Rave Today? Field Maneuvers, Sweet Harmony and Recreating the 90s

Words by and

References to the glory years of 90s rave dominate today’s musical landscape, from the abundance of hardcore’s breakbeats and rave stabs in present day music production, right down to the design of event posters. Yet for something so culturally significant that it still shapes music and fashion 30 years on, the ‘second summer of love’ is something of a myth for most of today’s dance music fans; a hedonic ideal we can only learn about indirectly through the tales and images provided by those who really were there.

Luckily, opportunities promising a chance to relive the experience are aplenty: a search on Resident Advisor for events marketed as ‘raves’ yields over 150 results in the next few months alone. For those who prefer something slightly more reflective, the Saatchi Gallery’s recent retrospective, ‘Sweet Harmony’, promised an ‘immersive’ and ‘revolutionary’ survey of rave culture. With photography and anecdotes spanning over three decades, the exhibition certainly provided a comprehensive study of the development of dance music events in the UK, but achieving the ‘immersion’ it promised was harder. This was not for want of trying: from the text scrawled directly onto the wall in marker pen to the gently pumping music, there was a clear effort to recreate the world inside the photographs, but one that consistently fell short. The rave culture depicted could not quite escape the unfortunate – and unacknowledged ­– shadow of the Saatchi brothers’ financial involvement in the Tory government whose 1994 Criminal Justice Act outlawed raves. The exhibition had its highlights – Vinca Petersen’s exhilaratingly intimate diary entries being one of them ­– but these were suffocated by a sense of corporate-ness, epitomised in the installation of a bouncy castle that was ironically accompanied by a sign warning not to climb on it.

For many of us, then, our appetite for the euphoric resonance of the early 90s is forever longing for more. Retrospectives like Sweet Harmony leave the impression that we are trapped on the other side of an impenetrable historical wall, perpetual observers to the real vividness of the rave experience. The Saatchi’s photographs and objects from the rave scene, the latter displayed in glass cabinets like dusty artefacts, could never be immersive; they necessitate the position of an observer. To really recreate the parties of the early 90s requires going back to basics: a field, a sound system and some good, old-fashioned ravers. This is what we found at Field Maneuvers.

Since its inception in 2013 Field Maneuvers has kept itself consciously small, a self-dubbed ‘dirty little rave’. This year was no different. Despite the slightly increased capacity from 700 to 800, the festival was still firmly ‘no frills’: one field, three stages, three food stands, and a smattering of hay bales. The location itself was scenic but also inextricably connected to the surrounding infrastructure. Despite the sunlight-bathed Oxfordshire woods and hills surrounding the site, we were still conscious of standing just a few hundred metres from the edge of the A40. Details like this, along with the exact location being kept secret until a few days before the event, gave Field Maneuvers an uncanny resemblance to the raves that popped up across the English countryside in the past, which were made even more accessible following the M25’s completion in 1986.

Other head-nods back to the past were more explicit – several sets throughout the weekend had a rave-tinged gloss to them, with many DJs opting for euphoric piano hooks to create moments of pause and applause. Other artists took this nostalgia to another level – Local Group, who have played at the festival every year since 2014, brought the Sputnik tent to its knees with booming breakbeats, while DJ Persuasion offered a flashback ’89-90 set’ filled with raucous scratching and quickly-cut hardcore bangers.

But, to say that Field Maneuvers was in any way obsessed with or overly focused on the past is to disregard the qualities that made it a unique event in the today’s crowded festival market. Saturday daytime was soundtracked by Souvenir’s clinical, oddball broken beats and smouldering female vocal samples. As the evening fell, the FM Tent’s roof was blown apart by Giant Swan’s pummelling hardware chaos, with Robin Stewart, one half of the Bristol-based duo, leaping around shirtless as he screeched into his microphone. Standout sets like these that leaned towards more experimental sounds fitted nicely alongside the consistently rewarding performances from more regular frequenters of the festival circuit. Panorama Bar resident Nick Hoppner knocked Sputnik sideways with a tightly mixed set of UKG swingers, while Ben UFO and Peach’s predictably incredible sets were immortalised by Rascal reviews. This straddling of weirder sounds with straight-up dancefloor heaters demonstrated the Field Maneuvers team’s ability to host a full-to-the-brim programme of brilliant performances into such a small and modest setting.

