One of the features of American alcohol prohibition was the “Speakeasy”; illegal bars selling bootleg alcohol. Being illegal they were places where anything tolerated by the management went, they were wild places and they had the best music – jazz and blues. Because of prohibition they were the only real outlet for this sort of thing and they became massively popular. They survived because there was a strong “underground” culture spread by word of mouth to support them, the punters wanted the bars and actively searched them out. Even though their locations were a secret everyone involved in the speakeasy scene knew how to find them. Every now and then the police would raid a speakeasy and shut it down, but it would soon be replaced by another. The whole thing was demand led because there was no legal alternative way to enjoy the drug – alcohol – that was subjected to the prohibition law.
Speakeasies were hard drinking dens of course, maintained by the illegal alcohol supplied either by a still out the back or more likely by the mob and they certainly weren’t places of moderation. There was no beer, only whisky (if you were lucky) or more likely moonshine or bathtub gin. Because prohibition prevented any legal outlet for this sort of social gathering it went underground, an open defiance of a law which the people it was aimed at simply did not respect. Speakeasies were fun of course, which is why they were so popular, but they were also dangerous. If someone was injured or overdosed on moonshine he could expect to be pushed out into the street to take his chances. In addition many people were injured by badly made moonshine, the medical cost to society was high indeed.
It was the existence of speakeasies as much as anything else that killed alcohol prohibition. They were simply impossible to ignore and the health problems they caused were truly appalling. Alcohol was eventually re-legalised precisely so that the bars and especially the product they sold could be properly controlled and regulated
There have been many comparisons made between US alcohol prohibition and modern the day drugs war, but so far the one element which has apparently been missing has been a modern version of the speakeasy. Of course, it hasn’t been missing at all, we’ve had speakeasies based around prohibited drugs for a long time but the connection has never been made in the public mind as the government struggled to keep the lid on with ever more repressive laws.
Last weekend “Scumoween: The Squat Monster’s Ball” blew it all out of the water. The modern equivalent of a speakeasy is, of course, an illegal rave and this one, despite all the laws put in place over the last 10 or more years took place right in the heart of London and the was nothing the police could do to stop it.
Illegal raves – or to give them their real name of “free parties” are nothing new. It’s “free” as in the meaning of being a free space, free parties are rarely free to get in and Scumoween cost £10 apparently.
Originally called free festivals they have very deep roots in British cultural life. In one form or another they have been happening on and off for the best part of 50 years. The original free festivals which began life in the 1960’s traditionally featured copious amounts of cannabis and LSD and were supported by the large alternative culture of hippies. The festival circuit threw up its own sound of psychedelic rock and offered something distinct from the commercial mainstream. The Stonehenge festival of the early 80’s grew to a massive scale before being brutally squashed in the battle of the bean field in 1985, arguably one of the worst excesses of police violence in the latter half of the 20th century. A good website for all this is “The Archive of UK free festivals 1965 – 1990”
Shortly after the destruction of the Stonehenge festival though it all mutated into the Acid House rave as Ecstasy arrived on the scene. The illegal rave was born and some huge events took place before the government got it together to try to stop it all. Actually they are still trying but are nowhere near succeeding over 20 years later.
1994 saw the “Criminal justice Act” which attempted to criminalise gatherings of people listening to “a series of repetitive beats” and for a while the rave scene moved into clubs. The free party scene never really went away though and particularly in London squat parties became a regular fixture of the weekend, although in some ways perhaps the best, certainly the nicest free parties were away from the capital. Squat parties are the urban version of an illegal rave; a disused building is borrowed for the night and the party happens.
Following the badly judged “Legg act” of 1997 – named after the idiot MP who thought it all up (actually the ‘1997 Public Entertainments Licences (Drug Misuse) Act’) the whole scene was pushed out of licensed clubs and firmly into the underground.
The licensing reforms of the early 2000’s closed down the remaining decent clubs and all that was left was the underground. These days nightclubs are highly commercial, sanitised “nighttime entertainment centres” run by the brewing industry serving up a diet of over priced booze and pre-packaged dumbed down music aimed at the booze soaked “yoof” market. This sort of thing is of no interest to a discerning raver who wouldn’t be seen dead in such places, so a culture is left with nowhere to go.
In London “squat parties” have developed a community of dedicated followers. Squat party music became a hard, fast sound unique to the free party scene. Bit by bit the ingredients for a true speakeasy culture were falling into place, an exciting music, a network of enthusiasts alienated from the mainstream commercial pap. To this volatile mix was added the new technology of instant mass communication.
