In 1992 there was a festival in the UK that changed the course of dance music history. A culmination of the acid house explosion, it was the rave generation’s Woodstock. But this wasn’t a massive, expensive, licensed outdoor rave with all the biggest acts in dance music on the bill — it was a spontaneous festival that was free.
Castlemorton saw around 50,000 people — clubbers, travellers, squatters, punks, casuals, DJs, black, white, straight, gay — gather on common land in the Malvern Hills, slap-bang in the middle of the English countryside. Dozens of soundsystems set up — Bedlam, Circus Warp, Spiral Tribe, Circus Normal, DiY, LSDiezel and many more — and the party continued for nearly a week.
Lawless, anarchic and a big middle finger to middle England, Castlemorton was the climax of the free party movement that had been growing steadily over the previous few years. In parallel to the well-documented late ’80s dance music explosion — Shoom! and so on in London, the Hacienda in Manchester etc, and the big pay-parties (raves) in the British countryside — there were a load of free parties in old warehouses and in fields. The lineage of some of these can be traced back to the free festivals of the ’70s, or even the whole free festival and fayre circuit that travelling folk would troop around plying their wares way back in history.
“We had been going to free festivals as mates going back years before the rave scene arrived,” remembers Harry Harrison from the Nottingham-based DiY soundsystem, “some of us back to the huge Stonehenge festivals of the early ’80s. After we hooked up with some forward-thinking travellers in 1989/90, we began to take our system from the city out into the fields.”
The Avon Free Festival near Bristol had been happening on the bank holiday weekend at the end of May for years — in 1991 DiY were one of only a couple of soundsystems catering to about 10,000 people — but in 1992, Avon & Somerset police were determined that the gathering wasn’t going to happen again and they forced trucks and soundsystems to move north.
“We were hounded by the police, they wouldn’t let us stop anywhere,” Slob, a traveller, tells DJ Mag. “Eventually, half a dozen vehicles pulled onto Castlemorton Common. Police said we could stop overnight, but that we’d be moved on the next morning — ha ha ha!”
“I ended up at Castlemorton as part of the first small convoy that drove onto the land,” adds Emma, one of the DiY DJs. “One lone policeman in his car asked why we were there, so it was said that we were waiting for some friends that we had lost en route. The copper drove off, and the festival appeared.”
A DIFFERENT ERA
This era was like another world compared to the hi-tech times of 2012. In 1992 there were very few mobile phones, and certainly no real internet to speak of, so there were no email or text directions to a party.
Most was done by word-of-mouth, or by listening to a message on a party hotline that crews like Spiral Tribe operated. “People phoned the info line to find out where the party was,” says Charlie Hall, a former Spiral Tribe DJ.
Charlie and some friends had headed out of London at night towards Bristol at the start of the bank holiday weekend, but heard about the free party being moved 100 miles north to Castlemorton.
“We drove through a sleepy village, everybody was friendly, we parked up and the sun was coming up,” he recalls. “I went on the decks at the Spiral rig straight away, and I put on the Weatherall mix of ‘Papua New Guinea’.”
The Bedlam soundsystem had been the first to fire up, with many more hot on its heels.
“It was amazing to see the site fill up,” Lol Hammond, also one of Spiral Tribe who would go on to form the Drum Club with Charlie Hall, tells DJ Mag. “I remember being on the back of some big truck and looking out. It seemed like the festival was a mile long — it was massive.”
Spiral Tribe had been staging free parties for a couple of years in old warehouses and suchlike all around the country. They’d gradually become more political after mid-1991, adopting a techno anarchist ‘look’ and becoming obsessed with the number 23.
“My big Spiral track was ‘House Of God’ by DHS,” says Charlie Hall, “and there was some Detroit house and Underground Resistance spun. I suppose I brought house grooves into the mix, whereas the Spirals were rave breakbeat. I was always quite keen to keep it soft, because I knew at times there were people who couldn’t cope with it — it was relentless.”
