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Ahead of the pioneering free party crew’s 35th anniversary celebration, two of its founders, Grace Sands and Harry Harrison, reflect on the group’s origins, Castlemorton, and their enduring anarchic spirit.

On Friday, 22 June, 1990, Harry Harrison, Grace Sands, Pete “Whoosh” Birch and Simon “DK” Smith, travelled to Worthy Farm with their crew of ravers and DJs. For the previous year or so, they had been throwing club nights and house parties around Nottingham, but after making some friends they took over a tent with a sound system and spun house records for hours.

“It was the last time there was a free field at Glastonbury – back then it was a hippie festival, and we ended up in the free bit on the Friday night and we bonded with some travellers,” Harry recalls. “They hadn’t heard house music and we had decks and a mixer – it was a marriage made in heaven.”

The open air and open crowd gave them a new perspective on what was possible with parties, and formed the mindset that would be the basis for DiY Sound System. “There was a crazy crowd – The KLF were in there, Happy Mondays, Hardkiss – all people who went around the world to do their own things in music,” he continues. “That was our lightbulb moment – we were totally locked into house music and the lifestyle, and suddenly it was like alright, we can do this outdoors and there’s no rules.”

DiY would go on to become one of the UK’s most influential free rave crews in history. During their heyday they organised in fields raves and club nights all weekend, every weekend, where they pioneered the early house music sound, imported from the USA and reshaped into their own image. While other crews led towards hardcore or pounding techno, they focused instead on grooves, and eventually set up an influential record label that ran for over a decade.

Pete and Simon have sadly passed away in recent years, but the rebellious, radical spirit that they fostered through the party and its community lives on. Harry has written a book, Dreaming in Yellow, which remembers those early years, while this weekend they will bring together their group of disparate ravers back to Glastonbury to celebrate 35 years since they threw their first rave. In anticipation, we sat down with Grace and Harry to reflect on their early parties, Castlemorton, and 35 years of the DiY mindset.

How did you come to form DiY?

Grace Sands: I moved to Nottingham to study in 86, as did Harry. We met at the university through our friend Aubrey, who was working at a vegan café. That’s how we met Simon “DK” [Smith], who passed almost a year ago, and Pete [“Whoosh”] Birch was a friend of Harry’s from Bolton. We were basically a group of like-minded, free-thinking individuals on this post-punk [vibe]. We were alternative, we liked hip-hop, thrash metal and the fledgling, nascent house sound brought us together.

Harry Harrison: We were all from Greater Manchester – Bolton and Stockport. We were Haçienda veterans, and we were in there before it was good. I met [Grace], who said in my book that all our meetings were a “nightclub, a pub and a drug deal”. And then we met Simon who was our first DJ, he was obsessed with house. Matthew Collin called us “house music anarchists” in our first national exposure in i-D Magazine. We came from the free festival [scene], anarcho-punk, hip-hop, but also the trendy fashion scene in Nottingham, all those influences really.

GS: We were inclusive from the start – we knew a lot of different people and brought people together. We were a disparate bunch, and we still gather under our own umbrella.

HH: It’s funny because once we got going, people were like: “It’s alright for you guys, your events are always full.” But our first event wasn’t, and our first club night had two people and they were both on the guestlist. We were blessed really, having Graeme Park every Saturday night playing really great house music when it was still underground. We started doing squats in 89, and we did a few house parties around Nottingham but house parties weren’t enough. You can get 100 people in a house that’s about it and then the police turn up at 2 am. and 3 am.

GS: Our first big party was Rhythm Collision [at Nottingham venue The Green Club], we put on LFO the week [their eponymous track] LFO came out, The Forgemasters and Man Machine, and Simon. And that was the only place you could do a 6 am [finish], that was huge, and then we followed that up with Sasha and Carl Cox and there were 2,000 people and it was Nottingham’s biggest ever rave. So our first, second and third events were two club nights and a rave. And in the middle of that was Glastonbury.

Our traveller friends [who we met at Glastonbury would take us] to this car park on Pepperbox Hill, near Salisbury, and we started doing parties there. You only had to bring yourself. We only said “here’s the address”, so it wasn’t like people had expectations of what it was. It was free, there was no security, no checkpoints, no fences, and no one said what it was going to be – it was just a party. It was diverse – people from the city, travellers, and regarding queerness it was very inclusive.

How was the energy at those early parties?

HH: It was wild. As wild as any new scene can be. Think rock & roll in the 50s, hippiedom in the 60s, punk in the 70s, acid house in the 80s. Whether we did parties with 20 or 2,000 people the energy was wild. At the start there was no such thing as a free raver – over there was a student, over there was a traveller, a fashionista, a clubber or whatever, and no one cared for the first time that they were different. And since, things have probably coagulated back into a fractured society. But for the first few years it was new, it was exciting, it was illegal, and it was also very idealistic. We were driven by the idea that it was free, we were building on what the hippies had done. But there were no instruments – there were decks and a soundsystem, and we could go on for days.

GS: Obviously people were discovering ecstasy at the time as well for the first time. It was the union of acid house, but taken outside without restraints.

You stuck pretty staunchly to those free ideals as time went on right?

GS: A hidden theme about free parties is that it does cost money to have a sound system and a truck. So we were always doing club nights in Nottingham that enabled us to do free parties.

