With illicit parties seeing a resurgence on Merseyside during lockdown, Getintothis’ Mike Hill recalls Southport’s beach raves 30 years on.
The Blackburn rave scene is part of northern folklore.
For a three year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s thousands of revellers took over empty East Lancashire warehouses to stage all night acid house parties.
Ravers from right across the north west converged on the unlikely location for a weekly game of cat and mouse with landlords and the law to set up sound systems and dance.
The sense of outlaw spirit and unpredictability added to the excitement of an era when nightclubs shut at 2am but the amped up crowd wasn’t ready to head home.
Across the south of England the Thatcherite ethos was alive and kicking as the entrepreneurs moved in to stage large scale, illegal events on farmland and pocket a tidy sum.
But the northern scene was different, the emphasis was on the party not the profit.
While Blackburn led the way, the spring of 1990 saw the convoys of party seekers looking for new places to set up and get down.
On Saturday, May 5 an estimated 2,000 people and 350 cars gathered on Ainsdale beach with a rig in tow for the first major acid house party on the resort’s sands.
Just 24 hours later many were back on the beach only to find police waiting to turn them away.
The Liverpool Echo reported, ‘A new craze for acid house parties seems set to sweep Merseyside this summer.’
At the time police and Sefton Council seemed willing to find ways to accommodate the parties, however, attitudes would soon shift.
The authority’s tourism chief Phi King told the Echo, “If we have 21 days’ notice of a party, the numbers expected and the noise level, we will judge whether or not it can go ahead.”
This didn’t fit the impromptu ethos of the scene, however, when one crew did try to secure town hall approval they were set hurdle after hurdle before eventually being refused.
Central to the Blackburn scene had been the convoy with streams of cars gathering every weekend to follow whispers and rumours of where the action might be.
Flyers would have a telephone number to ring telling clubbers where and when to meet with rendezvous sites changing throughout the night to avoid police surveillance.
Once at these meeting points groups were given details of the secret location so they could head off into the night and party.
In the days before mobile phones the radio pager and CB radio set became the essential kit to keep the roving revellers on the road.
Often these would gain momentum after the clubs closed with cars full of party seekers happy to cross county borders in the small hours in the hope of striking lucky.
ometimes these would prove to be a wild goose chase but it wasn’t unusual on otherwise deserted, nighttime routes to see groups of 50 cars ignoring red lights to follow the leader up and down the A-roads.
The large Asda store at Switch Island was a regular meeting place for the Quadrant Park crowd but come summer people would just head straight to Ainsdale.
It became increasingly common for police to temporarily shut down 24 hour service stations to prevent partygoers from gathering and laying down roadblocks in the middle of the night.
Mike Wildman recalls one night when police shut the Formby bypass in a bid to stop ravers getting to Ainsdale beach.
He said: “They closed the bypass by the BP petrol station so everyone just parked on the forecourt and along the central reservation, someone turned up a car stereo and everyone just partied right there with all of these blue lights flashing.”
Car stereos played a crucial role in the beach raves with the almost spontaneous nature of gatherings meaning anyone with a decent amp could get the night going.
Dragging an expensive sound system, lighting and a generator on to the shore at night posed all kinds of risks, not least the difficulty of evading police and having expensive equipment seized.
A good car system would be more than enough to provide the music.
With the return of warmer weather in spring 1991 thousands of people again started heading to Ainsdale on a weekend and a successful event in May when a sound system did make its way on to the beach reignited the desire of the party crowd to dance through to sunrise.
With a blazing fire to ward off the chill the rave was a huge success with the police seemingly outwitted by the distance down the shoreline from the beach entrance the gathering was set up.
But it left the authorities as determined as ever to stamp out a return of the raves.
Attempts to stage a party in a disused sweet factory in Southport had turned ugly, with 300 revellers barricading themselves inside and pelting officers in riot gear with missiles.
So Merseyide Police drew up a strategy to try to stop the parties.
Spotter patrols were placed on all the key routes into the resort to keep an eye out for the tell tale convoys; an intelligence sharing protocol was put in place with other north west forces to swap information about the build-up of vehicles; number plate checks were stepped up; information was gathered on pubs and clubs spreading fliers promoting events; and a public appeal went out to shop suspected venues on safety grounds.