Few festivals or club nights provide chillout spaces, and even fewer invest the time and energy into making these alternatives to busy dancefloors comfortable and inviting, but Field Maneuvers was an exception to this rule. Their ‘Once In A Blue Moon Café’ never felt like an afterthought or half-hearted add-on. DJs including Mixmaster Morris in his trademark silver space jacket and the enigmatic Miro SundayMusiq span spaced out, sleepy jams pretty much nonstop throughout the weekend while punters were served hot food and drink. Decked out with fairy-lights and plenty of cushions, it served as a kind of substitute living room, with festival-goers asked to take their shoes off before entering. After the music finished elsewhere on site, it became a de facto afters spot where strangers happily dozed off on each another’s shoulders. Unlike less successful versions of chillout areas that pop up at other events, it wasn’t just a refuge from the dance but a space enjoyable to inhabit in its own right.

To grow as organically as Field Maneuvers has, music festivals can’t just rely on high budget advertising campaigns. Similar to rave’s reliance on word of mouth channels, it seems the most effective way for a small event to generate allure and appeal is by creating those special, sometimes crazy, moments that people won’t stop telling their friends about. Field Maneuvers was in no way short of these tasty anecdotes: Ambient Babestation Meltdown’s downtempo beats while speaking peculiar renditions of, well, things you might hear on babestation; Iona’s ear to ear grin as she drops a hefty remix of ‘Milkshake’ by Kelis on the opening night; Anastasia Kristensen playing ‘Call On Me’ by Eric Prydz in an otherwise heavy-hitting techno set; Teki Latex opening with Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ as everyone starts hugging each other. These moments contributed to the overarching sense that, by being there to witness and enjoy it, we were part of something truly unique.

The receptiveness of the crowd to these quirks was one of the festival’s strongest selling points – something that would not be possible without the strong sense of intimacy that Field Maneuvers cultivated so successfully. The tiny capacity meant that throughout the weekend we found ourselves crossing paths with the same people. Fun group costumes made certain ravers recognisable – a particular favourite was a gang of OAPs, or the scantily clad Marge Simpson dancing behind Umfang and others at the FM Tent – but the atmosphere remained decidedly chill. Where the vibe of other festivals might implicitly encourage self-consciously coordinated outfits and copious amounts of glitter, no such pressure was felt at Field Maneuvers – whether dressed as Theresa May in a wheat skirt, or wearing jeans and a T-shirt, no one seemed over or under-dressed. And the relaxed vibe was not just a fashion statement: ‘this is the festival life, isn’t it?’ one guy commented as he retrieved his phone from a backpack that he’d left unattended in the ambient tent for hours. Field Maneuvers whole-heartedly embraced this family atmosphere. From the wave that Housework’s Gramrcy gave us when we turned up to their daytime selection of deep house and aquatic textures, to the sweets and stickers that volunteers handed out to weary festival-goers on Sunday afternoon, the whole event was refreshingly intimate. At the annual “family photo”, Ele Beattie, one of the festival’s directors, was greeted by punters with familiar waves. 

If most attempts at capturing the vividness of the rave dream fall just short of being immersive, it’s perhaps because they are unavoidably contrived. When retrospectives like Sweet Harmony attempt to recreate the rave experience through a collage of anecdotes and images, it seems that their glossy, considered curation, though rewarding in other ways, is also their flaw. The raves that popped up across the English countryside in the 80s and 90s were not polished events, but impulsive parties, reliant as much on the crowds they drew as on their organisers. ‘Recreating’ anything that spontaneous is a near-impossible task, but it is one that Field Maneuvers, though the result of months of careful planning, did a very good job of. The honesty and simplicity of the festival’s ethos and ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude (check the ‘No Tories’ line in their event information) are at the heart of its success as a party that manages a tasteful balance between looking backwards and ahead. It’s ironic that Field Maneuvers achieved something so difficult by not taking themselves too seriously – by stripping back the festival to a few basic principles, they reassured us that our appetite for that early 90s feeling is not in vain.

Photo credits: Mike Massaio, Jake Davies, Jonny Underhill