HH: We also set up the record label and produced albums for Warp Records. The idea was that we could have the label that makes money and then we can keep doing free parties. We never deliberately didn’t want to make money, we were just crap at it. We did retain those ethics though, everyone got paid £75 – the DJs, the lighting people, the driver, everyone. It was a kind of anarchic collectivist idea. We’ve lost a lot of people to addiction, death, people became sensible, but remarkably the core people at the heart of DiY are philosophically in the same place.

Can you talk about how you got into house music in the first place?

GS: Simon DK was the figurehead of it all, he sold all his punk records for house records. Me and Simon would buy together from Arcade Records – Jonathan Woodcliffe ran the shop, he was one of the biggest Northern Soul DJs and he had all the imports from the US. In 91 it was a sort of druggy, post-rave sound with a little bit of breakbeat in the background, and the Italian dreamy sound was there as well. Then came the golden era for the deep house sound between 92 and 94, when the beats got chunkier and they were all doing remixes in big studios.

HH: We also travelled relentlessly, we had about 15 DJs who could cover a lot of ground. Post-Castlemorton our DJs were massively in demand, and we were often in Sheffield, Manchester, London, Edinburgh, Bristol, Exeter, then branched out to San Francisco, Ibiza in 92. We were on the road constantly and could go to shops like Eastern Bloc in Manchester. But it became a global thing that started in the East Midlands.

“At the start there was no such thing as a free raver – over there was a student, over there was a traveller, a fashionista, a clubber or whatever, and no one cared for the first time that they were different”

What do you think about the revival of 90s and early 00s house music? With younger DJs digging out old records?

GS: It’s been back for at least ten years now. Loads of kids know every deep house record there was from 91 onwards. It’s partly fuelled by Discogs, it’s all there and you can click through everything. But for me, having lived through the 90s, it has to be good to catch my ear. It’s the sound that I’ve been listening to for 30 years or more, so I’m looking for other things as well as replicating the 90s sound. Now that people [don’t have] to buy all the equipment and can make it all on Logic it’s a digital deep house sound now. But back then it was music that took time to make and there’s a romance about it – it did sound warmer.

HH: Even when we were doing it, people were trying to recreate [mid-80s] Mr. Fingers and that warm, analogue sound. You’re always looking back.

GS: And one thing people miss is those mistakes. You used to turn your equipment back on, and it would be wrong, but brilliant – a lot of killer tracks were made by mistake, we need to bring them back.

Can you talk a bit about your role in Castlemorton?

GS: We had been doing the free party scene with Avon and Stonehenge. [By 1992] there must have been 20 or 30 free party sound systems [that all came together], the big ones were like Spiral Tribe, Circus Warp, Bedlam. Spiral Tribe got taken to court and were accused of organising it, but the beauty of Castlemorton was that no one organised it.

HH: I don’t know how we did any of that shit without mobile phones. We left it on a voicemail in our house in Nottingham, saying “Castlemorton Common”. The modern free festival scene had been going since the 70s, but it was mostly rock, and it took a couple of years for acid house to filter through. You could feel it in the air in the winter of 91 and then in 92 Castlemorton exploded. Suddenly what we had been getting away with in a small way around the country was the front page of the newspapers. And all of the Tory landowners, authorities and vested interests were like: “We can’t ever let this happen again.” Which led directly to the Criminal Justice Act in 1994.

GS: The tricky thing with Castlemorton is that everyone forgets to say that it was fucking brilliant. It was really chilled, there was self-policing – it was the dream really.

HH: It was a really nice vibe, really sunny. Went out with a bang though.

GS: The thing is with the Criminal Justice Act was that it wasn’t just raves, but also [took away] the right to remain silent, they managed to slip through a lot. We campaigned relentlessly against it – printed leaflets, got it in the New Statesman, but ultimately we lost.

How similar do you think that was with what’s been happening in the past few years, with clampdowns on the right to protest?

GS: It’s just an extension of the same thing.

HH: It’s aimed differently now, it’s not aimed at ravers, it’s aimed at eco protestors. We got away with a lot – we wouldn’t get away with Castlemorton for ten seconds these days. And now every government, Labour or Conservative, delights in bringing in more draconian laws.

Do you think those radical, anti-establishment days are over? Raves are much more underground and squatting is harder.

GS: You can do raves in the woods for like 200, 300 people. But it’s harder to do.

HH: And there aren’t any free festivals anymore. In 85 the only [paid] festivals were Glastonbury and Reading – and Reading was shit. Now Glastonbury’s on the BBC and there are hundreds of festivals now, that rebellion’s been packaged and sold back.

Are there places where that spirit still exists? And where?

HH: Hong Kong?

GS: In continental Europe. They’ve just started clamping down on raves in Italy, they had huge Teknivals with like 20 sound systems in Italy, France and Spain. You’ll see some article about raves in Kazakhstan. This idea of taking CDJs to the middle of nowhere is still carrying on, just where they haven’t cottoned on to what it is yet.

How does it feel to do a 35th anniversary party at Glastonbury?

HH: Old.

GS: Well, I’m young at heart still, just Harry has to drag himself out now.

HH: To be honest I’m amazed that the dynamic is still going. It was [present] when we had the wake for Simon in Derbyshire, and everyone was out there. Those few years meant so much to people, it wasn’t just the drugs and the parties – it was the community.

Grace Sands will play at the DiY 35th Anniversary Party, which takes place on Sunday, June 30, at Genosys, Glastonbury Festival 2024. Harry Harrison’s book, Dreaming in Yellow: The Story of DiY Sound System is published by Velocity Press.