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Fight for the right to party

Written by: 30 October 2015 No Comment

On 19 April 1992 – Easter Sunday – Spiral Tribe, a self-described “rag-tag sound system group who came together driven by the will to keep the party going”, who had been running free raves with a mobile rig across the UK since 1990, set up in a warehouse in Acton Lane, west London. To a packed house, they partied through the night. In the early hours, police officers from the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group, a specialist division with duties including crowd control, surrounded the building….



Equal parts Punk attitude and hardcore Ravers, Spiral Tribe Sound System would put on parties in squatted or straight up illegal venues around London and have their ridiculous rigs running for days playing the most steamingly hard Acid Techno. It was rumored that they would have a mate on hand who was a lawyer. In order to keep the tunes going as long as possible before being shut down the lawyer/raver would keep the police at bay with demands for search warrants that would take days for them to get thru the official channels. This became common practice in the illegal rave scene throughout the 90s.

The collective originated in west London and later travelled across Europe and North America. The group had a huge influence on the emerging free tekno subculture. Members of the collective released seminal records on their label, Network 23.


Following the 1989 crackdown on quick-buck rave promoters such as Sunrise, more idealistic clubbers embraced rave as a major countercultural force, a basket of ideas that included hippy radicalism, eco‑activism, anti-capitalism, new age paganism and conspiracy theories.

Of the many sound systems soundtracking the union — Club Dog, Tonka, Bedlam — the most militant and attention-grabbing were Spiral Tribe, a black-clad, shaven-headed crew who combined fanciful talk of ley lines and numerology with an avowed dedication to “make some fucking noise”. In the weeks before the 1992 Avon Free festival, traditionally a small, informal annual gathering, Spiral Tribe had high hopes for a transformative summer.

But to the Conservative government and much of middle England, this was an intolerable alliance of bogeymen: the pill-popping ravers and the freewheeling new age travellers, both staking a claim to the countryside in a way that didn’t play at all well in the shires. The Stonehenge Free festival, Castlemorton’s spiritual precursor, had been banned in 1985, leading to a brutal police attack on a traveller convoy in the so-called Battle of the Beanfield. This time, though, the police were cannier. While the Avon and Somerset force turned back convoys looking for the festival site, neighbouring West Mercia decided it was best to confine the disruption to a small area: Castlemorton common.

Convoys entered the site unimpeded, setting up an ad hoc, self-regulating community that resembled a festival crossed with a shantytown: tents, generators, food stalls and, most importantly, sound systems that ran all day and all night. The more the media fretted about police inaction, the more revellers flocked to the site, reaching an estimated total of 20,000.

For the ravers, this week-long party was heaven, but many travellers had misgivings. Their lifestyle depended on the goodwill of landowners and the relative restraint of the police, but the weekend ravers had no such long-term strategy. One provocation was the loud techno, which drove local residents, and even some of the travellers, to distraction; another was the carelessness of the ravers, who had no experience of burying their waste. Visiting reporters, who didn’t discriminate between the two tribes, painted an unflattering caricature of reckless travellers spending their benefit cheques on drugs while wreaking havoc on their picturesque surroundings.

When the party finally wound down, West Mercia police swooped on Spiral Tribe, impounding their equipment and arresting 13 members. By avoiding another Battle of the Beanfield, they comfortably won the public relations war, licensing the authorities to take further action. Every attempt to mount a free party that summer was quashed by a slick police operation, and at the Tory party conference in October John Major taunted: “New age travellers? Not in this age. Not in any age.”

The free-party dream was already dead by the time the government introduced Part 5 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, a wide-ranging measure that targeted not just ravers and travellers but squatters, hunt saboteurs and eco-warriors. The campaign against the bill was broad but largely toothless. With new clubs springing up across the country every month, most ravers had little incentive to fight for free parties, leaving the travellers and activists to fight a losing battle.

Castlemorton was both the apotheosis and the swan song of a particular vision of rave culture that was unsustainable: renegade yet tolerated, escapist yet confrontational. The radical idealism of Spiral Tribe couldn’t even persuade most of their fellow ravers and traveller allies, let alone the public. Broken, though acquitted of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, the Tribe fled into exile on the continent.

The ideas, organisational tactics and technological savvy of the free-party scene did go on to inspire many of the decade’s direct-action campaigns, such as Reclaim the Streets and the road-building protests that gave us Swampy, but the fight for the right to party was over. (The Guardian)


In 2011, several of the original members of Spiral Tribe launched the SP23 of today. A creative collective involved in a number of grass roots projects as well as major international parties, more information can be found on their website http://sp23.org/

Who would have thought dance music could be political?
Why, anyone who knows the history of dance…


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