The sun is shining, the temperatures record-breaking. In the UK, the Conservatives have been in power for 10 joyless years of division and austerity. But young people are on the move, gathering together despite being told to be safe and stay at home.
There’s a growing sense of anger, a global, grassroots movement against authoritarianism and against racism. Whole systems are in flux, and landmarks representing a repressive past are being pulled down by unruly mobs.
This could be 2020 but the year I’m describing is 1989.
In June that year, the student occupation of Beijing’s vast Tiananmen Square had just been ruthlessly crushed, and a wave of restlessness was surging across eastern Europe. By the end of the year, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria had lifted the Iron Curtain. When the Wall was breached, and statues of the old Communist leaders were torn down, it was seen as a cause for celebration. In South Africa, president PW Botha had visited Nelson Mandela in prison, and was starting to admit that the racist apartheid system could no longer be sustained.
In the UK, there were scenes of civil disobedience on a scale that had never before been witnessed, as young people defied the police and gathered to dance all night in fields and aircraft hangars around the M25.
The acid house scene that had swept through clubs in the summer of 1988 had exploded, with entrepreneurial promoters taking the heady combination of house music, ecstasy and joyful rebellion out into the countryside. They competed to outwit the authorities and make each party bigger and more spectacular than the last: funfairs, lasers, bigger sound systems, ever-increasing line-ups of DJs and performers.
By August 1989, crowds of 25,000 were not uncommon at these events. National networks had sprung up to sell tickets, organise coaches, and sell the music and the new bright baggy clothes favoured by ravers. Having been hectored by Margaret Thatcher’s government to be more entrepreneurial and self-sufficient, almost overnight we became a nation of drug dealers and DJs, dancers and T-shirt designers.
Police attempted to counter this by scouring the countryside with helicopters, looking for signs that a party was being prepared. They set up roadblocks, jammed phone signals, raided pirate radio stations and even at one point set up a fake station of their own to spread disinformation.
By the end of 1989, an overrun police changed strategy. Instead of trying to stop the dancing, they moved to contain it, granting all-night licenses to urban clubs such as Ministry of Sound in London. This reduced the parties in the south, but they continued to flourish elsewhere. Blackburn became a key location in 1990, but by then the parties were popping up everywhere, and costing the police serious money.
Eventually, the result was huge legal rave clubs such as Quadrant Park in Bootle and Hanger 13 in Ayr; licences for big, legal, outdoor rave events; and the rise of more sophisticated superclubs like Renaissance in Mansfield, Cream in Liverpool and Gatecrasher in Sheffield.
But illegal parties have never really gone away, they just went underground. Mostly, raves have stayed small and agile, with no real geographical centre. Messaging apps and social networks now enable the word to spread swiftly, making the parties almost impossible to track or stop.
The music is harder, darker. The drugs are different too, often encouraging a more edgy, aggressive atmosphere. The better parties have security and clean-up crews, but as people chafe against lockdown restrictions they’ve become bigger, messier, as shown by two badly organised “quarantine raves” on the margins of Manchester this month, attended by some 6,000 people.
There’s also a pressing need. Our cities become gentrified and sanitised, there are fewer spaces to party and play. In 2018 alone, the number of nightclubs in the UK fell by a fifth, according to the International Music Summit’s 2019 report.
And then Covid-19 arrived, increasing the isolation many young people were already feeling. Club culture always thrives when times are tough, when people need an escape, a release, a sense of belonging – somewhere to dance with your tribe. It’s hard to recall a tougher year than 2020.
Nonetheless, most observed lockdown – until it became obvious that the rules weren’t being applied fairly. Asked if he would feel guilty if his rave caused infections, the organiser of the Unlock Sheffield parties told Wired magazine: “We were planning to abide by the rules, but with the complete lack of consistency across the Cummings debacle and the many protests happening across the country, we have decided there is no justification.”
I’m not glorifying this. The Manchester parties sounded chaotic and dangerous. Three people were reportedly stabbed, one woman raped, and a young man found dead of a suspected overdose. And of course the coronavirus has yet to disappear, no matter how hard anyone pretends otherwise.
In 1989, the parties were an end in themselves. This time round, the Black Lives Matter movement and the climate crisis have given this energy and rebellion a sense of purpose, and causes far more important than the right to party. There is legitimate anger, but also a discipline and focus the 1989 rave scene lacked. But there’s the same sense of joy, at the protests and at the parties. This is a generation that has found its voice, and realises that it has power.
Beverley Hughes, the Greater Manchester deputy mayor for policing, has vowed to stop any further illegal parties in her region. “The last thing we want is a summer of raves,” she said.
It might not be what we want, in the middle of a global pandemic. But I also suspect very little can be done to prevent it. Because it might be just what many young people need.
• Sheryl Garratt is a journalist and former editor of The Face. A new edition of her book Adventures In Wonderland: Decade of Club Culture will be published on 2 July