Shut Down: a Short History of Cultural Repression from the Criminal Justice Act to Fabric
Here's the story of how the powers that be have taken on nightlife—and won.
Photo via VICE
In 1994, Mancunian electronica outfit Autechre released their three track Anti EP with the following proviso:
"Warning. "Lost" and "Djarum" contain repetitive beats. We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law. "Flutter" has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can therefore be played under the proposed new law. However, we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment."
An unorthodox notice for sure, it was attached because the EP was released in response to the Conservatives darkly oppressive Criminal Justice Act, which came into force in the same year. Parts of the hastily drafted act were aimed squarely at putting the brakes on the UK's self-starting, explosively dynamic illegal rave scene, which had provoked a pious, moralistic panic in the British tabloids. One section of the bill specifically targeted the playing of music 'characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats'.
This absurd sounding definition was an attempt to distinguish raves from other, acceptable outdoor music events, and highlights the extent to which the police were intent on targeting the free party scene. The act empowered police to order people away from land where a rave was due to set up, to seize vehicles and equipment, and to perform stop and searches. The intentions behind its drafting—to disrupt communities regarded as provocative or countercultural—was evident when it was used to disband groups such as hunt saboteurs, direct action protesters and squatters. Ominously, it appeared to be applicable to any gathering of people that the authorities took a dislike to.
In many ways the rave scene was a pure embodiment of Thatcherite entrepreneurial zeal—it was DIY, bootstrapped, amoral and whip smart. Rave promoters traded on the categorical dopamine imperatives of their bonkers punters in an unregulated hedonistic entanglement of profit and pleasure. Rave classics were produced in bedrooms and pressed on the cheap. Tickets were knocked out from market stalls, and directions to raves in Essex fields broadcast last minute over pirate radio. And all this was both charged up on and driving an expansive production and trade rush in Ecstasy, the drug which fundamentally underscored the entire movement.
The mainstream media, the police, and finally the government orchestrated a relentless attack on rave culture, culminating in the draconian Criminal Justice Act—a dictatorial assault on people's rights to do with themselves as they please while causing no harm to anyone else. The establishment's battle against rave was an autocratic, unjustifiable waste of public resources which achieved no outcomes of any discernible merit.
Which brings us to fabric.
On Tuesday last week it was announced that the most well known nightclub in the UK today, famous both domestically and overseas, would have its license permanently revoked and be shut down. This unfathomable step has been taken by Islington Council in consultation with the Metropolitan Police, following the drug-related deaths of two teenagers at the club over the past nine months.
The damage done to the cultural landscape of London is immense—Fabric is iconic, and attracts visitors from around the world. The club reinforces and expands on the UK's reputation for intense musical bedlam, modernity, and unshakable cultural relevance. It's places like Fabric that give London and the whole of the UK its authentic, unbowed libertine cachet.
Although the UK has become a more homogenous place in recent years, its ability to unexpectedly create something from nothing remains intact. Grime has finally gained mainstream acceptance, and is the best recent example of a sound that could have emerged from nowhere but the UK. During the first wave of grime, the Guardian's review of Dizzee Rascal's Boy in da Corner stated that it "appears to borrow from nothing". It is at precisely these moments, when the past seems worn out and terminally recycled, that an artist like Dizzee Rascal will appear from the margins, and with instinctive irreverence construct something unthinkably new.
On the question of drug use, it's difficult to imagine a more retrograde, out-of-touch, discredited reaction to the deaths that occurred than to close the club down. You want to make drug use safer? Then stop criminalising users and establish substance checking services, like they have in Belgium, Austria and other such anarchic madhouses. Better yet, legalise drug use. Our century long experiment in counter-intuitive government overreach has failed and been mercilessly exposed as an illiberal, wrong-headed nonsense. Prohibition is entirely counterproductive, causing great harm to society, putting users in danger, and placing what should be a thoughtfully regulated industry in the hands of sharkish criminal predators.
Full blown legalization is not something that's likely to happen quickly, if ever, but what can be enacted is a grown-up policy of education and acceptance. Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that adults must be allowed to make informed decisions for themselves. Once this step is taken there can be little rational argument against enabling drug users to ensure that the product they're using is clean and safe.
The closing down of Fabric hasn't happened in isolation. Around the capital there is a cultural hollowing out as a succession of clubs have shut up shop for good. Demographics shift toward the monied and conservative, rents rise, and puritanical attitudes regarding altered states of mind are allowed to distort sovereign personal freedoms. Whether or not you went to the clubs in question, this loss of urban colour is detrimental to the city and its people. Let the authorities impose on personal autonomy, allow them to ordain from above their defunct moral codes and destroy clubs like Fabric, and we'll soon be watching on as the capital dilates sadly from a potent engine of glitchy unpredictability into a sterile, deadened simulation of city life.
As the Chair of the Night Time Industries Association, Alan Miller, has stated in regard to Fabric's extensive safety precautions:
"If you close Fabric, you'll have to close every nightclub in Britain, because no one has the due diligence, extra staff and safety measures they employ."
The Criminal Justice Act of 1994 didn't work in its aim of stamping out rave culture. In fact, dance music and its attendant drug-fueled, celebratory escapism went mainstream, joyously disassembling the status quo. The scene moved from fields and disused warehouses into licensed city centre venues, and has completely reshaped nightlife, music and popular culture in the UK and overseas.
However, the closing down of Fabric shows that in 2016 the inherent suspicion and lack of understanding the authorities have towards dance music is still very much around. Worse still, this attitude continues to inform their asinine decision-making, leading them to violate personal freedoms and mindlessly vandalise a culture which doesn't belong to them.
Rave and club culture in their most celebratory forms are neither exclusive or elitist, and nobody can claim ownership of them. Quite the opposite—they belong to anyone who wants in. All that's asked is that those who prefer not to indulge should remain respectful and tolerant, and recognise the overwhelming extent to which dance music has enhanced Britain's cultural spectrum over the years.