“There were people on site at Castlemorton who weren’t that mad on the music as well, saying can we turn the music down and stuff,” Lol Hammond tells DJ Mag. “Our big thing was to never shut the soundsystem off, we had quite a punk attitude that trickled down to most things that we did. We were going to be as loud as we liked, and we were going to go all night.”
Hundreds of vehicles parked up on Castlemorton Common, a mixture of caravans, vans carrying soundsystems, cars, old buses and trucks from the so-called hippy convoy that had been growing throughout the Thatcherite era. “I remember Radio 1 going on about this huge rave, and thinking ‘This is the best publicity, it’s getting shout-outs on Radio 1!’,” Lol Hammond smirks. “The idea was to get the thing going before anyone could shut it down, so you wanted as many people in the space as quick as possible. Once they started talking about this huge free rave on Radio 1, it was pretty unstoppable.”
As more and more vehicles and ravers arrived, the festival grew like a sprawling alt.culture town in a temporary autonomous zone. “All of the soundsystems were scattered around the common,” recalls Heath Holmes, a local Malvern raver. “It was like a shanty town, with one main road going straight through. Bedlam, Armageddon and Circus Warp were all kicking out that old breakbeat hardcore sound that was big at the time. Spiral Tribe was more on the techno tip.
“I was more into the hardcore sound,” Heath continues, “but that night I stumbled across the DIY soundsystem who were playing house music. They were pumping out anthems like ‘Good Life’ and ‘Big Fun’ by Inner City and dropping ‘I Feel Love’ by Giorgio Moroder. This was refreshing in comparison to most of the other soundsystems, which were a bit full-on.”
“The DiY area was semi-organised chaos,” recalls Harry from DiY. “Unlike the other systems who were playing techno for five days or more, we changed our music through the day, with jazz and funk during the morning and afternoon, up through the gears with hip-hop and house into a rocking party from midnight onwards. On the Saturday night it was impossible to know where one system began and another finished, the crowd was so huge.”
Members of Spiral Tribe and DiY met for the first time (as well as plenty of cross-pollination between other soundsystems), and Charlie Hall went over to play on the DiY system at one point. “Musically we were quite far apart — we were breakbeat, quite in-yer-face, whereas they were deep house — but we got on really well,” remembers Lol Hammond. “We met kindred souls.”
DiY had a white marquee on the edge of the site, facing a gaggle of news media at the bottom of the slope. After the Radio 1 shout-outs and newspaper reports, Castlemorton dominated the TV news stories over the weekend. “You wonder at what stage it becomes reasonable to call in the army, because there’s an occupying force up there on the Common,” one local resident said on the news.
“At the tail-end of the previous summer and throughout the winter, something had been growing,” says Harry from DiY. “There had been a big party at Lechlade a couple of weeks before and we all knew in our bones that what ended up as Castlemorton was going to be big. This was further enhanced by the unbroken sunshine and live coverage on the national news.
“It felt like we were making history,” Harry continues. “The sheer size of it, the incredible weather, the beauty of the site… I think everyone there knew that this was the culmination of a cultural movement and felt euphoric, but also slightly nervous as to how the authorities would react.”
People from all over the UK ended up at Castlemorton that weekend. “I remember hooking up with mates that had travelled from different parts of the country,” recalls Heath Holmes. “There was a great feeling of unity at free parties anyway, but this was different as all the soundsystems had come together to throw the mother of all parties. We were all there by word-of-mouth. We were an underground movement.”
“It was a moment in time that brought so many people together and showed how we shared a common desire and right to party,” adds Emma from DiY. “I think it freaked the ‘powers that be’ out!”
As well as dancing to music, there was the mayhem of the wonderfully chaotic, unregulated festival to navigate. People needed to eat, sleep and drink at various times, and assorted cafes, stalls or pitches sprung up to cater for people’s needs.
“People who over-charged for beers got beaten up or had their beers nicked,” remembers Charlie Hall. “Everybody knows how much you pay for a can of beer or a pack of fags in the shop. ‘Make your 20p profit but don’t make a quid or we’ll burn your van’, was the attitude. It was functional anarchy.”
