All Systems Are Go
Strength comes in numbers. So when the Criminal Justice Act threatened a range of East Midlands sound systems, they came together. Jez Tucker looks at their non-confrontational approach to repetitively beating the system.
Squall 13, Summer 1996, pp. 42-44.
One Saturday night in May, in a quarry near Matlock, Derbyshire, 500 people are dancing under a full moon and clear sky. The free party scene is alive and kicking all over Britain with particular determination in the East Midlands; the spirit of the free festival lives on.
Smokescreen are the posse hosting this specific bash. Easy techno, trance and solid house sounds bounce off the sides of the quarry, filling all space.
Smokescreen, from Sheffield, are currently hosting a free party most weekends, usually in Derbyshire. They are also part of All Systems Go! - a collective of sound systems from Nottingham, Leicester, Sheffield and Lincoln.
All Systems’ individual components are a namecheck of the more popular East Midlands dance posses; DIY, Smokescreen, Pulse, Babble, Flotation, Breeze, Rogue and Gotropo. The latest edition to the collective is Spoof (Sheffield people on one forever). Together they form a loose community alliance that is mutually supportive but flexible enough to allow each posse its own individual identity and set of priorities. The result is an eclectic, organic scene where community and co-operation are highly valued as fundamental to the free party ethic.
All Systems sprang to life in 1992 in response to particular clauses encompassed in the Criminal Justice Bill affecting the rights of party-goers, squatters, protestors and travellers. A meeting was initiated by members of DIY, Smokescreen and Breeze.
Rick, (DJ Digs) of DIY explains: “We met in a club, about 30 or 40 people. We just talked about what we were going to do about this new law. Awareness raising seemed to be the one and it was initially a big information campaign.”
All Systems began organising benefit gigs to raise money to put into information.
Rick: “Because we had a PA and knew other people who were doing what we were doing, and had access to DJs, we paid minimum expenses, paid for the venue and the flyers, fivers in and it was a highly efficient way of making money. That crystallized the whole All Systems thing cos it was literally all systems in one room.”
One member of DIY who took the information bit between his teeth was Tash. Tash is a veteran of the ’70s and ’80s free festival community. His photographic work has documented the rise and fall of that community and he was one of only three independent photographers at the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985. He sees what All Systems are doing as an attempt to hold on to a vision of DIY, community and celebration: “After I heard about the Bill I realised that they meant festivals, protestors, raves and everything I was about. It was a big thing, the authorities have been trying to write a hippy act for years but they’d never been that specific before. At the meeting I showed people clippings from papers and told them that it meant them as well. A lot of people don’t think they’re anywhere near important or dangerous enough to warrant this attention. They might not but the establishment does. I was concerned that what we should primarily be about was publication - to tell the public at large there’s something off.”
A free booklet entitled ‘Right to Party’ was produced as well as a cartoon poster depicting Peanut Pete’s explanation of the main clauses of part five of the Bill, all happening on a union jack. The booklet contained warnings of legislation to come, its affect on the current scene, historic references and affirmations of dance culture.
By June 1995 the fifth edition of the booklet had been produced and became a well-known, respected and effective tool for informing the underground dance scene of exactly what they were up against.
Tash: “We spent about £15,000 on five editions of Right to Party. And each copy, because of its nature, was probably read by four or five people. We were mainly concerned with raising awareness. It’s my contention that should be our priority.”
Meanwhile, money from benefit gigs was also being put into buying a communal rig. Primarily called the Party or Community Rig it soon earned the nick name ‘ Kamikazee’. This rig is owned by All Systems and “borrowed” by individual systems for specific free parties, usually outdoor. This way if equipment is confiscated by police then no single outfit would suffer. One reason some members of All Sytems don’t like the term kamikazee is that it implies disposability.
Tash: “Kamikaze rig is quite a catchy name. You can put it in situations where you are prepared to lose it but it would be nice to hang on to it and the community at large can use it. If the police were confronted by a set of boxes that they knew were called kamikaze it might imply that after confiscation the court would treat it disposably.
