Depending on who you ask, Tony Colston-Hayter was either a pioneer of the British rave scene or the scourge of Middle England. In the late 1980s he was dubbed “Acid’s Mr Big” for his running battles with police and politicians over organised raves.
On Monday though, it was white collar crime which caught up with the entrepreneur and former professional gambler, when he pleaded guilty to a huge conspiracy to defraud Barclays Bank of £1.3m.
The 48-year-old ran some of the wildest acid rave parties ever in the late 1980s, was friends with the blogger Guido Fawkes and once begged the Conservative Party to stop cracking down on party-goers. But instead of speakers and decks, it seems his latest tools were a “vast quantity” of personal details and a sophisticated 24-Sim telephone exchange.
Appearing at Southwark Crown Court, Colston-Hayter pleaded guilty to conspiring to divert money from high street bank Barclays to 41 separate bank accounts last April.
Prosecutors said he had been one of the ring-leaders in the plot, and along with the phone exchange machine he admitted having 400,000 documents, including personal mail and bank details, in his possession to commit the fraud.
Back in the 1980s ecstasy was a brand-new drug, LSD was increasingly popular and according to the tabloid press, Colston-Hayter’s all-night "Sunrise" and "Back to the Future" events were eroding the moral fabric of society with a debauched mixture of drugs, sex and non-stop dancing.
Over this time he was supported by his friend Paul Staines, who went on to become a political blogger and created the Guido Fawkes parliamentary gossip website. Yesterday Mr Staines declined to comment on their friendship. At the time, however, he often defended Colston-Hayter and his events.
Colston-Hayter had an unusual background for an acid rave organiser. He was born in affluent Hampstead, North London, growing up Buckinghamshire and enjoying a progressive education.
From there things took a more unusual course. As a teenager he set up a video game business which he claimed had an “annual turnover of £1m”, before going bankrupt and reinventing himself as a professional blackjack player.
By the age of 23 he claimed to have been banned from all casinos in Britain due to his extraordinary winning streak. His next step was to use his winnings to set up World Wide Productions, through which he ran more than 30 acid house events for tens of thousands of ravers.
In June 1989 he held one of his largest ever events, which saw more than 8,000 ravers converging on White Waltham aerodrome in Berkshire. The site was immediately dubbed “Ecstasy Airport” by The Sun.
After police raided a subsequent acid party in Buckinghamshire (which had a 200ft row of speakers and 15,000 attendees) and Conservative politicians threatened to regulate “repetitive beats”, Colston-Hayter joined with Mr Staines to form the Freedom to Party campaign, to fight for the right to party late into the night.
The pair took their campaign to the Tory conference and protested with thousands of others at Trafalgar Square in 1990. However, the campaign failed to win many friends in the tabloid press, with The Sun alleging that the protesting ravers were ripping the heads off pigeons in an “ecstasy frenzy”.
But according to Gordon Mason, the director of the documentary They Call It Acid, the British music scene has a lot to thank Mr Colston-Hayter for. He told The Independent: “Tony was an early pioneer of the rave scene as we know it. Without him we wouldn’t have had the UK club scene of the 1990s that was exported to clubs around the world.”
For his part, the former rave promoter always insisted his musical activities were within the law. As he wrote to this newspaper at the time: “The idea that so-called ‘acid parties’ are a dangerous drug-crazed youth cult is a sensationalist fantasy of the gutter press.”