For a while it looked like the government had the upper hand. The easy to find raves were closed down – all reported by the ever supportive media as great successful police “swoops”. It all seemed to go quite, apart from the occasional “cheeky” event, such as the new year party in the Buckmore Park when around 2,500 ravers took over the boarded up sports centre. Buckmore Park is in Kent, a long way from any major population centre, yet thousands of people managed to turn up pretty quickly which made any thought of stopping the event academic. If anyone seriously thought the free party culture was crushed, they were in for a shock.
Over the past few years a series of phat squat parties including some big ones called “Technovals” around the country have kept the flame alive. In London the squat parties carried on, mostly pretty low key but with the occasional big one under the title “Strictly scum dancing”. These big parties have kicked off on remote industrial estates and for the past few years at Halloween “Strictly scum dancing” became “scumoween”. It’s almost as if no-one noticed, probably because the raves happened quietly (well, sort of quietly) in places away from centres of population. Last weekend though all that changed as this years scumoween took over an abandoned sorting office in the West End. As the Guardian reported
Shortly after 7pm on 30 October, a pay-as-you go mobile number surfaced on a rave blog. Within moments, the digits were circulating through cyberspace. London’s most audacious rave for years, Scumoween: The Squat Monster’s Ball, was officially on.
Callers heard an excitable message: “Tonight’s party is on Shaftesbury Avenue, just opposite where the End used to be which is West Central Street. We’re setting up now, there’s a couple of rigs banging out music, give us a couple of hours so we can carry on setting up and you can have the biggest fucking rave to hit central London.”
Suddenly a large scale squat party rave was there for everyone – including the media – to see. The police arrived in force to close it down but there were simply too many people who wanted the party to go ahead. The police faced a simple choice; to provoke a major street battle in defence of an unwanted office block or to retreat in defeat. It was almost certainly not a decision taken lightly but the fact was there was no choice. So after a tense stand off Scumoween happened, the old office block was driven into the ground as the party continued for about 18 hours and the police “contained” it in the place it wanted to be anyway.
Actually by all accounts the party was quite well organised with reports of metal detectors on the door and people having to queue for ages to get in because of the door checks. Interestingly once the police confrontation ended there was no more trouble, the long queues waiting to get in were pretty well behaved as they usually are for this sort of event. The much reported violence was entirely due to the police attempt to close the party and to enforced the prohibition laws. Fact is laws which have the respect of the target group are easy to enforce because the people help to enforce them as they see the value of doing so. But laws aimed at preventing something which is seen as culturally valuable to a section of the population will always be resisted. Such laws can only ever be imposed by force and the force has to be constantly applied, probably in ever increasing ways.
Anyone who has been to free parties will know how much fun they are, the commercial club scene can’t come close. Squat party ravers share something in common which is hard to pin down but ensures the culture will survive. But of course there are big problems.
Few people would welcome a squat party happening in the abandoned office block next door, the noise produced by several powerful sound rigs bashing out mental techno at three in the morning is a wonderful experience inside the derelict office block, but must be sheer hell to anyone trying to sleep nearby. Worse perhaps is the risk of a fire of other serious incident. That old office block would have had nothing in the way of fire cover, more often than not the place is in near total darkness and anyway the whole place is a playground for people having a good time with lots of drugs, there isn’t much left of the offices at the end of the party. Squat parties are great fun, but are also a serious safety problem.
Worse, as the police are seen as the enemy what would happen if the blue lights services were called to an accident? The police have an overriding responsibility to help preserve life which must always be their highest priority. If they make themselves the enemy of the mass of people at these events the chances of being able to help in some life threatening situation are much reduced.
Free parties are happening in the way that they are for one reason and one reason only; they can’t happen legally because of the drug laws. Once again prohibition is causing a very real problem and has turned something which is great fun and held in high regard to an identifiable section of the population into something dangerous and destructive. Raves need to be allowed to operate openly in legal venues free of this interference by the state. Free parties are not nightclubs, they are not a part of the sanitised “night time economy”, they are very much a part of British cultural life, like it or not. Sumoween has shown they are here to stay, the ball is firmly in the government’s court now and at atime when schools, hospitals and everything is facing so many cuts does it really make sense to spend ever more money trying to stop people dancing?
This is just another problem caused by prohibition in addition to all the other issues it’s caused which are tearing society apart.