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A Brief History Of Dance Festivals

07 August 2006

They can be traced right back to the first time man banged two sticks together and thought, 'Large!' But in reality, dance parties have been banging around in one guise or another since the '60s...

Please click on a photo to enlarge it...

As I stand on the dancefloor at the Freaky Dragons festival in the mountains of Catalunya in Spain, the kick drum maintaining its relentless pace, the bass throbbing and weird squiggles and squelches careening through the air, I see no evidence of the half-baked notion that dance music is 'dead'. In fact, I can see it nowhere. New festivals are popping up all over the place like fungi, and thriving as well. So where did the phenomenon of dance festivals appear from and where are they heading?

To write a piece on the history of dance festivals is somewhat akin to peeling an onion, you reveal one layer only to find another beneath. And so it goes on and on and on. In reality dance festivals are as old as religion itself but in the modern era it is possible to identify five main eras in the genesis of the rave.

The first phase, then, lies not in the ecstasy-drenched summers of 1988 and 1989 when acid house began to spread its "pernicious" grip over British hedonists but really in the free festival circuit of the 70s and early 80s. The spirit of free love, of turning on, tuning in and dropping out did not die with the 60s, it merely went underground. In the era of glam and disco the hippies took the show on the road. Away from the cities they fled in convoy, only to regroup and celebrate at various meeting points across the UK and indeed the world. These gatherings often lasted for several weeks, such as the Windsor Free Festivals of 1972-74 (ironically in full view of the Queen's country getaway) with the aim of creating some kind of utopian brave new world where they could dance all night, under the stars and under the influence. Does this sound familiar?

Stonehenge, especially around the Summer Solstice (ironically Prince Charles' birthday), became the epicentre of this movement and a delicate relationship between the authorities, locals and the revellers began, maintaining itself well into Thatcherite Britain. Some of British dance music's most revered names were fostered in the atmosphere of the Stonehenge festivals, such as Eat Static and International Observer, but the bubble would soon burst. The infamous Battle of the Beanfields in 1985 (in which revellers on the way to Stonehenge were confronted by a large proportion of the British police force who, under Margaret Thatcher's orders, were told to stop the festival with whatever means necessary) seemed to spell the end of the free festival. Government sanctioned police brutality had seemingly rung a death knell for the free spirits. Or so it seemed.

Around the same time the Chicago and Detroit techno sounds first made it over to British shores where reactions were initially mixed. Tracks that were over five minutes long with minimal vocals were a little too alien for a general public being force fed the likes of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Yet at the same time there was a burgeoning warehouse party scene, centred in London, where those in the know gathered for all night parties to a soundtrack of dub, soul and rare groove. Some of the punters at these Bacchanalian orgies would make summer excursions to a little known island in the Mediterranean where life was cheap and the order of the day was, quite simply, to have a good time, all the time. The prevalent music that accompanied the even more debauched parties on this island, Ibiza, became known as the Balearic sound. Mixing the minimal grooves of Detroit techno with Spanish influences, and many others besides, a new genre of music was born: Acid House.

Sensing this music was too good to be kept under wraps, young English DJs, such as Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling, soon exported it to the UK at the same time that a new narcotic was making its presence strongly felt on British drug culture: Ecstasy. The combination of MDMA-induced euphoria and the hypnotic effects of acid house music combined to create a potent cocktail that was soon infecting everyone from football hooligans to New Age Travellers.

The travelling community were weary at first of this new development, being more used to the prog-rock noodlings of bands like Hawkwind. But soon they realised: A) it worked in their favour for now they could throw their beloved free festivals again without fear of police intervention and B) it was great fun to dance to on a head full of pills. They exploited a legal loophole that made parties less vulnerable to the law so as long as punters had to pay something to get in. Free in spirit but not for your wallet. So the "law" couldn't put a stop to the revelry because of the existing licensing laws at the time.

So began a strange relationship with bus dwelling hippies and young urbanites. Although these gatherings were no longer the epics they had once been in the halcyon era of the free festival, they still went on for long enough to convince the participants they were part of something new and exciting where such notions of class and race became meaningless. As this new movement gained momentum so too did Middle England's distaste for such decadent behaviour. Tabloid headlines decried all night "acid parties" where punters supposedly danced until they collapsed. Sometimes they did, but that wasn't the point, despite the brazen claims of one well known red top. Questions were raised in Parliament, while at the same time bands such as The Orb and The KLF performed ambient dub epics on Top Of The Pops. Again the bubble was about to burst, and it took one such event to truly pop it...



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Article by: Tom Fair

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