At some point during the 1980s, on a surf-combed beach at the edge of the Arabian Sea, the first neon embers of the “bush doof” scene flickered into existence. Goa, India’s smallest state, had already become known through the 60s and 70s as a subtropical hippie paradise: a place where vagrants danced naked under open skies to live bands and tape deck sound systems. But then the digital revolution came to the subcontinent; computers supplanted guitars and drum kits, and a collective of like-minded pioneers ushered in what would come to be known as “the second summer of love.”
Ray Castle remembers it clearly.
“In the 80s there was a big revolution of dance music with computers: so-called techno started to emerge, and guitar-based music dropped off,” the former trance DJ recalls, his voice crackling over the phone from Peru. “Suddenly it was DJs playing weird, psychedelic electronic music in the jungles and on the beaches of Goa. By the end of the 80s we had acid house, new beat, industrial—a fusion of styles that all distilled into electronic dance music in the early 90s—and a genre called Goa psytrance.”
In the annals of doof history, Castle is a founding father. He was one of the DJs playing “weird” psytrance in the Goan jungles; he’s written a book mapping the origins of the scene; and, perhaps most notably, he was one of a small few who carried those glowing neon embers some 10,000 kilometres to the southeastern coast of Australia.
“The Aussie ‘bush doof’ was a spinoff of people coming back from Asia, particularly Goa where people were throwing parties outdoors in nature,” he says. “That’s when it became a thing about the bush rather than the warehouse.”
These days, events like the regional Victorian festival Rainbow Serpent represent the day glo face of bush doof culture, and regularly sell out to thousands of revellers who indulge in multi-day marathons of drug-induced debauchery, year on year. From the outside, these larger-than-life gatherings may resemble little more than frivolous bouts of hedonism in the great outdoors—a cookie cutter dance festival dropped into the middle of the Australian wilderness—and in many ways, that’s exactly what they are. But the rusted-on ravers insist that this scene was always meant to be about more than just kick drums and ketamine.
Underneath the gaud and bombast of its modern iterations, the bush doof has a complex history—one tangled up in social politics, anti-capitalist anarchy, and a psychospiritual appreciation of the land on which people dance.
It was a disgruntled German woman by the name of Helga who allegedly coined the term. Hearsay has it that underground techno group Non Bossy Posse were blasting music at their inner western Sydney terrace in the spring of ‘93 when Helga, a neighbour at the time, started pounding on their door.
"What is this doof doof doof I hear all night long?” she exclaimed. “This is not music!"
Whether this actually marked the introduction of the word into the Australian vernacular is unclear, but as an origin story it harmonises nicely with the scene’s grassroots narrative: “doof” as onomatopoeia, as a noise complaint, and then, eventually, as a thriving national subculture.
According to Peter Strong—a member of Non Bossy Posse and another of the scene’s founding fathers—the term was quickly embraced as shorthand not only for the type of repetitive, bass-heavy music the Posse and their peers were peddling, but also the secret, often illegal techno parties that were happening in and around Sydney’s suburbs at the time.
In the early 90s, just before Castle returned from his Goan crusade, Australia was in the throes of another imported dance scene: this one echoing the UK rave boom of the late 80s. Following the acid house explosion of ‘88, a wave of dance or “rave” house parties rippled throughout Manchester, London and greater Britain before eventually trickling down to Australia, where a small but spirited techno-rave diaspora was emerging.
Clandestine warehouse parties started popping up in the industrial estates of Sydney’s Alexandria and Melbourne’s Docklands. Event locations were revealed last minute via Telecom recorded messaging services—a discretionary measure that ensured police didn’t know about the party until it was too late to intervene. And gradually the city’s nightlife culture recoiled from the traditional, increasingly homogeneous spaces of nightclubs and gravitated toward the underground. But this subversive ideal was relatively short-lived.
Anthropologist Graham St John, in his essay Doof! Australian Post Rave Culture, describes how Australia’s local rave scene had, by the mid-90s, become subject to “increasing commercialism and ‘domestication’ through state regulation patterns.” Growing media panic forced police and legislators, particularly in NSW, to clamp down on the subculture through a series of containment strategies. Among them: the NSW Ministry of Police Code of Practice for Dance Parties, which sought to exercise control over the rave scene by dragging it into the mainstream and confining it to regulated, legally sanctioned venues with dress codes and door prices. “Pleasure prisons,” as St John calls them.
