Bored of everything that clubs, pubs and X Factor have to offer you on a Saturday night? Maybe the latest wave of free parties is the way forward! Charlotte McManus sets out to discover what makes them great, and if they’re really worth all the trouble…


Or sort, of at least. 2010 saw a renewed rise in free party culture, with many of the thrills, spills and broken windowsills that characterised things the first time around. Despite some of the clumsy and misinformed press that many of these events received, they are not all about starting fights and smashing up police vans. Free parties are attracting attendees in their droves for their multifarious, ‘anyone’s welcome’ policy, their emphasis on pumping out the best music that underground DJs have to offer (usually at sound levels way over regulation limits), and – not forgetting what is perhaps the most important reason of all – they also add a genuine edge of unpredictability to any given night out. As Wocky (spokesperson for the notorious Scum Tek party collective) puts it, “All the best parties have an edge to them, and the sense anything can happen there…”

If it’s all sounding a bit dodgy, just ask yourself… have you been to any good club nights recently? No, me neither. Are you getting more than a bit tired of overpriced drinks, boring, homogeneous beats and jumped-up bouncers on a power trip? Thought so. As the nights get colder and darker, and with our hard-earned pennies dearer to us now than ever before, something has to give. As difficult as it might be to admit, it’s time to grit our teeth, bite the bullet and face the truth – that maybe club culture at the moment is kinda… dead?

So, if paid, organised fun has turned staler than the contents of your nan’s biscuit tin, it’s time to look for decent alternatives to head to when cutting loose! The tide in Britain is turning, with more and more would-be-revellers turning to free parties for a great night out. Not to be confused with your run-of-the-mill house party, these events are defined by being free… and usually, illegal. They can take place in squats, warehouses, disused office blocks – basically, anywhere that DJs, a decent crowd and more sound systems than the O2 arena are not generally supposed to be. Naturally, these parties are usually kept very much on the D.L… to get into one you’ll need to either listen out for some elusive word of mouth or be a whiz at online networking to get hold of the Holy Gold Label of free party culture – i.e. the party (a.k.a. location) hotline number.

But why are we seeing more and more of these kind of events happening now, why 2010? Some have put it down to the recession – tighter purse strings have seen a drop-off in club-goers, which has led to many of the smaller club nights having to close down. Then there are those who claim that the second coming of free party culture is the result of political dissent, with illegal nights acting as a backlash against the return of a Tory government and grim economic cuts – if you’ve had a hard day protesting, an illegal, ‘two-fingers-up’ rave might well be the cherry on the insurgent cake. Others simply put the phenomenon down to inevitability – club culture is losing its appeal, so we’re simply witnessing a natural progression towards events happening within a more exciting and dynamic faction of nightlife. Whatever the root cause, it is impossible to refute that social media has played its part in keeping the scene in motion, with online message boards and websites like Facebook and Twitter providing unregulated platforms for information about parties to be transmitted quickly. Want to throw a massive party tonight? Like the infamous ‘MySpace parties’ of a few years back, all you have to do is sling the details on Twitter an hour before the fact, watch it go viral and wait for the mayhem to ensue…

Of course, free parties themselves are nothing new. First-gen ravers will remember a similar set-up from the raves of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, where you’d make a phone call for the location, and then pile in the car to set off for a sign-posted field in the middle of nowhere with your mates, a six-pack of cider and a glove box full of pills. In fact, these kinds of parties have always been about since then, on and off – but recently they are seeing an unequivocal resurgence of popularity. You must have noticed the slew of media coverage that free parties have been receiving – after all, with headlines like ‘VIOLENT CLASHES AT ILLEGAL RAVE’, ’18-HOUR SPREE OF DESTRUCTION’ AND ‘RIOT POLICE BREAK UP SQUAT PARTY’, it’s pretty hard to miss.

Consequently, with our attention well and truly caught, it’s only natural to wonder what these parties are really like, and what the attraction is of going to them. Well, aside from the single, obvious reason (they’re FREE!), underground raves are synonymous with that all-important edge of unpredictability, and consequently, excitement. Unlicensed, with a venue revealed only on the day and no handy flyer to list the line-up given out beforehand… It can all make for a pretty erratic mix, with no two free parties ever the same. Rather than being off-putting, this volatility is in fact the true essence of the free party formula – instead of going to the same club, with the same music, and the same people, week in, week out, you end up anywhere, listening to anything, with anyone. It’s the equivalent of picking the Mystery Box on a game show – what’s inside might be great, or it might not – but wasn’t letting yourself in for the surprise so much more fun than going for the boring old washer/dryer?

