June 10, 2013 | by Faber Social
This month, Faber publishes a new edition of Simon Reynolds’s classic history of rave music and dance culture, Energy Flash, containing a substantial new section on developments such as dubstep and the explosion of EDM in the States. Simon has put together a Spotify playlist, for those seeking a soundtrack while they read. In the following extract, he describes at first-hand the game-changing Castlemorton free festival of 1992.
It’s 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, 23 May 1992. We’re cruising along a country lane somewhere in the English West Country, when the abnormally – one might even say suspiciously – heavy traffic comes to a halt. Someone up ahead has stopped to take a leak. Suddenly, from almost every car, boys emerge to follow suit. It’s an image I’ll never forget: irradiated in the gleam of a hundred headlights, innumerable arcs of urine spraying into the hedgerow, as far as the eye can see.
An hour earlier we’d been hurtling down the motorway, en route to my first Spiral Tribe outdoor rave. The Spirals are part of the crossover between the rave scene and the ‘crusty’ subculture – crusties being squat-dwelling anarcho-hippy-punk types named after their matted dreadlocks and post-apocalyptic garb. At the bottom of the crusty spectrum are destitute idlers who panhandle for a living; at the top end are more enterprising types who organize illegal parties, deal drugs or make and sell artefacts and clothes.
My friends have Tribal connections, and one of the clan’s DJs has cadged a ride. He tells us about ‘doets’, a new drug in circulation, which he says is a super-potent cocktail of speed, LSD, E and ketamine that propels the user on a thirty-hour trip with ‘amazing visuals, man!’ Then he plays a tape of Spiral Tribe’s debut EP. The killer track, ‘Doet’, is a juggernaut of noise kick-started by a nursery rhyme – ‘If you’re at a rave and you can’t score an E / you must be / buzzin’ / on acid’ – and the rabble-rousing exhortation ‘Rush your fucking bollocks off!!!’ This is Spiral Tribe’s slogan of the summer. The insolent, uncouth voice on ‘Doet’ belongs to MC Scallywag, whose mischievous rewrite of The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ (‘Ecstasy, it’s really got me now . . . got me so I don’t know what I’m doing’) is the hook in Xenophobia’s ‘Rush in the House’, another of that summer’s ’ardkore anthems.
Gradually, we realize we are no longer alone; our car has become part of a convoy, and the breathless anticipation, the sense of strength-in-numbers grows until almost unbearable, as does the fear that the police will thwart the rave. Our destination is Castlemorton Common in Worcestershire, not far from the border with Wales. This year it is the site for the Avon Free Festival, one of the dozen or more summer festivals attended by ‘New Age travellers’ – basically nomadic crusties.
Travelling as a lifestyle began in the early seventies, as convoys of hippies spent the summer wandering from site to site on the free-festival circuit, which included the Rainbow Festival, Cantlin Stone, Ribblehead, Inglestone Common, Rough Tor, Magic Mushroom and Cinsbury Ring Free. Gradually, these raggle-taggle remnants of the original counter-culture built up a neo-medieval economy based around crafts, alternative medicine and entertainment: jugglers, acrobats, healers, food vendors, candle makers, clothes sellers, tattooists, piercers, jewellers and drug pedlars. The New Age traveller first burst into public consciousness as a modern ‘folk-devil’ in June 1985, thanks to the Battle of the Beanfield. Police diverted the convoy en route to the Stonehenge Free Festival (the traditional site for Summer Solstice celebrations) and went on the rampage, trashing vehicles and clubbing men and women alike. The then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd referred to the travellers as ‘medieval brigands’, while Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared, ‘I am only too pleased to make life as difficult as possible for these hippy convoys.’ Despite persecution from the authorities, the travelling movement not only survived, it grew. As squatting became a less viable option and the government mounted a clampdown on welfare claimants, many urban crusties tired of the squalor of settled life and took to the roving lifestyle. By the end of the eighties, some estimates put the number of travellers at 40,000.
