The documentation of an era, and subsequently the way we remember it, goes hand in hand with the camera that captures it all. The British free party culture of the late 80s and early 90s has been etched in our collective consciousness with the textured grain and mellower colours of the cameras that were used to document the scene.
Images from the next decade don’t – yet – invite quite as much wistfulness. With the improved camera quality of the 2000s came a shinier, higher definition portrayal of life and culture that was arguably less forgiving than the time before it. At the turn of the millennium, photographer Matthew Smith (also known as Mattko) was circulating parties with his camera in hand, putting the theory to the test with his photographs of sweaty clubgoers, wide eyed and bushy tailed.
Smith had been a familiar face in the British free party scene, having documented the events and community since the late 80s. His 2017 self-published book, Exist to Resist, offered an insight into a period long since ended. “People have a great affection for those times because since then we seem to have lost an awful lot of cultural freedom, and that fact is why I made that book.”
Despite this, and the government’s introduction of the stifling 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which is considered to have brought the illegal rave era largely to a close, Smith insists the scene was still thriving past its expiry date: “Free party culture was just as massive in the early 2000s as it was in the 90s. Castlemorton’s 10th anniversary in 2002 was comparable to the original with many more sound systems.”
Nonetheless, there was an emphasis on the party going indoors, and eventually, Smith went with it. “Going to a free party is much more a massive commitment than getting a taxi into town on any given Saturday and dancing to your favourite DJ’s brand of music for a few hours. Saying that though, people did used to go from night to night to night. Many people’s weekends began on a Thursday and ended very late on a Sunday morning before a hanging Monday at work,” he explains.
Smith’s new book, Full On. Non-Stop. All Over, brings together his nightclub photographs from 2000 and 2005, when he says the scene experienced a boom. “The early 2000s were a time when raving became an industry in a way that it never had been before, a lifestyle product that huge numbers of people wanted to get involved in. That meant big money for promoters, big money for venues, big money for DJs and production,” he says. “What I loved though was the dedication and engagement with the public imagination and how they responded to their love of music and dancing with behaviour, style and character.”
Many of the photographs in the book had first been published in dance music magazines like Mixmag, DJ Mag and Jockey Slut. “There was a time when I refused to go into nightclubs at all but getting paid made the prospect a whole lot more enticing, even if the money wasn’t really very good and the pictures weren’t used very well. That’s the great thing about making books, it means that as an artist you can take back control of your imagery and present it in a way that reflects your own unique artistic vision,” Smith says.
Once his apprehension towards clubs subsided, he was a fan of club nights like Drive By and Scream in Bristol, where he was based. Around this time, nightclub mogul Piers Adam was busy developing Rock into a superclub that attracted “pretty much all of Bristol’s glitterati”, he remembers. “If you want real Bristol venues though it has to be Lakota or maybe Blowpop at the world-famous Blue Mountain club, both of which have fallen victim to gentrification.”
Gentrification is among the factors that have posed a threat to nightlife venues around the country in recent years, a picture made drastically worse by the pandemic. Smith felt it was relevant to resurface some of his archive and celebrate nightlife culture.
“I love rave as a whole social phenomenon,” he explains. “I love that something that was made criminal by legislation became something that has become universally acceptable and the foundation for a massively successful creative industry as long as you are willing to pay an entry fee.”