unpublished (?) end-of-year essay, for Melody Maker? 1992? 1993?
by Simon Reynolds
Melody Maker, summer 1994
by Simon Reynolds
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is oozing its way through the parliamentary digestive tract and will be probably be passed into Law by a Commons majority in July. It contains a host of pernicious extensions of police powers, but it's Part 5 that will affect your world most, with its devastating attack on the radical fringe of pop culture: illegal raves, free festivals,
squatting and travellers.
Cutting through the Bill's legalistic nuances, the gist of Part 5's provisions is as follows. First, it gives the police hugely expanded and highly discretionary powers to thwart raves. Whilst a rave is defined by the Bill as a mere 100 people playing amplified music "characterised by the emission of a
succession of repetitive beats" , the most disturbing clause allows the police to harass gatherings as small as ten. If an officer "reasonably believes" the ten are setting up a rave, or merely waiting for one to start, he can order them to disperse; if they fail to do so ASAP, they're committing a crime, punishable by a three month prison sentence or a œ2500 fine. Moreover, the police are granted
the power to stop anyone who comes within a one mile radius of this 'rave' and direct them not to proceed. The leeway for local police to interpret events, and the scope for abuse, is enormous.
Another bunch of provisions practically illegalise squatting. If an 'interim possession order' is granted against squatters, they have 24 hours to leave; failure to do so, or returning to the premises any time within a year, is punishable by a prison sentence of 6 months or a œ5000 fine. Part 5 of the Bill also includes draconian measures to deal with trespass and unauthorised campers (i.e travellers) and against 'aggravated trespass' (aimed at hunt saboteurs, but these could be used to suppress, say, environmental protests against new motorways.)
As a whole, the Criminal Justice Bill is a desperate attempt by a decrepit government to toughen up its image. (Labour, chickenshit about opposing the Bill for fear of seeming "soft on crime", looks likely to abstain rather than vote against it.) The origins of Part 5 go back to the Castlemorton mega-rave of May '92, which created a new 'folk devil' in the crusty-raver/New Age traveller. The
ensuing media panic about this unfamiliar subculture convinced the public that hordes of unwashed, drug-crazed, outlandishly garbed anarcho-mystics were set to descend upon hitherto genteel neighbourhoods, whereupon they would blast deafening hardcore techno for 7 days solid, sell acid to children and shit on the shrubbery.
Few people sympathise with travellers and squatters; fewer still are prepared to defend them. So it's been easy for the government to add them to the list of 'enemies of society' targetted by the Criminal Justice Bill. It may be hard to believe, but Kenneth Baker once lumped squatters in with armed robbers and rapists as wrong-doers that the Tories vowed to "get tough" with. Squatters!
who harm nobody but just help themselves by taking over abandoned, usually derelict buildings (90% of squats are empty public sector housing owned by local authorities). Squatters! who actually preserve the market value of these delapidated domiciles by fixing them up. Of course, the Bill doesn't appeal to reason or statistical reality, but to bigotry and paranoia--the consternation
caused by those who look and live differently. And it appeals to a secret resentment many feel towards those who repudiate 'straight' reality (suburban slow-death via the satellite dish and other forms of stupefaction). Sort of: "I don't live today--so why should they?!"
But why should you care about the rights and the plight of squatters, travellers and other n'er-do-well deviants? Simply because Part 5 of the Bill threatens to extinguish some of the crucial spaces in which radical popular culture has survived and thrived over the last 25 years. Squat culture has been the breeding ground for bands as diverse as the Sex Pistols, My Bloody Valentine
and The Shamen. Squatting enables bands to survive through those difficult, impecunious early days, especially if they're trying to do something innovative or uncommercial. Much the same applies to artists, film-makers, writers etc. Destroy squatting, and our pop culture will be depleted--not instantly, but insidiously and inevitably.
