Looking Back at the Legal Bill that Killed off British Rave Culture
We examine the four pages of documents that effectively put an end to the golden days of the UK party scene.
Photo by Mattko
In our Dancing vs. The State series, THUMP explores nightlife's complicated relationship to law enforcement, past and present.
In my hand are four of the most important pages of legislation ever passed in the United Kingdom; a kind of close-typed Rosetta Stone of rave, if you will. A document that has, in its own implicit way, governed my life. Or to be more specific about it, my nightlife. This sheath of paper, this woody wad, is the reason why I'm destined to be forever longing for a past I have no claim to. It is the agent of my deeply felt saudade, and the thing that's stopped my generation getting to spend the next 30 years telling anyone who'll listen about the golden days of E-tinged fantasias.
Much like In Search of Lost Time, the Communist Manifesto, or Fifty Shades of Grey, most of us have probably made reference to the aforementioned document without having actually read the fucking thing in any kind of detail at all. With that in mind, I decided to actually read the oft-referenced but rarely-quoted Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 (CJPOA), in an attempt to answer the following three questions: why was the act written, what it did, and how its impact is still being felt 23 years after being passed in the Houses of Parliament.
Club culture is built on a series of myths, the most pernicious of which is that everything really was better back in the day. Here in the UK at least, the back in the day we find ourselves reading about on a, well, daily basis, is the stretch of time between 1987 and 1994, an era that takes in a Tory rollover and a few seismic shifts in what it meant to be young and British. We're talking, of course, about the heyday of rave, the period when, or so the flat-capped old blokes would have you believe, every field between Burnham Market and Bridlington was filled week in week out with teeming hordes of long haired and loved-up revellers who were determined to change the world through an incredible, and incredibly potent, blend of very loud music and very good drugs.
However life-changing those parties might have been, this was civil obedience of a kind that was unpalatable to a Conservative government for a number of reasons. Firstly, Tories and Garys tend not to go hand in hand. Secondly, those hosting raves often played fast and loose with legal concepts like land control and trespassing. Most importantly, government didn't stand to directly profit off the underground work carried out by the networks of promoters, DJs, and party goers that fuelled the whole movement. And because there was seemingly no way to directly make cash off the various and nefarious enterprises, then it had to go.
Though it was the Major government which pushed the CJPOA through, the seeds of dissatisfaction with acid house and its devoted disciples were sown by Thatcher. Oddly, it wasn't the rampant drug use that first alerted the former PM to what was going on in airport hangars on Saturday nights. Had it not been for Gerald Coke, the elderly uncle of ex-Tory MP for Epsom and Ewell, Archie Hamilton, the nation's gurners might have got away with it for a bit longer.
Coke had been left "very disturbed" by a party that had gone on till half seven in the morning, and with a "feeling of collective anger and helplessness," as a result of the police's (then) inability to curtail any such events with any real kind of preventative force moving forward. A Whitehall memo sent by Carolyn Sinclair, an employee of the government's policy unit at the time of composition in 1989, reveals that "Drugs are not the main issue," and it was a combination of noise pollution and a lack of taxable profits that was the driving force behind any future legal crackdown on the scene. By 1990, the open-air, license-less parties were being shut down, with promoters finding themselves fined. The grip had been tightened and just a few years after Gerald Coke's rude awakening, the great outdoors had become inhospitable.
In 1994 the Michael Howard was Home Secretary, and under his surveyance the party he would later go onto lead (and lose the 2005 general election with) were about to unveil one of the most controversial and least popular legislative acts in living memory. In addition to the rave-related laws that were passed into being, the CJPOA also gave police additional powers for stop and search procedures, repealed councils from having to offer travellers sites for domestic use, and meant that silence in interviews or as a response to legal questioning was now permissible as evidence of supposed inference. Writing in The Faber Book of Pop, noted cultural historian Jon Savage says of that act, "It's about politicians making laws on the basis of judging people's lifestyles," before adding, "and that's no way to make laws."
Whatever your political persuasion might be, wherever you swing on those long May nights every few years, Savage's proclamation contains within it an essential truth.
In the context of THUMP, a publication that specialises in electronic music and club culture, we find ourselves focusing on a tiny, tiny fraction of the horrible whole. Tucked away in Part V of the act—titled Public Order: Collective Trespass or Nuisance on Land—the key section is a paltry four pages long. Headed, "Powers in relation to raves," it takes just a few hundred stark and characterless words to set up the guillotine, perform the execution, and mop up the grizzly grey brain matter of rave's now bone-stiff corpse. And that's the truly odd thing about the CJPOA—rarely has such a short being cast such a dauntingly, painfully, inescapably large shadow.
Given its brevity, you'll probably race through section 63 in a decent time. Couched largely as a series of changes to law that are focused on the distinction between public and private land, it lays bare the previously mentioned governmental objection to excessive noise levels in areas that reside on, or near, residential land. The very first thing the act concerns itself with is:
"A gathering on land in the open air of 100 or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality."
We have our setting—an outdoor space—and our crime—causing distress to nearby residents as a direct result of the volume and duration of the amplified music in question. Now we need our criminals.
Ah yes, here there are, right on cue. Having readied themselves for an evening of "sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats," a group of "ten or more persons" waiting for "such a gathering to begin there," will find themselves being asked to "leave the land and remove any vehicles or property," they happen to be in possession of on said land. Given that most promoters were hoping for 10,000 partygoers, this was a sure fire way of stopping raves dead in their trespassing tracks. Police officers who found themselves, "at least the rank of superintendent," were granted permission to make arrests and seize equipment.
It was a system of laws put in place to ensure that any such parties in the future would run under the proviso that a license had been sought, paid for, and resulted in taxable income for local and general government. The halcyon days of the communal ideal were breathing their last few. Not even a 40,000 strong ensemble of, "ravers, squatters, travellers, eco-activists and civil libertarians," was enough to change public or political opinion. Even Tony Blair, then shadow Home Secretary, and a man who'd go on to revive and then immediately throttle the Labour party, decided not to protest the bill. Civil liberties didn't matter, the law was the law, and everything that was to happen was to happen.
Few legal documents have had the same impact on British culture as the CJPOA, and even fewer still have become as enshrined in the culture they set out to destroy. From Autechre releasing a 1994 EP on Warp with a note that advised "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," to The Prodigy's furious "Their Law," all the way through to protest records by The Orb and Dreadzone—the Criminal Justice Bill sparked revolt. Understandably too, as British youth had seen a shimmering vision of a world outside of the dole queue and the council house waiting list, and just as suddenly as it had emerged, the blinds were shut and darkness reigned.
It is, in the least hyperbolic way possible, incredible that four pages of legalese had the impact they did. The free party scene battled on, and as VICE have shown in films like Locked Off, it still exists in 2017. There will, after all, always be people willing to put life and limb on the line in the name of a good party. We have the footage, too, of the old days, and year after year, the archives grow, and the fanbase gets younger and younger. And then, of course, is the rose-tinted first hand experience, the chemical-sodden stories you occasionally overhear in the pub or on documentaries about Essex gangland operatives who worked out of Romford in the early 90s, and those are the voices that still dominate the conversation when it comes to rave memorial. The rest of us can only dream of a future we never got to see.