On New Year’s Eve 1991, a now legendary illegal rave took place in the Roundhouse, then an abandoned shell of a building having stood empty for almost a decade. Leanne Griffin explores the rise and fall of the free party scene.
While Bryan Adams held a cast iron grip on the music charts in the Nineties, millions of young people spent their weekends escaping mundane suburbia searching for a hedonistic utopia in fields dotted around the M25.
Having emerged in the late 1980s, the acid house rave subculture exploded into a “mass bohemia” during the three-year period of 1990-92. Ignored by mainstream clubs, young people formed their own subculture, not dissimilar to 1960s counter-culture which has its roots at the Roundhouse.
Ollie London, who was present at the rave on New Year’s Eve 1991, remembers this period well:
“The acid house scene was the place to be for hip young Londoners. As a consequence most of my Saturday nights were spent dancing in fields or illegal warehouse parties across the capital.”
At the height of the movement in 1991, the free party collective Spiral Tribe teamed up with fellow groups to organise a New Years’ Eve rave at the Roundhouse. They were the most well known of the ‘squat-rave’ scene which music writer Simon Reynolds described as “rave’s very own punk…with its cheap admission, lack of security, and no-frills squalor – is in revolt against the commercialised clubbing mainstream.”
They spent their days travelling across Europe with their sound system and over Christmas, they set up their camp in the Roundhouse car park.
Jack Hardpoint, a member of the Mutoid Waste Company and one of the organisers of this legendary party, remembers arriving at the building and finding it in a state of disrepair.
“It looked a mess. It was absolutely awful. Full of rubbish….London was semi-derelict, whole parts of the town were abandoned and derelict. From a squatting point of view, it was the golden age. Each weekend, empty warehouses would be taken over by acid house and techno raves. There was a lot of people who didn’t want to go to mainstream clubs. The clubs weren’t playing the music they wanted to hear, the acid house and techno that we played.”
While partygoers today can easily find the next warehouse rave in Hackney Wick through a quick search on Facebook, word of mouth spread through an underground network. “At that time it was pagers – you’d page for the party,” says Jack.
Ollie London remembers how he discovered the party:
“At around 6am we were making our way back home to north west London when someone in the car said that there was a Spiral Tribe party in the Roundhouse and we should go and check it out as we would be driving past it anyway. So just after sunrise we found ourselves outside the Roundhouse.”
Local resident Marie Shern recalls hearing about the party on the grapevine from various friends and heading to the Roundhouse that night. After joining a massive queue, she made it in.
Ollie London remembers the experience of entering the building:
“Having never seen the inside of the Roundhouse I was amazed at the strange beauty of the building itself. A vast round cavernous space that was in a total state of disrepair. There was no electricity, only generators powering the sound system so it was quite dark inside, lit only by the grey early morning daylight that filtered through the occasional window or hole in the roof. Once my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light I was amazed by what I saw. Hundreds of people, a mix of regular party people, dogs, travellers and their children of all ages milling about, there were bonfires and smoke…it was total anarchy. It very much reminded me of the film ‘Mad Max-Beyond Thunderdome’.
In the early hours, Jack and the crew encountered a problem. At 4am in the morning, the generator blew up. There was no power. It could have been the end of the party. One individual, managed to get the power running from the railway. Luckily, this alternative power source wasn’t discovered for a further two weeks and the rave ran on right through to the end of January.
It’s not hard to see parallels between this party and the All Night Rave at the Roundhouse in October 1966, a defining moment in the emergence of 1960s counter-culture. Acid-house itself was influenced by psychedelic music and the reliance of drugs, LSD and ecstasy is an easy one comparison to make. What is more interesting is the fact that both movements attracted people who were searching for something different that they couldn’t find in mainstream society. The music brought together these like-minded people searching for a utopia.
Geoffrey Marsh, Director of Performance at the Victoria & Albert Museum, argues that a key impact of 1960s counter-culture was enabling people to
“explore new ways of living and new ways of thinking. People were coming together, talking to other people and discussing things. Music was central to this. There was the genuine feeling that if everyone got together you could create a communal power house for change, which was at the root of what was going on in the Roundhouse.”
One reveller recalls what the 1991 rave meant to them:
“It felt like something new to all of us; a breeze from outside our regular lives. Afterwards, I went home and told my cat over and over again that I loved him.”
Just a few months later, in May 1992 Spiral Tribe were part of the legendary and notorious free party at Castlemorton Common. The event attracted widespread media coverage, which only seemed to attract more youths in search of hedonistic escapism.
But the party was almost over and it was the beginning of the end of the free party scene. A moral panic swept the media, vilifying the movement and a crackdown was called for. In 1994, The Criminal Justice Act was passed, criminalising “illegal gatherings of more than 20 people listening to “repetitive beats.”
Spiral Tribe headed off for France, Jack Hardpoint and his Mutoid Waste Company for Berlin. For many others, life moved on the more conventional path of stable jobs, mortgages and babies, but nostalgia for this time lives on.
Listen to an audio interview with Jack Hardpoint about this night.