Nightlife

Inside the Return of the UK's Illegal Raves

After months of coronavirus lockdown, recent weeks have seen a spate of illegal parties. We spoke to both rave organisers and legal nightlife figures about how they're gearing up for their own return.
21 June 2020, 8:00am
illegal raves lockdown
Left: a socially distanced rave in Slovakia, screenshot via @tony_katrencik. Right: A recent rave outside Nottingham. Photo: Nitty

Great Britain has a deep connection with unlicensed raving, stretching from the baggy trousered M25 ramblers of Acid House to today's TikTok teens posting videos of their chattering jaws at drum-and-bass warehouse parties. Now, in a nation still under lockdown, people are once again heading to fields and woods across the country to dance, drink and take drugs at illegal raves.

June witnessed large gatherings in Kirkby, Harlesden, Lichfield, Leeds and Leytonstone, fuelled by social media and WhatsApp. Overseas, a video of a socially distanced rave in Slovakia went viral, showing attendees dancing in taped off personal party zones.

The rave fervour reached an apex last weekend when a man died, one woman was raped and three stabbings took place across two Greater Manchester events that a reported 6,000 people attended. Reaction was broadly scathing, with Manchester night-time economy advisor and Warehouse Project co-founder Sacha Lord tweeting that those partying in defiance of government social distancing guidelines "aren't clubbers. Just selfish idiots."

Two weekends previously, in a sun-dappled woodland glade outside Nottingham, local promoters Nitty organised the country's first socially distanced rave and received wide press coverage. While numbers in attendance were small – 40 were sent the location via WhatsApp from the 750 that signed up to attend – the event featured sets from established DJs and served its purpose of sparking a conversation around the viability of socially distanced clubbing.

So: is it possible to rave responsibly during coronavirus?

nitty rave nottingham

Guests at the Nitty rave outside Nottingham. Photo: Nitty

"Raves and clubs are breeding grounds for infection, especially when people are intoxicated," says Nitty co-founder James Morsh over the phone from Nottingham. "People are dancing next to each other, sharing fags, drinks, maybe keys. So we thought about creating a solution – a happy medium."

Morsh informed the council they were organising the event for a film on socially distanced events – which they were – and the attendees were grouped together in nine separate "household" areas, four to five metres apart from each other. They had an enforcer and ravers brought their own drinks. "Everyone kept up the social distancing," says Morsh, who also runs the Pill Report Instagram account. When police arrived around 8PM – Morsh says there were around 12 officers – they were satisfied that guidelines were being adhered to and told those present to "have fun".

This is all great, but tempering any enthusiasm is the event's diminutive size – especially when you consider the scale of last weekend's illegal raves in Greater Manchester. "We're working on a model to upscale this," says Morsh. "But it can't be upscaled to 500 people. Maybe 200 people, and it's definitely a day thing," acknowledging that even with increased security it would be hard to enforce social distancing measures under darkness.

We've already seen a number of alternative solutions presented for those who want to party during coronavirus, from German drive-in raves and attempts at socially distanced clubbing in Holland to pandemic-proof body suits. All of them frankly as appealing as a Pryzym on bank holiday, and not viable solutions for anyone craving the hurly-burly and escapism of an oscillating concrete box.

Stuart Glen is the founder of The Cause nightclub in Tottenham, and has been devising his own plans for events on the venue's outdoor terrace. They currently comprise two ticketed sittings a day on Fridays and Saturdays, requiring a minimum spend for tables of four appropriately distanced, and with increased staffing to ensure government guidelines are sacrosanct. It won't be quite like the nights where the rooms and corridors of the 900-capacity venue shook with bass, but for now it's a case of adapting.

"It's more laid back and experimental – DJs maybe playing stuff they wouldn't normally, outdoors in the sun, food. It's a bit more conversational rather than a full-on rave," Glen says.

The Cause is blessed with five indoor rooms, and Glen says they could potentially house individually ticketed parties, with the social distancing guidelines enforced. He recognises, however, that these are antithetical to the communal spirit of raving: "The best nights are when you go out, meet new friends, and it's preventing that. We want to get back to normal, but it'll be more of a boozer with big tunes when we open up."

Ultimately, it's a case of promoters doing what they can to plug the holes in budgets that have been blown apart by three months of zero trade, while avoiding a repeat of instances in both Arizona and Seoul's Itaewon district, where nightclubs have been held directly responsible for outbreaks of the virus. In the latter, 54 new coronavirus infections were traced back to one man who visited five clubs on the 1st and 2nd of May – a stark reminder of how sociable this virus can be in tight spaces.

Skiddle is a Preston-based ticketing platform that recently surveyed hundreds of its promoters about socially distanced raves and gigs. "Financial viability a is major concern. Many promoters need to hit over 50 percent capacity just to break even," says co-founder Ben Sebborn. "Most of our promoters are looking for ways to make events happen, and they usually do find a way. A move towards proper testing would allow for larger capacities, with a negative test result becoming a condition of entry."

James Morsh thinks the track and trace app, when it finally becomes available, could play a crucial role. "Make it mandatory for anyone attending the venue," he says. "And people that are supposed to be self-isolating are obviously not allowed to enter."

There have been headlines about a third summer of love, and Michael Kill of the Night-Time Industries Association told VICE that "one of the biggest hurdles that many Night Time Economy businesses and event operators face is 'physical distancing' … If we continue to present these measures over a sustained period of time, we will see a revolution of illegal social gatherings and raves start to develop across the country, which in turn will bring rise to new challenges."

Luke*, who attended a recent illegal party in Leeds, said: "People weren't social distancing [there] at all. It was just normal. But the atmosphere was really good. It was always going to be, because people have this tension that’s been building up, and people are ready to let loose."

Given that we're very slowly emerging from an unprecedented period of national frustration, fear and anxiety, one can understand why a rave-hungry populace is desperate to dust off the cobwebs and dust down their Air Force Ones – especially when the government has bent the rules when it suited them. It's also much easier to amplify a party now than it was in 1989; after nine minutes of searching on Facebook and Instagram, I found an underground London rave happening on the 4th of July, with attendees gaining location details though WhatsApp.

That said, we're still in the midst of a pandemic. As Greater Manchester Police assistant chief constable Chris Sykes said after this weekend's illegal parties: "Coronavirus is still a threat and we will continue to engage with people to encourage them to take some personal responsibility and do the right thing."

@dhillierwrites

The Cause is running a coronavirus crowdfunder, which you can donate to here.