“Applying equally to ‘dance parties’ whether small or large, the Code disadvantaged small scale promoters and operated to contain a new youth cultural pursuit within ‘legitimate’ leisure sites—clubs… [which] discouraged not-for-profit parties (in Sydney and elsewhere),” he reflects.
In broad terms, the emergent doof scene can be understood as a backlash against this attempt to assimilate the subculture, a rejection of the idea that party organisers should have to play by certain rules, operate within certain parameters, and adhere to what local government and police deem socially acceptable.
“As dance became regulated, contained, and increasingly commoditised, [and] as rave became domesticated in ‘pleasure-prisons’… ‘doofs’ represented an escape route—an alternative to the encroaching forces of state, capital, and cliche,” St John writes. “In Australia, the term ‘doof’ has become a synonym for youth cultural dissonance, a ‘rave underculture’… [which] is said to embody a ‘do it yourself/ourself spirit’… [a] post-rave technotribal gathering… [a] site of voiced dissent and epiphanous experience.”
Anarchy Through Dance
For the so-called “technotribes” of the mid-90s—by which St John means any “mobile social unit… implicated in an alternative technocultural network”—the most powerful way to voice dissent and express cultural dissonance was by taking matters of debauchery into their own hands, by throwing free parties outside the regulated venues designated by property barons and lawmakers. A founding philosophy of doof culture thus came to be the reclaiming, and in turn the repurposing, of public spaces.
Leading the charge on this front was Sydney-based collective Vibe Tribe: a small band of techno purveyors who became known for their free, all-night dance parties. That group—which counted Peter Strong among its members—has been credited with throwing one of the first doofs to ever take place in Australia during the early ‘90s, at St Peters’ Sydney Park in the city’s inner west. Castle describes the event, in an interview for Strong’s documentary Do It Ourselves Culture, as “the bushfire that got the whole doof scene going.”
“Vibe Tribe were anarchists,” he tells me over the phone. “They were throwing parties and playing in unused urban spaces, sometimes even blocking off the streets, which was a political action in those days to reclaim the streets. So there was a political ethos to those parties—it was very anti-commercial, anti-big business. But the bush doof was much more open-ended.”
This freewheeling, “open-ended” approach ultimately came to form the bedrock of doof culture. The scene was becoming decentralised and democratised; managed by the people, for the people. Rather than waiting for club owners and promoters to throw dance parties, revellers were seizing the means of production: playing their own music, at their own events, in publicly available spaces. In this sense, the doof movement can be read not just as anti-capitalist but socialist in its ambitions.
Then came the tree change. Throughout the late 90s and into the early noughties, as Sydney and Melbourne’s urban centres became increasingly choked by red tape and regulations, Australia’s nascent DIY techno scene migrated out of the bowels of the cities’ industrial beltways and into the untamed environs of the bush. Small, bespoke psytrance parties started materialising in the rainforests around Byron Bay, populated by hippies and brought to Australian shores by backpackers inspired by the Goan experience. And as the scene shifted away from the inner-city metropolises and moved out into the sticks, its ideologies began to evolve: the anarchistic, anti-capitalist counterculture adopting a New Age, eco-spiritual bent.
“It emerged out of basically nightclubs in the bush, in semi-remote areas where the sound wasn’t bothering people,” Castle explains. “But romantically, idealistically, and shamanically, it was more about identifying with pagan ideas of being in nature—with Australian Aboriginal culture and the idea of having discourse with the elements—rather than being in a nightclub, out of it on booze and powder. In the bush people were taking hallucinogens—acid, mushrooms, DMT, whatever—trying to extend it into a more cosmic dimension.”
The New Pagans
These pagan ideals have become something of a credo for the subculture. When I ask Castle to explain the principle behind bush doofs, he invokes the pseudo-spiritual language that has become common parlance for gurus of the scene. “The repetitive drumbeats are like a tribal mantra,” he says. “It’s transcendental; it’s plugging into a mystical, shamanic, otherworldly vibration.”
