’s cover. One black and white image in the excellent photograph section includes the whole collective, each of them obscuring their own face with a strategically placed 12″.
The back story on how DiY came about, as well as Harrison’s own pre-acid-house roots in the punk and free festival scenes are, for me, just as interesting as the main events of ’91 to ’93 that my blog usually concerns itself with. Attending free festivals from a young age, Harrison bears witness to a change from bands to DJs, from violence to peace. He sees the tribes coming together and notes that, before electronic dance music and ecstacy hit, free festivals were dying a slow death.
Harrison’s love of music is a driving force, and of course it did not start with acid house. He, like his late friend and DiY co-conspirator Pete ‘Woosh’ Birch, is devoted to Factory Records and he finds Blue Monday inspirational. For this reason I can perhaps just about forgive him for being on the ‘wrong’ side of the Smiths divide. I hate The Smiths, I mean, I did try, and Meat Is Murder is a cracking name for a song, but I just find them too, I don’t know, whiney. Otherwise there are more than a few intriguing mentions of music Harrison enjoyed in his youth, so I did end up using some of my stack of post it notes to indicate bands and tracks he lists for later reference.
While still at school, he was disappointed that his mum didn’t let him go to see Joy Division supporting the Buzzcocks. Later on though, she took him to see New Order at the Haçienda: “And as I sat in my mother’s Ford Fiesta heading up the M60 back towards Bolton, wide-eyed and electrified, I wondered idly what would happen if this new electronic medium was cross-pollinated with that lust for freedom and chemical experimentation I had witnessed in a field near Blackburn or allied with the angry political purity of Crass.” During his school days, one of Harrison’s teachers had a dim view of him and his friends, dubbing them the armpit gang. He visits his first free festival in 1984 or thereabouts.
The scene started in the ‘unsettling political environment’ of 1980s Thatcher-ruled Britain. The book of course touches on this, but also joins the dots from the events of Paris in ’68 to ’70s free festivals to pioneering anarcho-punks Crass to the tragic events of The Battle of the Beanfield in ’84 to Castlemorton Common, the Woodstock of the Rave Age.
In pre-acid house times, subcultural student/dole life involved ‘ a gleefully ramped-up diet of hot knives, psychedelics and amphetamines’. I can’t say things were any different for us in South West Dorset. As with our bunch, one of the staples was Psilocybe Semilanceata, aka the Liberty Cap fungus, and like us, a pressing concern was the choice of a driver on mushroom-picking expeditions, to be frank, a driver who wouldn’t be too tripped out to be behind the wheel.
When E came along it ‘moved the chemical goalposts’. Unfortunately, as was the case with the author, my first E experience was rather disappointing, but things picked up after that. Their first proper rave, an expensive Biology event, is similarly lacklustre, leading them to conclude ‘we could do better ourselves’.
The collective’s house parties, organised by then core members Harrison, Digs (now Grace Sands), Woosh, Simon DK, Jack, and others, kicked off in 1989. That year also witnessed the first time a house sound system was brought to a free festival. This took place, according to the writer, at Avon Free Festival (Avon Free was the weekend which ended up being Castlemorton three years down the line, just in case you didn’t know). The festival took place at Inglestone Common, and it was Sweat who brought the rig. Details on this are scant, but I have created a post about it so, dear readers, feel free to add details if you can remember any!
The outlaw Blackburn warehouse parties, witnessed by an enthusiastic Pete Birch in 1990, led them to gleefully realise that acid house had ‘turned political’. On the other hand that same year saw the Freedom To Party campaign and rally in Trafalgar Square. Harrison is critical of this, and rightly so. Even though the massive pay raves of 1988 to 1990 were responsible for bringing the culture to the masses, for many of the organisers the bottom line was now the only thing that mattered, and the freedom they desired was simply the freedom to make millions. Another disappointing trip down south in 1990 (Energy at Docklands, a licensed party which somewhat pathetically ended at 11 which Harrison likens to being ‘trapped in the Top of the Pops studio on bad drugs for hours’) gives them even more motivation to do it themselves.
