Have you seen the line-up for Tribal Gathering 96? It’s pretty much the greatest of all time, a coalescence of what we now consider the dance music royalty: Daft Punk, Goldie, Leftfield, Carl Cox, The Chemical Brothers, Laurent Garnier, Jeff Mills, Sasha, Richie Hawtin… You name them, they were there.
The energy of the era is palpable just by looking at the event flyer. ‘Timeless’, ‘Leftism’, ‘Homework’, ‘Exit Planet Dust’ and ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ were all released in or around 1996, as dance music in the UK surged headfirst into the future.
And while the all-day-and-all-nighter was joint promoted by legit outfits Universe and Mean Fiddler, it had to be rescheduled at the last minute due to wranglings with the local council, police and residents living around the proposed festival site of Otmoor Park in Oxford. This prompted a four-page feature in Mixmag that asked “Why was Tribal Gathering stopped?” But the show did indeed go on, a little later in the summer, at Luton Hoo, where the weather was fine and local roads came to a standstill as 30,000 ravers arrived for the party of a lifetime.
A gaggle of Mixmag journalists got involved, of course, including Alexis Petridis and Frank Tope. “Strange how such an inoffensive-looking pair of blokes can produce this bowel-quaking racket” they wrote of The Chemical Brothers, while Carl Cox delivered a set so good that “readers are ringing us for a week after, begging to know the names of his records.”
In The Face, Miranda Sawyer reckoned the event marked the point where raving became a lifestyle choice as normal as, say, going to the gym: “Thanks to its size and profile, Tribal Gathering provided an unprecedented demonstration that what would once have been strange, underground and exceptional events were now just single nights in heaven, enjoyed not by marginalised demi-monders but by a mass of well-balanced everyday people who believe that having fun is as important as having a baby, a job, or friends, or your health.”
And Simon Reynolds was also there, reporting for Melody Maker and revelling in the coming together of the UK’s many dance music tribes (geddit?) “Since this event gathered together pretty much everything of subcultural consequence this country has generated outside of Oasis, Blur, etc, I was initially tempted to dub Tribal Gathering the ANTI-BRITPOP FESTIVAL,” he wrote, before signing off: “You know you’ve been through something; you just don’t know yet what it was.”
In hindsight, it was one of the best festivals the UK has ever seen (Tribal Gathering took place every summer for most of the 90s, with 96 and 97 being particular highlights). When we posted the flyer to our Facebook, thousands of you commented on the hench line-up and shared memories of that brilliant 20 hours spent dancing in the countryside. It was one of those glorious dance music moments. So who better to relive the magic than the people who were there, where rave prevailed and history was made...
So you went to the festival for your 18th birthday? That must have been epic.
Yeah, we were young and carefree. Club UK was our usual place, as well as Bagleys. We used to drive down the A3 from near Portsmouth in convoy to dance the night away. Then Tribal Gathering arrived and my parents bought me and my best mate 8 tickets so we could go and celebrate my 18th birthday. I think I still have a CD and the flyer somewhere in the loft.
It was a magical experience and the first time I’d been to anything quite like it. It had the best line-up, a fairground and everyone stomping to amazing techno and other electronic music. There was such a beautiful air of innocence, independence and freedom.
And your parents were cool with buying you tickets to a mega rave?
Yeah,I think they kind of turned a blind eye. And they always brought me up to know right from wrong and to appreciate my own limits and boundaries. – although, to be fair, these have been tested over the years! Plus they knew that I was with good friends who look out for each other and were ‘responsible ravers’. It was different in those days – god I sound old! – things were not so dangerous, you knew where you stood with things. And the alternative ways to spend nights out where at dodgy clubs full of boozed-up knobs on the prowl in Portsmouth. Events like Tribal Gathering offered a place to dance and make friends and be free from pervy dickheads or lads looking for fights. And of course the music was in a different league to the junk being played in local Portsmouth clubs.
And what was the vibe of the actual festival like? The festival grounds and the people etc?
Electric. United. Excited. The bits that stick most are: the lights in the dance tents and everyone loving it, the view from the big wheel overlooking everyone partying and mooching around in this microcosm of the world that Tribal Gathering was and the sun rise and dew and dirt of the ground. Some people were jaded, others still flying, but overall there was a sense of peace, as if a warm and friendly invisible bubble had encased everyone that was there.
You seem to have vivid memories of the festival... Carl Cox playing during a thunderstorm?!
