On 27 January 1990, one of the most important gatherings in acid house history took place, as more than 8,000 attended the Freedom to Party rally in London’s Trafalgar Square, to protest against the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Bill, set to be introduced in March of that year.
The Bill increased the penalties for those in breach of entertainment licences, with particular focus on the growing tide of acid house parties – a ‘scourge’ of the then-Thatcher government.
As Luton MP, Graham Bright, describing the purpose of the Bill in March 1990, put it, “Having fun and protecting the right of young people to enjoy themselves are not what the acid house party cult is all about. It is about making money and exploiting a lucrative market for as long as possible. The cult is about taking money on occasion without even providing a party, and about operating at or beyond the boundaries of the law.
“That is bad enough; but to endanger the safety of young people and of unfortunate nearby residents for the sake of one’s bank balance is callous and evil.”
At the January rally, some of the biggest party organisers on the acid house scene converged – including Back To The Future, NRG, Biology and Sunrise – as well as representatives from record labels, pirate radio and the press.
Those addressing the crowd including promoters Wayne Antony, Tony Colston-Hater, Dave Roberts and Jarvis Sandy, with Obsession FM broadcasting live from Trafalgar Square for the duration.
As the flyer for the event put it, “Remember Biology? Remember NRG? Remember Sunrise? These parties could be no more if the government has its way. On March 9th, a new law is being proposed that will ban all parties. Only you can stop the government.
“We have done all we can, all we ask of you is that you support the Freedom to Party campaign by coming to the rally at Trafalgar Square. Are you going to let them take away your right to party? NO!”
The event even had its own ‘theme’ – The House Crew’s All We Wanna Do Is Dance (The People’s Mix) – profits from which went to support the Freedom To Party campaign.
“Don’t believe the lies
Don’t take in all the headlines
‘Bout drugs, trouble, noise, fuss
That ain’t the way for the most of us…”
On the evening that the rally took place, the same promoters, with Weekend World at the helm, hosted an all-night party in Radlett, north of London, which was reportedly organised in just a few hours.
In his epic tome on the acid house scene, Class of 88, Genesis’ Wayne Anthony offered a lengthy take on the January rally:
“The date was set for a public demonstration, the first of its kind in the world, which would take place in Trafalgar Square on Saturday 27 January, 1990.
“This was a historic day in the calendar of dance parties and nightclubs. I remembered early 1989, when Tony and I toyed with the idea of organising such a spectacle. Now our wishes had materialised and we were about to grab the attention of the national and world media.
“The public needed to be convinced these parties weren’t just about drugs and to know we weren’t the drug-pushing terrorists we were alleged to be. We were young, ordinary people – neither dealers nor gangsters – who wanted an opportunity to present legal dance parties to meet an ever-increasing demand.
“People were everywhere and standing on anything that would give them a better view. They danced in empty fountains and on top of the lions that guard Nelson’s Column. A cheer went up as someone announced the arrival of a van carrying a generator. A group of people jumped from the platform, rushing over to the gennie, closely followed by Old Bill. A commotion around the van followed and eventually the driver had to scarper.
“At the same time, an MC, Chalky White, was being arrested. No one knew why, but it completely antagonised the whole crowd. I spotted a posse of about 30 geezers rushing through the crowd to where Chalky was being held. I could see by the expressions on their faces that they were definitely going to start something with the police.
“I pointed out the firm to Jarvis and we quickly got down from the platform and headed them off before they reached the squad, reasoning with them not to fuck all the work we’d been doing. They calmed down before disappearing into the crowd. We didn’t know why our pal was being arrested but we knew we couldn’t win a physical battle with the law.
“The only way we’d win this battle would be in the courts and with the help of the civil-rights organisations. Violence was exactly what the government and police needed to close the chapter on dance parties for good.”
A further rally was staged at Hyde Park in March, but sadly it was not enough to stop the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Bill from becoming law… and paving the way for the Criminal Justice Act to follow.
Photographer Gavin Watson captured the atmosphere of the day, with his work having been uploaded to the Google Arts & Culture platform. A selection of these photos can be found below.