I’m sat in a posh private members club in Mayfair. It’s all dark timber clad walls and velvet quilted chairs – everything W1 should be. I’m not to get too comfortable says the man I’m meeting. Because tonight we’re going to an illegal rave.
The illegal rave scene, which exploded with the birth of acid house in the late 80s and early 90s, is well and truly alive. For the uninitiated, an illegal rave is an unlicensed party, usually at an outdoor location for rural settings. Organisers certainly don’t seek the landowners permission. In towns and cities, you’ll find them anywhere from parks and car parks, to abandoned buildings and office blocks. Fortunately, you no longer have to call an answering machine to get directions to a field somewhere near Milton Keynes. You do however need a text message.
There’s something thrilling about that first little bit of information. Your journey into the unknown is about to begin. Most clubbing experiences all have a beginning, a middle, and an end that is familiar. And it’s also the same wherever you go in the world. From the queue, to the club, to the taxi home, with chips in hand. It’s a well worn path and it becomes repetitive, very quickly. Not so for the illegal rave. It truly feels like anything could happen.
The message gives us instructions to a rather plush address a few miles away. The building was apparently scouted 5 days ago. The man behind the operation seems very well versed in the procedure for such an event.
As we approach the empty office block just off Oxford Street, there’s a police van just ahead. Things are not going to plan.
A few local residents are on the street corner, just past the entrance to the venue for tonight’s proceedings.
“We called the police. What else can you do?” Says a calm man, with his arms folded.
“They did one 2 months ago,” adds the landlady of the pub opposite. “This one was going to be a big one though.”
Above our heads on the 5th floor, some disco lights twirl across the ceiling and shine through the window. There’s no noise though. No thumping beat. No distant murmur of bass through the walls. The soundsystem didn’t make it inside. The lights clearly did, but that’s as far as organisers got before the police turned up.
Not to worry, because over in East London, an abandoned pub has been scouted. Another Saturday night party is planned. This time a Facebook group has the link with all the info you need.
It’s £5 on the “door”. Drinks will be available to buy. And laughing gas. Lots of laughing gas. This is East London after all.
Intrigued, a friend and I make our way through Hackney’s toughest housing estates to finally find the dilapidated pub. This time though, there’s definitely sound, and no sign of the law. I imagine this is how early explorers felt as they made their way into a jungle clearing, seeing Aztec ruins for the first time. It feels VERY exciting.
We hand over our fivers and make our way in. House music bangs out from the sound system, while handfuls of people dance around. Others are lounging around, clearly on another planet, while some wait at the bar. A can of Red Stripe is £5. Some wines and spirits are available, but not many. The level of organisation and entrepreneurship is astonishing.
The constant hiss of balloons being filled is almost as loud as the music.
Two girls in their late 20s collapse in a fit of giggles in front of me. One of them has lost the power of speech. And movement. So her partner in crime leaves her on the floor, and swans off into the night. The girl wriggles around in front of me like a dying worm.
A few of us join together to help the dying worm up. Her eyes roll to the back of her head. She’s clearly conscious but whatever she’s going through, does NOT look fun. She assures us she’s fine, and scrapes herself together. Using the wall as a guide, she disappears into another room.
What happens in the next few hours is nothing extraordinary for a Saturday night. People come and go. The music stays at a constant level. And there’s no sign of the police, or angry neighbours at any point.
Drugs and alcohol are a massive part of the scene. And anybody who says differently is lying. It’s very unlikely there are trained medical staff at an illegal rave. St John Ambulances probably won’t pitch up at a farmers field in Devon at short notice. So how do we manage that going forward? It’s probably an uncool question to ask. And one that isn’t being pondered by illegal promoters, or their punters. Health and safety isn’t exactly a sexy conversation topic on a Saturday night is it?
As the sun comes up, it’s time to leave. The most dramatic thing that happens all night is that I fall asleep on the train home, and miss my stop. With red eyes squinting in the early morning sun, I wonder how many other illegal parties have taken place in the UK, while we were raving in the pub?
So I ask the police, but they don’t reply. Probably too busy stopping murders, or something.
But not to worry. Because as i’ve been conducting my own observations across the capital, Sky News have also been investigating the rise in illegal parties across the UK. 682 illegal raves were recorded in 2017 by 14 different police forces. Considering there are 45 police forces in the UK, it’s safe to assume the real number of illicit parties is much higher.
In London alone, the Met documented 133 unlicensed events in 2017. A growth of almost 50% in the 12 months from 2016. Last year’s figures aren’t available as I type this, but a quick google gives you enough anecdotal evidence to see that the police are dealing with illegal parties right across the UK on a weekly basis.
So why is this happening? I agree with many that part of the problem is the closure of clubs, and spaces to have legitimate licensed parties. There’s also the cost to go to those remaining events. But i think there’s something more at play.
There’s a feeling of apathy with what many now feel is a sanitised, and stale nightlife in the UK. When promoters I know talk about success these days, they all mention Manchester’s Warehouse Project. A club night, in the traditional sense, that only runs for 3.5 months a year. It’s diverse musical programme makes no two consecutive weekends the same.The excitement and demand holds up when you limit the supply. It’s basic GSCE business studies. And it’s a model that many are now trying to copy.
And let’s not forget the return to the counter culture mindset, fuelled through years of austerity. Which, interestingly, directly intersected with the growth of the creator generation. The system many of us have been raised in has simply failed. Sticking two fingers up to that system, has become common. In disappointment, in defiance, and often, in despair. Many of us have been left with no choice, but to become captains of our own ship called destiny.
It’s also a bit, well, naughty. You know it’s a bit wrong that you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be. But the buzz and the thrill, outweighs any potential guilt you might have about the location of the rave.
A colleague of mine cottoned onto this 10 years ago. He managed to find a warehouse in East London, and fully license it via the council. Through Facebook and text, he made it appear he was putting on a “secret ILLEGAL warehouse party”. But from the very start, all the forms were filled in, and authorities alerted. Hundreds of people paid £20 for the experience, and were none the wiser. The event sold out. Theatre of the mind is a powerful tool.
So what’s the solution?
Well the appointment of London’s first night czar might be a small start in the capital. Amy Lamé has promised to work on “keeping the capital safe, vibrant and diverse at night.” The London mayor’s plan to save, protect and support grassroots music venues is underway. The ultimate goal, they say, is to make London the world’s best music city. Nashville, however, might have something to say about that. In Manchester, Sacha Lord, the man behind the Warehouse Project and Parklife festival, has taken on the roll of Nightime Economy Manager for Greater Manchester. All positive. But politics can be a long, boring and drawn out beast. A slow moving vehicle, in the dynamic instant world, we now find ourselves living in. And what about the countryside?
The parties only seem to get bigger, the further you travel from major cities. At the start of the summer, the police attended an event in the Ae forest in Dumfries where 1000 people had gathered. In this instance, the location was so remote, authorities stated that no local communities were being effected. The police worked together with organisers to gradually wind down the event.
In April this year, police were called to a rave near Corfe Castle in Dorset, where 1,500 people had taken over a farmer’s land. Residents and holidaymakers ten miles away had complained about the noise coming from the site. It took 36 hours for the last attendees to leave.
One younger raver in the abandoned pub in Hackney told me the “paradigm had shifted.” Maybe he’s right and this is the new normal for nightlife in the UK? However, with all patterns and trends, all good things, ALWAYS come to an end. It just doesn’t look like it’s going to be anytime soon.