Party like it’s 1990: the return of the rave

One evening in late May, cycling through backstreets in the depths of lockdown, I heard a familiar sound. A thump, thump, thumpy-thump, a bassline overlaid with a low hubbub. The scent of charcoal collided with the whiff of weed in the warm, oddly clear London air.

I turned a corner and nearly slammed into a bin filled with iced water. A street party was in full flow, with a throbbing sound system and makeshift barbecue and bar. Mostly young, ecstatic-looking people were straggling down the road, dancing on garden walls and tables. One or two were balanced on wheelie bins. A sea of raised arms wafted in the dusk, over and over to those repetitive beats. I sensed an impulsive quality to it, a party assembled in a panic.

A gathering of about 100 people was an extraordinary sight after eight weeks at home. Part of me longed to join them. There were self-conscious attempts at social distancing; a few masks, people vaguely dancing apart. But this was unmistakably a rebellion. A party in this pandemic was not only dangerous but illegal.

As I pedalled off, I realised what was so familiar about the way the dancers lined up side by side, like a congregation. This was not just a street party. It looked like a rave.

The last UK youth cult is back, according to jittery news reports. After more than 30 years, raves are erupting again: the MDMA-fuelled, often illegal mass gatherings held to the backdrop of insistent electronic music, which led to moral panic, prosecutions and changes in law. In parks and woodlands and on housing estates from Manchester to Leeds to Cornwall to the fringes of London, young people are gathering, their renegade sound systems in tow.

Like their predecessors, corona-era raves seem mostly semi-secret and semi-spontaneous. They, too, are a febrile mix of music, unity, celebration, drugs, tension and defiance.

In the early 1990s, during what became known as the Second Wave of Rave (the first being a less-widespread movement in the summer of 1988), the impermanence of the handful of illegal events I attended was part of the point: quick-and-dirty parties that could be shut down any minute.

The authorities have closed down some corona-raves: parties in the London housing estates of Brixton and White City this month and last ended in clashes with police. Two weeks ago, authorities in Essex used special powers to disperse crowds after thousands descended on woodland, while last week, at a former RAF base north of Bath, more than 3,000 people joined an illegal “Scumerset Free Party”, which police were unable to stop.

Another characteristic of raves then and now is that reporters are not far behind. Reading recent coverage, I wondered whether anything was different about the raves of 2020.

Gatherings in a pandemic, particularly when full of hot, perspiring people on mind-bending drugs, are obviously a bad idea. But what is it about raves that has made us feel unsettled and threatened to the point of targeted legislation? And why, despite 30 years of authorities’ efforts to stamp them out, have they sprung up again?

Simon Reynolds also attended illegal UK parties in the early 1990s. In his book Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, a chronicle of the movement first published in 1998, he describes the experience as “amnesiac moments and dancefloor frenzies that propelled me outside time and history”.

This line has long resonated with me, so I called him in Los Angeles, where he now lives, to ask if he had been following the UK news. He had.

In full swing at The Summer Celebration at Sudeley Castle near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, August 1990 © Dave Swindells

“It is hard to say what is unique about it, but it must have something to do with pent-up energy,” says Reynolds, who had been reading reports of chaotic parties in Greater Manchester in June attended by 6,000 people, which the police told the BBC were “almost impossible to stop”. They were disastrous: one man died, a woman was raped and several people were stabbed. “People have not been going out for months, so it must be extra intense, an extra feeling of recklessness. Not just the fun of doing something illegal,” says Reynolds.

What does Reynolds remember about the raves of the early 1990s? “Some of the energy was about bringing together different classes, races, sexualities — a mad mixture of people.”

I think he is right: in my memory, raves were unsegregated utopias (unlike nightclubs, with their selective door policies) for strangers, particularly young working class, black and white, with no rules or expectations. MDMA can be very dangerous. But it worked in a very particular way.

As Reynolds says in his book: “There is a sense of hyper-real immediacy, cleansed perceptions, the recovery of a childlike amazement at the here-and-now.” The drug also tends to break down the ego and draw people to one another. The music, too, was anonymised, doing away with the concept of the pop star. It was about the label, the sound and its transcendental abilities.

Do today’s young people, propelled into vicious and exhausting culture wars, and dealing with a virus that threatens their future, crave something similar? In his 2019 documentary Everybody in the Place — An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992, the artist Jeremy Deller implies that early-1990s raves, particularly those held in abandoned warehouses in the north of England, were a way for a generation to process national traumas not of their making: the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s and the globalisation hurtling towards them.

Deller explains to a diverse group of London teenagers, agog at his footage of the recent pop-culture past: “These parties are nothing less than a death ritual to mark the transition of Britain from an industrial to a service economy.”

