A free party outside the Houses of Parliament in 1994
As far as bizarrely vindictive legislation goes, Section 63 of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act is up there with any other needlessly discriminatory British law. Giving police the power to shut down events featuring music that's “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”, the clause was aimed unequivocally at one particular glass-eyed, cheek-chewing threat to the nation's youth: the UK’s illegal rave scene.
In July of 1994 – 20 years ago this summer – I joined what organisers put at close to 50,000 people marching from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, in the second of three protests against the Criminal Justice Act. It wasn’t only the party scene that would be affected by the bill – the council’s duty to provide permanent sites for travellers would be repealed; police would have new powers of unsupervised stop and search; the right to silence would be impinged; and the criminalisation of “disruptive trespass” would have far-reaching consequences for squatters, travellers and protesters alike.
But in all honesty, joining the march as a teenager it was Section 63 that I was there to fight. This might sound like the kind of clichéd hyperbole you'd hear in a Happy Mondays documentary, but the joy and unity the clause aimed to destroy was something rare. All of it was exciting: the wait to hear where the party was; mass congregations in a service station; dropping a pill before joining a convoy of cars; tail lights glittering into the distance; arriving to lines of parked cars and beats in the distance, stumbling – butterflies in stomach – towards the lights and into dancing mayhem.
Two decades on, the parties blend into a series of snapshots – dancing on a car as the light came up over a hill; sweaty, night-long bonds with strangers you'd probably never see again; telling a friend you were never going to forget that moment; crawling around a warehouse after too much K; dancefloor friendships played out without words; an unshakeable feeling of being part of something huge and beautiful.
A free festival at Ashton Court, Bristol in 1995
Among the early instigators of all this were Nottingham house music collective DiY, who'd teamed up with travellers at Glastonbury in 1990 to stage parties across the country. “We’d take records and a sound system, they’d provide the venue,” says Pete Woosh of DiY DJ duo Digs and Woosh. “We had a few summers of doing that week in, week out – parties in crazy, weird places. We never started with any blueprint or grand plan to change anything. It just happened. It was this massive ball that started rolling and got bigger and bigger.”
Jen (AKA JenJen) was one of the few female DJs in the early free party scene. “I remember playing in lots of empty buildings in London with loads of sound systems and weird decorations along corridors,” she recalls. “But one that stands out was Wedmore, in the West Country. People were dancing on top of vans, smiling – those wicked 90s dance moves and gurning faces everywhere. Everyone dressed in dayglo. They were happy, uplifting days.”
A 1995 benefit party in Dalston for the pirate radio station Dream FM
The war between authorities, travellers and party organisers had begun long before legislators started getting worried about repetitive beats. In fact, you can draw a direct line from the 1985 Battle of the Beanfield – when police came down hard on a hippy gathering at Stonehenge – the Public Order Act of 1986 and the Criminal Justice Bill. However, it’s impossible to understand what happened in 1994 without looking back to 1992 and Castlemorton, when 30,000 to 40,000 people partied for an entire week in some hills near Worstershire, sound-tracked by systems including Spiral Tribe, DiY, Bedlam and Circus Warp.
The authorities weren't happy with anyone, but it was the techno sound system Spiral Tribe – the last to switch off – that ended up being hit the hardest, with 13 of its members being charged with public order offences. Springing up in London’s squat scene in 1990, Spiral Tribe were used to clashes with the police – they’d had a JCB driven through the wall of one party – but after Castlemorton they became the focal point of all the authorities' scrutiny.
“The reaction was about fear as much as anything else,” says Cyrus, now part of SP23, formerly Spiral Tribe. “The authorities couldn’t understand how this many people could assemble in one place, in pre-internet, pre-mobile days. Add into that the fact that Castlemorton coverage was peppered with shots of police looking, quite frankly, helpless. That loss of control hammered them into cracking down much harder than they might otherwise have done.”
A free party on Wanstead Common
It wasn’t just the Spirals in the firing line; the whole scene was under attack. News of the impending Criminal Justice Act mobilised a cross section of activists, travellers and free party people. Coalitions like the Advance Party and Freedom Network were born. DiY formed an organisation called All Systems Go, coordinating with other sound systems to raise money, put on fundraisers and organise coaches to the demos.
“We went down to meet Exodus [a techno sound system] at their farm near Luton and had a meeting in the back of an articulated lorry because they didn’t want anyone listening,” says Pete. “There were people from Bedlam, Spiral Tribe, Exodus and DiY all sat in the back of a dark lorry organising marches. It was quite a mad evening.”
