These Early 2000s Rave Photos Will Make You Long For the Pre-Smartphone Party Era

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In 1987, photographer Matthew Smith went to Glastonbury for the first time.

“It was just up the road, Smith says. “We jumped the fence.”

And so began Smith’s indoctrination into the U.K.’s then-burgeoning underground rave culture. Two years later, while in art school, Smith wrote to Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis asking him if he could come document the festival. Eevis invited the young photographer to come see him at his house, where he offered Smith a gig.

“I went for six weeks,” Smith says via Zoom from his native U.K., “got paid 25 pounds a day, got fed three times a day and met the community of hippies and bus dwelling people and that culture who build the festival.”

Smith recalls 1989 as the year that “rave really arrived at Glastonbury.” While electronic music may not have been on the official lineup (which included Elvis Costello, Van Morrison and Fela Kuti) Smith recalls a separate field for soundsystems and all night dance parties. “It was obviously unlicensed,” Smith says. “That was one of the best things about Glastonbury back in the day, the organic things people just made happen.” He shot 18 rolls of film at the festival that year, becoming an anthropologist in the scene to which he was just innately drawn.

While Smith’s intention wasn’t to become a rave photographer, his skills with a camera and position the fabled U.K. rave culture of the late ’80s and ’90s simply made him so. In time, as the scene expanded from unlicensed events in West Country farmland into clubs throughout Bristol and Manchester, Smith started photographing indoor events for himself and a variety of music publications — capturing the intensity, creativity, debauchery and unmitigated joy of the club scene in the ’90s and early 2000s.

Now, more than 200 of Smith’s images from 2000-2005 have been compiled into the book Full On. Non Stop, All Over. Published by U.K. imprint TRIP Publishing and featuring an introduction by legendary electronic world writer Simon Reynolds, the photo book captures the rave scene in the brief moment before smartphones invaded our pockets, brains and venues, forever altering the way we experience the dancefloor and the present moment itself. “Everything changed when smartphones arrived,” Smith says.

To compile Full On. Non Stop, All Over., Smith — a full time artist based in Bristol who presides over an archive of roughly 250,000 of his photos — dug into his archives, initially selecting 3,000 images that were over time narrowed down to the roughly 220 shots that appear in the book, which was released this past June. Smith’s work is also currently on view in Bristol’s M Shed museum through October 31 as part of Vanguard | Bristol Street Art, an exhibition exploring the city influence the development of Bristol street art.

Here, in his own words and in tandem with image from Full On. Non Stop, All Over., Smith traces the parallel trajectories of his career and rave culture.

There was no dance music [at Glastonbury in ’87.] It was crazy drumming. They had this drumming going on led by very industrial looking punks with blue faces on top of these custom Beetles. They just did not stop for the entire weekend. Where they were was like a massive scrapyard, and they were building these mutant sculptures out of the scraps. The whole crowd in the field was just picking up pieces of metal and beating out rhythms. You could hear it everywhere.

[At Glastonbury ’89,] there was a double decker bus up in the green fields that I discovered. They were pretending to be a café and had café tables outside with gingham table clothes and cakes on it during the day — but at evening time, the cakes would disappear and under the gingham table cloths were massive speakers and they played this amazing deep house.

I remember walking up there on Saturday in the early evening and not leaving until Sunday. Watching the dawn come up over the festival, that was really the most eye opening thing — and the event that really stimulated my imagination and my love for the culture that’s lasted ever since.

In [the early days] it wasn’t, “I’m going to photograph the raves.” I wasn’t particularly conscious of that sort of thing. That came later, when I’d finished art college and we heard the government was planning to criminalize [rave] culture and bring legislation to take away those freedoms we’d taken for granted. That was when I really started to do what I’ve been doing ever since. I was like, ‘The newspapers are lying and demonizing this culture and making everyone hysterical. Somebody needs to stand up for it, and tell the truth and show the truth.”

We were capable individuals, so we started to create and produce our own parties and had a sound system. We were involved in all the campaigns of opposition to the legislation, so on a couple occasions we took our sound system to London from Bristol which is where we were all living by then. In 1994 we were probably the first people to play in Trafalgar Square, right on the kind of doorstep of government. We did the march and then speeches happened, then afterwards we had a three hour rave right in the middle of Trafalgar Square.

The thing about the early ’90s was that the campaign of opposition to that legislation, it coalesced [around] a country-wide network of people who were all involved in that organic, democratic culture in opposition to what government planned. That network is out there today because a lot of the people who were instrumental in those times are big time, running some of the best festivals in the country.

There were no rules [in terms of photographing these parties]! That’s the beauty of it. I don’t really deal well with rules. The rules came later as the industry [got] involved. Because I never went to paid raves. That was London, and we were West Country. I was a graduate of the free party world.

That early 2000s time period was really interesting, because the ’90s people had been about fighting back against government. The underground, unlicensed events were still happening all over the place. But the early 2000s was a time when everybody in every town wanted to go raving on the weekends. When you’ve got a job, you can’t go and spend a week in a field. You needed to be there.

I thought it was an interesting time, because it was exactly the same behavior as before, but because people paid entry fees and had bar prices and regulated environment controlled by security companies to do this behavior in, it was kind of more acceptable — but it was exactly the same, if not more [wild]! People would go out on a Thursday and come back on a Sunday morning and then go to work first thing on a Monday.

“I think the pre-smart phone invasion is really important [in regards to this collection of images.] Another thing to me that’s really important is that those are the years when 9/11 happened, and the world was, all of the sudden, completely sold on the war on terror… The war on terror was used to demolish people’s civil liberties worldwide, and I often wonder what the world would be like if there’d been mobile phones in everyone’s back pockets to pump that fear into everybody’s lives in a full time way. For me, this book is a multilayered thing. It’s not just people having a great time, but I really like the idea that this book is 192 pages of ravers not giving a flying monkey about terrorism.

COVID-19 regulations have destroyed the [live events] industry. That’s what everyone is really worried about, how that legislation is being spun to re-engineer a culture… In Britain, you have massive events like football happening, but festivals for some reason are not allowed that contact.

My personal belief is that the culture, while having been turned into a massively successful creative industry, still holds an awful lot of everything that’s in opposition to government, and I think the government is very clever at spinning situations to achieve its ends that are not declared. I think the festival industry is something of a bête noire for British government, because obviously they criminalized the culture in the ’90s — and then they decided, like every good capitalist, to sell it back to the people in a big way, with caveats and procedures and all the data you now have to provide to access the culture.

I think it’s a bit romantic to think the culture would return to [the freedom of that era.] It’d be great to think that we would regain some of the freedom that we had back in those days, but there are a number of things that for me have changed. History’s an evolution, and nothing is ever going to be the same as it was back in the day. I think for me, and my work particularly, it’s about using recent history to show people what things were like a very comparatively short time ago — and to get them to assess how their future is evolving in comparison to that work.

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