Warehouse and squat parties, illegal raves, and the free festival circuit are also vital spaces for alternative culture. Ever since the 30,000 strong gathering of the tribes that was Castlemorton, the police have been determined to crush the sound-systems and the festival-bound convoys; the Criminal Justice Bill provides them with an embarassment of powers to abuse. Local police forces are already collaborating in the use of computers to log data on 8000 travelers (including info on their vehicles, nicknames and associates). Some county police forces are determined to ensure that even legal raves don't happen this summer.
All these developments reinforce a general trend in British society over the last decade: the contraction of possibility. Dole culture (another breeding ground of bands) has been all but obliterated, via the harassment of claimants, compulsory Restart programmes etc. Once students were able to use their time to explore ideas as well acquire marketable skills. But the loan system and the removal of dole and housing benefits have plunged them into debt and into dread;
now they must scurry up the conformist career ladder in order to pay off loans and overdrafts. The impoverishment of students (who incidentally make up eight percent of the squatting population) and the bare subsistence offered by dole, have a knock-on effect on pop culture: there's a severely reduced market for interesting, risk-taking music, media and culture generally. Only the most dedicated bands and labels perservere with innovation in the face of declining sales and meagre prospects. The effects of all the above converge to create a palpable feeling of contraction in the culture, a withering away of possibility, daring and risk.
All these effects on pop life may seem minor compared to the other sinister ramifications of the Criminal Justice Bill: the removal of the right to silence, arbitrary stop-and-search powers for the police, and a host of other measures that push this country closer towards what has been called "elective tyranny". A decrease in the number of interesting rock bands may seem a negligible
side-effect of the illegalisation of squatting, given its more immediate result: another 50,000 added to the number of homeless sleeping rough on the streets.
But since Melody Maker is a music magazine, in this 4 page special we focus on the ways in which our turf--rock and rave culture--is threatened; at the ways your world is being circumscribed and impoverished.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE
Colm O 'Ciosig (drummer): "Originally, it was just a question of finding somewhere to live when Kevin Shields and I first came to London. We couldn't afford a deposit for a flat, so we squatted a house in Kentish Town. It's more fun living in squatland anyway, outside the landlord system. It raises your spirit, whereas bedsitland makes you apathetic. You have to be quiet, it's
really oppressive. If we hadn't squatted, we'd probably have got really depressed and left London. We paid for our first records with dole. If we'd also had to pay rent, we'd have had to get jobs, and doing something we didn't want to do would have destroyed our spirit. We sat around a lot, sure, but that's conducive to coming up with ideas. We wrote the 'You Made Me Realise' EP in a
rehearsal room in our squat."
Bilinda Butcher (guitar/vocals): "I squatted for four years in the barrier block on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. Having a baby boy, I wouldn't have been able to be in a band without the squatting community, cos they ran creches. And MBV wouldn't have gotten anywhere if we hadn't been able to squat. You can't practise in a bedsit. You need somewhere you feel free to make a noise. Plus, if we'd
been paying rent we'd never have had enough money to pay for rehearsal space and gear and guitar strings, which are always breaking. If the Bill is passed I don't know how bands starting out will manage. The whole music scene will suffer, there'll only be room for mainstream stuff."
"I don't go along with the hippy baggage that surrounds the squat lifestyle, that whole heroic outsider thing," says singer/guitarist Graham Sutton, who squatted for several years with (now former) Bark bassist John Ling. "For us, it was more a survival thing, surviving to make music. It made sense to dodge rent and poll tax. There was kind of a punk, DIY ethic to it, too--fixing up the
place, doing your own decorating, electrics, plumbing. Where we squatted (Claremont Road in Leyton, East London) was quite a scene: every other house was squatted, and everybody was doing creative things. There wasn't that wastoid culture element. That scene got a name for itself, and for a couple of years it was really good--lots of parties, a real community feeling. Then they started
evicting people to make way for the M11. I'd already left, for rented accomodation, 'cos the scene had become a bit of a bubble.
"What I find weird about the 'crime' of squatting is that it doesn't make sense, even according to Tory logic. Most squatters repair the places they live, cos it's horrible to live in a shit-hole. They're saving these places from deteriorating and losing their value."