It’s the Summer of Love, 1991. Ian Brown is hawking a bit more than Fool’s Gold around Manchester’s nightclubs and Liam Howlett was just starting to take De La Soul’s happy hip hop and amp it up into solid advice from Mum’s friend Charly. Raving became a phenomenon that flared up faster than a teenage growth spurt and threatened to destabilise the country if the authorities were to be believed. But just how did so many people come to be sorted for Es and Whiz in a field off the M25? The story is the birth place of a bigger revolution that would take another 20 years to germinate – the social media revolution.
In the early 90s I lived in Oxford. In fairness, life was pretty awful. I’d left home and was living in shared accommodation in one of Oxford’s unfashionable cheap areas, Cowley Road. My house mates included a girl who’d been thrown out of home at 15 because she reminded her mother too much of her now-divorced father, an Ecuadorian immigrant and a large Alsatian left to us whilst his traveller owner was in jail. Of course on the average night there were bodies littered all around the house, yet only a few us were actually residents liable for the rent. Sometime in December the washing machine in the conservatory froze over night, sealing with it most of my clothes. It would be almost March before we could release them.
There was little food in this house and little cash in the neighbourhood, yet there was an abundance of dealers. Many were simply trying to get a bit of cash to pay for themselves and the student population made that easy. There were plenty of reasons to want to get out of your head and forget it all if you lived in Cowley.
This side of Oxford is not the side Morse fans are familiar with. Most recall it as the the city of dreaming spires; a city of splendid education, fine buildings and intellectual pursuits by riversides. And yet, Oxford bares a second name given to it whilst it was the King’s capital after he was ousted from London during the Civil War. That name which any from Cowley, Blackbird Leys, Barton or any of Oxford’s other sprawling council estates may feel to be all too true of Oxford: the City of Lost Causes.
Oxford is unusual in that it has a large youth population, due to students. Maybe that’s why it has the fourth highest rate of drug abuse in the country; a statistic far greater than the size of the city would suggest. It is home to some of the biggest council estates in Europe, and home to some of the brightest young minds in the world. One thing connects them – the desire to party.
However, I believe the fusion of drugs, wealth and intelligence is part of something bigger.
Rave parties began around the M25. People begun to gather and party in fields and in warehouses, dancing to electronic music. We all know that part of history. We also know that these gatherings were illegal and drug-fuelled. But, how many of us have thought to question how that was possible? How is it possible to just take a sound system so loud 5,000 people can dance all night to it, along with enough drugs and electricity to keep the party going all that time? And more importantly, how do you arrange for 5,000 people to come to an illegal rave without the organisers getting busted?
The answer is the start of the mobile revolution.
Do you recall what a mobile phone looked like in 1990? There was a reason that the Carphone Warehouse has its name! They were huge, clunky things, and not cheap either. You had to be pretty well off to have a mobile in those days. When did you first get a mobile phone? It was almost a decade later for me. Yet, within the groups that were organising raves, there was a sufficient number of people who had mobile phones, so convoys of cars on the M25 could be alerted to the location of the party. Clearly, it wasn’t just dole moles and societal refugees that were in this crowd. There was money: kids from good backgrounds or graduates with sales jobs who wanted to live on the edge.
It wasn’t just mobile phones and cars that were required to make a rave happen. One of the biggest ongoing illegal raves in the UK was called Exodus. A fortnightly event in Dunstable’s Woodside Industrial Estate, joining directions were to “wait outside the Sellotape factory at midnight with your engine running”.
If you think that was weird, I’d loved to have seen your face when a procession of ex-Soviet military vehicles drove by, still emblazoned with the Red Star. Exodus packed a sound system that was so large that it couldn’t be carried on civilian vehicles. When the crew drove by, thousands of ravers followed them.
The crew would use an unused warehouse, breaking into it and rigging the sound system up to the National Grid. With several thousand ravers around them, there was no way that the police could easily break up the party. They had once tried to do that, and Exodus had moved the party to be outside the Police station in Luton as a result. There, the party continued for three days, blocking a dual carriageway, and showing how the authorities really struggled to deal with this sudden mass mobilisation of young people.
It takes a fair amount of brains and courage to set up a party that brings in thousands of strangers and is powered from the National Grid – I’m terrified to play with a plug, let alone the industrial mains!
The rave generation were not just poor kids from deprived urban areas. There were brains amongst them – and money too. It was this powerful combination of brains and money that enabled and orchestrated the movement; not from word of mouth amongst the job centre queues.
The ravers who joined in and made nights happen and were from good backgrounds, were often just as disaffected as the poor. Every generation tries to separate itself from the prior. They often see faults in the system, and look for ways to build a world which they want. This isn’t something that is delineated by class; rich and poor alike can possess a sense of loathing and alienation to the world, particularly whilst viewed from the idealist eyes of youth.
It’s also not something that is unique to the generation that grew up in the 90s. Sid Vicious’ kind and the Hippies before had all had equally bold plans to break away from the establishment and start a new world. Successive generations go through this phase; humanity doesn’t change. What has altered is the technology enabling it.
What would John Lennon have done if he could have had access to the Carphone Warehouse? What would the mods and rockers, the hippies and the punks have done if we had given them Twitter?
Whilst the establishment closed down the illegal rave scene with the Criminal Justice Act - just like they closed down successive earlier generations - the undercurrent remains the same. A new generation of raving punk rockers will come in the future. They’ll use the technologies available in ways that no-one has yet conceived. They’ll cause trouble. And it will all be our fault for not having learned the lesson.
You can’t stop young people feeling that the system is wrong by banning them.
You can start trying to get today's young involved in the world from a younger age. You can start them feeling like they have some control, and can create a future they’ll welcome by engaging with them from early on. As was so rightly written all those years ago: “History doesn’t repeat itself; but it does rhyme”.
The smart kids who enabled the rave generation are all still out there, but now they are grown up. We are the ones who saw the possibilities in mobile phones, and in people, and in serendipity, before the term Social Media was even conceived. We are the ones who grew up connecting people and places, back when FourSquare was just awkward maths. We are also the ones who need to remember we’re not so special.
I’m fairly certain too that it was anti-establishment alienation that drove the original Firestarter, Guy Fawkes, to try to make one night go with a bang in London. The human condition hasn’t changed with the invention of technology. Yet the ways we can express our emotions have changed, as 9/11 showed all too well.
To those who thought we were trouble, thank your lucky stars that we were just looking to find our place in the world. If instead we’d come to take yours, where would England be now? Let’s hope that the angry youth of tomorrow, wherever in the world they are, hopes to vent their frustration by going to a field and having a party.
Anger can be used to make a party or blow something up. Anger cannot be banned but it can be channelled. Here’s raising a cheer to whoever can get today’s kids involved with using technology to make a better world from today. You’ll be raving if you ignore them.
Misae Richwoods is founder of MR Media Group.