‘I THINK THIS TIME WE’VE GONE TOO FAR’: CASTLEMORTON COMMON AND FREE PARTY CULTURE 30 YEARS ON

Early in his terrific new book, Dreaming in Yellow: The Story of the DiY Soundsystem, DiY co-founder Harry Harrison describes in vivid detail looking down on the now infamous free festival on Castlemorton Common on 22nd May 1992, in the company of his late friend Pete (AKA Woosh). ‘I think we may have pushed it too far this time,’ Harrison recalls opining as they watched events unfold from the top of one of the Malvern hills adjacent to the site.

Ultimately, he was right. The events at Castlemorton Common, which began 30 years ago to the day I’m writing this, have only become more infamous and significant with the passage of time. What started out as an edition of the Avon Free Festival, a historic, annual celebration of new age traveller and free festival culture, quickly turned into a week-long rave, with over 20,000 people – many city-dwelling party people rather than committed travellers – dancing round the clock to music supplied by some now iconic free party soundsystems, Spiral Tribe and DiY included.

Free parties, and before them free festivals, had been occurring since the 1970s, but by and large they were relatively small affairs, attended by those within the orbit of a niche movement inspired by a mixture of anarchism, idealism, utopianism and hedonism. Castlemorton Common was different. The sheer scale of the event – a reflection of the draw of rave culture at that point in time and the desire of a whole generation of young people to gather and have a good time outside of the accepted societal norms – made it headline national news. Those within the previously relatively underground new age traveller and free party scenes found themselves cast as enemies of the people – drug-addled hippies, criminals and ‘dole scroungers’ – whose chosen way of life was not compatible with the prevailing mood of the nation (or at least those who voted Conservative).

The predictable crackdown on raves, new age travellers and free party culture that followed was swift and predictably harsh. Prime Minister John Major included a section attacking travellers in his 1992 Conservative Party conference speech (famously later sampled by Orbital on their track ‘Sad But New’, the Peel Session version of which contained more extensive speech snippets) and his government later introduced legislation imposing draconian penalties on those who ran soundsystems and threw raves – laws designed to protect landowners and appease rural voters who hated the noise and disruption brought by free parties. Those within rave culture and the new age traveller movement tried to fight back, but it was ultimately a battle against the state that they could not win. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was passed by Parliament in 1994, effectively crushing an entire movement.

Of course, the events at Castlemorton Common did not stop free parties or raves from happening, but it did drive them underground and significantly reduce their size and frequency. It was a watershed moment, for sure, and naturally looms large in Harry Harrison’s book (the chapter where he recounts the event from DiY’s perspective is essential reading). Castlemorton is also the subject of a surprisingly sensitively handled new documentary from Radio 4, A Succession of Repetitive Beats (so-called because of the ludicrous definition of rave music in the Criminal Justice Bill – “sounds characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”), which combines archive audio from contemporaneous sources, with new interviews with those who were there. You can listen to that now via BBC Sounds.

Naturally, the events of May 1992 also feature predominantly in Free Party: A Retrospective, a new Arts Council-funded exhibition and events series at Lost Horizon in Bristol. Taking place until 28th May, Free Party: A Retrospective is a fantastic celebration of 1990s free party culture, the travelling soundsystems that provided the soundtrack (Bedlam, DiY and Spiral Tribe have all contributed memorabilia, photographs and memories), and most importantly the people who for a brief period of life devoted their lives to dancing under the stars in fields, forests and quarries across the UK.

Free Party: A Retrospective exhibition at Lost Horizon, Bristol

The project was masterminded by filmmaker Aaron Trinder (private screenings of his, as yet unreleased, documentary, Free Party: A Folk History, are occurring as part of the event) and Show Ponies Studio in Bristol, and I think they’ve done a brilliant job of marking and celebrating a movement that – in the words of photographer and activist Matt Smith AKA Mattko – existed to resist. The included photographs, from Alan ‘Tash’ Lodge, Matt ‘Mattko’ Smith and others, brilliantly capture the freewheeling hedonism and life-affirming madness at the heart of the movement, but also pay tribute to a way of life that has now all but vanished. The collected memorabilia and sections focusing on the various soundsystem crews at the heart of the movement are of genuine historical significance, too (in general, dance music culture is poorly served in this regard, as it’s only recently that it has been considered genuine popular music heritage that should be preserved for future generations). I recommend checking out the exhibition and some of the talks and music events that are occurring this week at Lost Horizon – you can find the programme of events here.

To coincide with the exhibition, May’s edition of Join The Future on Noods Radio is dedicated to the story of DiY Soundsystem and ‘90s free party culture. It features Harry Harrison in conversation with yours truly, plus music selected by Harry to help tell parts of his personal story, and that of the wider DiY collective. It will air on Noods on Wednesday 25th May at 15:00 BST, then be available on demand via their website and Mixcloud channel. If you want to pick up a copy of Harry’s book – and I’d recommend that you do, as it’s an insightful and entertaining read – head over to the Velocity Press website.

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mattanniss

Freelance writer, editor, copywriter and communications professional. Music obsessive. DJ. Sports anorak.

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