Underneath a park in north London, a party raged – not that anyone walking past would have been able to tell. Two weeks before, an acquaintance had cut the padlock to a subterranean Victorian reservoir and, over the course of several nerve-wracking evenings, smuggled in the necessary kit. The space was a vast, honeycombed cavern: too big even for the sound system and lights. Ravers would periodically splash off into the darkness that surrounded us, cheering and whooping and then vanishing into the void.
It might sound extreme, but underground parties such as these are becoming increasingly commonplace. There was an big illegal rave in a Somerset field last week. And as a new Vice online documentary, directed by Rhys James and presented by Clive Martin, reveals, Britain is currently experiencing an “illegal rave renaissance... fuelled by boredom and lit by social media.”
Locked Off gains remarkable access to a subculture that, for its very survival, relies on its ability to stay off the radar. From paranoid Londoners ill-advisedly shaking the rafters of the city’s asbestos-enriched industrial spaces to utopian Welsh ravers attempting to recapture the long-lost innocence of electronic music in the forests of Denbigh, the scene seems to be as varied as it is vast.
The forces pushing partygoers into the shadows are hard to pin down precisely, although there is one seemingly obvious cause. Over the past decade, half of Britain’s nightclubs have shut down. According to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, in 2005 there were 3,144 clubs across the UK. Today a mere 1,733 remain.
Everything from the smoking ban to extended pub opening times to the rise in student tuition fees has been blamed for the closures, but the end result is the same. People are going out – with crowbars, speakers, and industrial quantities of drugs – and making their own fun.
The police take a predictably dim view of such bacchanals. As one Welsh reveller advises on the day of a planned rave: “If anyone wants to commit a serious crime in North Wales tonight, do it – because all the police are going to be on us.”
Occasionally, the tension between ravers’ desire to party and the police’s determination to protect property erupts into violence. At an illegal Halloween party in central London – organised by the legendary Scum Tek crew and dubbed "Scumoween" – the two sides ended up having a pitched battle in the street as police baton charges were repulsed with bottles and chairs.
Often, however, there’s little the law can do. Ravers rely on so-called squatters’ rights (or at least what remains of them) to secure non-residential buildings from police invasion. Unless there are clear signs of illegal activity – evidence of a break-in, for instance – then without a court order the police are powerless. The beauty of this is that by the time they’ve got one, the party is long over. All the police can do is prevent any more from joining (hence the title Locked Off).
The sweet taste of trouble seems to be part of the thrill. As illegal party planner Jimmy Whyte explains: “I do it for what it is: anarchy. I love anarchy. I’m happy to organise it and put a middle finger up to the police and say: ‘Fuck you’.”
Naturally, illegal activity flourishes in the dark. Never mind the children snorting white powder off every available surface, or the torpedo-sized laughing gas canisters liberated from medical facilities; the flouting of basic health and safety regulations seems the most serious concern. In Wales a man sets fire to his own legs; in London a 16-year-old accidentally rips off a finger and carries on dancing for half an hour. Raves in rickety old industrial units are just one tossed cigarette away from being mass graves.
For now at least, it’s the legal venues that are dying. As a new generation rises – statistically fonder of drugs and less used to the restrictions of club culture – it’s hard to imagine the trend being reversed anytime soon. As Vice concludes: “The police, the authorities, and the property developers might be moving closer, but for now the scene is a long way from being locked off.”
‘Locked Off’ will be broadcast on Vice from 23 May
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