Brixton dole house

I have to say, the Chicago Pre Komp Playa Massive was one of the best underground parties I have been to in the US with out a doubt. It was a fundraiser for the Hookadome Sound camp at Burningman 2011 but it reminded me more of being at a UK squat rave back in the day…

In the UK, way back in the day kids, it used to be legal (and maybe still is) for anyone to ‘squat’ in an unused house or building until they had been served notice and taken to court, which would often take months or years. No charge, no sentence, just an eviction notice and a date to be out by. My guess is it was based on the idea that if you were willing to live in such unstable conditions, in often ill-maintained buildings, you probably need the accommodation badly and so should have access to it if it’s not being used. How good is that?

What it meant was people of a suitably leftfield bent who were in-the-know would go out and scope empty houses or buildings and then break in, change the locks and live in them. It was an awesome law that spoke to the idea that no one should go homeless while others have an excess of live-able space, and if the squatters could hold off court proceedings for long enough and the building wasn’t privately owned, you could even end up with the right to buy it at a lower than market rate. So as well being a highly laudable and egalitarian law that made sure the needy of the UK (including many artists and musicians) were housed, it inevitably led to some EPIC parties in some of the most bizarre and unusual locations.

Sometimes a crew would squat a disused warehouse for years and create a huge creative hive that would last months or years like the legendary “Cool Tan? Squat in the ex-DOLE (unemployment benefit) office in Brixton, South London. Most of the people that frequented this cultural center by day and rave venue by night were either signing on to the dole or had even signed on in that very building before it was shut down and the benefits office moved to the other side of Brixton, and this was an irony not lost on those who frequented the space. I saw some CRAZY shit go down there, but that’s a whole other story in itself.

Other times these squats would be a one-off scenario where an empty mansion would be squatted for a few days knowing that the owners would probably be able to pull strings and have the squat shut down and kicked out either legally, or via a late night call from some unsavoury types with a friendly warning that was understood to be not-so-friendly if they came back tomorrow and you weren’t gone. We even had someone threaten to put a pit bull thru the window to get us out. When I explained to him that the floor was covered in glass from a TV that someone had taken a baseball bat to, and that his dog could get cut up, he decided against it. For such an apparently big violent skinhead he had a very sweet heart. It was both highly traumatic and very cute and my lack of housekeeping skills probably saved me from having my shit ripped into little bits by a hungry attack dog. It could get a little hairy now and again but for musicians and artists on the dole it was often times the only option when you got £46 a week to live on. I was determined to come to London from sleepy little New Zealand and live life on the edge in a big city, and I remember thinking that this was a fucking good start.

The ‘pitbull incident’ as it shall henceforth be known, went down at the first place I found to stay in London: a squat in Golders Green, ’60s hangout of the Rolling Stones and their entourage of hipsters – but in the ’90s almost exclusively the enclave of a highly conservative Orthodox Jewish community who we had a stable (if not very communicative) relationship with. They didn’t bother us, which was great given the legal grey area we existed in, and we didn’t frequent their hang-outs much either, but we both really enjoyed their Kosher soy sausage rolls from Grodinsky’s on the corner of Beverly Gardens. They really had that shit dialed in the bakery I have to say, and the fact that they had been pedaling that Kosher goodness for over 100 years made them even better. In any artform ‘Quality over Time = Success’ and they were living proof. The pictures of Mick, Keith and other ’60s luminaries in the local bars and delis were pretty cool too, tho these now musty and conservative spots didn’t seem to swing like we were led to believe they did in the ’60s.

A friend gave me the key to the house, a fellow New Zealander who had opened the squat some time before and since abandoned it for a council flat in a smarter area. She dropped it into my sweaty palm and said “do what you gotta do?. I wasn’t sure whether that meant “better you than me mate? or “go fight the good fight for the homeless of London!? but the gas was still on for heat and cooking and I got the electricity restarted under a fake name in a matter of days, so I was chuffed. Yeah it was dodgy – boarded up windows and strewn with open broken glass in the lounge – but everything happens for a reason (as I found out after the pitbull incident – so happy I didn’t clean up sooner) and I found it very satisfying that suddenly I was the proud ‘possessor’ of a squat in London, albeit in Zone 6 (i.e. the wops – New Zealander for the Middle of Nowhere) in a very unhip neighbourhood.

The next place I stayed in London was West End Lane in West Hampstead (not to be confused with the rich suburb of Hampstead – home of rock stars and those with a coat of arms on their business cards). It was just up the road from the legendary Abbey Road Studio crossing that graced the front cover of the famous Beatles Album of the same name. Daily, hordes of tourists would stride out onto the crossing while a passer-by would take ‘the’ picture recreating said cover.

I always felt I was way too cool to do that but secretly I was desperate to. But more importantly, we were a block away from the squat of the legendary renegade rave crew Spiral Tribe…

More on Spiral Tribe and sound system culture soon!

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