The All Systems ethic is of communication and co-operation to facilitate free parties and mutual support. A benefit gig in April raised money for Buxton-based Black Moon sound system, the first outfit to have their rig confiscated under the CJA.
Another benefit in Sheffield on May 31st was also successful. Money raised from that event has yet to be allocated but options include fixing the kamikaze rig, more informative publications and starting up a bust fund for systems.
"Just as we were pulling off site we were confronted with maybe 25 wagons of police. They pulled over to one side and let us drive off. Just one more record and we'd have blown it."
Harry, an original member of DIY, is clear about what All Systems priorities should be post- CJA: “It’s hard to have any direct resistance to the CJA now that it’s law. National resistance seems to have petered out. So, basically, we’ve got our own organisation here, we’ll maintain links, keep the fundraising going, maybe set up a bust fund to support any one who might get nicked in the future.”
There is a strong belief within All Systems in community and the strength that community offers. When people feel part of a larger, similarly-minded group then there is courage to deal with unfriendly authority or potential imprisonment.
Tash: “It’s all about intimidation and the vested interests’ game plan to lower people’s resistance to intimidation. Our plan is to support people so they can continue.”
All Systems’ gigs are specifically designed to raise funds to support party-goers and systems doing free parties. Otherwise all the individual systems involved in the project are dance entities who do weekly club nights to finance the production of records and keep them doing free parties at the weekends.
Laurence, DJ and founder member of Smokescreen explains: “We always leave Saturday nights as free party nights. Maybe two or more nights during the week we do clubs and try to support ourselves day to day. Free parties we do at weekends.
“We recently had a meeting with SHED, a local drug advice agency. There was a guy there from the entertainments and licencing committee, part of Sheffield Council. He was implying we could get a venue, find who owns it, hire it, get fire and safety, get a licence and do a party. I said we already do events and to do it that way would cost quite a bit of money. I asked why the council couldn’t give us some unused land or property, then we’d get a licence and do free parties; we could pay for the licence through donations.
“It’s summer now and we primarily want to do free parties outdoors, but the ideas being floated at that meeting would mean we could do free parties in the winter without threat of police harassment. The guy from the licencing committee thought we were going to charge people. We had to explain to him that we were essentially a free- outfit, we didn’t want to worry about money, dress-sense and security; it’s free party ethics. It took him a while to get his head round.”
Police and official attitudes to the free party elements of All Systems have been varied. At Smokescreen’s Quarry gig in May, Derbyshire’s constabulary were notably playing a low-profile game, acting more as traffic wardens and parking attendants than potential osbstructors. “All we’re really worried about is ambulances and fire engines being able to get up to the village,” said one sergeant, as his colleague directed a reversing Mercedes van into a tight space.
Rick: “Mostly police pressure is words in ears and such, nothing too heavy, just intimidation. On New Year’s Eve we were doing a party and by complete coincidence it was the same weekend as someone else was trying to organise a massive party - Castlemorton-revisited style. The police took loads of information on vehicles all over but they didn’t follow it up until just before the May Bank Holiday, four months later. They traced our truck and came to the DIY office and seriously bent our ears, ‘we know who you are... what are you up to this weekend’ sort of thing.
“I know what pressure the Exodus Collective have been under but it’s a question of scale, they’re much more in the authorities’ faces. They’re dealing with thousands of kids from a small area whereas we’re dealing with a much wider area. There’s quite a substantial following for Smokescreen gigs at the moment and people come down from Leeds, Sheffield and Leicester for gigs in Derbyshire.”
Smokescreen had similar attention from the police after they did a free party in Sheffield.
