On December 31 2000, the Millennium Dome hosted a 20,000-person, 24-hour rave promoted by the Ministry of Sound. It was a watershed moment for dance music in Britain. As journalist Ed Gillett writes in Party Lines, his fascinating and comprehensive history of Britain’s fraught relationship with the dance floor, “rave – and the countercultures which birthed it – had spent much of the 20th century harried by the police, targeted by politicians, and exiled to the fringes of polite society and urban space”. Now, a year into the 21st century, ravers were “clutched tight to the Government’s bosom”.
For Gillett, British dance music has always been defined by conflict. It began with the illicit “blues dances” of the 1960s, for black people excluded from licensed venues, then moved onto acid house, techno, jungle, garage, grime and drill. “At its simplest,” Gillett writes, it’s “a power struggle” between minority groups for whom the dance floor offers freedom and sanctuary, and authorities who seek to control or commodify them.
The party at the Dome was especially surreal considering that, only a decade prior, the word “rave” had kicked off a nationwide moral panic. Ravers in the 1990s were constantly policed out of urban warehouses left empty by deindustrialisation: one Acton party in 1992 even saw the Met’s Territorial Support Group deployed, and up to 700 revellers injured. They began trickling out into the countryside, which saw a rise in “free parties”, a kind of festival that saw New Age travellers and ravers unite in country fields, largely protected from police by their isolation and their lack of an entry fee.
Britain’s largest and most infamous free party took place on May 22 1992, when 30,000 people danced to Spiral Tribe for an entire week on Castlemorton Common in Worcestershire, an event that, Gillett believes, shaped “modern British social history as a whole”. It prompted draconian reforms of the Criminal Justice Act, with the police granted powers to shut down events featuring “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.
And yet, curiously, while the Bill was passing through the House of Commons, Orbital headlined Glastonbury’s NME stage – the first headline set by a dance act at a major British music festival, and, says Gillett, “the precise moment at which dance music [was] absorbed into mainstream British culture”. Just three years later, Tony Blair would come to power soundtracked by one of the biggest club anthems of the 1990s: D:Ream’s euphoric Things Can Only Get Better.