The road to rave: How the M25 paved a path for acid house
© Patch Keyes
London's orbital motorway was a symbol of British commercialism – but its same tarmac was travelled by convoys of ravers, who used it to turn the English countryside into a party paradise.
Unveiling the completed M25 in October 1986, Margaret Thatcher promised "a road of which we can all be proud". Its main success, Thatcher argued, was it that it opened up new routes to the outskirts of London: “It's cutting the time to the ports and to the airports, and it's allowing people to make journeys that they could not have faced before.” This new London circular was a capitalist dream. A symbol of British engineering, it increased house prices across the home counties and became an illegal 'race track' for city-slicker bankers – a story uncovered by none other than Boris Johnson in 1987.
But while illegal racing from city whizkids may not have fazed the government, a new breed of nonconformist upstarts – illegal ravers – did. Just three years after Thatcher opened the orbital road, Thatcher identified the 'new fashion' of acid house raves, noting in a letter that the Home Office "must be prepared for it… and preferably prevent such things from starting.” Ironically, though, the M25 itself was a huge boon to this new generation of mobile party-goers, carving out new routes for rigs, records and ravers to travel to the rolling hills and fields of the English countryside.
Thanks to Karen Evans, who has very kindly given us permission to re-publish her service station photos below
ROUND AND ROUND WE GO
It was no coincidence that the first raves were held in the Home Counties. Writing in his book Generation Ecstasy, Simon Reynolds noted that: “The magical routes that had traversed and transformed London the previous summer were now shifted outside the city limits.” Essex, Hertfordshire and Berkshire suddenly became epicentres for free parties, easy access to them only coming from the completion of the motorway.
As acid house culture swept Britain, a growing number of companies all began to put on increasingly more ambitious parties across the M25. World Dance held their first rave on Junction 6 of the M25, while Back to the Future used a cattle silo half filled with cattle feed as a back-up venue after their original location was rumbled. The motorway became a new way not only to access raves, but also to maintain them: for an Energy rave in July 1989, ravers blocked police entry by parking their cars across the hard shoulder.
“Service stations were often used as meet-up points for illegal raves, not just because they were easy to get to but because they were places where large numbers of people could easily congregate," says motorway historian Mark Goodge. Announcing locations far in advance would lead to the police shutting down the events before the organizers had time to set the rig up. So, ravers met at service stations and locations would be announced last minute. At the word of a 'party line' number, convoys of cars would speed away to overgrown fields. As Sam Williams, author of rave book Happydaze, remembers in the BBC documentary A Road to Nowhere: “One night we did the whole orbital system looking for lasers and lights to see where the parties were. The meeting point would be one of the service stations… all we wanted to do was dance and party."
As well as being a place to meet before the rave, service stations became unwitting hosts to afterparties. Alex White, an acid house raver from Bristol, told me: “We always gravitated to South Mimms Services in the morning, along with hundreds of other ravers. I will never forget the look of shock horror on one woman's face as our convoy of wacky racers pulled into the car park, blasting out beats, bleeps and bass lines." Alex and his mates would "start to move the restaurant tables and chairs around to make one long table. Considering the state we were in this was never a straightforward task". Serious partying would turn to more infantile games: "There was a ball pool in one corner that we always ended up flopping around in, emptying balls over the place, and I enjoyed riding the 20p coin-operated rides. We would eventually head back to the car park where ravers would be dancing around cars... then start the drive home from there, the wrong way round the M25 more often than not!"
Service stations were often used as meet-up points for illegal raves, because they were places where large numbers of people could easily congregate
Along with the government, the press ramped up hysteria. The Sun printed several articles about Sunrise raves in June 1989, dubbing a Berkshire hangar party 'Ecstasy Airport' and panicking over "thrill-seeking youngsters in a dance frenzy". This ultimately led to Home Secretary Douglas Hurd promising to intervene. But as much as the right wing hegemony may have battled the orbital raves, a strange synergy existed between their political ideals. The forked roads of rave promoters and raving politicians met at a junction where libertarian meets liberal, left meets right.
As Simon Reynolds argues in his book Generation Ecstasy: “The spirit underlying this next phase of the acid house revolution was anarcho-capitalist.” This is best illustrated by Sunrise. Its founder Tony Colston-Hayter argued against early club curfews by seeing it as going against the 'enterprise culture' that the Conservatives actually advocated, and put all rave profits into an offshore tax haven. Bizarrely, Sunrise's PR was Paul Staines – who Reynolds notes was an assistant to David Hart, one of Thatcher's advisors. Staines would later become famous as libertarian blogger Guido Fawkes, advocating ideas that he has described as 'Thatcher on drugs'. The M25 raves may have opened up new ways of partying – but they opened up wallets, too.
Several years after their inception, orbital raves had almost entirely been stopped in their tracks. As acid house's initial rush started to fade, the long arm of the law distributed fines as quickly as organisers had dished out flyers. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 cracked down on illegal parties, forcing promoters such as Helter Skelter to move into licensed venues such as The Sanctuary. This made more profit, but something of acid house's DIY anarchy had been lost. Raves surrounding the M25 had been replaced by huge city venues, service stations gave way to superclubs.
Vestiges of the road's influence on rave remain. In 2016, Ministry Of Sound set out to celebrate their 25th anniversary with a festival, itself called M25, based in North London's Trent Park – just a stone's throw from Junction 24. Rave act Orbital – themselves named as a nod to the motorway – made a comeback at the end of last year. Rave has changed, though. As Red Bull Music have reported, free parties are on the rise – but they've made the journey from the Home Counties to London, a reaction to the closure of much of the capital's clubland. Illegal raves have doubled in the big smoke in the past year alone, with everything from Toys 'R' Us to Royal Mail buildings housing a new generation of dancers. The journey of rave certainly hasn't ended – even if its current destination is unknown.
Want a hit of new music every Friday? Follow our 4pm Finish Spotify playlist
Listen to Red Bull Radio for in-depth interviews, exclusive mixes, live broadcasts and more