1990 was an important year for DiY for other reasons, not least Glastonbury Festival. At Glastonbury that year, along with Tonka and Circus Warp, DiY gave the traditionally band-oriented Travellers’ Field a well-deserved kick up the arse. It wasn’t all easy going though, as the music was slated by some as ‘that disco shit’, and access to the sound system and tent was only secured thanks to a weekend-long ‘running battle’ fought between DiY and ‘various other factions’. Harrison holds that this was ‘the first real moment of synthesis between the travelling community and the urban sound systems’. Other pivotal events include the legendary Pepperbox Hill parties near Salisbury that summer, and the violent busting of a DiY party in Dorset later in the year. The first Pepperbox parties weren’t DiY affairs, but, after some of their DJ’s played at one, Harrison joined them for their party in September. Unfortunately, so did the police, who threatened the organisers until the decision was made to pack up. Then, at Bloxworth, in the autumn, police took a harder line, ‘pushing and striking partygoers randomly’ and wrecking sound equipment after having had the music turned off. It was clear to Harrison that the police weren’t there to enforce a particular law but to ‘teach the ravers a lesson’. This is followed by another bust, this time at a disused airfield in Hampshire, where a cop told them that they were ‘too scruffy’ to be rave promoters.
Although he’s evangelical about the combination of intoxication and house music, he doesn’t deny that there were casualties. By 1994, as was the case with many of us, DiY were guilty of letting hedonism overshadow politics. Hitherto, according to Harrison, these unusual bedfellows had been in a kind of equilibrium. For us lot in Dorset, the pills and potions became the most interesting aspect of the parties, and people started to look at other, less ecstatic ways to alter consciousness. I know this was the case in many other communities at that time.
At a free festival in ’91 DiY came across Spiral Tribe for the first time, finding them ‘surprisingly together’. Harrison chatted with some of them, finding them relaxed and friendly, and came to the realisation there was more than enough room for both crews on the festival scene.
1991 was also the year in which DiY become ‘slightly wary’ of the big free festivals. The number of noisy rigs was increasing, as was police and media attention, so they begin to experiment with smaller scale outdoor parties, often in collaboration with their progressive traveller friends who had by then moved up north. DiY seemed to be wisely wary of disturbing travellers living on site with their families. This sensitivity was not shown by some of Spiral Tribe, who on occasion had a very different approach to their temporary hippy neighbours at the festivals. DiY as a collective realised that traveller sites were not, in the long run, the best locations for parties: ‘Better to take a temporary site for a night and day than attract unwanted attention to a living space’.
People have made assumptions that all the sound systems and travellers knew about each other’s events and joined up when they could, but the connections were somewhat looser than that, and the U.K. actually had enough travellers and ravers to occasionally sustain two major parties or even festivals the same weekend (for example, there were two Summer Solstice festivals in 1991, one at Longstock and one at Peasedown St. John). Lechlade, which DiY didn’t go to because they were putting on a legendary party elsewhere the same weekend, happened without their knowledge.
For us lot, that is, the Dorset people I went raving with back then, DiY was a name we had heard many times. My first encounter with them probably occured thanks not to a party but to a Pezz tape which I still treasure. That progressive sound from ’92 is what really got me hooked, although I usually heard it on sound systems belonging to Frequency Oblivion, Lazy House, Democracy, Prime, Vibe, or any of the anonymous South West crews.
My second encounter with DiY was their tent at the Mind Body Soul and the Universe pay rave in 1992. I wrote about it at length in another post, so all I want to tell you here is that their Bounce tent was a welcome sanctuary from the tops off gurnathon on the rest of the site. Listening to the tapes from that night (I swear I can hear the moment where I jog the decks by dancing frenetically on the platform), there’s a rather sweet moment when a DiY person (Harrison, perhaps?) promises the dancers protection from the muggers roaming the site.
DiY’s New Year’s Eve party near Bath the same year received glowing reviews, but (again) I didn’t make it. The first main reason we didn’t get to attend many DiY dos was that by the time we started going to free parties on a regular basis in 1992 and 1993, DiY’s parties were further north than they previously had been. This was at a time when free parties were being organised much closer to home. Aside from that, when DiY played at festivals they were often just one of the rigs present, alongside more techno sound systems like the Spirals, and because a couple of our friends were hanging around with the Tribe, that’s where we ended up spending our time although most of us loved the kind of house DiY were known for.
Many people were doing what Harry Harrison and his friends did in the U.K. in the 1990s, and many of them were the heroes and heroines of their own local scenes. One might think that one of the people responsible for a rig with a reputation such as DiY’s might want to show off and take all the glory, but no. Not only does Harrison spend a hefty portion of the book making sure he’s named most of the people involved in the collective effort that is DiY, but he also spends time crediting the people responsible for other rigs that were essential parts of the scene.
Harrison’s take on Castlemorton is refreshing, due mostly to the fact that he includes the police reports of the time. Unlike the confrontational and non-stop on-top make some fuckin’ noise Spirals, DiY left Castlemorton earlier, carefully arranging for the rig to be smuggled back to Notts separately from their main transportation. Not long after this they decide that festivals were ‘too much hassle’.
