After three months of confinement, the footage seemed otherworldly: bucket hats, balloons, a heavy techno beat, and a few thousand young people crammed into a small clearing in the woods.
But the signage by the DJ deck gave a cheeky nod to the new world in which the party was being thrown. This was a “quarantine rave,” it read; one of several taking place each weekend around the United Kingdom, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
The event, which occurred near Manchester in the north of England last Saturday, has caught the eye of Britain’s news media in recent days after police reported that several thousand attended. Three stabbings, a rape and an overdose death were also reported between that rave and another nearby, police said, and officials are investigating footage of attendees wielding weapons.
Across the country, authorities are struggling to keep up with hastily organized, dangerous parties being held on short notice in quiet nature spots. “We can’t say for certain that we can prevent all such events from taking place,” Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham admitted in a statement on Friday. “(But) there is no question of us turning a blind eye or adopting a permissive approach.”
The parties are alarming health officials too, with the reproductive rate of the virus in the UK hovering just below one and the country only tentatively easing its lockdown restrictions in the hope of returning to normality. Large gatherings are still banned in Britain, and there is little hope of social distancing at these events.
They’re also condemned by the established members of Britain’s illegal rave scene – even if their existence isn’t a complete surprise. “This is a result of the situation that we’re in right now,” says DJ Mandi Gordon, who played illegal raves until the pandemic struck, under the stage name Mandidextrous. “People are frustrated, people want to be able to get out right now.”
A combination of strict licensing laws, the closure of clubs and the high cost of living in British cities had already led to a boom in underground raves, industry insiders say.
But so prevalent are reports of the new pop-up events that much of the UK media is now predicting a re-run of the Second Summer of Love – the short-lived explosion of colorful, MDMA-fueled illegal raves that rippled through Britain in 1988 and 1989.
For those two years, ravers would play cat and mouse with police as they ducked from woodland to field to abandoned warehouse, blasting acid house from their stereos before returning to the monotony of the working week.
“Everybody in society just had this pressure on them, which you didn’t even notice until you stood in a field and took your first E [ecstasy] and realized, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been living like an idiot,’” recalls Gavin Watson, a skinhead-turned-raver whose photographs and books from the time helped immortalize the Second Summer of Love – named in homage to the first psychedelic celebration of “flower power” in 1967.
“That was it. This is what my life’s going to be like,” he remembers thinking at his first event in 1988. “Everything was built around the rave for two years.”
Is a repeat really possible? Much of modern Britain chimes with that period – financial toil, unemployment, the closure of clubs and a decade of Conservative rule – but much is different, too, and the grandees of that long summer are skeptical it can ever truly be repeated.
Still, they agree with today’s DJs, party-goers and disapproving authorities that a fresh wave of rave is around the corner – and the pandemic is only likely to make it louder.
“I’ve had the busiest year that I’ve had, and that’s all been destroyed by the Covid-19 situation,” says Gordon. “Things will get lifted and there is going to be a big resurgence of rave. It’s on the cards, 100%.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes,” adds Watson. “Something’s happening, similar to what there was 30 years ago. I can’t put my finger on it.”
‘A strange new cult’
Sunil Pawar was 15 when he went to his first illegal rave, just as the culture was bubbling in late 1980s Britain.
“I was controlling the laser gun up in a massive abandoned warehouse in East London,” he recalls. “The DJ cut the music and dropped ‘Everybody loves the Sunshine’ by Roy Ayers, and the place went wild. Next thing I knew, I was outside in the cold being bundled into the back of a car, covered in blood.
“I’d fallen from the lighting scaffold a few flights up and must have blacked out. I couldn’t go to casualty because they would ask too many questions, so the promoters took me home and dumped me in the house,” he laughs.
Pawar’s brutal introduction to rave culture didn’t dampen his enthusiasm, and he wasn’t alone.
Every weekend thousands of partiers of all classes and backgrounds would fly under the radar of local authorities, gathering at service stations off British motorways to hear the details of that night’s party. Some would be told about the events on pirate radio stations; others would pick up cryptic fliers in record stores or bars.
