I was going to say quite a lot about the excellent Spannered, a novel of sorts that is also a track list, a set of interleaved illustrations, a semi real-time game of “name that tune” and a confessional biography/documentary on the bliss of one weekend in the TAZ circa Bristol in 95 and which seems to take both the website that promotes it and the mocked-up cassette mix at the back of the book as an invitation to investigate the time and the tunes further. However, the book’s author “ Bert Random” answered the couple of questions I asked him so comprehensively and eloquently my own take on it seems a bit irrelevant, suffice to say I recommend it wholeheartedly, and I might even go so far as to say it strikes me as something, especially in its unfussy integration of various types of old and new media, that is as a work basically predicated on the Internet (as “Bert” suggests in his second answer) as something excitingly, well…… new.
`Spannered is set in 1995, the protagonist is 21, which I am assuming is your age more or less at the time, and the book ends with him crashing out after a weekender. What's your take on what came next? Specifically I suppose how was the energy and identification, the tightness of the social group. the cast of characters in the book then maintained and how did it diffuse over the coming years? I am asking because unlike many works that celebrate these high points or peaks of a culture or the inevitable compromise with adult life etc, in Spannered that melancholy, "realist", elegiac end note isn't really there.
When I was putting ‘Spannered’ together I really wanted to avoid the clichéd clean ending, because it seemed to me that wasn’t the real experience for millions of people who partied through the 90s and beyond. For most people there were years and years of the kind of behaviour described in the book before it got unsustainable or twisted or boring, rather than ‘going straight’ happening as some kind of redemptive climax. It’s set in 1995 as a convenient mid-point but draws on memories from a much wider period, and once I’d decided to jettison the plots, and just do a burn through a weekend instead, ending on melancholy normality didn’t feel like a realistic option. Lots of people did get fucked up, to various degrees, but far more people didn’t. Far more people just partied hard for a long time then gradually slowed into jobs or families or other types of creativity (or all three). I don’t really understand why so many narratives set in this chaotic underground world seem to lose the courage of their convictions and have leaving that world as the climax – for me the high point was the dancing and the laughing and the people, not the music stopping.
There were a few early drafts of the book that stretched into gruesome midweek comedowns but in the end it all felt unnecessary. I’m not pretending it was some kind of utopia, so there’s the bad chapter where the narrator freaks out, people who are obviously quite damaged throughout, and lots of it that isn’t particularly flattering, but for millions of people raving was/is an overwhelmingly positive experience and this truth gets overwhelmed by the moralising plots that neatly resolve in a way mainstream culture finds acceptable and reassuring. I think this leads in to the question you ask below about nostalgia, with the current revisiting of rave being partly born from a subconscious recognition that history hasn’t fully captured the sheer joy of being in a field with twenty-thousand people and loads of sound-systems, dancing under the stars while utterly, utterly, shitfaced. The friendships from those days have endured and are strong – my closest friends are still the people I met on those dancefloors – and with the ease of communication through social networks and email old friendships that had died because of distance have been rekindled.
Like Hunter S Thompson said ‘When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro’ and that’s what happened to a lot of the party crew – running festivals, being professional photographers, artists, writers, sculptors, blacksmiths, carving out niches at an angle to most of the world. The homogenisation of culture is getting harder to avoid, but people still try. In fact, I spent a day last weekend with loads of the old friends at a legal one-day party some of the old free-party crew were putting on in a park in Bristol – loads of the old faces, laughing and dancing in a field twenty years on; can’t argue with that really.
There is a sequence in Spannered where everyone adds their drugs to a communal pile, contrasted with some professional, more business oriented drug dealers. Can you expand on some of the business dynamics of the rave scene in Bristol/elsewhere around the time, not just in drugs but also in terms of DJing, artists, musicians, promotion etc?
