"the thing with this music is, it's like punk rock. It's political, it changes people's lives. it changed my life"
"the police are really on top now. they're not gonna stand for it at all"
"i don't diss what other people do. they wanna dress up, they wanna go somewhere nice that they feel appreciated at. if they come to our parties they definitely won't. cos their nice new shoes they bought will get scuffed, their nice new shirt will get beer down it..."
"it'll challenge anything you've ever thought about, cos once you get into it, it'll change your life"
THE LONDON TRANCE UNDERGROUND
The free party scene is alive and kicking in London, a hidden world where there are no stars, no rules, no dress codes and very little money. It's fuelled by the sweeping sound of machine-mantra techno. And it's as underground as it gets.
Words: Nick Jones
Pictures: Daniel Newman
LONDON by night. It's around 3.30 am on Sunday morning, and we're driving at breakneck pace down city streets, dazed but determined. North melts into South as we shoot across the Thames, ears ringing, heads slightly spaced, and for once the city seems to hold such promise.
20 minutes ago we were at an illegal, free party somewhere around the Old Street area of town, a collaboration between the free party sound system Plan B and the lighting/decor crew Lobestir in a disused wine bar. Soon, we will be at Nuclear Free Zone, a semi-legal pay party run by the Liberator DJs (Chris, Julian and Aaron) at the cramped 414 Club on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton.
At both places the soundtrack is trance: sleek, hard, wired, fast acid techno trance, a glorious collision of sliding analogue synths, gurgling 303s, racing kickdrums and huge, powerful, epic breakdowns. The vibe is rough and ready, the embodiment of thrown-together, spur of the moment DIY culture, the people a mix of crusties, ravers, travellers, squatters, techno troopers and trance warriors. Society's outcasts, a motley crew of wide-eyed misfits with one thing in common: the need to party.
Every weekend in London there are nights like these, gatherings of like-minded, free thinking individuals taking the initiative and doing it for themselves. Running the show on their own terms, collectively taking responsibility for every detail, from finding the venues to supplying the music and the decor. A thriving, life-affirming, word of mouth sub-culture infused with a boundless energy, entirely separate from mainstream clubbing.
This is the real underground, a self-sufficient scene run and populated by the unwanted, the underclass. Springing from the Capital's squats and from the free festivals, this is the unseen side of life in the big city, a close-knit network of the dispossessed and the downtrodden who refuse to bow down to the laws of the land, laws which mean less to them than they do to us. To them partying is more than just a leisure pursuit. It's a way of life.
Chances are you won't have heard of any of the people involved. The free (read illegal) party systems like Virus, Jiba, Plan B, Vox Populi, Bone Idol, the pay parties - Zero Gravity, Nuclear Free Zone, Inner Vision, Far Side, Cool Tan; the lighting and backdrop outfits such as Lobestir and Mizbehaviour; the DJs and live acts like Liberator, Rockitt, Murf, Cloggi, Oskar, ET303 and Aztec; the producers - DJ Misjah, Pump Panel, Sourmash, D.D.R. and Choci; and the labels - Important, Plastic City, Hyper Hype, X-Trax and, from Britain, Edge, Stay Up Forever, Choci's, T.E.C. and Boscaland.
A hidden world where everybody is of equal importance, where there are no stars, no rampaging egos, no rules, no dress codes and where - more often than not - there is very little money. And all of it fuelled by the sweeping, speeding sound of hard, beautiful, machine-mantra techno.
Maybe you thought trance was dead. You were wrong. It's alive and well, and living in London. You just have to dig for it.
"THE thing with this music is, it's like punk rock. It's political, it changes people's lives. It changed my life."
Chris Liberator sits in a Camden pub, supping on a midweek pint with his two cohorts, Aaron and Julian. Together, we are tracing the history of the underground trance scene in London, a task that the Liberators are more than qualified for. All in their late 20s, Liberator were the DJs for Bedlam, one of the first urban trance systems, and to this day remain a focal point of the scene, with their Nuclear Free Zone night, their Stay Up Forever record label and their regular DJing spots for most of their main parties.
It's a complex history, but you can trace the roots back to the anarcho-punk squat culture in London in the early 80s, when bands like Crass began to offer an alternative way of life through their lyrics, music and ideas, inspiring those disillusioned with the prevalent consumerist ethos to escape the constrictions of society and live their lives the way they wanted to.
"When I first came to London," recalls Chris, "I was playing in bands, and I met all these people that were more on that Crass sort of thing. I started squatting, living around a load of people that were into the political idea of following a lifestyle that was your own lifestyle."