Raves have always been on the fringes of society, where social behaviour and political agency are negotiable, says Marie-Avril Berthet, a researcher at the University of Leeds and a specialist in the geography of nightlife: “Now just being closer to someone is illegal. That says a lot about what’s being negotiated in today’s raves.”

The movement is intertwined with activism too. Deller’s film highlights the connections between illegal parties in the 1990s and groups such as hunt saboteurs and proto climate activists (“all sorts of political subgroups that were repressed by Thatcher”, says Berthet).

I remember rave having close links to the mass gatherings and civil disobedience of the leftwing, often violent anti-poll tax protests of 1990, when I was 21; the sense of a riven society, and that a crowd gathered in common cause during the day may as well continue into the night. But rave was not the preserve of the left. Libertarians, too, were drawn to its hedonism.

I missed the most fabled rave of all, but I know someone who was there: Ben Willmott, then a young reporter on the Malvern Gazette, who went on to cover the rave scene for the NME. He remembers the daughters of a Conservative politician dancing with gusto on a sound system at the Castlemorton rave, which took place on parkland in the English Midlands over a May weekend in 1992. (The dancing daughters were “one of the reasons why the Tories later came down so hard”, Willmott suspects.) That illegal party, the biggest in UK history, attracted an estimated 40,000 people.

A small group was arrested and charged with public order offences. In a case that cost £4m, the defendants were acquitted. Willmott, who reported on the early stages of proceedings in the magistrates’ court, says he remembers thinking the prosecution was always doomed. “Trying to work out the master plan is missing the point. No one was responsible because no one planned it.”

But it did lead to the passing of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which gave police powers to target groups of more than 100 listening to amplified music at night that was “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.

Willmott also remembers media coverage: “The Sun did fantastic business by creating moral panic. Many thousands of its readers who would never have heard of raves were suddenly interested.” Today, the tabloid continues to report breathlessly on lockdown raves.

Berthet believes it is too early to conclude that today’s raves are propelled by social unrest. But she finds similarities with the climate of 30 years ago. “The country is not in a good place, politically and socially,” she says, pointing out that the Manchester raves happened just a fortnight after Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s special adviser, refused to resign after being accused of breaking lockdown rules.

Not everyone buys the theory that raves are a way of marking social transition. Some say they never went away. For others, now as 30 years ago, rave is purely about music, drugs and pleasure.

For the authorities, they are a nuisance. Essex Police says its strategy is to identify parties before they take place and prevent them happening with enforcement orders. “These events could cause additional pressure on the NHS through possible infections,” says assistant chief constable Andy Prophet.

Flirting with the law at an event near Keynsham, Somerset, summer 1990 © Dave Swindells

“It’s very clear the police are not going to tolerate assemblies of people,” says Reynolds. “As much as I like the idea of rave culture as an expression of social energy.”

Raves are not always spontaneous in 2020: some are semi-formal, with tickets. “The people running these are chancers,” says Josh Doherty, a DJ who was invited to play at a rave in lockdown. He declined. “I don’t have an issue with the illegality, which is a vital part of the scene. But these are people who have seen a way to cash in.”

But Willmott looks on with awe at other aspects of 21st-century rave culture, as parties are organised via closed messaging groups, making them harder for the authorities to track.

“Technology is on the ravers’ side today,” he says. “In the past, you had to print off all those flyers. You needed printers who could be trusted. Now, you don’t even spend money to publicise it.” Bluetooth is another boon for modern ravers: “Very handy. You don’t need petrol generators like 30 years ago. Just speakers in a van.”

My memories of raves in the early 1990s are hazy. At that time I lived in Bath, the genteel, faintly bohemian city in the English West Country that even then was a focal point for illegal midsummer parties in the late evenings through to early dawns. One was near Stonehenge, but my abiding images are of an interminable wait for a bus connection at Swindon and traipsing down country lanes. Another in a Somerset field was rained off. “Rave was anarchic and could get quite squalid. There wasn’t always that magical vibe of an English midsummer,” remembers Reynolds.

But I still love the cavernous electronic music that characterised the era. It sounds remarkably similar to that coming from the sound system I encountered in lockdown, thudding away just hours after Cummings had given his defiant press conference in the Downing Street garden.

“Because this is counterculture, because they are not part of what the establishment views as culture, it is easy to disregard rave,” says Berthet. As an academic, she sees a cohort of students in trauma: struggling to access education in lockdown, panicking about the future. “Solidarity is not part of mainstream politics, so people need to come together somehow.” An explosion of chaotic, dangerous raves, she says, could have been predicted. “They are always going to happen when a political elite does whatever it wants.”

Helen Barrett is editor of House & Home

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