Nottingham's DiY collective had a vision for a new society.
An early press shot of the DiY collective (All photos courtesy of DiY)
In June of 1990, DiY – Nottingham's fledgling free-party collective – headed to Glastonbury's adjoining Free Festival with their rig, records and no real idea of how things would pan out. The travellers who ran the event were children of a previous chemical generation, happy with their Hawkwind, speed and acid, and initially bemused by their younger, urban counterparts dropping pills and house grooves.
Nevertheless, as DiY span records for three days, a synergy was born, with the Happy Mondays and KLF's Bill Drummond dropping in from the main festival, and the weekend rounding off with Bez freaky-dancing next to a pony in a field at sunrise in little more than yellow wellies. 72-Hour Party People.
Jump forward 9,030 days or so, and somewhere under the stars this August bank holiday, DiY's 25th birthday will be celebrated in the appropriate manner: consensual, eyes-wide-open carousing, with nobody being charged for the "privilege". As DiY founder member Harry explains: "Our aim was always to take club music to the fields and the attitude of the fields to the clubs. We were very zealous about the 'free' principle as applied to festivals and parties. No start or finish time, no fences, no security. No rip-off, basically. Just the beauty of dancing at dawn in the fields."
If ever a name encapsulated an ethos, it was DiY. Set against swallowing the prêt-a-porter pleasures of consumer society – clubbers too militant about what they want, what they've paid for, their consumer rights – they set out on an adventure that was simultaneously musical, psychic and social. An experiment in conviviality. No master plan or manifesto, other than: Do it yer'sen.
A playlist of 25 DiY "corkers", selected by founding member Digs
Escapism is always symptomatic of the culture being escaped, of course, and the bogey-woman on the horizon during the early DiY years was Maggie. Ironically, both Thatcher and the anarchist-inclined free-party folk wanted a less overbearing state – only, where the Iron Lady growled that there was "no such thing as society", DiY attempted to cultivate new forms of affective, mobile community. Where Thatcherist divide-and-rule stripped back civic life to the Matrix-like atomisation of docile workers and dutiful consumers, DiY were intoxicated by the promise of a connection bumped along by the empathogenic qualities of ecstasy.
It was a subterranean, synaptic take on revolution, far removed from spending a Saturday morning flogging the Socialist Worker in Stoke city centre. "It was a kind of amplified Situationism," says Harry, "referring back to the Temporary Autonomous Zones and the chemical escapism of the 1960s. As with the Dadaists and Situationists, we thought conventional politics had run its course and that only by confronting the status quo in new ways could we make a difference. We believed in the unspoken ideology of liberation through fun. Still do."
The core collective – Harry, Simon DK, Jack, Emma, Digs and Woosh – met in Nottingham in the late-1980s, cementing bonds on the dance floor of the city's seminal Garage nightclub, where they were seduced by that strange voodoo called house music. Soon, they decided to do it themselves. Money was borrowed to buy a rig – "Black Box" – and, in November of 1989, they started throwing house parties around the city's inner city suburbs, graduating quickly to warehouse break-ins, before their serendipitous encounter with the travellers at Big Glasto's Little Brother the following summer.
(From left to right) Simon DK, Damien O'Grady and Cookie
The travellers weren't only kindred spirits; they were also of invaluable practical help in spreading the magic inscribed on those 12-inch wax discs. They provided marquees, generators and knowledge of where in the countryside to take the party sites. DiY brought the Technics and the tunes. The politics, stimulants and attitude were mutual.
It was symbiosis. Timely, too, because DiY had become increasingly disillusioned by their regular forays to the Orbital raves and London acid-house parties. Their course was set: they would be the antithesis of those fly-by-night anarcho-capitalists. "When many others were cashing in on the rave explosion and turning it to shit," beams Harry, "we threw a New Year's Eve party near Bath in 1992-93, and loads of pissed-off people arrived from a Fantazia do down the road – for which they'd been charged £50, and which wasn't a patch on our free one, they said. If you haven't paid, you can't be ripped off."
Over the next three years of party-throwing across the South-West, DiY brought a little slice of Nottingham lore to King Arthur's country. "The early years certainly felt like Robin Hood; ignoring the law, fighting the authorities, dancing across the UK and disappearing in the dawn, how could it not?"