“It really did seem like a strange religious cult, a frenzy, that had taken over the younger generation – everything about it felt new and deranging, from the acid house and techno music to the clothes to the crazed dancing,” says music writer Simon Reynolds, who compiled a history of the period in 1999 named “Generation Ecstasy.”
“The whole yuppie scene was destroyed,” adds Watson. “Being a skinhead I was always a rebel, but rave turned everyone into that … people left their BMWs on the side of the motorway. Ex-football hooligans teamed up with lords.
“People would just find warehouses or a plot of land and call it on,” remembers Bryan Gee, who frequented plenty and now promotes legal club nights and DJs at illegal raves in Britain. “At 2, 3 in the morning we’re all on the motorway, waiting for the next pager to tell you what junction off the M1 to take.
“You’d look at someone at the petrol station and you could tell just by the clothes they’re wearing that they were going to the same place as you,” he says. “You’d hear rumors that the police have found it – sometimes the police did find it, and it would get busted before it happens.
“Then at 4 or 5 o’clock, you finally end up at some farm in the West Country.”
Today’s illegal ravers aren’t sent on the same wild goose chases – but the events are just as secretive, organized under the cover of private WhatsApp and Snapchat groups, with locations revealed just as the party begins.
And the events are ticking up in popularity in a way established DJs haven’t seen for three decades.
“It can be crazy. Three, four, five thousand people,” says Gordon of the underground events she plays. “There’s a really big network of sound system crews in the UK – every weekend there’s probably 20 or more parties up and down the country.”
Authorities have fresh concerns about the new wave, much of them revolved around the changing nature of drug use. “The drugs are very different,” notes music journalist Chal Ravens.
And the safety concerns that surrounded the first period of rave have hardly dissipated. “I went to an illegal rave about a year ago and it was just so dangerous,” says Gee. “I was in this old warehouse, high floors, it was just a complete drop out the windows.”
But the release of the underground scene continues to draw many back. “There’s the sense of freedom from the rules and regulations of being in a club environment,” says Gordon. “The sensible side of me made me think, this is not safe,” adds Gee of his most recent visit. “But the kid inside me loved it.”
Raving in a pandemic
Despite a devastating pandemic, the parties haven’t stopped entirely. “Even during lockdown I’ve heard stories of a lot of illegal raves going on. I don’t think the pandemic can even really grind it completely to a halt,” says Gordon.
But the lockdown raves aren’t being run by established promoters, which have totally halted throwing events as the pandemic hit the UK and forced the closure of all places for people to gather in groups.
And the raves are causing concern among authorities, both in terms of safety and public health. “In an unlicensed event like the ones we saw last weekend, on some occasions, emergency services workers struggled to get to people who were in need because of the sheer number of people who were in attendance and the non-existent planning around crowd management and safety,” said Manchester Police’s Assistant Chief Constable Nick Bailey.
One group, organizing an illegal rave in Sheffield this weekend, started dropping clues to its followers on Snapchat on Thursday. “Hope everyone’s still ready for a mad weekend,” they wrote in an update seen by CNN, before advertising a “Lockdown Rave” on Saturday for which a location will be revealed on the day.
As the plans picked up coverage in local media, the group gleefully shared screenshots of news articles and police warnings, reassuring followers: “This is 100% still on.” Meanwhile, several new police warnings were issued about similar events. Authorities in Manchester even publicized body-cam footage from their response to raves last week, in an effort to deter partygoers.
“What is new here is the nature of the pent-up energy that is being released,” says Reynolds. “It must have something to do with the lockdown – people desperate for the feeling of being in large social gatherings.
“To be young at this point in time, it must feel like a pause button has been pressed down hard on your life,” he adds. “So the counter-reaction is this explosion of recklessness.” The pandemic not only caused the shuttering of clubs and bars, but also wiped out the entire summer calendar of festivals and music concerts, which are such a staple of British youth culture.
These events have little in common with the raves seen in the late 80s, note those who attended the first time around, and are shunned by promoters for their shoddy organization and public health implications.
