IT WASN’T so unusual that someone threw a party in Gildersome, just south of Leeds, 10 years ago. What was unusual was the fact that 836 people were arrested for attending it.
The party wasn’t for anyone’s birthday. According to flyers which had been circulating throughout the north over the previous month, it was called Love Decade. It took place in an empty warehouse on the Treefield Industrial Estate, just off Gelderd Road.
The party’s organisers didn’t actually own the warehouse – they’d had to snip through a padlock with a pair of bolt cutters before getting in. Some started to rig up a basic soundsystem while others headed for Harsthead services, just up the M62, to collect their guests.
Just after 2am they headed back at the head of a convoy of hundreds of cars and vans. The police, including the West Yorkshire force’s helicopter, followed at a discrete distance.
Hundreds of people got into the warehouse before the organisers closed the doors. Hundreds more gathered outside. Sue Hollingsworth had travelled over from Blackburn earlier in the evening.
“There were police all over the place,” she remembers. “We abandoned the car and legged it towards the party but you couldn’t get anywhere near it. All the roads around had roadblocks on them, they had dogs, searchlights, the lot.”
Helicopters, roadblocks, dogs, searchlights? All this for a party?
It’s easy to underestimate the impact house music had on this country in the final years of the Eighties, a hard, even brutal decade for many. House, and the drug culture that accompanied it, was a joyful release, dominating the weekends of millions of young Britons. Just like rock’n’roll had done for their parents.
Only this time, the kids really were going to rock around the clock.
The after-hours party scene exploded. There was plenty of space. The Tories’ slash-and-burn economic policies meant that industrial space lay dormant all over the UK.
After a spell promoting a night at a club called Crackers in 1988, a bunch of hippie idealists, music-lovers and low-level ‘entrepreneurs’ began organising illegal all nighters in and around Blackburn. Taking their name from a headline in the local press after one of their number had been stopped on his way to a rave with a car full of pornography from his day job in a sex shop, they called themselves Hardcore Uproar.
“The people who were doing the actual organising all had different motives,” says Jane Winterbottom, who – with her then partner Tommy Smith – was at the centre of things from the outset. “There were some people who were genuinely into the music, who’d been waiting for this all their lives. And there were people who were just money-grabbing bastards.”
Over the next two years they broke into dozens of empty warehouses, threw in a strobe and a makeshift soundsystem and put the word out that there was going to be a party. The small police force of rural East Lancashire couldn’t do much about it.
Ten thousand people turned up one night and yet, incredibly, the parties managed to retain the inclusive, egalitarian atmosphere of the earlier events. It was fun all the way.
Then a party at Nelson, near Burnley in early 1990 ended amid ugly scenes as police stormed the building.
It was thought that West Yorkshire’s police were not quite as with it as their newly on-the-ball counterparts in East Lancs. The next party would be on the other side of the Pennines, on July 21, as it turned out, barely a week after Graham Bright’s Entertainment (Increased Penalties) Act became law. Organisers of unlicensed events could now be jailed for up to six months and fined up to £20, 000.
Although few grasped the implications of the Bright Act – or even knew it existed – a muted air hung over proceedings for many of those who managed to get into the Gildersome party.
“It had all gone pear shaped by then anyway,” sighs Jane Winterbottom. “It went wrong in February, so you can imagine how mad it was by July.”
“I don’t think there was ever a question of it being a good one,” remembers one of the DJs for the night, Drew Hemment. “We knew what had happened at Nelson. The police presence was massive. Most people hadn’t even got in. It was all a bit ominous.”
“I was shitting myself,” adds Winterbottom. “I knew it were going to kick off. It was obvious.”
“A whole row of spotlights just clicked on, one after the other,” says Hemment. “They were shining through the back windows and you could see rows of helmetted heads lined up outside.”
Rob Tissera, then a young DJ excited about making his debut at a prestigious underground event, remembers: “What had started out as a fairly pleasant party atmosphere soon turned very sour.”
The police began forcing the doors wedged shut by a van inside the warehouse. People jumped onto its roof and began to thrust bits of wood and metal through the now buckled door, right into the faces of the officers behind it.
“A lot of the men went mental,” says Winterbottom. “Some of them wanted to kill the police that night. It was fucking mad.”
“I was stupid,” admits a rueful Tissera. “I got on the microphone and told everyone that if they wanted the party to carry on, we had to keep the police out. Some people got a bit carried away. It turned nasty.”