Laurence: “We did a party at an old abandoned school just a couple of hundred yards up from Sheffield’s central police station. We knew we were taking the piss a bit but it was cold and we wanted to be indoors. The police turned up and just sat outside. I went and talked to a couple of them, they said there was no problem, they were just there to watch. During the night fire officers turned up to check safety but there were plenty of fire exits and stuff so after we walked them round the building they went away.
“During the next week we heard from several people, not part of the system, who had been contacted by police asking who were the organisers, was there beer on sale, where do these people come from, how did they hear about it... just someone in the police force saying to others I want you to devote time to finding out about who these people are.”
Smokescreen, Pulse and the other free party components of All Systems have respect. Respect not only for each other but for the wider community; local towns and villages. Party venues are carefully selected for noise minimisation and care is taken to ensure adequate and safe vehicle access; no excuse is given to the police to close them down. Maybe this is another factor in their success.
Rick: “Quarries are perfect for parties - one system is good enough for it. You can’t beat a good quarry for the ultimate party and Derbyshire is the best place for quarries - perfect.”
All systems are not interested in direct confrontation, they’re interested in the spirit and community that they are increasingly generating; a free-festival style celebration through dance.
Members of All Systems also know what they want: to continue to put on free parties and get away with it.
Laurence: “We did one party in Sherwood Forest, in April, that got a bit more attention from the police than usual. We talked with them and negotiated a time to close the party down. When that time came and we hadn’t, they got a bit heavier. We then gave everyone an hour’s notice that we were closing down. Anyway, an hour later we started packing up. We had a few punters come up and start giving us a hard time for giving in. I asked them what they wanted: to dance another couple of hours ‘til the police come wading in, we lose our rig and that’s it - or do you want another party next weekend?
“Just as we were pulling off site we were confronted with maybe 25 wagons of police, they pulled to one side and let us drive off. Just one more record and we’d have blown it.”
All Systems are under no illusions and Laurence certainly doesn’t view what they are doing as ‘hard-core’. But they do provide an example of how to just get on with the business at hand; offering a much needed alternative to the machinations of mainstream club culture.
Tash, also, is realistic about what is needed to effect a shift in society’s perceptions of celebration: “When ranged against the vested interests and the Home Secretary, All Systems aren’t going to crack the planet and, despite the heroic efforts of a few people, what difference is it going to make unless we can get the word out that what we’re doing here can be done all over the country?
“There’s nothing special about the East Midlands. On a local level we have to get involved. As in most smaller towns and cities, we’re privileged to be small enough so that communication is good. That closeness is what’s needed to make a dent.”
The way the police are implementing the Criminal Justice Act with respect to raves is not uniform over the country. In many places, as soon as a police officer says those three words to an assembly of more than 50 people, someone is likely to get upset. Until the CJA is more solidly set in the minds of British culture many police constabularies will be reticent about using it and will, instead, rely on the provisions of the Public Ordfer Act 1986. This legislation has been around for 10 years and when used, means the temperature stays lower.
Harry: “When the outrage over the CJA dissipates the police will get on with implementing it. Things become accepted in the framework of things. I remember when the Public Order Act came out 10 years ago, now it’s accepted that you can’t do this but you can get away with that.”
The introduction of the CJA was never entirely meant to deal immediately with the supposed problems it was intended for; knee-jerk reactions are simply devices to appease constituency members and win extra votes. The motivation for the introduction of the CJA may be much more insidious. In the way the Public Order Act 1986 didn’t effectively destroy Britain’s travelling community until the mid-nineties, the full effects of the CJA may not be realised until after the end of the millennium, when forces across the country will have the confidence and legal precedents to implement it.
Perhaps the future of festivals and parties lies in the persistence, determination and vision of small free party posses. For sound systems to effectively continue in the face of the CJA small well thought-out parties, with local residents in mind, would seem to be essential; but imagine a future: hundreds of small systems up and down the country doing free gigs regularly. Each has a loyal following of 500 people and they’re getting away with it.
Then, one day, they all come together. Maybe that day will be the Summer Solstice and maybe the venue will be Stonehenge.