From this squatting scene sprang the Mutoid Waste Company. Now operating as a circus troupe in Europe, the Mutoids were a collective of anarchic artists who would squat buildings around the Capital, installing bizarre works of art, sculptures crafted out of junk, replicas of Stonehenge made from cars, and throwing insane, underground parties on site. Taking their cue from such legendary house nights as Shoom, they started to introduce the sound of acid house into these parties, trailblazing what was to come.
"Mutoid Waste were like the first urban acid parties really," Chris remembers. "They were squat parties with the same sort of vibe as an acid house party. I went to one in Kentish Town in about 1988, and it was a fucking mad party, so tripped out. It was along the style of an acid house rave, but with lots of other things going on, like sculptures and stuff."
Slowly, house and later techno took hold in the squats, replacing the post-punk/alternative sounds, and the first generation of urban sound systems began to appear. Their names were Urge, Tonka, Armageddon, Circus Normal, Circus Warp, Bedlam, and Spiral Tribe, a disparate group with a common purpose: to find venues and throw parties.
Choci, a founder member of the Tonka crew, and the owner of the West End record shop Choci's Chewns and the label of the same name, remembers the fledging movement well. "We used to do things in Dalston and down at Brighton, and the parties would go on for a long time. We used to set up on a beach, or in a field, or in a fucking disused building, whatever. We'd set the speakers up on the beaches, build a big fire, spark up the generator, have the decks in the back of the cab, and off."
The scene built and built, merging with the free festival events and eventually reaching its peak in 1992 with the twin raves at Lechlade and Castlemorton. Castlemorton in particular proved a turning point for everyone, a huge three day gathering of 50,000 people on a stretch of common land.
"Those two festivals particularly linked up everyone on an underground tip," explains Julian Liberator, "mostly from the Southern half of England. Everyone was there and everyone met everyone, if they didn't know them already. It went on for so long. And then everyone came back to London, and that spurred it all on really, for the last three years."
Unfortunately, Castlemorton was also the start of the big police clampdown on illegal parties. Many of the systems were impounded, and the subsequent increase of pressure from the law and the introduction of the hated Criminal Justice Act forced the likes of Spiral Tribe and Bedlam to relocate to the Continent. While the underground scene in London was far from dead, it had lost many of its principle movers.
So it was left to the second generation systems to keep up the momentum. The now firmly-established Liberator led the way, staging semi-legal events around Hackney and North London like Planet 'Avin' It and In-Dysfunction, playing out wherever they could, helping to keep it all alive. In their wake came the new pay parties: Zero Gravity, Far Side at the George Robey pub, Inner Vision at Turnmills, Club Alien, Sugarlump, and the increasingly important Cool Tan at the old Community Centre in Brixton. And, crucially, the new illegal free parties: Virus, Jiba, Plan B, Vox Populi, Bone Idol, Oops! and Cheeba City.
These are the movers and shakers of today, the ones who work tirelessly to set up nights, finding deserted buildings, breaking in a couple of days before the planned event, kitting the place out, slapping new locks on the doors and returning for the actual party. It's a hands on approach, utilising whatever means are at your disposal to get your kicks the way you want.
"When Bedlam and everybody left the country I was at a loss," offers 23 year old Mark from Plan B, whose rig is made up in part from Bedlam's old sound system. "I was looking to do free parties, but I was so cautious. If you've got a rig that big you've gotta be, because of the police. I got some stuff confiscated when I did a thing up at Ipswich, and the police are really on top now. They're not gonna stand for it at all."
It's a lifestyle that's fraught with danger, but, as anyone involved will tell you, the risk is part of the thrill. The feeling of taking part in an illegal party at an unlicensed venue is one that mainstream clubs can never reproduce, a very real buzz. That much is clear at Plan B and Lobestir's party at the derelict wine bar. Here, a combination of hard trance and the complete illegality of the situation produce a tangible sense of defiance, DJs Julian Liberator and Oskar providing the soundtrack to our lawlessness.
"It's rough and ready," explains Aaron Liberator. "I still think it's a choice thing. I don't diss what other people do. They wanna dress up, they wanna go somewhere nice that they feel appreciated at. If they come to our parties they definitely won't. Cos their nice new shoes they bought will get scuffed, their nice new shirt will get beer down it...
"We get the misfits," he continues, "the ugly cheap crew, and that's what I love about it, because that's what we all are. There's no point pretending to be anything different."
"With the commercial clubs," reasons JJ from Inner Vision, "at the door you have to look like you've got money. They know the kind of people they want in there. If I'm a hippy and I'm going in their venue, they're gonna say, 'Look, this ain't your place.' So it's all to do with the money aspect. I think people on the party scene come along and it's more of an awareness thing. People go to the parties and their minds expand, they see things which they otherwise didn't see before."