On this view, the pulsing kick-drum sound that inspired the term “doof” serves a kind of ritualistic function, like an incantation, allowing the reveller to tap into a state of spiritual ecstasy. And the “bush” is imbued with a similarly metaphysical significance. More than just a semi-remote place where the “sound isn’t bothering people”, these spaces come to represent sacred sites where doof-goers can attempt to reconnect with nature; to partake in what St John refers to as “techno corroborees”.
“Demarcated zones of wonder and beauty, moments of transcendence, connection, and purpose, ‘techno corroborees’—especially trance events—are commonly felt to possess a religious ambience—to be potent sources of spiritual replenishment and maturity,” he writes.
That word, “corroboree”, is more traditionally used to denote a cultural event whereby Indigenous Australians connect with the Dreamtime through music, dance, and costume. Some would no doubt take umbrage with the fact St John has so casually co-opted the term here. But Castle suggests bush doof culture was forged around a mutual respect between revellers and First Australians, recalling how elders would often play didgeridoo at dance parties, and organisers would make journeys into the heart of the Australian interior to throw events with local Indigenous communities. Speaking fondly of “the early days”, he suggests that the doof idealists set out to learn from Indigenous Australians, to collaborate with them, and to embrace their unique ways of seeing the world.
“It was all about being on the same par as them in terms of their outlook about music, and dancing, and having discourse with the Milky Way,” he says. “Those kinds of cosmologies: talking about the relationship with the land, ritual dancing music. You know, this feeling that the music was embodying something to do with the elements, and that dancing to rhythmic music in nature is a natural thing to do. All the ancients did it. It wasn’t just an urban thing.”
Those early days are now a distant memory for Castle, who readily admits things aren’t quite what they used to be. The monumental rise of big, multi-day doofs like Earthcore and Rainbow Serpent have drawn larger and larger crowds out into the bush. The parties have gotten bigger, louder, more decadent—and so, inevitably, more expensive. In Castle’s eyes, what started out as a humble grassroots counterculture on the beaches of Goa has ballooned beyond a state of critical mass. The secret’s out; the mainstream beckons.
In 2013, 20 years after Helga first questioned the musical legitimacy of Non Bossy Posse’s repetitive kick-drum, the term “bush doof” was officially added to the Macquarie Dictionary. But by then it had already changed nearly beyond recognition.
Going Out in a Pyrotechnical Spectacle
While diehards of the scene still wax lyrical about the spiritual and countercultural potentiality of bush doofs, it’s hard to take seriously the claim that some of the bigger multi-day festivals represent much more than a drug-fuelled dance party. The fact remains that these events, for all their New Age platitudes and pledges to honour Mother Earth, are a maelstrom of the same daily vices one would expect to find at any other, more conventional nightclub or music festival: transcendence through self-annihilation; ecstasy more pharmacological than spiritual.
It’s a paradox that sits uncomfortably at the heart of modern doof culture—and one that Castle admits he’s wrestled with for a long time.
“Doof is a winning formula when we get it right,” he says. “But there are too many factors detracting from it these days—whether it’s to do with drug debauchery, decadence, or irresponsibility. These events bring out all the neuroses of society, to the point now where you’ve got police at the parties, and sexual harassment, and criminality.”
Problems like these seem to have come with the increasing size of the events, as what was originally meant to be an alternative scene gradually started to collapse under the weight of its own popularity. Castle recalls when doofs were just a few hundred people, all of them united by a sense of creative community and freewheeling decommodification. Now, some of the bigger events sell upwards of 10,000 tickets—each several hundred dollars a pop—and rake in millions of dollars in the process. For purists, it seems like the scene is on the verge of cannibalising itself and becoming everything it set out to defy.
“It started as an underground, countercultural, anti-commercial thing, but it’s just become festivalised into big business now,” Castle laments. “It’s gone completely back to the ego-driven, hierarchical, up-on-a-stage rock format, which is the epitome of what we were rebelling against.”
The only way back, as Castle sees it, is by returning to the grassroots origins: by significantly downsizing doofs and attempting to recapture that lost sense of community; of everyone sharing in a sense of collective freedom and trying to achieve enlightenment together.
“The bigger the parties become, the more [they] detract from the original spirit and the core essence of why people went out and did these parties,” he says. “It’s become entertainment: a pyrotechnical spectacle. Whereas I always saw the bush doof as more like a psychodrama: the music and the art creating a temporary autonomous zone where you could explore yourself with others. And dance.”