Free Party: A Folk History 

‘Free Party’ Director Aaron Trinder on Fighting for the Right to Party

When the New Age travelers and the newly emerging ravers met in the English countryside, they had to fight for the right to party together for free. They still do.

Free Party: A Folk History 
Aaron Trinder
February 2024

Once again, Torino, Italy, came alive with the sounds of music, movies, meetings, and live shows for SeeYouSound’s 10th edition from 23 February through 3 March 2024. Along with its usual competitive ensemble of features, documentaries, music videos, and film shorts, there was the stand-out non-competitive section Rising Sound, which Juanita Apraez Murillo has been curating since the festival’s inception

Her thematic section includes films about music’s ability to inspire and incite, or, as Fela Kuti famously said, “Music is a weapon of the future. Music is the weapon of progressives. Music is the weapon of givers of life.” The five films in the Rising Sound category took viewers on a fascinating worldwide musical journey through stories highlighting artists, political voices, and movements. In the lineup was Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story, Joan Baez: I Am Noise, Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes, Little Richard: I Am Everything, Sankara and Free Party: A Folk History.

Aaron Trinder, the English director of Free Party, met with PopMatters and spoke in depth about this often overlooked historic movement to which the rave scene and various English political and environmental initiatives owe a great deal. 

Free Party brings us back to the roots of the free party scene beginning in the 1980s and reminds us of the dreary vibe during the Thatcher decade. “The people in control were just looking after their own interests and, you know, people were really trapped,” says an off-camera voice during the film’s opening moments. In this way, it is explained that young people wanted and needed to go out and party, to forget and shrug off the darkness. There were some slight political interests in this movement, but basically, the founders of such collectives as DiY, Spiral Tribe, Bedlam, and Circus Warp were interested in bringing people together with music through their sound systems in abandoned buildings or open spaces for free. “If ever a name encapsulated an ethos, it was DiY,” writes Scott Oliver at Vice. “Set against swallowing the prêt-a-porter pleasures of consumer society – clubbers too militant about what they want, what they’ve paid for, their consumer rights – they set out on an adventure that was simultaneously musical, psychic and social. An experiment in conviviality. No master plan or manifesto, other than: Do it yer’sen.”

DiY original Harry Harrison says, “We had a discussion about doing it yourself, which is, obviously, a punk ethic.” Another thing underlined throughout Free Party says, DIY founding DJ, Grace Sands, is “I think our number one thing ever on the DIY dance floor: all are welcome!” The heart of the free party culture was about community, freedom, and non-profit. 

As more urban ravers made the scene, a movement from earlier times comprised of the New Age travelers, who drifted around the country in their vans and converted buses, was continuing. Trinder explains, “In that early ’90s era, there were two demonized sectors of society. They were ravers, as the government finds them very easy to vilify in the newspapers. In addition, there were the travelers, who are a legacy from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s counterculture. They were dwindling by that time, but in some ways, the combination of the two groups, which the film discusses, created this sense, according to the media, of ‘our two demonized forces are somehow coming together. Dance music in the countryside and these travelers moving around the country doing this thing that the likes of middle England fine very frightening.” 

Free Party carefully retraces the wanderings of these mixed groups in search of open fields, public spaces, or abandoned buildings where they could set up their sound systems and camps. There were many spontaneous, unlicensed, free parties and gatherings that took place over the years with relatively little violence or damage to speak of. One exception is the infamous Battle of the Beanfield in 1985 held near Stonehenge, about which the photographer and traveler Alan “Tash” Lodge says that after an assault on the festival attendees by 1,600 policemen, “I could remember it to this day and I’ve never been the same since.” The following year the 1986 Public Order Act aimed at the travelers prohibited bringing vehicles onto a piece of land with the purpose of residing there. Cleverly, many decided a way of getting around the law was to stay up and dance all night so as not to “reside”.

Other pivotal moments include the Treworgey Free Festival of 1989 in Cornwall, where some say the first true intersection between the travelers and the ravers took place through the introduction of house music. The following year, in the travelers’ field at Glastonbury (the last time there would be a free entrance area), the bonds between groups deepened. Trinder describes how the ravers “were from a different planet” in certain ways, as they were more urban-based and some had “no idea that the countryside world was still going on.”

