The Free Party Movement Sparked a Cultural Revolution in the UK Countryside

How members of the counter-culture spawned a movement throwing free dance parties in the UK countryside
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How members of the counter-culture spawned a movement throwing free dance parties in the UK countryside

If you’re not familiar with the term Free-Party, here’s a definition: A weekend long dance party popularised in the late 80’s and outlawed in the early 90’s, held at secret countryside or warehouse locations around the UK , provided free of charge and promoted by word of mouth (pre mobile phone and internet).

Today’s fluffy phraseology would label the Free Party as a cottage industry, not-for-profit, do-it-yourself, pop up festival. But back in the 90’s, during the genesis of dance music culture, this new form of white label entertainment boomed across the UK. Huge clans made pagan-esque country jaunts to listen to hypnotic house music all weekend, wired on ecstasy. This was the beginning of rave culture in the UK

Whether it was the culmination of Conservative disenchantment or the natural progression from Manchester’s colorful indie scene, this youth revolution was typically British: non violent, well organized and with a tent serving tea. Attendees were hugely diverse; the barriers to entry non existent, creating the most dynamic cross section ever witnessed on a dance floor. The mix had the congruence of chocolate doused asparagus; a melange that drew from the furthest spectrums of society, the crud to the crème; hardened football hooligans raved next to rainbow hippies and city bankers. On paper it looked like an inhuman 1960’s Clockwork Orange-like experiment; placing polarized psyches into close contact on a cocktail of mind altering drugs and subjecting them to the incessant backdrop of acid house. A lethal concoction? Quite the opposite. These highly combustible components produced a strange and unprecedented result, as ecstasy culture nullified the angst and massaged a temporary union. It might be a cliche, but this loved up chemical agent really did break down class and race divides, and Britain bathed in a serotonin sunrise.

The protagonists in this movement were the DiY Sound System - a bunch of likely lads from Nottingham, with a penchant for Deep House and unparalleled stamina. In the late '80s and early '90s they arguably changed the ascent of dance music. With more than a coincidental nod to regional folklore, these merry men stole the nightlife from clubs and relocated the action to the English countryside. For six years they spearheaded a rural uprising with DJ’s like Simon DK, Dig & Whoosh and Jack becoming iconic players - spinning first wave deep house with eclecticism and flair. Simon DK was (and still is) especially revered, a kind of Keith Richards character; mythical, talented, enigmatic and troubled, with an ability to weave a narrative through his set.

This do-it-yourself mindset spawned across the UK, a brotherhood of nomadic mobile discos and their trusty disciples scoured the land on a hedonistic crusade that would culminate in Castlemorton; the mother of all parties. A massive week long illegal rave saw a huge pilgrimage converge on this sleepy town in the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire. It became an iconic event in dance culture, representing both the pinnacle and watershed moments for the free party movement. 

40,000 revellers made it front page news. Vilified as marauding junkies that terrorized provincial communities, turning the tranquility of the English countryside into a sinful vacuum of around-the-clock drug taking and relentless music. In reality, these claims were fairly innocuous, and considering Castlemorton’s enormity, the amount of trouble was negligible. The pacifying properties of ecstasy meant free parties were generally self policed and peaceful.

But this tabloid sensationalism ultimately spurred the Conservative government to outlaw the events by passing the Criminal Justice Bill (CJB), which forbade gatherings of more than three people dancing to repetitive beats. Crazy as it may seem, raving now came under the complete jurisdiction of the government - Britain becoming ever more the nanny state - a paranoid control freak consumed with surveillance and priggish legislation.

The CJB effectively dissolved the scene. DiY fucked off to San Francisco to pick up where they left off, and the rest of the UK party goers trawled back into the club scene, giving rise to the era of the super club.

Apart from the occasional reunion, DiY Soundsystem have now all but disappeared; but their legacy remains. As originators of the marathon rave party, they introduced a concept that was repackaged and commercialised as dance music festive culture: Tribal Gathering, Homelands, Coachella and even the Glastonbury Dance Tent are all indebted. And they popularised deep house music, which fitted perfectly for the long game; an undulating pace maker that kept a steady groove - the metronomic magnet that still solidifies dance floors today.

Mantis Kane author at the Zantidote