Officers in riot gear eventually forced their way into the party at around 5am and rapidly brought proceedings to a close. Those inside were taken to 26 police stations across Yorkshire. According to police figures, only 134 of those arrested were locals, with 527 coming from Lancashire, 40 from Greater Manchester, 23 from Merseyside, 14 from Scotland and 48 from elsewhere, including one from Italy. Most were released without charge later that day.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post at the time, Assistant Chief Constable Denis O’Toole said: “We have been accused by some people of being killjoys and simply stopping young people enjoying themselves… This is the last thing we want to do.”
Their main concern, he said, was the lack of fire extinguishers and exits and the danger of crushes. Obviously.
Seventeen people were charged with various offences; only three went to trial – two for drug offences (one was acquitted, the other imprisoned for 12 years) and one – Rob Tissera – who was convicted of “dishonest abstraction of electricity”. Sentenced to three months, he served two weeks in Armley jail now HMP Leeds.
The situation went downhill: Party goers’ increasing tolerance to ecstasy created a market for stronger variants. As demand outstripped supply, the market became flooded with cheap imitations of the real thing. The cliche of “What’s your name? Where are you from? What have you had?” soon became “How many have you had?”
Everything started to spin out of control. The crowds got younger. The music got faster. Less reliable ecstasy created a market for the cheap cocaine heading to Europe from the saturated US market and the period saw the earliest beginnings of the cocaine culture prevalent across clubland and beyond today.
Everything pointed in the same direction. Glasgow’s status as the European City of Culture allowed clubs in the city to open until 4am. Magistrates began to take a more ‘enlightened’ view of applications for events running after the usual cut-off time of 2am. Later that year, the Ministry of Sound was given the first 24-hour entertainment license in the country.
“It wasn’t a coincidence,” admitted Inspector Ken Tappenden of the Kent police’s Pay Party Unit. “It was a coordinated plan.”
How much of this plan was informed by a desire of the Tory government to ‘look after’ the interests of their friends isn’t clear, but the major brewing concerns were certainly major donors to the party’s coffers. The alcohol they sold was largely sidelined by a culture which revolved around illegal drugs. Profits were going down.
Whatever else it achieved, the Bright Act did precipitate a move into clubs, where Evian and Lucozade were rapidly replaced by Jack Daniels and Coke and Red Stripe.
House music was played in clubs before this – at nights like Joy and Kaos at the Warehouse in Leeds, Zumbar and Hot at the Hacienda – but generally only on dead midweek nights. Now it was played on Friday and Saturday.
Back to Basics was typical of this new direction. Established in 1991, aiming for older, more affluent and fashion-conscious clubbers, Basics wasn’t somewhere you wandered into in an old T-shirt and trainers. In stark contrast to the Blackburn parties, you had to make an effort.
“The management reserves the right to politely fuck you off,” cautioned the club’s flyers.
Other things changed too. DJs were heard but rarely seen at the warehouse parties. It’s difficult to be a superstar DJ when nobody can see you. But in regular weekly clubs, people start to put faces to names. Gradually, the DJ moves centrestage. Someone switches on a spotlight. A star is born.
The idealists behind Love Decade were hoping for a new age of love, peace and house music, of “people of all nations, dancing together.”
Whichever way you look at it, it all went a bit Pete Tong. The last 10 years may have seen a once-renegade culture brought into the bosom of mainstream society but something got lost along the way.
We can hear Carl Cox on the radio, watch Human Traffic at the cinema and buy endless Ibiza mix CDs. We can even go on a Manumission package holiday. But who knows? It might have had so much more.
“It was a huge celebration of life,” says a still-defiant Tommy Smith. “It blended and gelled and it was beautiful for a brief moment. It gave us all a glimpse of what was possible.” He corrects himself. “What is still possible. It was worthwhile, if only because it spawned the road protests and the direct action movement we’ve seen over the last few years. It was the obvious next step.”
Rob Tissera is similarly pragmatic: “I’ve managed to forge quite a business out of it all, DJing, remixing, recording. I might not have had the opportunity to do any of those things otherwise. Being in Armley, it gave me the motivation to make a go of it, if only so I would never have to go back there again.”
Indeed, dance music is good business all round. What was once an exclusive little party now has millions of people in the queue, and all of them are trying to blag the guestlist.
“It’s mutated. It’s gone global,” says Drew Hemment. “People are listening to dance music all over the world. That’s quite a cool thing.”
“That’s what happens,” says Rob Tissera. “It becomes honed into this very powerful, smoothly-run machine .. I don’t really have a problem with that.”
[This piece originally appeared in The Big Issue in the North in July 2000]