Spiral Tribe’s go-to man for pithy soundbites and catchy slogans was Mark Harrison, whereas DiY had the ‘gobby’ Harry Harrison. The two had a surreal encounter at Castlemorton where they discovered they were actually both Mark Harrisons. This confused friends of the DiY Mark, who couldn’t understand why they were seeing quotes about techno attributed to Mark Harrison, considering he was such a diehard house head.
In their decades together it goes without saying that DiY (like the rest of us) got up to all sorts of naughtiness, often, but not always aided by hallucinogens, stimulants, and euphoriants. Dreaming, like Once in a Lifetime, provides a very long and very funny list of these, but here’s a quick teaser in the form of three of my favourites:
- The collective get chucked out of the Haçienda. Twice. On their own night. ‘Worse than the Happy Mondays’ is the verdict from the club.
- They clip Jeremy Healey’s ‘annoying bondage trousers’ to the stairs at a boat party.
- At a club night Sasha couldn’t make it to, a reluctant Pezz is asked to masquerade as him.
Free parties cost money, which may surprise anyone who hasn’t been involved in organising one. The custom built Black Box rig alone was worth £12,000 and the loan had to be paid off every month. Other unexpected costs would also drain the bucket of donations, for instance the cash used to bribe a reticent farmer into letting the party on his land go on a few hours longer, or the £100 bribes used to persuade a meat-selling cafe and an ‘arythmic’ drum circle to leave a DiY club night. Other factors beyond their control helped to empty their kitty, or at least slow down the rate at which it filled up, for example the bouncer at one club night letting punters in the back door without giving DiY a cut. When Harrison asks the owner to stop this, he’s told to fuck off.
In the long term, then, there wasn’t much cash coming in when DiY were throwing weekly free parties and barely-profitable club nights. This was apparently one of the motivations for starting a record label, a process which is catalogued towards the end of the book. The jury still seems to be out on the wisdom of going into business: Harrison even now feels ‘plagued’ by the question of whether they ‘should have got an office and attempted to play the capitalist game or should have stayed as idealistic party renegades’. Their attempts to play the game were half-hearted or non-existent. They refused, for instance, to do the press interviews demanded by Warp.
Almost twenty years after my first encounter with DiY, I attended an old school festival in Cornwall. I knew that some of the DiY DJs would be playing but I didn’t expect them to have the legendary Black Box rig in tow. I asked someone early on in the weekend whether they were the original speakers from the 1990s and they said no. Later on that night, an unmistakable wave of warm bass pummeled into my ribcage and I realised that it just had to be the same old rig, an observation later confirmed by someone else. I have to admit that I was a tiny bit disappointed they weren’t playing the old records. I’d still love to hear them playing some classics, but having said that, they’re probably sick to the back teeth of hearing them!
I disagree somewhat with a handful of Harrison’s views, one of which is his take on what a free party is. As a part of his argument he explains that some have held that the first free parties were ‘conventional club nights’; it would be interesting to know who proposed this misguided notion. As for his own points, I can see no reason why ‘events for which no payment were demanded’ could not be considered as being among the first free parties to take place, provided they are unlicensed, for instance the first Hedonism event. Even though there were ‘four walls [and] security’ the licensing authorities had no idea of its existence and it certainly didn’t end at 2 in the morning. Contrary to what Harrison suggests, many free parties (including some of DiY’s) happened indoors, although of course it is worth noting the significant difference in atmosphere as opposed to an outdoor party under the stars, or one in a tent or under a tarp. Contrary to his suggestion, security was of course present at many free parties, although no-one would have called it that, and often the arrangements were made far more informally and much less visibly than at paid events.
Harrison is right though in suggesting that the ‘free’ in free parties connects them to the past in that they are outgrowths of the seventies free festival movement. The surprisingly widely circulated position that a free party is only a proper free party if it is connected to travellers is thankfully not one expressed in Dreaming. Although there were of course many of this type that DiY and their cohorts were involved in, this is certainly not the only formula.
However, as a free party historian who made one ill-fated attempt to start a soundsystem compared to someone who founded and helped to run one for decades, our perspectives are obviously going to differ, and that’s absolutely fine, inevitable, even! I neglected my monitors somewhat, birds nested in them after I abandoned them in a friend’s woodshed.
So what’s the winning formula for a free party? That’s complicated and outside the remit of this review, but something I’d like to add is that it’s not about how large the parties were. This is something I have believed for a long time, and it’s great to see Harrison agreeing. Some people think it is about size, but it really, really isn’t: ‘At the end of the day, it matters not about the size of the party, it is the vibe that is all-important’. The best nights of my life have been spent in the company of a mere barnful of fellow ravers. That, dear reader, is all you need.