Before Carl Cox came on the tent was pretty dark and all you could hear was people chatting and shouting and enjoying themselves. Then there was a hum and a thunderous sound, smoke got pumped into the tent along with a srobe light that centred on Carl Cox, who was around 20 feet high in his booth and as the smoke cleared you could make out the larger than life figure of Mr Cox and then, bang, bang, bang! Everyone in absolute euphoria! Carl Cox tore the fucking roof off!
You said you enjoyed the Leftfield live set... Can you remember details of that? They'd only just released 'Leftism' at that time!
Mate! That was something else! Next level stuff. There were around seven of them I think, playing all kinds of instruments, from the decks to drums, to a wooden box with a stick and some kind of string which produced and amazing sound. Also they had a stand with a small box with a piece of wire that came from the centre and one of them played that with his tongue, I shit you not! I have to say when I saw Leftfield a couple of years ago, they didn't come close.
It must have been an experience if you can remember so many details, years on! What was the general atmosphere and festival site like?
I know, and that’s when ‘things’ were proper! I remember the atmosphere being amazing! Mate, let me tell you about the couple I met – they were glammed up, a really pretty couple, looked like they were heading to Miss Moneypenny’s or something. They asked me what type of music Chemical Brothers were going to play and I said “it’s like techno, trip-hop, electronica.” They looked disappointed and said “oh we thought it was house music.” However as soon as Chemical Brothers started their set the couple looked at each other and said “fuck house tonight” and partied there all night. Loved it.
So would you say this was the best festival of all time?
Without a doubt
So what first springs to mind when I say Tribal Gathering 96?
Daft Punk. I'd bought ‘Da Funk’ on 12" in Amsterdam. My mates had never heard of them and it was a year before ‘Homework’ was released. They were awesome. Also it was live on Radio 1 at 5pm on John Peel' s show.
Dave Clarke having a row with Slab on stage was interesting too. They were shit and took the piss out of him for his ‘Red’ series. They had a tune called ‘Red 4’. He wiped his arse with it in front of them. He was live on Radio one too!
Dave Clarke wiped his arse with a record? Or are you talking metaphorically, as in he played a better set?
No. He actually wiped his arse with a red vinyl! I've asked him about it and he does remember it too. Why they put Slab on after him knowing there was a beef was a bit mad
Amazing. He's never one to pull his punches. What can you remember about the atmosphere and the crowd?
Great crowd. It always was at Universe. I went to every one from September 92 onwards. They always had the best production and line-ups. The atmosphere for The Chemical Brothers was awesome as it was not long after ‘Exit Planet Dust’ came out. You could tell they were special even then.
So would you say Tribal Gathering 96 was the best festival ever?
Has anything since even compared to it?
Possibly Tribal 97. But nothing in terms of diverse line-ups with such big names on the same bill. Homelands and Creamfields tried but by then the Scallies had jumped on the bandwagon and most UK festivals became dodgy and and the soundsystems got worse.
So you booked the Nexus stage. It must have been stressful, what with having to reschedule the festival?
To be honest it wasn't that stressful. I was asked to book a line-up that reflected the rave scene of that year. I had been promoting my own nights in Bristol and the South West. I was given a budget to work with and went from there.
I've so many memories of the event, but mainly from my arena as I didn't really see much of the rest of it as I was stage managing: dealing with sound engineers, artists, blaggers and liggers as well as Environmental Health officers, press, media, you name it
One highlight was John Peel coming to our arena to check out what was happening. He had his sons with him and they were into hardcore, happy hardcore and breakbeats.
'Timeless' had just come out, so hosting Goldie must have been very special?
Yes, that's the reason Goldie was booked. ‘Inner City Life’ is still a classic to this day. I've known Goldie, or Cliff, since the mid 80s though the graffiti scene, which I'm still involved with. He's a legend for so many reasons – production, DJ, his nights at the Blue Note, the list is endless.
I didn't just organise that stage, I also organised seven coaches from Bristol. Over 400 people travelled. Many from Bristol, but I also had people on those coaches from parts of Europe, a couple from San Francisco and even Canada who had come to the UK just for that party, such was the reputation that Universe had built for putting on great parties with diverse line-ups and the flyer sums that up.
What was the crowd and atmosphere like at TG 96?
93 was all ravers, whereas tribal 96 was more diverse as a crowd due to the nature of the event and acts that were performing. It had a vibe of a dance festival crowd, heavily backed and supported by magazines like Mixmag, Muzik, DJ. It appealed to a good crowd of up-for-it hedonists.
The dance music scene back then was huge. Radio 1, Club @ Vision and MTV all shaped that era. And Universe with Tribal just tapped into that.
Did the 96 event feel like a cultural moment?
