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Mattia Zoppellaro, Dirty Dancing (2021)
Mattia Zoppellaro, Dirty Dancing (2021)Photography Mattia Zoppellaro. Courtesy of Klasse Wrecks and We Make It

Mattia Zoppellaro’s images depict the golden age of rave

Dirty Dancing is the new photobook gathering together rare archival photographs of illicit gatherings from Europe’s lost hedonistic techno scene

Before the digital revolution took hold, the conditions were right for the European free party scene to flourish amid a frenetic backdrop of DIY communal experiences. During what photographer Mattia Zoppellaro looks back on as “the golden age of rave culture”, techno parties sprung up in abandoned, remote spaces across the continent, creating makeshift dancefloors and repurposing disused factories and deserted car parks in the hinterlands of London, Milan, Barcelona, Turin, Bologna, and beyond. 

From 1997 until 2005, photographer Zoppellaro joined this roaming envoy, capturing free parties (or “temporary autonomous zones”) at their hedonistic height in a series of intimate and unguarded photographs. Figures materialise from fogs of dry ice in fugue-like states, DJs spin records guided by rogue beams of light, revellers gather on colossal walls of speakers, and crowds dance beneath the heat of the high sun in an age when social media was still just its infancy. His images seem to capture the unselfconscious anonymity of a pre-Instagram era. “Nobody was posing or posting,” Zoppellaro tells Dazed. “You could still hide from the world and keep secrets from everyone.”

The experience of just finding these clandestine raves was an integral part of the fun. Without the aid of the internet, locating the events involved connecting to an intricate IRL matrix of undercover party-goers. Information was disseminated on flyers handed out by “cool and dodgy” strangers, while telephone lines manned by unknown voices relayed addresses on the edge of the city in car parks, old factories, or discreet motorway slip-roads. 

His evocative and unique black and white images of these illicit techno gatherings are now being collected in a book, Dirty Dancing, published by electronic music label Klasse Wrecks and Berlin design studio We Make It. Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of some of the photographs featured in this new publication.  

Below, we speak to Mattia Zoppellaro about the lost world of free parties, his most enduring memories of this exhilarating, long-gone scene, and why he suspects it may have been the last of the truly independent countercultural movements.  

Can you tell me about the party scene your photos capture? 

Mattia Zoppellaro: It was the golden age of rave culture. In Italy, Centri Sociali (self-organised spaces that became centres for urban counterculture) were proliferating; in Spain, open-air festivals could be easily arranged; in London, you could squat pretty much everywhere. These conditions were ideal to organize TAZs – temporary autonomous zones – and throw free parties around the cities. We are talking about the last truly independent counterculture scene before things changed so radically with the new millennium. Everything is more controlled right now, CCTV cameras are everywhere, gatherings are more difficult to arrange. You can also listen to any kind of music everywhere, no need to drive for hours looking for some amazing DJ or sound system

For anyone who was never able to attend one of these legendary parties, could you please describe the atmosphere and sensory experience of these events? 

Mattia Zoppellaro: It felt like an adventure. Finding the party was already an experience – first you had to go into the city to find someone cool and dodgy enough to hand you a flyer with an info line you were supposed to call. The stoned voice at the other end of the phone gave you an address for the meeting point – a car park, an old toy factory, or just off the highway. There you usually met other people with a better idea about where the party was. You drove with them into the early hours of the morning through grim industrial estates with the car window rolled down until you heard the hammer in the distance when you knew you made it, and everything could start. 

Once there, you had the feeling of being in the wrong place with the right people and the best music. It felt illegal, dangerous, and dirty… what more can you ask from a night out? What I found kind of paradoxical about the rave scene was the clash between feeling part of a huge family while living an extremely individual dancing experience with the music in front of the speakers.

“You had the feeling of being in the wrong place with the right people and the best music. It felt illegal, dangerous, and dirty… what more can you ask from a night out?” – Mattia Zoppellaro

The pictures are shot between 1997 and 2005. What was special about this era? 

Mattia Zoppellaro: I began this project right before the digital revolution, at the turn of the century. Internet and social media were still in their infancy. You had to go somewhere to experience things. People were not too happy about being photographed, nobody was posing or posting. You could still hide from the world and keep secrets from everyone.

Which were the leading cities in the party scene? And what sort of venues were these events held in? 

Mattia Zoppellaro: You could end up at four different free parties in London during a random winter weekend, from an old abandoned brewery in the East End or a car park in Acton. Although, I reckon that Bologna has always had a special place in my heart. After a party at Livello 57 or Corticella’s, I loved chilling in Piazza Maggiore with a glass of Sangiovese on Sunday evening

Could you share any of your most enduring memories of these times with us?

Mattia Zoppellaro: One of the first memories that come to mind is a party in Old Street. It must have been about six in the morning. I was walking with my girlfriend at the time, it was one of our first dates. I got distracted by a light slap on the neck, turning around I saw this freckled kid, no more than 14, out of a Lewis Hine picture. His mocking gaze challenged me to come closer. At that moment the blows started raining down my face. I was powerless against those half dozen kids who were dancing around me. I felt a hand lifting my camera and suddenly it was all over. I went sitting down with my girlfriend on one of the filthy sofas next to a crumpled body. Half an hour later we decided to leave the party. At the door, I found myself once again face to face with the freckled kid who was blocking my exit. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘We were too hasty, perhaps we mistook you for someone else.’ He gave me back my camera and continued, ‘Do you want to come to our camper van, we’ve got loads to drink, you are our guests.’ We’ve been friends since.

“I think that every music counterculture has its own life span. It happened for jazz, rock, mod. After it’s born, there’s a golden age and then it eventually dies out” – Mattia Zoppellaro

Please could you tell us about some of the extraordinary individuals you met at these parties? 

Mattia Zoppellaro: There are – or, sadly, were – so many. Like W, a middle-aged traveller that was a punk in England in the 80s and then became a Mutoid, moving with a lot of friends to a small village in Romagna. His amazing tattoos betrayed his efforts to hide his aristocratic background – people rumoured he studied at Eton. 

Then there was B, an elementary school teacher with really long flaming red dreadlocks. She was an amazing DJ, she refused to play anything slower than 200 bpm. She felt more like a big sister to a lot of us ravers. I loved spending time with her talking about the differences between techno and tekno. She sadly passed in a fire at her squat.

Do you think these images depict a lost world? Or could the parties you’ve photographed still exist?

Mattia Zoppellaro: Every picture in a way shows something lost forever… semantics aside, I think that every music counterculture has its own life span. It happened for jazz, rock, mod. After it’s born, there’s a golden age and then it eventually dies out… except maybe for punk, which is more like an attitude. Rave culture still exists today only as a revivalistic phenomenon or as a source of inspiration for fashion brands at best.

Mattia Zoppellaro’s Dirty Dancing is published by Klasse Wrecks and We Make It and is available for pre-order here now