Harry Harrison (DiY) Q&A

Photo by Emma Goldsmith.

Welcome to Magazine Sixty, Harry. Let’s start with your debut book charting the history of the DiY Sound System. Can you tell us about the actual process of how you wrote the book? (I was thinking in terms of remembering things, if you prefer to write at night or morning – did you write all day or in short bursts). Was there a piece of advice from anywhere which particularly helped you during wirting?

Thanks Greg. The heyday of DiY and the wider free party movement was in the nineties, obviously. By the end of that decade I began to form a book in my head, thinking that apart from the slightly crazy story of DiY itself, the book would be of some historical importance concerning both the origins of free parties and just general life in the nineties on the outskirts of conventional society. I wrote some sample chapters around 1998 but then shelved them for many years. After seven years in San Francisco and then busy years in Wales with children I got serious again in 2018, wrote some sample chapters which I sent to Velocity Press. Colin was very supportive and offered to publish, so I took two months off work, sat down in May 2021 and got serious, finishing the book late last year. I did a lot of interviews and note taking in preparation and decided to try to write 1000 words per day. I started first thing in the morning and if I got to that that target, I would just close the laptop and head out all afternoon, something greatly assisted by being in North Wales in the summer.

Can you tell us about the music that shaped you growing up?

Big question. My first love was probably post-punk and indie in the early eighties. I was fortunate to grow up in Bolton, which although being a shit-hole is only twelve miles from Manchester so I had an unbelievable music scene on my doorstep. As outlined in the book, I met Pete, later DJ Woosh, when we were in our mid-teens and he introduced me to a wildly eclectic mix of music such as Fela Kuti, Kraftwerk, Carmen McRae, John Coltrane, Hawkwind and Planet Gong, Crass and Flux, Led Zeppelin, Nina Simone, Pharaoh Sanders, Gil Scott-Heron, On U Sound and on and on. We were both devotees of Factory and I retain an abiding passion for Joy Division and New Order. We got into the Smiths then noisier bands like Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers and punk bands such as Fugazi and MDC. Before the Year Zero of acid house we both got heavily into hip-hop and electro and when I met Rick (DJ Digs, now Grace Sands) in 1986 we were ready for acid house to unite all these influences.

As most people follow a typically mainstream approach to life I was wondering who or what events influenced you to go down the route you did politically? Likewise with the desire to run free parties?

The core members of DiY all arrived at acid house from different paths. Growing up in Bolton in the early eighties, our gang of mates were heavily influenced by Crass and the other anarcho-punk bands. At the same time, we were going to the Hacienda from when it opened (long before it was successful) and free festivals such as Pick-Up Bank near Darwin and later Avon Free Festival and Glastonbury. Basically anywhere that music was being played and drugs consumed we were there and again we were lucky to grow up living between Manchester and Liverpool. People took anarchism and alternative culture seriously in those days and that it was drove us politically. In my book I outline how we managed to merge electronic beats with the spirit of the Hacienda and the politics of free festivals. We were at the Blackburn raves in the late eighties and travelled to Orbital parties such as Biology around London only to be ripped off. It seemed an obvious step to us in 1989/90 to combine all the elements that we loved into free parties. We began doing big, unruly house parties around the NG7 area of inner-city Nottingham, started doing all-night raves in 1990 then met a group of progressive travellers at Glastonbury in 1990 after which we began to jointly throw free parties anywhere and everywhere.

What are your feelings on social media and its effects on culture? Do you think if it existed back in the early 90’s that DiY would have been able to effectively operate as they did without the authority’s interference?

I’ve been asked this question a few times and it’s very tricky to answer without sounding like a boring middle-aged fart but I genuinely don’t think that the whole free party scene would have lasted ten minutes under the glare of social media. I think that what happened was that a radical new form of music (house) collided with a radical new drug (Ecstasy) and they just fitted so fantastically well that the explosion that followed was inevitable. What wouldn’t have happened though was the fact that it was all so underground and hidden, meaning it lasted for a couple of golden years before being discovered by the media. I look back and can’t believe that events such as Castlemorton or even small free parties in the middle of nowhere were organised with no mobile phones and no flyers. Overall with social media, as with the internet in general, it’s a bit like when Chairman Mao was asked about the effects of the French Revolution nearly two hundred years later and he replied ‘it’s too soon to tell’. Technology will clearly be the making of humanity or its death knell, the jury is still out.

We have been talking a lot of the past but what do you think of contemporary Dance Music and how it has evolved from when you started to DJ? Is vinyl still important to you, or have you transferred to digital?