Adam, a regular on the Peckham scene certainly thinks so. On the people at illegal events, he notes, “The crowd can be a mish-mash of social tribes, like chavs, punks, hippies, art crowds, which makes the atmosphere really unpredictable. It’s very different to going to a familiar club environment”. Though the kinds of people at free parties might be diverse, from all ages, backgrounds and social scenes, it’s worth remembering that everyone is there with one goal in mind: to get their party on and have a good time.

In addition to being a pretty great way of meeting new people, this all-inclusive approach to free parties effectively eliminates segregating dress codes and the compulsive need to look hotter than everyone else – what’s the point in wearing skyscraper heels, leather hotpants and a face-full of slap if you’re going to end up in an underground basement in Hoxton sweating buckets to Dubstep, or hugging New Agers in a field near Bristol? DJ Tutti Fruitti, of the all-girl Deptford party collective Twisted Sisters agrees: “I like the idea that everyone’s equal. At free parties you don’t get people judging you because of what you wear”. Ok. So far, so interested.

The inevitable drawback to these raves, however, is the same as it’s always been – they’re illegal. Unlicensed venues coupled with large crowds of people can attract unwelcome attention from the police, which in turn can lead to clashes, violence – or worse yet, a shut-down. In addition, the lack of paid security can tempt troublemakers to take advantage of the self-determined environment by starting fights or stealing equipment. We’ve all read the stories in the papers of raves that have gotten out of hand and ended in blood drawn or police cars smashed, after all…

“Yeah, of course stuff can happen”, says Wocky (and he should know – Scum Tek made it into all sorts of ‘shocked and appalled’ headlines for their now-legendary ‘Scumoween’ rave, which drew approximately 7,000 revelers to a space in Holborn). “But things turn nasty in clubs as well. As long as you’re looking after yourself, and you’re there with your friends, then there’s no more danger than anywhere else.” He makes a point. At some time or another, we’ve all seen a punch-up in a club, or had phones and wallets stolen. Accordingly, it follows that a licensed, security-heavy venue won’t automatically guarantee a trouble-free zone.

So, it appears that agitation isn’t a given at underground parties, as much of the media might have us think. The Twisted Sisters group vehemently disagree with the culture’s stereotypical associations with trouble. “Free parties are not about violence and fighting. There is an element of danger but that isn’t violence; that’s just being at a venue which isn’t legal and doesn’t have any security.”

Wocky, while accepting that free parties are “a little bit scary” in part, claims that this given degree of danger, of underlying tension should be perceived as a positive aspect rather than a negative, as it is what makes free culture the totally unique animal that it is. “You don’t know if you’re going to get away with it or not. But at the end of the day, we want to have a party, so we’re going to.”

Admirable though this daredevil attitude might be, one can’t help but wonder – why do it? Why go to all the trouble of putting on illegal nights that may very well end up with troublemakers crashing the party – or worse, ‘da fuzz‘? It would certainly be easier (and much less stressful) just to just have a normal house party with your mates, or even just a couple of quiet pints down at your local… However, despite the characteristic constituent of risk that accompanies free parties, it appears that many of the people who organise and attend them value illegality as an essential part of the culture; it’s not about having a party that happens to be illegal, it’s about having a party BECAUSE it’s illegal.

“The illegality factor means that there aren’t any boundaries”, say the Twisted Sisters. “There are no rules.”

“Yeah, it’s the pure ‘fuck-you-ness’ of it, I think that’s probably what’s capturing people at the moment”, Wocky reflects. “The main point of these parties is the fact that you’re not supposed to have them… there’s no reason to do a party that no one’s going to remember. What’s the point in that?”

What indeed… though admittedly not nights out for the faint-hearted, the image of a free party, bringing with it with all those contingent impressions of gut-shaking beats, sweat-filled dancing and chaotic, all-guns-blazing hedonism cannot help but pique the interest in even the most dedicated of club-goers. Even if this revival of illegal rave culture doesn’t hold the public’s interest for long, and soon fades back into quiet, unreported activity, the new, unfamiliar opportunities it offers the Average Joe looking for a good night out now (this weekend) could far outweigh the potential risks.

So, taking everything into consideration, how does free party culture hold up against the club scene? No entry fees? Check. No dress code? Check. Bring your own booze? Triple check. Exciting events with new people, and a genuine sense of anticipation and unpredictability? You got us. Leave your valuables at home, bring as many cans as your can carry and let’s party – it is free, after all!

Words: Charlotte McManus

All images (except top) by David Blair

About Charlotte McManus

Editor for and Freelance writer - The Creator's Project, SUPERSUPER!, Don't Panic, FAULT, Flux, Who's Jack & more.

Posted on 03/03/2012, in Culture, Music and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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