HEREIN lies part of the explanation for why all these systems and crews continue to do what they do, striving to keep the vibe alive. For sure, there's little financial reward. Most are lucky if they make their initial outlay back, relying on donations and the support of the pay parties. The real reason for the scene's continued existence is the need for these people to take control of their own destinies, to fight for their right to party when and how they choose, to stand up to the overbearing authorities and shout their independence. They see the rotten society that 15 odd years of Tory government has given rise to, and they want no part of it.
"We don't get any money from it," states Caroline for Zero Gravity. "We all do underground parties that pay for our costs. As soon as you start trying to make it a money venture, that's when you lose it, that's when that becomes your main focus. It's the energy behind the parties, that's what makes it underground."
"The whole idea of what we're doing is breaking down borders," continues Karen from Lobestir. "Black, white, men, women, whatever, that's what it's all about. That's why it's so fucking important."
"It's about going out to find something," Caroline adds, "instead of it being given to you on a plate. You have to go and find it. It's also that aspect that you are taking responsibility and control for your own actions, and you don't have to stay within the system that someone else has made. Because the free party is DIY, you do it, you put what you want into it."
AND then, of course, there's the music. Few other musical forms have proved so anti-authoritarian as techno. Few musical forms have had a law drawn up against them, virtually outlawing the playing of "repetitive beats" in anywhere but the most strictly licensed of venues. Because of its unruly connotations, because it is championed by perceived destructive anarchic elements, the powers that be will have no truck with techno.
Techno trance is the backbone of the free and pay parties, the blood coursing through their veins. Constantly shifting and mutating, the trance being played is a whirlwind of build-ups and breakdowns, of acid licks and rolling drums, a relentless, surging invitation to dance.
Whereas six months ago the sound could have been characterised by labels like Harthouse and No Respect, these days the imprints getting exposure are Stay Up Forever, Choci's, Boscaland, Important and X-Trax. Records like The Dentist's 'Destiny', Sinus Iridium's 'Sentinel', Never's 'Hell Bent', Mars Black's 'Tribal Warfare'. Unstoppable trance monsters that, when sequenced together at a party, provide the ultimate, perfect escape from reality.
A large majority of these tracks are coming from British producers and artists, people like D.D.R., who engineers practically everything on Stay Up Forever and Choci's; Choci himself, working from the studio behind his shop; Baby Doc and The Dentist; the three Liberators; Transform 21; Manchester's Pump Panel... the list goes on. A lengthy rolecall of dedicated, massively talented music makers.
AND the sound is spreading. Most of the main free and pay party DJs play in Europe, in Amsterdam, Helsinki, Prague and Russia. France hosts huge Teknivals, where sound systems from all across the continent converge for a great trance blow-out.
The umbrella organisation United Systems offers advice and support to the UK's party crews, occasionally throwing their own, multi-system bashes in and around the Capital, while over the length and breadth of the country there are pockets of activity, new systems springing up all the time, regional party people getting their act together.
The weekend before the Plan B and Nuclear Free Zone parties, Zero Gravity travelled up to Birmingham to hold a night at the Que Club, taking with them their regular group of DJs, jocks like Rockitt, Cloggi, Chi, Gizelle, Flert and Phidget, as well as Chris Liberator. Over a thousand people packed the Que, thrilling to Mizbehavior's lights and decor, abandoning themselves to the charging, warped, furiously fast electronic trance. The London underground scene invaded Birmingham, and Birmingham loved it.
"If people wanna get into this scene," says Chris Liberator in parting, "they should go to the parties, get into the lifestyle of it, get a political education. Seriously, it'll challenge anything you've ever thought about, cos once you get into it, it'll change your life. If you go to these parties, you only have to go once and you'll never go home."
Changing lives. Challenging concepts. Questioning the received wisdom, and finding your own path. These are the qualities that the underground trance scene offers, a way of partying on your own terms, away from the increasingly structured, easy option of modern corporate clubbing. An exciting, sometimes risky, always vibrant alternative to the average Saturday night out, with thrilling music to match.
And there is a way in. Just go down to Nuclear Free Zone at the 414 every two weeks, or Far Side at the George Robey every Saturday, or any of the other pay parties. These nights are the gateway to the free party scene, to a way of life that could blow your fucking mind. Just take care. For, like the man said, once you're in, you might never want to leave again.
|1.||Sinus Iridium||'Sentinel'||(Stay Up Forever)|
|4.||Toja||'I Won't Stop'||(Phuture Wax)|
|8.||L.A.T.||'Break It Down'||(Choci's)|
|9.||Baby Doc & The Dentist||'In Worship Of False Idols'||(Tec)|
|10.||Tesox||'Funky Bassline'||(Plastic City)|