He adds, “From both the travelers’ and the ravers’ side, the meeting point seems to be around the summer of 1990. It was around the solstice, and there’s a sense that you are going to spend most of the time outside, under the stars, and that’s the connection to stay there.” DiY DJ Jack Harlow recalls, “It felt like this was a new thing that led to a relationship building between us and the travelers we’d met.” 

The Castlemorton Common Festival in May of 1992 is considered the largest ever illegal free party to date, with an estimated 30,000+ people gathering over a week. There was a lot of press, which many say, on the one hand, was like free publicity announcing the gathering’s place and time. On the other hand, the bad press and police arrests are said to have inspired the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (CJA), which was introduced and passed two years later. In a beautiful misty moment in Free Party, an off-screen voice declares, “It was almost like the end of an era. It kind of felt a bit like, you know, watching the world end here.” On screen a lone raver slowly disappears with just a hint of dancing legs in a foggy fade away. 

Through numerous interviews, still photos, maps, and ephemera in the way of stickers, photocopies, signs, flyers, and the like, Trinder cuts and pastes the story together. Furthermore, since it was essentially an underground movement, those involved were often suspicious of cameras and journalists. “Let’s face it, it was not cool to have a camera at an illegal free party or free festival back in the ’80s and ’90s.”  Thus, it was a tricky and often “very slow process” to uncover much of the archival material.

In explaining his process to create Free Party, Trinder states, “I thought it has to still work in a film arc, but it’s always going to have this nature of what it was like, as in having multiple, visual elements that didn’t match. Super 8 footage here, high 8 footage there, stills, flyers, posters, maps – all of it is a hodgepodge in look and feel. The quality of the clips was variable. I just had to embrace the fact that it’s a kind of collage, a cut-and-paste scene from that DIY punk culture.” Free Party strikes the viewer as a sprawling video ‘zine set to music. Many points of view come from people who participated over the years to varying degrees in an egalitarian world that shunned anything formal in the way of rules or structure. 

As a participant at some Free Parties, Trinder contemplated telling this story for years. He has his own London-based production company, which he makes short-form commissioned pieces for. “At some point, you just have to take the plunge and do something that’s your passion and suffer the consequences (laughs). It means moonlighting to do the creative thing you want.”  The director/ editor/ producer admitted to the great fortune he had in constructing the story and deciding to make a feature-length doc instead of a short one. “I kind of knew it would work because, from my limited understanding of story structure and all that, it sort of fits exactly like you expect a two-hour film to work. There’s the challenge of multiple protagonists and how to manage all of these events.”

Surprised that no one had told this story yet in a film, Trinder, “very foolheartedly, I suppose in the spirit of the DiY idea, I just kept going, doing interview after interview. Then I started going to some old sites to film and gather archives.” Thankfully, he persevered for over five years, developing a choral approach to telling the story. “The concept was that it was always a folk history, so it was from the people’s voices rather than a historian or a media organization telling it. I never wanted to have a voice-over. I wanted it to all be told from the perspective of the people who experienced it.

“The counterpoint to that is the news coverage, which you hear. That was the balance I was trying to create, the different people who experienced it and the news’ perspective.” Indeed, Free Party and its collective folksy format give a voice to many different people who participated in these hand-made, word-of-mouth gatherings. 

There are many voices that speak about their personal experiences, and some do not always agree on what was happening. Memories vary, and so do the motivations behind attending the free parties. Most people were willing to talk on camera, though the director underlines how, initially, the travelers were more reticent to go public with their stories. “Due to an inbuilt suspicion of the media, finding the right people within the traveler scene was hard. They had been demonized so many times and of course the travelers are not one group, they are multiple and complex. So that process was a bit slower, and I had to, in some way, show people that I was trying to give a very balanced picture.”

While seemingly apolitical, most folks agreed on the importance of anarchy at the festivals. The ravers, in particular, mixed a healthy dose of hedonism, feeding their desire to party freely. In Free Party, the photographer Tash explores the often misconstrued concept of anarchy, “If you look at the Greek definition, it’s government without authority. It doesn’t mean to say that you can do what you like. It means cooperation. It’s working it out together. You know that you punch above your weight as an individual by acting as a team.”