At the 1990 Glastonbury rock festival, crusties and hippies danced to house and techno sound systems like Club Dog and Tonka, while outside the festival bounds there was confrontation as travellers (who’d hitherto been let in for free) railed against the high ticket price and demanded a free camp site. 1990 also saw ravers – sick of commercialized, rip-off raves – turning up at the free festivals, where techno was gradually eclipsing the hippies’ previous staple (cosmic trance-rock of the Hawkwind/Here and Now/Magic Mushroom Band stripe). Sound-system collectives, like Nottingham’s DiY, formed and started to throw free parties at abandoned airfields or on hilltops, drawing a mixed crowd of urban ravers and crusty road warriors.
Spiral Tribe started hooking up with the travellers in the summer of 1991, and rapidly became prime movers on the scene, luring thousands of urban ravers to party at disused airfields and abandoned quarries; often, the events coincided with traditional free festivals. Gradually, the Spirals – alongside similar sound-system outfits like Bedlam, Circus Warp, Techno Travellers, Armageddon, Adrenalin and Circus Normal – fermented a peculiar symbiosis between the straight rave scene and the anarcho-hippy nomads: the ’ardkore weekenders brought an infusion of money generated by working in the straight world; the travellers provided an environment for freaking out. There were tensions, initially: some older travellers, used to folk and acid rock, disliked the harsh new techno soundtrack. Inevitably, there was mutual suspicion based on differences of lifestyles, look and outlook: the travellers with their dreadlocks and shaved patches of scalp, hessian jackets, camouflage fatigues, DM boots and ring piercings galore; the fashion-conscious middle-class ravers; the baggy-trouser-and-T-shirted ’ardkore proles. But as they discovered common ground in drugs, dance and the desire to have a wild time dirt-cheap, travellers and ravers formed what cultural critic Lawrence Grossberg calls an ‘affective alliance’: the affect, in this instance, being an exhilarating feeling of freedom, combined with the belief that freedom ain’t really free if you have to pay for it.
Little do we know it as we wind along the West Country lanes, but Castlemorton is set to be the high-water mark and absolute climax of this crusty–raver alliance. Previous Spiral-instigated parties have drawn crowds in the region of five or six thousand. But arriving at the darkened Common, it quickly becomes apparent that the event has escalated beyond all expectations. Thanks to Bank Holiday Monday’s prolongation of the weekend, and exceptionally fine weather, Castlemorton is well on its way to becoming the biggest illegal rave in history. Estimates vary from twenty thousand to forty thousand present.
Our first surprise is the absence of a large-scale police presence. We encounter only a pair of genial constables, who direct us to a safer parking space, lest ‘all your paint gets scraped off by one of the big buses’. The midsummer night scene is somewhere between a medieval encampment and a Third World shanty town. The lanes are choked with caravans, buses, ex-military transports, gaudily painted horse-drawn vehicles and hundreds of cars (in the near pitch-black, I keep gouging my hips on jutting wing mirrors). The fields are jammed with a higgledy-piggledy throng of tents, pavilions and eerie-looking fluorescent sculptures (the work of Sam Hegarty, resident artist for the Circus Irritant sound system).
The Third World/medieval vibe is exacerbated by the bazaar atmosphere. Pedlars hawk their illicit wares, hollering ‘get your acid!’ or ‘hash cookies for sale’, propositioning us with wraps of speed, magic-mushroom pies and innumerable brands of Ecstasy. The most medieval aspect of all, we discover later, is the total absence of sanitation. Venturing out onto the camp’s perimeter, we quickly learn to tread gingerly, in order to avoid the excrement amid the bracken and the toilet paper hanging from gorse bushes. A big placard commands ‘Bury Your Shit’, but unlike the seasoned travellers, urban ravers haven’t come armed with spades.
After stumbling through the chock-a-block murk for what feels like a small eternity, we finally make it to Spiral Tribe’s own enclosure, a Wild West-style wagon circle of vans and trucks circumscribing a grassy dancefloor. While the event is free, in accordance with the Spiral credo ‘no money, no ego’, ravers are invited to give donations in order to keep ‘the gennies’ (electricity generators) running. Inside the circle, the scene is like a pagan gathering. With their amazing, undulating dance moves, it seems like the crowd has evolved into a single, pulsating organism. Faces are contorted by expressions midway between orgasm and sobbing. ‘Lost the plot, we’ve lost the plot,’ hollers one MC. ‘Off my fuckin’ tree.’ It’s time for us to get ‘on the vibe’, as the Spirals put it, and we quickly score some Tangerine Sunsets at £15 a shot, sold out of the back of a van.