One event was sanctioned by the authorities on Ainsdale beach in July 1991 and was to prove the catalyst for the last hurrah of the rave scene on the resort’s sands.
Manchester band Intastella arrived in Southport on Saturday, July 27 to record a video for their second single People.
The day was spent with the band racing around the pier with a band of ravers and a chapter of Hell’s Angels before setting up camp along the coast at Ainsdale for a free gig.
A stage was set up close to the entrance by Pontins and the cameras kept rolling as the crowd partied and when the band finished playing the Jam MCs took over before the plug was pulled at midnight.
In a 2016 interview with On Magazine,Intastella lead singer Stella Grundy described the night as a highlight of the band’s seven year career.
It was certainly a day which has lived on in the memory of those who were there and the photos taken that day can be seen on the sleeve of the Intastella and Family of People album.
The all-dayer provided new impetus for the free party scene in Southport and the following weekend thousands of ravers returned to the beach at Ainsdale.
Video footage of the event on YouTube captures the euphoria of the night which has gone down in folklore as the biggest free party to be held on the sands.
Police put estimates of party goers at 2,000 but those there reckon there were as many as five times that number.
The event sparked chaos on the roads around beach entrance with tailbacks of several miles reported all night.
This writer recalls driving off the beach at 5am and seeing a queue of vehicles still arriving stretching a couple of miles back all the way to the Formby bypass.
For hundreds of yards along the beach itself cars were parked up next to the dunes with some people sitting off on the top while others danced around a rig set up on scaffolding erected on the sand as the sound of whistles and air horns filled the air.
One local entrepreneur was selling soft drinks for what was an extortionate £1 a go while others took a dip in the sea to cool off.
Mike Wildman recalls: “I remember loads of people stripping off and going for a swim. But the tide came in and washed away their clothes.
“Some people were making a fortune when they came up with a bright idea of charging a tenner for cars which were stuck in the sand. They must have made a fortune.
I remember the sun coming up and you could see hundreds of people all along the dunes crashed out.”
Superintendent Ken Milne told the Lancashire Evening Post: “It was like rush hour all night long. But we only had one arrest for possession of drugs and the main problem was the traffic on the coastal road.
The road down to the beach was fairly congested. People arrived in taxis but, of course, when they came to leave there was not enough transport, so we had quite a lot of people milling around, waiting for public transport on Sunday morning.
“We had no complaints from residents and this event seems to have been organised in the right way.”
The party’s success saw hundreds of people again headed for Ainsdale two weeks later hoping for a repeat.
But police were waiting and sealed off the beach entrance causing problems on nearby roads.
One resident told the Post: “I have never seen anything like it. It was quite frightening. There were literally hundreds of cars moving around the roads near the beach, which appeared to be closed from midnight on Saturday to 3am Sunday.
Cars were being driven along pavements four abreast. There was a total backlog of traffic along Weld Road to Rotten Row. The noise was tremendous like being on the M6.
There was a continuous passage of traffic. They were driving around in circles and reversing along the street.
They had obviously been told to meet at the beach and when they couldn’t get there they were totally lost. We saw the occasional police vehicle but they seemed to be totally overwhelmed.”
Sgt Dave Mitchell admitted officers had struggled to cope with the knock on effect of shutting down access to the shore.
He told the Post: “Police had been keeping an eye on the beach after being tipped off that there were plans for a party on Friday. Shortly before 10pm on Saturday (August 17) people began setting up equipment on the beach but we sent them on their way.
“But word had got around the whole of the North West by then and large numbers of vehicles began converging on the resort.
“There was traffic congestion throughout the night, and the area was not cleared until 6am. It is probably an understatement to say that the police were overwhelmed.
“The helicopter was used, the whole of Southport police were there as well as extra patrols from all over Merseyside. But there were cars coming from every direction.”
Soon after the authorities placed fences across the beach preventing drivers from getting between Southport and Ainsdale while barriers were erected at both entrances to the sands.
The era was over but a chapter of northern dance music history had been written which is fondly remembered by those who were there to this day.