Tuesday, 16 February 2010

My Squatty Valentine's

How times change. When I was a kid, my friends celebrated St. Valentine's Day by swapping love hearts and writing awkward messages of admiration to one another. Most of those friends are still single today and as a result, February 14th has become another excuse for a party. Just in my immediate circle of friends (which is not ginormous) I heard about four big squat parties going on last weekend, organized by seasoned crews such as Manik, Siren, Every1sound and Psychedelic Circle. But even before the weekend had begun, several thousand London youths were already making headlines at a party of their own, in a squatted Mayfair mansion.

As is usually the case, it was nearly impossible to distinguish the facts about the Mayfair party. Newspapers variously estimated that there were between 2000 and 5000 party-goers, with anywhere from 30 to 300 police officers arriving in full riot gear to evacuate the teenage partiers. (They were allegedly concerned that the building might be dangerous but as far as I know, no building has ever started a riot however dangerous it was).
The Daily Mail claimed that the party was posted under the heading of “Night of Mayhem” on Facebook, while the Guardian dubbed it the “Youth Against the Banks" party. Whatever the exact details, I have a feeling that the resulting melee of kids and cops would have made it pretty hard to know what the hell was going on. You probably had to be there at the time and next time, I will make sure I am.

By the way, there are rumours going around that the Mayfair party may have been put on by an anonymous gang who organizes sham parties and runs off with the takings. However, there was no mention of kids actually paying to get into this party (unlike a squat I once went to, where the organizers tried to charge the cops three quid as they raided the place). The organizers of the Mayfair party gave their names to the press and were quoted as saying, "We wanted to shake things up because the banks are kind of running the world." Not exactly the words, or actions, of people who just wanted to take the money and run.

Manik Panik

Saturday night came around and it was time for the older kids to shake things up. As I donned my hand-made mask for the Maniktimes Ball on Saturday night, I have to admit I was a bit worried. The venue was really far from the centre and what with all the other parties going on, I thought that there might not be enough underground people to go around. I was also feeling extremely reluctant, a leftover from the years when menacing thieves and gangs were a regular feature of the free party experience. When my friend and I eventually got there, though, we found a well-run warehouse with around 200 other squat party people wearing hand-decorated masks. The relaxed atmosphere was enough evidence that there were no pests inside.

The rig was an unobtrusive focal point in the recesses of the room, lit by a spray of multicoloured lights. The gaps in the acid techno sets were plugged by breakbeats coming from a second rig, each with a spreading pool of dancers in front of it. Some people didn't like the sound-clash created between the two sound systems, but I thought its rough edge suited the industrial venue. The DJs were squeezed into a hectic schedule and I missed a few here and there, but I remember dancing to Kris K, Aston Martin, Gordie, Rackit, DDR, Zebedee and Miss Kosmix. They were all at least as good as I remembered them.

The warehouse was pretty much like any other but it was exciting for reasons that went beyond the physical details. The energy and passion of the people was there but more importantly, there was no sense of menace to restrain it. During what I consider to be the dark ages of London's techno scene (2002-2007) I always felt caught between the sound system crews, who were bracing themselves for trouble, and the troublemakers themselves. The tension between the two sides pretty much squeezed all the freedom and fun out of the scene.

Last Saturday was the first time in a long time that I felt equal at a free party - like the warehouse belonged as much to me as it did to anybody else. I felt free from the need to keep one eye on everybody else. Those were the sorts of feelings that I used to come to underground parties for. Maybe the other partiers at Manik Times felt it too, because they seemed more present than they would have been six years ago. When you're not hemmed in by tension on all sides, there's less temptation to take that extra line of K or can of beer to help you relax and get out of your head. Well, that's my theory, anyway...

I regret that I didn't get to the other parties that were going on last Saturday but what my night lacked in quantity, the Manik Times Ball made up for in quality. The underground party scene might have broken my heart all those years ago but if it keeps this up, who knows? I might just let it be my Valentine again next year.

Photos of Manik Times Ball courtesy of Chris Courier

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