Later, another Spiral MC, crop-headed Simone, hollers ‘Let’s lose it, together,’ then chants the chorus of another track from the forthcoming Spiral Tribe EP, which quotes the lament of a nineteenth- century American-Indian chieftain. ‘I am a savage, and I can’t understand / How the beauty of the Earth can be sold back to man,’ toasts Simone. Dancing with the stars overhead, it’s hard not to succumb to the back-to-Nature romanticism. It’s all part of Spiral Tribe’s eco-mystical creed, which is crystallized in the buzzword ‘terra-technic’: using technology to unlock the primal energy of Mother Earth. (It’s also a pun on the Technics SL1200 Mk2 turntable favoured by DJs.) Tonight, the subsonic bass-throb of their sound system certainly feels like it’s forging a connection between my bowels and the Earth’s core. Years later, Spiral DJ Aztek described the terra-technic rush in Eternity magazine: ‘the sensation is like being earthed and receiving some sort of energy signal’. (Of course, this might have something to do with his professed intake of around eight or nine Ecstasy tablets per weekend at that time!)
Around 4.30 a.m., the grey pre-dawn light uncovers a scene weirdly poised between idyllic and apocalyptic. The breathtaking Malvern Hills, shrouded with mist, are a sight for sore eyes. But at the Malverns’ feet, the festival site is an eyesore. Shagged-out dancers huddle around small bonfires to ward off the clammy, creeping damp. Undernourished travellers’ dogs roam freely. Bedraggled figures wander around scavenging for cigarette butts to make joints; others panhandle for money to buy more E.
The consensus is that the Tangerine Sunsets are a disappointment. But a spare Rhubarb and Custard left over from a previous rave is shared, and that’s all it takes to push us over the edge. On my weakened, sleep-deprived system and empty stomach, the effect is almost instantaneous: I’ve got that walking-on-air, helium-for-blood feeling. Even though the music sounds harsh and distorted because it’s overdriven at top volume through an inadequate PA, I’m swept up in a frenzy of belligerent euphoria. A friend tells me later I’ve actually been growling!
One image sums up Castlemorton for me. A beautiful, androgynous girl – short black bob, virulent red lipstick, Ray-Ban sunglasses, burgundy short-sleeve top – is dancing on top of a van. Her fingers stab and slice, carving cryptograms in the dawn air, and her mouth is puckered in a pout of indescribable, sublime impudence. She’s totally, fiercely on the vibe, living in the moment, loving it.
By ten in the morning, the sun’s breaking through, the temperature’s rising, and our rush has dwindled to a buzzy lassitude. We sprawl on the grass. A photographer friend-of-a-friend, supposedly here to document history-in-the-making, has been dozing for five hours; he wakes, mutters ‘Wicked sleep!’ and we piss ourselves laughing. All around, the exposed flesh of slumped, catatonic bodies is visibly blistering in the baking heat. A couple of well-trained four-year-old crusty-kids are wandering around selling outrageously overpriced packets of Rizla rolling papers to desperate ravers, and Spiral personnel are collecting the first night’s rubbish in bin liners. Overhead a police helicopter patrols intermittently (later, a crusty will fire a flare-gun at it, much to the public’s outrage). By noon, shattered, we decide it’s time to go home. Bidding farewells, we wend our way through the revellers and wreckage. On the long journey home, my friend keeps falling asleep at the wheel.
Simon will be in the UK in late June, doing two events to promote this new edition of Energy Flash:
Monday 24 June, 7 p.m. Rough Trade East, London. Simon reads from Energy Flash and is in conversation with Luke Bainbridge (Observer Music Monthly and Festival #6). Full details here http://www.roughtrade.com/events/2013/6/139
Thursday 27 June, 7 p.m. Rise, Bristol. Simon reads from Energy Flash and is in conversation with John Doran (The Quietus). Full details here http://www.rise-music.co.uk/events.php?event=206