I’ve never been a DJ myself, just an organiser of many of them. I did play out a few times in 1989 but it was a disaster, I could never stay straight enough to mix. Pete, my oldest friend from Bolton, who DJ’d for many years as Woosh and sadly died in 2020 was a vinyl fascist. He hated digital DJ’ing. I’m the other way, records are heavy bastards and I enjoy having 22,000 tracks on an iPod.

Why did you decide upon Velocity Press as the right place for the book and how did that contact come about?

The DiY crew were, and remain, big believers in the Principles of Discordia such as the cosmic significance of the number 23 (we did our first DiY event on my 23rd birthday on the 23rd November 1989. The book will be published on March 23rd) and also synchronicity, the theory that coincidence is much more than just a random occurrence. So, having written a third of a book, I began asking writer friends such as Matthew Collin if they could recommend a publisher who would fit with the values of myself and DiY. Both he and two others mentioned Velocity in the same week so I took it a sign and so I sent what I had written to Colin Steven at Velocity and received an email back within a few hours offering to publish. He’s been very supportive and the relationship has gone well so far.

What is your favourite instrument? Do you own one?

I own a couple of guitars but am in no way a guitarist and a drum kit but am a very average drummer. What really blew our minds was the sampler. It just changed everything when they became affordable in the early nineties. We had two Akai samplers in the DiY studio and even though they would now be obsolete they just turn every possible sound into a potential instrument. I personally remixed several tracks back then and had one on the album we did for Warp in 1993 but I decided I just wasn’t a musician and have stuck to organising, being a gobshite and words since then.

DiY also ran night in clubs such as Venus which was a great venue in Nottingham. How did the experience compare with the free parties?

Over the years we did literally hundreds, if not thousands, of clubs all over the UK and the world including some real greats. As well as Venus, we had DiY nights at the Hacienda, Space and Pacha in Ibiza, The End Up in San Francisco, the Paradiso in Amsterdam, the Ministry of Sound etc and we loved clubs. I always said that we wanted to take the music of the clubs to the fields and the attitude of the fields into the clubs and I think we achieved just that. However, as I make clear in the book, there was nothing to compare with the sheer illicit thrill of being out in the countryside at dawn, three sheets to the wind with hundreds of kindred spirits dancing to some quality music. Magical.

More broadly speaking, in retrospect what difference do you think the free party scene made to the UK given how long the Conservatives have been in power, or do you feel it has more to do with personal change?

Tricky question and one I try to answer over 272 pages in ‘Dreaming in Yellow’. I always tell my kids that DiY changed history and they just roll their eyes and wander off. I do believe that though. I think we opened many people’s eyes to just how controlled the countryside really is, how the state will crush anything that they can’t control, how alcohol and violence are not the only weekend leisure option and how the British licensing laws are just Victorian. We fervently believed in an alternative way of life including and all that entails and we established a huge collective of people who were influenced by our actions. At our parties we had crusties, fashionistas, students, travellers, estate crackheads, clubbers, black, white, old, young, straight, gay and just downright weird and never had a single fight. People from previously hostile geographical areas travelled crazy distance’s to attend our parties where they hugged each other and shook hands. Our actions lead directly to the Criminal Justice Act 1994 (the one that made ‘raves’ a specific criminal offence) but the Tories were reacting to the fairly outrageous ‘fuck-you’ of Castlemorton and an inevitable clampdown on people organising outside the law. As DiY spread our wings around the world, settling in San Francisco/ Amsterdam/ Thailand/ Australia that egalitarian vibe became global and lives on to this day.

Drugs. Without them what would have happened? How would you evaluate their impotence and also any negative consequences to club culture as different substances appeared over time?

Hah. Well, to be honest, none of it would have happened without the extremely well-timed appearance of Ecstasy. It just combined so magically with synthetically created dance music but I don’t think that devalues the experiences and achievements of a generation of believers. You can’t take away LSD from the epic and revolutionary changes of the 1960’s and in the same way, with advocating reckless drug use, you can’t remove the drugs from the nineties. There have been lots of negative experiences. Many of our generation have died, some from overdoses, many submitted to addiction and some have permanent impairment but I don’t think that anyone who was involved in the rave/party scene in the late eighties and nineties would go back and change a thing. I don’t think that ketamine and cocaine did may people favours but by Jesus, we had a wild time.

Is music still the answer?

One of them, plus of course love, justice, equality, freedom and fun.

Dreaming in Yellow is available from March 23
buy https://velocitypress.uk/product/dreaming-in-yellow-book/

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