Not Raving but Frowning.


Everybody asks your name, they say we’re all the same
And it’s “nice one, geezer” –
But that’s as far as the conversation went.

Last weekend was notable for a mass rave held in the heart of London’s West End, in the shadow of Trash’s last resting place. Inevitably, this ended up breathlessly reported in the Guardian as having marked ‘the return of rave culture’. Did it bollocks. Rave culture is, like the poor, always with us, and free sub-legal gatherings are scattered over the country like the unspeakable flakes shaken from a white boy’s dreadlocks.

Last Saturday has, like several other online-organised mass Doings of Cool Stuff, both social and political, set an interesting precedent for the relative power of a sufficiently large group of citizens to dodge, outstrip or overcome police opposition or obstruction through the power of social networking. But that’s as far as my positivity can stretch. I was dubious about the article’s claim that it marked the return of alternative culture – specifically, the free party – as a channel for political opposition, and perversely heartened by the similarly-minded cynicism swamping the comment section. The article has things arse-backwards: a confrontation between the law and people having a good time is a side-effect of the event, not its objective.

As shown by Emma Goldman’s frequently misquoted maxim and, I’d like to think, this blog in general, music is inherently political. Any song retains the imprint of its conditions of production, and you’d be a fool and a Ramones fan to think otherwise. But the question of whether a particular form of music and culture is inherently radical or revolutionary is much murkier. As if to prove the point, the tide of sceptical comments on the Guardian article by veterans of the second Summer of Love also washed up all sorts of interesting flotsam and jetsam: I hadn’t previously known about the conspiracist toleration of raves for political profit, nor right-wing leading light Paul Staines’ former life in party-planning, not to mention the past proclivities of, allegedly, the young David Cameron.

As I wrote at a previous juncture, fuck me, I hated crusty. I do, however, recognise and appreciate that the roots of free partying lie in anarcho-punk counterculture, bound up with opposition to the poll tax, roadbuilding, neo-fascism and police corruption. Much of the music that politicised me as a teenager existed in the orbit of that scene. I also saw the Criminal Justice Bill’s sheer absurdity politicise some of my peer group, but only because its attempts to curtail dance culture directly affected their ability to have a good time – a self-interested and narrow motivation. There is a distinction to be drawn between conscious involvement in an overtly anti-authoritarian alternative culture and passive engagement with a culture that occasionally invites intervention by authority merely by existing.

There’s lots to get angry about today, just as there was back in the early-to-mid 1990s. How should popular culture respond to political onslaught? We’re long overdue a revival of an alternative culture with anger at its core to match the current government’s bloody-minded dash back to the dark heart of the 1980s. (Watching Wednesday’s student protests took me back over a decade of demonstrating, and my memories of smashing it up are inevitably soundtracked by the University of East London’s steel band taking their best shot at samba.)

Politics and dancing can and do overlap, as with politics and any other leisure pursuit, but, equally, immersion in dance culture does as much to encourage a rose-tinted, cotton-wool wrapped complacency, and apolitical detachment in the private pursuit of hedonism, as it does to foster any stirrings of anti-authoritarianism. As chronicled in the Streets’ ‘Weak Become Heroes’, an elegiac paean to the occasional perfection of chemical excess that works as both retrospective and epilogue, that scene could nurse a cosy, monged kind of communality and collectivism, a lowering of fences and erosion of boundaries. But explicitly political? The early-90s influx of Brits to San Antonio was hardly akin to 1930s miners heeding the Communist call to the Catalan hills, much as it’s pleasing to imagine Mike Skinner and co. facing down Franco’s guns with the twinkly-eyed, open-handed offer of a shared kebab on the way home at dawn.

The most incisive expression of disappointment shading to disdain for dance culture is still Pulp’s ‘Sorted for E’s and Wizz’. (Do you recall the fuss caused by the single’s cover, with its instructions on how to make a wrap? More innocent or more restrictive times, maybe.) A few months after it charted, Jarvis hit the front pages again for his intervention at the 1996 Brit Awards in protest at the cod-deification of Michael Jackson. Although anticipatory of Jackson’s fall from grace, Jarvis’ clumsy outrage was primarily a cri de coeur in favour of common sense, an early and recklessly unilateral Rally to Restore Sanity. (Rallies of course, when contrasted with direct action, being arguably another waste of time summed up as ‘twenty thousand people standing in a field’.) One of Jarvis’ most admirable aspects is that, instead of tediously turning on, tuning in and dropping out, he switched on, engaged with the world around him and lost no time in picking a fight with what he found there. Straightforward, undisguised and unmistakable action is usually a better bet than waiting for the rosy fog of comedown to somehow fade into a glorious new dawn.

All of which means that I’m more pleased by the unexpectedly high turnout for last  Wednesday’s demo than I am about last Saturday’s escapade, and that the return I’m really excited about isn’t rave culture but Pulp’s reformation for 2011. I’ve missed Jarvis over the past decade or so and I’m glad he’s back just when his country needs him, like a perverted northern proletarian King Arthur.

I also think that perhaps the real novelty of last Saturday’s happening concerns our status as part of an increasingly atomised and isolated generation whose collaborations and comings together take place online, giving the idea and experience of actual collective gatherings a more exotic sheen. But that’s a whole other post.

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