Trinder expands on how the word anarchy can be “used as a slur” and feared. “It’s hand in hand with chaos and bedlam. I suppose the original concept was what Tash describes: a utopian state where we just look after each other, as in having a tribe. You allocate roles and tasks. There’s no specific leader. It’s a utopian idea of not needing a government.”  Moreover, Trinder points out in his document that outdoor festivals have a long history. “It’s something that’s been going on for thousands of years. We’ve been gathering and dancing outside in villages, you know, in the countryside for free, no ticket price, no wristband. It’s always been community-driven. In a way, it was reconnecting that powerful element of music and urban people returning to the countryside.” 

The British government’s crackdown and increased police presence, especially after Castlemorton in 1992, led to a more politicized aim of the festival goers. They now found themselves with a real cause for which to gather. With more archival video material, Free Party picks up momentum as mixed groups are shown often protesting in the city streets with signs and chants of Kill the Bill and Fight for Your Right to Party. Trinder describes, “Generally, what happened in the ’90s is the sound systems turned up and it became more of a party in the streets. There was also the concept of let’s take the streets back for people.”

Unfortunately, after Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher’s government, John Majors took over with much of the same muscle. Under Majors, the CJA was passed, criminalizing unlicensed events playing music characterized by “the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” The law seemed to be aimed at the heart and soul of the free parties. 

Many of the sound system and party people began traveling around Europe and beyond, looking for new countries to set up and party. DJ Steve Bedlam proudly states, “So we didn’t stop, we just went somewhere else. We went to Europe, where they welcomed us with open arms.” In addition, protests continued to grow in the UK throughout the ’90s as young people passionately took on environmental issues, among others. Aaron Trinder believes, “The tendrils of the free party movement didn’t just carry on with the concept of listening to electronic and dance music in a field. Its tendrils also came through the protest movement in the UK during the ’90s and have led to activism that is happening today.

“The environmental side may have been ignored, but many of the principles come from the original traveler movement. While they were seen as wild hippies, the travelers understood it all back then. It was all about leaving no trace and the importance of the relationship with nature.” 

While large-scale free parties may be a thing of the past, it is true that “Young people want to get together and have a good time; that’s what they want to do. That’s what I did, what all of us did, and what we always wanted to do. It is becoming harder and harder because it’s more and more expensive. Now you have a kind of sanctioned way to go out and party, the festivals, to be out in nature: you pay for this. But there’s a gatekeeping aspect to that. It’s very expensive. You’ve got to get your wristband. Glastonbury is as fabulous as it is, and it’s £300 if you manage to find a ticket.”

Free gatherings continue, and Trinder has been told, “There’s a real underground movement. Young people tell me, ‘We’re doing it in the old-fashioned way, and there is nothing on social media.’ They use Signal and Whatsapp to post where to meet and if they have a convoy, all that kind of stuff that was done before.” 

The ravers and travelers from the heyday of the free party scene have grown up, some have gone on to finish university, had families, written books or even continue to work in the organized festival scene or as activists. DiY’s Harry Harrison, author of 2022’s Dreaming in Yellow: The Story of the DiY Sound System, explains, “We had a mini alternative society, I suppose you’d call it. It was diverse, and yes, there were problems. There were problems later on with addiction… But I think we did quite well, to be honest. You know we hung in together for at least ten years.” While the newspapers may have vilified the drug scene over the years, it was the music that brought these people together and gave them their sense of community. DJ Jack Harlow reiterates towards the end of Free Party, “We were all just doing what we wanted instead of what we thought we were supposed to do. It’s anarchism in its purest sense, which is a good thing.”  

Thirty years after the CJA was enacted Trinder’s timely film is making the festival rounds throughout Europe and North America. Numerous books have been written about the Free Party, the internet is full of articles, blogs, and sites that are very informative about its history, and new footage still appears. Trinder is enthusiastic about the public screenings as the community of the audience, and their reactions echo the communal feelings of the free party scene.

“It is SO nice to be in the cinema to watch it with a big sound system, hearing people’s reactions, seeing people respond to the music. It’s the ideal way, particularly in a festival environment where people are there for a collective reason. It feels special, not just because the film happens to be there. It’s something that people have made an effort to come to specifically. There are the Q&As and people interacting.”

Trinder already set his sights on a future project, a collaborative undertaking about “a wild Welsh punk band of the ’80s and early ’90s called 2000 Dirty Squatters.” His collaborator/’mate’ has a “massive box of tapes” which they will work from and weave together with first-hand stories from friends and family. “It’s more of a family story about a band that lived a very wild outsider’s life. The kids were on tour and on stage with them. It’s again opening up a world people haven’t heard about or seen.”

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