Party politics and the techno revolution

By Raoul Djukanovic

In May 1992, a convoy of battered buses bearing the slogan “free party people” pulled up outside an English country village. Its 800 residents looked on aghast as dreadlocked white men rigged up generators in a field and started blasting music across Castlemorton Common. Over the weekend, 40,000 people came to join them.

“Acid music can be heard 10 miles away,” one newspaper protested. “Send in the troops!” screamed another.

Police riot vans had been chasing the Peace Convoy for days to keep it moving, but when the buses crossed into a different county they were left alone. Within hours, the party location had been relayed around Britain by mobile phone and cars started to arrive.

Wary of repeating the excesses of the 1985 “Battle of the Beanfield”, when they beat back a convoy of hippies to prevent a festival at nearby Stonehenge, the police did not intervene until four days later. It took them three more days to shut down the last sound system.

What most alarmed the columnists and politicians who demanded a crackdown on illegal raves was the sight of so many apparently ordinary young people being hypnotised by a sub-woofer.

The 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act authorised the police to break up outdoor parties of more than 100 people if they played “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. Even the music sounded alien to the establishment.

“Techno is folk,” protested Spiral Tribe, the biggest sound system collective behind the Castlemorton rave. Many of its members were arrested. Their equipment was confiscated and they were charged with conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, although they were later acquitted after a trial that cost four million pounds.

Under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments of the 1980’s, hippies and punks had merged into a marginalised subculture focused on the anti-nuclear protest camps outside American air bases in England.

By the end of the decade, these “new age travellers” had discovered dance music, reviving the moribund free festival scene.

“In the eighties, a lot of people who were hacked off with the way we were living, or were just plain bored, got off their arses and did something about it,” said Cosmo, a member of a sound system collective called Justice? “Free festivals, squat culture, the traveller movement and later Acid House parties pay testament to the energy and vision of people who decided it was now time to take their destinies into their own hands.”

The result was explosive.

“The travellers had the sites and the know-how to staff and run an event that would run for days rather than just hours,” said Matthew Collin, the author of a book about acid house. “The ravers had the electronic sounds and the seductive new synthetic – ecstasy.”

The drug was actually first synthesised in 1912, but had spent decades on the laboratory shelves of the German pharmaceutical company Merck and in the hands of the C.I.A., which considered using it as a truth serum. The American Drug Enforcement Agency first reported recreational use of ecstasy in 1972, but it was not made illegal for another 12 years.

Among those who had access to the drug during this period was Alexander Shulgin, a former U.S. Navy officer who became a senior research chemist with the Dow chemical company. In his spare time, Shulgin experimented with psychoactive substances, including ecstasy, which he described at length in an encyclopaedic book entitled Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved.

“The woodpile is so beautiful, about all the joy and beauty that I can stand. I am afraid to turn around and face the mountains, for fear they will overpower me. But I did look and I am astounded,” he wrote. “I am totally peaceful. I have lived all my life to get here and I feel I have come home. I am complete.”

Laboratory tests on rodents paint a less attractive picture. In one study, which was broadcast on British television, rats ran in circles around their cage for hours after being fed ecstasy.

When it arrived on Ibiza in the early 1980’s, the drug inspired DJs to experiment with new musical styles that were evolving along with innovations in digital technology. Clubbers loved the eclectic sound of “Balearic beat”, which was exported throughout Europe, but primarily to Britain, where acid house took over the club scene in 1988.

A year later, people were fusing dance music with rock and before long DJs had become more popular than bands.

Bored, cynical and alienated from each other in compartmentalised urban lives, millions of people around the world seek a sense of togetherness by taking ecstasy every week. It is not yet clear what the long-term consequences will be for their physical and mental health, but some doctors are concerned.

“Without adequate reflection, ecstasy simply encourages a yearning for fulfilment that was tasted but never quite attained,” warns Dr. Hartmut Steiner, a German psychiatrist. “That can be very damaging.”

Britain’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act attempted to control the new youth culture. It could not curb the popularity of dance music, but it restricted the right to free assembly and made clubs more corporate.

This touched a nerve in Britain, increasing young people’s awareness of the fragile nature of their liberties and the importance of fighting to defend them.

The techno revolution also provided new tools for direct action. Globalised media, particularly the Internet, have brought people from all over the world closer together and fostered a new climate of activism. Young people are growing more radical, united in their disillusionment rather than by a coherent agenda.

In May 1998, a group based in London used the Internet to coordinate simultaneous illegal street parties in 17 cities around the globe.

“Reclaim the streets!” the organisation urged. “The streets where daily life is endured, suffered and eroded, and where power is confronted and fought, must be turned into the domain where daily life is enjoyed, created and nourished.”


From a drugs awareness leaflet published by the Dutch government.

MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxy-N-Methylamphetamine), better known as ecstasy, is an illegal substance.

Manufacturers are not subject to regulation and quality control, so there is no way to know what any pill contains without testing it in a laboratory. Although the drug was originally developed by a pharmaceutical company, its long-term effects have not yet been fully researched.

Ecstasy is a stimulant, which increases brain activity. Its side effects can include nausea, a dry mouth, raised blood pressure and depression and large doses may cause anxiety, panic and confusion.

Evidence is also mounting that regular use of the drug may cause long-term brain changes which may be linked to an increased risk of mental health problems, including chronic depression. Studies have already suggested that the drug is toxic to the neurones in the brain, and that it may kill cells which produce a vital mood chemical called seratonin.

Ecstasy is not thought to lead to addiction and there are no specific withdrawal symptoms.


“The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village,” declared the Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan in 1962.

Guy Debord, the French philosopher, was not impressed.

“The sage of Toronto,” he said, “spent several decades marvelling at the numerous freedoms created by a ‘global village’ instantly and effortlessly accessible to all. Villages, unlike towns, have always been ruled by conformism, isolation, petty surveillance, boredom and repetitive malicious gossip about the same families. Which is a precise enough description of the global spectacle’s present vulgarity.”


The Internet opened a vast communicative bandwidth that is for the most part clogged up by pornography, junk email, inept graphic design and a farrago of creative typing masquerading as writing. But it also gave people instant access to each other’s music collections, encouraging the eclecticism that is essential to the creation of innovative electronic music.

“When the first sampler hit the streets in 1982, it became apparent that all sound could be used as music in some way,” said Kim Cascone, the maven of microsound, a minimalist style heavily influenced by the work of John Cage.

“I don’t really look to the outside world any more for sound sources. I prefer all my sound to be grown in silicon.”
“The late 1960’s and early 1970’s was a time that was rife with media experimentation. The sound of electronics really appealed to me as a child – the more synthetic it was, the more I liked it,” Cascone reflects. “All you need is the ability to listen to music without the need for a spectacle or the mode of socialised consumption imposed by pop music.”


Art has always sought to push back boundaries in expression. What happens when everything has already been expressed and subverted? Are we living what has been lived and reproduced before, in a reality of cannibalized images breeding incestuously with each other? Who decides what’s art among the kitsch? Does anything mean what it says? What is there left to believe in?

There is no cure for postmodernism, except perhaps the incurable illness of romanticism.


“I never take drugs. My drug is myself.”