In the end there were three London marches against the Criminal Justice Act: May Day, the 24th of July and the 9th of October, 1994. The first two went by in relative peace and ended in parties on Wanstead Common and in squats on Claremont Road.
“I remember it like yesterday,” says Matt Smith, part of the early-90s Bristol-based Sunnyside party collective, who brought a rig to the London marches. “It was absolutely electric. Tony Benn spoke in Trafalgar Square and, as his speech came to an end, we got the signal to turn on. It was like being in a football ground; the whole of Trafalgar Square gave this big roar. I had adrenaline going up my backbone.”
An anti-Criminal Justice Act protest in Castle Park, Bristol in 1994
By the third march, the party atmosphere had descended into one of those full body comedowns. That October, protesters marching from Embankment to Hyde Park were met with a heavy police presence and the demonstration turned violent. Numerous testimonies from those on the march point to police brutality, although the crowd fought back. Police horses were charged through protesters, people were beaten and tear gas was used. The march made the headlines, and unsurprisingly the Battle of Park Lane did nothing to improve the image of the partiers, anarchists and activists already cast as monsters in the mind of middle England.
Liz was 16 when she went on the October march. “It all started beautifully,” she says. “It was buzzing – everyone together, so much support and a feeling of hope. But as we got near Hyde Park there was a row of military police. You could see they were starting to get rough with people, so a group of us – girls – went to the front to try and diffuse the situation. We sat down cross-legged in front of them but they ran at us and beat the shit out of us. I was dragged into the park by two police, and the girl next to me had her dog killed in her arms.”
Free parties lost some of their glow when the Criminal Justice Act came into effect later that year, but jaded though it was, the scene wasn’t dead.
The crowd at the anti-Criminal Justice Act protest in Hyde Park, November, 1994
“The bill made an impact because the summer before everyone felt like we could take over world,” says Chris Liberator, one of the three Liberator DJs (alongside Julian and Aaron) who started out in London’s punk squat scene, then moved up to playing techno at eviction parties and now at clubs and festivals all over the world. “I remember a New Year’s Eve party in the old Bow Library in 91 that went on for three days. But even after the Criminal Justice Bill, the parties continued. I would hazard a guess there’s been a squat party in London every single weekend since the Criminal Justice Bill.”
While outdoor raves were hit harder, free parties continued and have seen a resurgence in the last few years. What the CJA did, though, was create an industry, driving parties back into clubs and spawning the proliferation of festivals you’re heading to this summer.
“Without the rave and squat party scene, festivals and club culture as we know it would be nothing,” says Chris. “The spirit of squat parties infused the whole scene, not just for one generation, but for several in succession.”
A "Kill the Bill" protest
Likewise, fury over the impending legislation spawned a new wave of activism. “In many ways the Criminal Justice bill was counterproductive,” says Keef of Midlands-via-Glasgow sound system Desert Storm. “The demonstration in London brought together an eclectic group of people; from sound systems and squatters to trade union movements. Joining a previously fragmented scene into a unified force led to new projects, like Reclaim the Streets.”
The loss of control, the fear of alternative lifestyles, a desire to drive MDMA-taking youth back to revenue-creating alcohol and the huge untapped business opportunity presented by the illegal party scene have all been touted as factors behind the crackdown of 1994. In any event, rigs were increasingly being confiscated, parties shut down and organisers taken to court. Some sound systems, like Spiral Tribe and Bedlam, moved to France, then took the party across Europe. In the UK, the magic of 91-92 was never repeated.
Protesters at a Reclaim the Streets demonstration in London holding a banner that reads: "They wanna fight, we wanna dance".
“There’s so much folk history and memory burned into the collective consciousness about that time, but it was really only a very short period,” says Cyrus. “A lot of people – who were so blown away by idealism – were disappointed by what came afterwards. But any scene or movement that’s going to have longevity has to be about more that than the initial rush. It takes work.”
Many of those involved in the early free party scene have gone on to run records labels, play at or organise licensed events or work in the festival circuit. There have been some causalities, but those years did more than turn us all into consummate caners; they were raw and idealistic, affirmation of people’s ability to create life-changing movements out of nothing. And above all, they were shambolically, unbeatably fun.
Photographer Matt Smith is planning an exhibition of pictures from the Criminal Justice Bill marches.