Bristol is a fairly small city, smaller than Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, etc, which means it does sometimes have the feel of a village, and being tucked away in the south west it can be quite self-contained, making it easier for there to be lots of cross-over within its boundaries. In my head
has always been a series of Venn
diagrams: there you have the Wild Bunch circle, which overlaps the Full Cycle circle,
which overlaps the house and techno circles, which overlaps the free-party
circles, which overlap the dub & reggae circles, which overlaps the indie
circle, etc. I think a lot of people subconsciously want to stand at the intersection
of as many circles as possible so as not to miss anything, I certainly wanted
to. And if you have the time, inclination, and stamina Bristol is small enough to sometimes feel
like that is a real possibility, which is quite intoxicating. Bristol
As in many other cities some key venues became hubs of lots of different scenes, hosting all kinds of nights with the same partyheads going to loads of them, with the best nights often being held in little community centres or one-off spaces. In
it was places
like Easton Community Centre, which was always buzzing, or an old converted church
called Trinity, that was a perfect place to have a transcendent experience. There
was a fundraiser one year for a homeless cold-weather shelter, in the actual
shelter building before all the beds and stuff were brought in to set up for
the winter, and that was a great space – essentially a huge warehouse but with
plumbed in toilets! Every city has strange spaces like that; in Preston they had
the ARTLab, in Bristol
the Hulme crescents, the 121 Centre in Brixton – the weird places were always
the best. DJs would bicker among themselves in the many record shops back then (I
think Bristol has more street-art galleries now than it does record shops…),
and the same PAs and sound engineers would do gigs for different promoters and
turn up at the odd warehouse party, the same crew did flyposting for everyone,
the same security firm worked for loads of venues, people would do décor and
lights for whoever was putting on a dance; there was a lot of crossover in all
aspects. For years there was a legal, free festival known as Ashton Court
Festival that pulled people from all different aspects of music and performing
arts across the city into a combined effort, which helped foster a bit of an
all-in-it-together feeling; it ran from the mid-70s up to the early 00s and during
the 90s the open-air Club Stage was guaranteed to be a raucous party with a
policy of booking music from *all* the different party and club crews. There
was undoubtedly a lot of money-making along the way – legal and illegal – but from
a punters point of view that didn’t really to matter, there was fun to be had
and that’s what counted, as long as you weren’t being burnt by some fucker
selling asprins or something. Manchester
The book is partly structured around different tunes (each chapter is named after a different track) and within the text itself there are countless references to, snatches of and descriptions of tracks, in other words a kind of shadow-set of memory-rushes and recognitions for the initiates (of which I am admittedly not one). This helps to maintain a kind of inside/outside distinction true believers versus dilettantes in a way. That's not a criticism .But I am interested in that dynamic of maintaining a group of kind of "purists against tourists".
I wasn’t sure how easy to understand the book needed to be, and how much insular terminology to use; one of the first readers of a very early draft wrote back to me and said ‘Do you want non-tribe people to read this?’, thinking that no-one outside would be able to follow it. Then I read an interview with David Simon, who wrote ‘The Corner’ and ‘The Wire’ and he said, essentially, that in his opinion you no longer need to worry about an audience not understanding anything they can google, and that he doesn’t feel the need to translate all the terminology, because anything the audience aren’t sure about can be looked up in minutes. I decided that knowing a particular tune or cultural reference wasn’t important, as long as the *emotion* that the tune or reference was supposed to trigger was clear from the context and the text. There have been nice reviews from people who totally into other scenes – house, jungle, whatever – saying they recognise the feelings even if they don’t recognise the specific bit of techno being described. It’s been strange seeing some confused reactions from reviewers to a world they don’t understand. A local literary magazine said readers might be ‘shocked by the nihilism on display’, which was weird because I don’t think the book is nihilist at all – indeed I think it’s quite positive about community, love, and collective endeavour for mutual gain.
Again, the impulse behind the book was to try and capture the reality of being there, dancing at that time, and there wasn’t really an intention to exclude – after all the cliché is more-or-less true: it didn’t matter who or what you were, if you were happy, joined in, and weren’t a dick you’d be welcomed with open arms by groups of people and treated with kindness. There was a certain amount of inverted snobbery about people slumming it with the party crew then heading back off to Daddy’s big house, but to be honest even that snobbery melted on the dancefloor more often than not.
There's been a lot of rave nostalgia recently and a lot of "mourning" its lost utopian possibilities etc not exclusively by the middle aged harking back on their glory days. Why do you think it was so important to so many? Do you see anything of equal importance having happened in the intervening twenty-ish years?
I think a lot of this is just a matter of timing, in that there are now a generation of high-profile writers, academics, and journalists, who are all of an age where they would have lived through raving, either as full-on participants or observers, and are now in positions where their voices are heard, and this then seeps into the general cultural conversation, even among people who are younger. There was a certain amount of post-Cold-War naive optimism in the early 90s on the basis that as we now all felt less likely to die in a nuclear holocaust, there was a faint possibility things might actually turn out okay – and that naivety is quite appealing from a distance. Obviously twenty years of grim neo-liberal economics and authoritarian politics has screwed that idea into the ground, so again it’s looking back to something that was, in hindsight, more hopeful for the future than our current cultural state. I think the wistfulness is understandable, to be honest, because for all the bullshit and oppression experienced by people back then, it was nothing compared to the tactics, legislation, and equipment available to the state and private interests now to fuck with us all, young and old. Inevitably, there is a sense of looking back at a time when you could get away with stuff the state would quash now without a second thought and without it even getting a mention on the news.