Charlie Hall tells the story of ravers catching somebody who was mugging people, and dealing out some ‘people’s justice’. They plied him with loads of acid, stripped him naked and paraded him around the site.
Another DJ, Martin Move Ya! who played on the Techno Travellers system, remembers another incident.
“Somebody who I can only describe as an idiot drove into the middle of the party in his Porsche, and then proceeded to sit on the bonnet of the car and call someone on his mobile phone,” says Martin.
“This was the early ’90s after more than a decade of Thatcher and a culture of showing off how much money you had, and I noticed a lot of hippies not being too happy about this guy showing off. They gathered together their kids, who reminded me of the kids in the Mad Max films with their mohicans and strange-coloured hair, and after the guy with the Porsche had finished his call and walked off into the party, the hippies set their kids about totally destroying his Porsche! Every panel scratched and dented, all windows smashed, it was a write-off!”
There was generally an amazing — if at times edgy — vibe at Castlemorton though, and most people were on intoxicants of some sort such as ecstasy, acid, mushrooms, booze or a drug called Do It, “which was a bonkers hallucinogen on sugarcubes”, according to Charlie Hall.
Realising there were too many people to deal with, the police largely kept a distance over the bank holiday weekend. The odd police helicopter buzzed the crowds, and a few party-goers fired fireworks at them, leading to newspaper headlines such as ‘Hippies fire flares at helicopter’.
Many attendees had the time of their lives, and still talk fondly of the experience to this day.
“Travellers, bikers, punks, festival-heads and ravers were all partying peacefully together,” says Slob, “it was like all tribes dancing to one groove. A song played a lot over the festival was ‘One Nation Under A Groove’.”
CRIMINAL JUSTICE BILL
Many went home after the bank holiday weekend and the festival began thinning out. Many soundsystem people began their own clean-up operations, but Spiral Tribe continued pumping out the acid techno non-stop as the police presence built up. On the Thursday, 13 members of Spiral Tribe were arrested and charged with public order offences, and the subsequent trial became one of the longest-running and most expensive cases in British legal history.
The ruling Conservative party and its attendant right-wing press was frothing at the mouth about Castlemorton in the immediate aftermath, and sure enough, in 1993, a Criminal Justice Bill appeared. One of the principal aims of the bill was to clampdown on raves — the first time in the UK a style of music had been legislated against — and it memorably defined the music as including ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’.
Much of the music industry rose up to campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill (CJB), which also took away the right to silence, increased police stop and search powers, and clamped down on the rights of travellers and homeless people. Despite three successively big demos in London, the bill became law and a special unit within the police force was formed, relaxing licensing laws, and upping the penalties for 'illegal' promoters. The explicit desire was to drive dance culture into a controlled commercial setting.
Some blamed Spiral Tribe — who subsequently disappeared off to Europe to spread teknivals far and wide — for bringing the might of the state down on top, while others blamed an alliance of the authorities and the breweries, who had seen profits plummet as this popular youth movement took pills and drank water instead of drank in their pubs until 11pm and then went home.
It may have been an anarchic, spontaneous free festival, but Castlemorton is undoubtedly one of the most significant events to have occurred in UK dance music history.
“I think that, as with Woodstock, Castlemorton represented the end of an underground scene, as a culture suddenly exploded under its own momentum,” believes Harry from DiY. “It led to the death of free festivals, and possibly to the end of the traveller’s way of life. Since then, festivals have become expensive leisure options rather than the wild, shamanic celebrations they once were.”
“People couldn’t believe we were doing free parties, we weren’t making any money out of it,” adds Lol Hammond of Spiral Tribe. “It was just about a load of people coming together in a field and dancing and having a great time listening to music. It was a special time. I met loads of characters who were inspired by it and went on to do things afterwards. But we knew that it would never really happen again. It’s a long way from Castlemorton to X Factor, isn’t it?