Anyone been to any of these... are they a purely retro-fetishistic experience aethetically? Or more a down-an dirty drug-feast in mud? I remember attending one such outdoor do about 5 or so years ago, it was very much in the latter category...
Well, the idea of doing them in summer is that hopefully it doesnt rain, so mud is kept to a minimum. But, yeah, drugfest pretty much sums it up.
There are really two types of free party. First up are ones where the organisers are in the building legally but dont have an ents licence or the other legal gubbins you need to run a proper club - they're often in rehearsal spaces, arts centres & so on and kind of semi-legal. The powers that be might apply pressure to shut them down over the long term but it's highly unlikely they will get raided on any given night unless things get really out of hand. A lot of 'hipster' scenes (for want of a better term, you know what I mean) put on parties like this, eg. the haywire nights that used to go off at the fortress. Crucially entry is usually ticket only & the promoters have proper security to stop undesirable elements gaining access.
A real free party on the other hand is where the promoters are trespassing in someone else's land and/or building. The old bill are therefore fully justified in steaming in mob-handed & occasionally do - but if the organisers have had the sense to site the party away from a residential area, keep it fairly low profile and make some attempt to control access plod will usually choose to let the party run it's course rather than aggrevate the situation. Basically though, anyone can turn up & get in, particularly if it's outdoors.
Proper free parties are primarily about getting ripped to the gills on whatever substances happen to be to hand, and as such the music is very much secondary to the drug experience. I am not a trance fan so I tend to avoid those types of parties - the ones I go to play mostly acid techno, London Techno (which is the free party scene's term for sub-Jeff Mills loopy percussive techno), drum & bass, gabba/breakcore & reggae. Some organisers have live bands too, which tend to be of a crusty/punk nature. It's very rare to hear music with any kind of hipster bent at a free party - although I have seen white garage girls emcee over grime beats at a party in hackney, and dubstep is making some inroads. Music with glamour associations (house, garage, hip hop) is similary off the menu.
So I dont really go looking for musical innovation. That said, it can be a real thrill to see music used in such a functional way, and the auteur side of music production given such short shrift. At free parties, no-one cares who made the track, how old it is, who's playing it, what label released it or any of the other ephemeria we associate with hipster scenes - tunes stand or fall on whether they rock the crowd. I used to produce IDM and abstract electronica, and backed myself into a corner of trying to re-invent the wheel every time I made music. Going to free parties & seeing music used in this way was a vital part of my rehabilitation! I also get off on the edge and the pure vibes at a good party, the sense of vision quest that abides among the organisers and hardcore followers, and the mingling of social types & classes (so basically everything that people originally went to raves for BITD).
The free party scene has always bubbled under but it may well have seen something of an upsurge in recent years - it's hard to say because although I go to a fair number of parties there are lots more I dont attend. The word out there is that this year has actually been a little quieter than last, but a few high profile events such as the recent rave in cornwall have attracted mainstream media coverage like this guardian piece. If anything it will probably contribute to a dearth of parties over the rest of the year as the OB have egg on their faces and have to be Seen to be Doing Something. A few forces (hampshire being the prime example) have always been quite pro-active about breaking up parties & ASBO-ing the organisers, & I expect other forces will now start following their lead.
I would not be at all suprised if there was a resurgence in raving & electronic dance music in the next few years. Blissblogger very perceptably noted that the kids who have driven the rock & roll resurgence of the noughties thus far were rebelling against a dance music othodoxy that had lost all traces of it's outlaw past - well, maybe the wheel has now turned full circle, and the successive generation is tired of the indie band saturation & looking for fresh kicks of thier own. In any case, doing drugs & dancing with strangers under an open sky while thumbing you nose at The Man is a hell of a lot of fun however unfashionable it is.
The musical forms on offer at free parties haven't really evolved much since the mid 90s but a fresh influx of wide-eyed youth could definitely shake things up a bit, so watch this space...