I think the whole scene in 96 was a cultural movement. The line-up is just immense, the only thing missing for me is The Prodigy. It had it all musically: house, tech-house, progressive house, hard house, trance, techno, drum ‘n’ bass and, yes, rave. Damn I miss those days. I'm old but I feel I was part of a musical revolution from the acid house era, M25 orbital parties onwards and the golden generation of rave parties and rave culture. That era holds so many treasured memories.
What can you remember about arriving at the festival?
Even the tail backs into festival were buzzing, people outside their cars and vans dancing to their own music on the road.
What was the atmosphere and crowd like?
Everyone was dancing, hugging. The odd paranoid wreckhead. Even the visuals put on at the time were amazing and there was water dripping from the tent tops, as it was so sweaty.
What sets can you remember?
Only Laurent Garnier. I kept floating about to different tents. I did have a ‘god is a DJ’ moment but unfortunately I don't know who was on at the time. If only I had a time machine!
You said that there was a sense of triumph because of the event's licensing issues... Can you explain a bit more about that?
The event was supposed to be in early May somewhere in Oxford. From what I recall the police were doing everything in their power to stop the event. What I do remember is turning on Radio 1 – it wasn't so shit back then – and the headline on the news was that Tribal Gathering was cancelled because the licence had been taken away. They got a new venue in Luton Hoo and practically every DJ and artist went to the effort of revising their schedule to make the new date. Underworld didn't, and there was another do called Big Love which they headlined.
So this was the rave of that summer? Could you compare it to anything these days?
Good question. You didn't have so many, or any, of the big raves ‘cos of the Criminal Justice Act. Tribal Gathering had been going for a few years but 96 (and 97) was when the line-up knocked it out of the park. Compared to what you have these days, there was specific segmentation between different genres, which worked in my opinion, so a whole tent of d’n’b, then one with crusty trance, and Detroit, etc. And then the big main tent with Oakenfold and the big acts doing their thing.
There was also no Glastonbury that year, but then all the festivals you had to choose from were Glasto, Reading and maybe a couple of others.
So at this point, 'Leftism' was out, 'Timeless' had just dropped, 'Homework' and 'Dig Your Own Hole' would be released a year later. That's a lot of classic dance music... Did this line-up feel like a "moment"?
So can you remember any details from TG 96? You must be able to remember a set or two?!
Hardfloor, early-evening 303 madness. Richie Hawtin starting his set with Teste's ‘The Wipe’. Losing all my mates early on (there were no phones back then) and being befriended by a bunch of dodgy but friendly Scousers who got me wasted. Marshall Jefferson playing loads of wild-pitch acid that nearly made me fall over.
What was the crowd and atmosphere like?
Amazing from what I recall: no trouble, great vibe right from the start and a vague recollection of lots of air horns.
Can you remember anything about the vibe or the crowd? What did it feel like to be there?
I remember us having to park in the town and walking the rest of the way, which was about 45 to 60 mins including the customary skinning-up breaks! The weather couldn’t have been any more beautiful, so it made all the more for the enjoyment! We were walking in what seemed the middle of nowhere, along the verge of a deeply wooded country lane, steadily becoming more tired, using the distant 4/4 thud as our compass. Everyone was headed in the same direction. Everyone’s excitement and anticipation became heightened the louder the bassline got. All of a sudden, the music became even clearer as the woodland suddenly died away and merged with a sloping field to reveal the brightly coloured peaks of the massive festival marquees. Not enough superlatives exist in the Oxford dictionary to convey to you how good the vibe was! How friendly the crowd was! It was how everything was, back then, and to this day shows how hard pressed we are now to rekindle that kind of vibe. It was truly a magical time to be part of that scene, absolutely no doubt! Everyone pulsating, throbbing, bouncing to the same rhythm. Everyone sweating, smiling, happy! Everyone friendly with everyone else, stopping for some skins which turned into a half hour chat and you swore blind these geezers were people you knew your whole life! We were all pulling in the same direction then.
That sense of unity... Was it because dance music was still new? And that raving was still pretty subversive?
Certainly at the time we felt dance music had been around for a lifetime, certainly our lifetime anyway! The rave scene was still viewed subversively, that much was evident. If we're talking about the Tribal Gathering events I think, subjectively speaking, it was the pervading sense that, after years of looking over our shoulders, ducking down alleys or side streets into old buildings or parking up at service stations and ringing a number for 'the next bit of information on the location', evading the cops and chasing that elusive ‘illegal rave'. It felt like we had finally 'arrived'. That it was no longer 'us versus them’. That what we had done for years previously wasn't done in vain. It was to be what we all knew legal, well organised raves could be! Majestic!
Seb Wheeler Is Mixmag's Digital Editor. @ him on Twitter with your rave tales