There is a certain amount of cultural stasis as well, a recycling of past highs, particularly in music, where it feels like the ‘breakthrough-roughly-every-decade-and-a-bit’ didn’t happen in early 2000s, for a variety of reasons. At some point the music industry decided that they could feed the hype-machine by just cycling between guitar/indie/rock music and dance/electronic music every few years, re-selling the same sounds as something new with just enough time elapsed for plausible denial. Early dubstep was great fun – ‘Lost City’, ‘Officer’, and tunes like that – but to me a lot of it sounded like superbly produced digi-dub being played stupendously loud: not a bad thing, but not that new either. Grime was interesting for a while, then ran out of steam. And now of course we have all of the worst bits of dance music – big trance synth stabs, terrible house-y vocals, and wobble-bass-drops – smushed together and selling to millions of teenagers. (I am of course aware that I am hideously old now, and that I would, rightly, have been laughed at if I’d told a kid with his head in a bassbin at DMZ in 2005 that he wasn’t having a life-changing experience…)
I think there are loads of good scenes out there, hyper-local crews putting on dances in their corner of the country, but I do wonder whether the internet has limited our horizons as well as broadening them. You can now become so aware of everything happening on your doorstep, and beyond, that you don’t actually need to experience it in the flesh; you don’t need to drive to
or Leeds or down to Lizard Point for a rave so
scenes don’t get a chance to spread slowly through participation. Instead we can
watch a video, download a mix or two, and that’s that. And, in the same way
that 24-hour rolling news has made us actually less well informed and instead
full of conjecture and bullshit, the deluge of music, video, images, and words
unleashed by the web has created an environment that is toxic to any kind of
underground culture actually developing, as every scene that looks even vaguely
interesting is hyped, examined, categorised, and assimilated within seconds of
being identifiable. The market machine is just another part of the capitalist
economy, and simply seeks to extract as much value as possible from its raw
materials – in this case any new means of cultural expression – as quickly as
it can and for maximum profit; it does feel like a process that erodes the
value of the products it is packaging and selling, and that the more
hyperactively efficient the process becomes the more the reasons music moves us
The period 92 to 95 was pretty depressing politically (though I am not advocating what came after) but still, to be in your late teens/early twenties at the time was still relatively comfortable compared to now. How much do you think rave culture, the weekender, the excess was predicated on a welfare state, cheap rents, lowish youth unemployment, networks of squats, accessible higher education etc.
I absolutely agree with this; at the time life felt tough but compared to now it was a piece of piss. In terms of social and political power there is no real difference to now – the occasional explosion of action (CJA protests/student riots) are still covering up a depressing lack of political leverage for anyone who isn’t either born into money and power, or exceptionally lucky – but at least living a life that avoided a lot of the shite was an option if you worked the angles right. It simply wasn’t possible for the free party scene and all the associated cultures to carry on the same way in the late 90s. We were literally outlawed in the Criminal Justice Act, along with a tonne of other alternative lifestyle and causes, all as part of the ongoing class war between the rich fucks who own everything and run everything, and the working (and non-working) classes who are trying to salvage a bit of fun from whatever’s left over. It’s a class war that hasn’t finished and is visible everyday, from the obscenities of pay in the financial sector compared to kids of workfare for £50 quid a week, or a granny having her meals on wheels cut to twice a week versus the corporate capture of policy-making that leads to tax cuts for the rich and service cuts for the rest. The privatisation of public space, the outsourcing of law and order, and the undercurrent of hatred in British life of anything strange or ‘other’ or foreign - all of this makes it much harder to build an alternative life. There are obviously loads of parties that still go on, but they seem smaller and weirder and darker – I mostly hear about free parties in
from my neighbours’ cider-punk son. I
feel fucking old these days so instinctively find young people annoying, with
all their energy and good looks and jaunty hats, but at the same time I feel a
lot of sympathy – what a shitty time to be trying to find your feet as an
adult, let alone having fun and meaningful experiences along the way. Bristol
There's a famous-ish line in Trainspotting about "new people on new drugs", and Spannered ends with thoughts of the future. what do you think were the implicit assumptions about "generation ecstasy" and how it would shape the future. My sense at the time was there was a sense that "after this nothing will ever be the same." What do you think the assumptions about the future were at that point?
It always felt to me like a very insular euphoria – early on certainly it felt there was no sense of any impact (or desire to impact) on outside world. As the 90s went on politicisation was forced on scene and lots of people who would otherwise have been largely apathetic about politics were pushed into it by seeing their friends and family beaten by police, fucked over by the judicial system, or outlawed in their own country by venal politicians. I think that sense of things never being the same was correct to an extent, in that personally things were never really the same for the individuals and the groups of individuals having a shared experience at a party. But at the time, for me anyway, there was little thought of the future – the focus was always on the fierce now implicit in the form, in the combination of music, people, and dancing that only existed for each of the specific moments of that specific party. Consideration of the future was always about how to try and extend those moments for as long as possible, because when they happen they feel truly amazing.
Spannered is available here.