“I want to go back to a rave as soon as possible, it’s what I love, it’s how I earn my living,” says Gee. “But it’s a very dangerous time to be doing that.”
But they’re attracting daily attention in the pages of British newspapers nonetheless – and some worry they could tarnish the entire industry. “It’s a bad look on the rave scene,” says Gordon.
‘Party at the end of the world’
If the lockdown parties prove anything, it’s that nothing can stamp out rave in Britain – and with or without the pandemic, today’s societal conditions may be driving it.
“We’re going to come straight into a recession now, and there is no youth culture without a recession,” says Watson. “Skinheads, punks, bikers, they’ve never come out of prosperous times. So that’s why I think, with the lockdown and the need to get out there … let’s see how this manifests itself. Because I know something’s going on.”
Like many, Gordon pins the resurgence of rave on “the complete and utter gentrification” of British cities, which is seeing traditional pubs and clubs close at a rapid rate. The number of nightclubs in Britain fell by a fifth in 2018 alone, according to the International Music Summit’s annual industry report.
“There just aren’t really clubs in the middle of town that you would go to anymore,” adds Ravens. “There are lots of boxes to tick to run a night, and it costs money. I don’t know anybody who is a club promoter who is making huge margins … (but) if you can avoid paying for the building, you might stand a chance.”
“It leaves the youth nowhere else to turn but to go back to the warehouses, barns and fields and party,” says Gordon.
Raves of the 1980s are also frequently remembered alongside the last years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule, and the outpouring of youth rebellion it spurred. Those undertones are reverberating again through the UK’s free parties.
“I speak to 20, 30 year olds (today), it’s the same really,” says Pawar, who has recently curated an art show displaying images and stories of the Second Summer of Love. “You’re disenfranchised, you haven’t got a voice.
“I was pretty horrified by those raves in Manchester,” Ravens says. “But if you’re 18 now there’s the feeling that there’s no future … it’s not a very promising outlook for kids that age, and I’m not at all surprised that there might be a ‘party at the end of the world’ attitude.”
The UK government’s much-criticized pandemic response may too have added fuel to the fire. “It does very much seem like one rule for one, and one for the other, and I think people have had enough,” says Gordon, referring to the Dominic Cummings scandal as she predicts a post-Covid resurgence of rave.
A third Summer of Love?
While politics was never their primary motivator, many older ravers remember the ferociousness with which the media and John Major’s government targeted raves in the early 1990s.
“When the press got hold of it, they got a very negative aspect. It was all about the drugs,” remembers Pawar. That concern culminated in a week-long free party at Castlemorton Common in central England in 1992, which sparked front-page coverage and a final legislative nail in rave’s coffin.
“New age travelers, ravers and drugs racketeers arrived at a strength of two motorized army divisions, complete with several massed bands and, above all, a highly sophisticated command and signals system,” the frightened local Conservative MP recounted in the House of Commons after that event. “However, they failed to bring latrines,” he said.
“They just took over someone’s land, and when they got hungry they started to cook the farmer’s sheep,” remembers Gee, who attended the party. “I remember going there, then coming back to London, and going back for another day. You couldn’t have that now.”
Responding to the outcry, Major passed a public order act that outlawed unlicensed raving and cracked down on music “characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”
“It is time for Beethoven to roll over if that is to be the definition of ‘music,’” was Lord Fraser of Carmyllie’s withering judgment on acid house, as the bill passed Parliament’s upper house and became law.
“No MP could ever side with the ravers,” says Reynolds. “Anything to do with drugs or large gatherings that disrupts the peace and quiet of high property value areas … is something that normal middle England-type voters would very strongly oppose.”
Rave was never quite the same again. “It came and went so fast,” recalls Watson. “It really felt fortunate to be a part of that revolution … for a small window there, there was utter freedom.”
But desire for rave in Britain remains strong – and those who have been waiting to rejoin the scene feel their time is coming again. “The rave scene is really important,” says Gordon. “If we don’t have this escape, I think there’ll be a lot of hostility.”
“There’s loads of sound systems I know that are itching to go out, and they’ve been biding their time and waiting till that happens,” she adds. “I think it’s getting close.”