By this stage, the police had formed the Pay Party Unit – a task-force charged with controlling the rave scene – and were on the hunt for trophy busts. "The police were all looking for a Mister Big with a Samsonite full of fivers," recalls Jack. "They wanted a front page of The Sun. Another Tony Colston-Hayter, [notorious promoter] of the Sunrise parties. They didn't really have an idea about why some people would be doing it for free and what the point behind that was."
DiY's Harry during an anti-Criminal Justice Act demonstration
Perhaps the highpoint of these escapades was the infamous Castlemorton Common Festival – "our generation's Woodstock", according to Digs – which mushroomed into the mother of all free parties when local news reports' inadvertent advertisements drew 30,000 revellers to the honeypot of hedonism that prompted the notorious Criminal Justice Act (CJA) and its anti-techno legislation. Digs and Woosh had arrived after DJing in Liverpool, and the latter remembers "the lanes being rammed, people crawling over cars, total mayhem. It was like a scene from Mad Max. This was before mobile phones and the internet – but then, word of mouth travels fast when there's a good time involved."
After three days on site, DiY broke up their rig to safeguard against it being impounded, and, as things got uglier down south, retreated to Nottingham to hunker down a while. However, the government crackdown had provoked a more overtly political stance in defence of the traveller and free-party lifestyles, and several fundraising all-nighters were held under the "All Systems Go" moniker, with over £30,000 being raised to fight the CJA.
Meanwhile, clandestine parties were still held in the quarries, barns and forests of the Midlands, alongside regular club nights – Floppy Disco, Bounce, Doghouse, Serve Chilled – both back home and beyond, everywhere from San Francisco to Ibiza. And wherever that happened, everyone involved was paid the same fee: promoters, engineers, DJs – the lot.
By 1997, after soundtracking some impromptu shape-throwing under the railway arches opposite the Haçienda during Factory Records boss Anthony H Wilson's In the City music conference, DiY were described as "culturally, the most dangerous people in the UK". The danger, of course, arising from the fact that they completely rejected the profit motive.
"Many of the other club owners, promoters and label owners we dealt with could never understand why we didn't charge and make a fortune," sighs Harry. "If you didn't get it – well, then you just didn't get it. We did get it, and so did the hundreds of thousands of people who came to our parties and festivals. The club nights were more of a social – there was still a great atmosphere and top music, but they could never rival the thrill and excitement of the outdoors and the vibe created by dancing under the stars."
(From left to right) Digs, Harry, Woosh and Simon DK today
Even so, there was much more to DiY than the free parties, says Pete Woosh: "We wanted to break good music, make good music, make people smile, make a difference." Indeed, DiY discs – along with sub-labels DiY Diversions and Strictly 4 Groovers – released over 100 twelves, albums and compilations, providing a helping hand to many acclaimed producers from the region – Charles Webster, Atjazz, Nail, Schmoov! Rhythm Plate – and the fulcrum around which a "Notts sound" – the deep house played by a slew of DiY-inspired local sound-systems – emerged around the turn of the millennium.
Not that the ironies of their cottage industry were lost on Harry: "We were actually on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme for a while, a Thatcher-inspired benefits scheme for young entrepreneurs. Our record label was a business that ran for nearly 10 years and employed people, and was a success in every way – except financially, of course!"
The crash came when their distributor went bankrupt two days after receiving a £15,000 cheque for an album DiY had licensed for US release. Still, Woosh was philosophical, saying it was "a proper fuckery, but DiY has always been about an attitude. You can kill a record label, perhaps, but not an ethos or an idea".
Guests on their way to a free party in Scoraig, Scotland
That ethos was a continuation of a long-standing English utopian tradition: the dream of a free culture, in both a fiscal and psychological sense. The Revolution of Everyday Life, to cite one famous Situationist text. Yet, perhaps clubbing or raving today has borne out the thesis of the other Situationist pillar, The Society of the Spectacle, with the dance floor less a space for ego-loss and immersive adventure, and more the venue for a social media status update.
While the label collapsed and the 2000s brought an inevitable slowdown in operations – "we did fly fairly close to the sun at times, and some bad judgements were made along the way", confesses Woosh – the crew regularly popped up behind decks across the country and are now preparing for the 25th birthday, the next episode of the gloriously haphazard experiment that is DiY.
"We had no big plan in the early days of what we wanted to be," Harry chuckles. "Our only concrete goal was to put on the best parties in human history; and we like to think that, on occasion, we came pretty close."
As their throbbing, bobbing dance floor might say: "One more!!"
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