FILM REVIEW: Free Party – A Folk Tale (2023)

A documentary about the free party scene of the early nineties, and how the state tried to make it illegal to party.

As I type, registration for Glastonbury is open. You can now register for the right to be able to buy a ticket. It doesn’t mean you can buy a ticket merely that you can enter the ‘lottery’ that is the scramble to pay £350 to go to Glastonbury. Glastonbury, along with events like Latitude, Green Man and Creamfileds are now the equivalent of Wimbledon, they are the place to be seen. Even David Cameron has been spotted at upmarket festivals. Things were very different back in the late eighties and early nineties. Very different.

In the eighties, before people realised you could make some money out of selling tofu burgers to punters in Hunter Wellies, festivals were looked down upon by the establishment – and indeed by Joe and Josephine public.

Festivals, as we know them, had slowly started to take form in the sixties, gathering a bit of pace in the seventies. They had been spaces for people to come together to share a love for music and a spirit of freedom. Many were free, but a few more commercial events such as Reading started popping up and Glastonbury, whilst not ‘commercial’ started to charge for entry.

Then along came Thatcher, who believed ‘there is no such thing as society’. She did her best to smash trade unions and the community spirit they fostered, she sold off public services and encouraged a spirit of greed. The Yupies being the embodiment of those times. The gap between the haves and have nots grew.

As the saying goes, when the winds of change blow, some build a shelter, whilst others build a windmill. This is a story of how some people who liked to party, took matters into their own hands. Fed up with legal, commercial nightclubs, they broke into empty spaces, squatted them and put on free parties.

When acid house took hold of the nation in 1987, many entrepreneurs harnessed that spirit and started putting on raves in warehouses, airfields and farms. Whilst they had the feelgood spirit, many of them became commercial operations charging punters admission. It wasn’t long before the free raves around the M25 orbit, became the super slick, and super sanitised, super clubs.

There were quite a few that felt that was not their thing. All good music scenes start out as a grassroots thing, and inevitably the green eyes of capitalism see a fast buck to make and comodify scenes. DIY Sound System in Nottingham decided to take their gear along to one of the free festivals that what was left of the ‘New Age’ Travelling community had managed to keep alive. Initially the travellers were sceptical, but quicker than you can say, ‘i’ll have an E please Bob’, travellers were getting into gurning and throwing shapes.

From this point on, the history of free festivals and free parties merge.

The film includes rare footage from back in the day. Don’t forget this is pre smartphone and taking photographs on the dancefloor was not cool, particularly as many of the parties were illegal. There’s also interviews with party goers and party makers, particularly members of DIY, Bedlam and Spiral Tribe.

The rave scene had already been commercialised, so they were left to their own devices by ‘the industry’. The scene started to grow, with kids that couldn’t afford, and often didn’t want to, get into the likes of Ministry of Sound, were heading back out into the countryside to party in the open air. And the pretty monochrome traveller scene slowly started getting dayglo and including soundsystems alongside, and occasionally instead of, live music stages.

There are interesting tales from the various free parties like of Torpedo Town and Avon Free, but as popularity grows, so does the attention of the police.

This comes together in a perfect storm in 1992 when various police forces evict travellers from their hood, just keen to get them out of their jurisdiction. The result,  several soundsystems end up at Castlemorton Common. One of the biggest raves ever is in the making. When it hit the national news, it had the unintended consequence of drawing in more ravers that had seen it on the telly.

The party resulted in a massive Criminal case against Spiral Tribe, but the case eventually collapsed when the senior officer for Avon and Somerset police gave evidence from his hospital bed stating that the police had pushed them towards the common to get rid of them.

This was all too much for the establishment, who resorted to type and did the only thing they knew how to do. They passed more laws. The idea that you can make music ‘wholly or predominantly characterised by a succession of repetetive beats’ illegal still raises a grin now, but that’s exactly what section 63 of the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 did.

Police harassment and public outrage eventually pushed Spiral Tribe to take their thing over onto the continent,  where people were much more accepting. And so ‘Technivals’ were born.

Commercial festivals saw what was happening and absorbed it into festival culture.  You see very few festivals these days that don’t have a ‘dance’ tent. Free parties dwindled for a while but were kept alive by a few hardy souls. Thirty years on from Castlemorton and almost forty years on from ‘The Battle of the Beanfield’, a new generation that were not around to experience those setbacks are out again providing a DIY relief to another Tory initiated cost of living crisis.  Power to their elbow we say.

Just like the scene it documents,  the film is very much a DIY project,  so has only been able to afford very limited licencing rights for some of the footage and soundtrack. Therefore,  you can only catch it at film festivals and the like. But it really does need a wider audience,  so we hope that they can raise the finds to make that happen

Forward the revolution.