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A Darker Electricity: The Origins of the Spiral Tribe Sound System

“Their passion and resilience enable them to shine brightly”

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When Spiral Tribe snuck their rig into a government meeting to protest nuclear testing.

In an exclusive extract from his new book A Darker Electricity: The Origins of the Spiral Tribe Sound System, Mark Angelo Harrison looks back on an emblematic moment for the collective and their activist roots. In perhaps the only example of hardcore being played in a government building, they made their feelings heard in a private meeting between the British government and indigenous elders from Maralinga, the SW Australian region that had been subjected to nuclear testing in the 1950s.  

The next morning the radio alarm woke me from a deep sleep with a BBC News report. Two tribal elders from Maralinga in Australia were coming to London to file a complaint against the British government. Rubbing gritty sleep from my eyes, I sat up in bed. 

Apparently, the British had exploded seven nuclear bombs on their lands in the fifties and sixties, as well as tested over 600 other nuclear devices that had contaminated hundreds of square miles with deadly plutonium. As soon as the report was over, I got up and phoned the BBC to ask where the meeting between the elders and the government was taking place. That done, I got dressed and taped a clean piece of calico to the wall and mixed up some electric blue UV paint. 

While still at school I’d read books about Aboriginal ‘Dreamtime’. I don’t know how accurately the books, which were probably penned by European anthropologists, translated the various beliefs of the First Nations People, but still, the interpretation that made an impression on me was that Dreamtime is the ‘ancestral now’. That which embraces past, present, future and connects with the landscape and everything in it. Rocks, plants, animals and people. It was one of the first times I’d read anything about different ways of perceiving the world, or that acknowledged there might be any connection between rocks, living things and consciousness. Even at that early age, intuition told me that the boundaries defined by my science teachers at school were too rigid. Just because science had not yet understood the complexities of these deeper connections didn’t mean that we shouldn’t be curious about them. This unknown zone fired my imagination. Back beyond primordial history. Back beyond the single-celled extremophiles that partied in the volcanic vents of Earth’s first oceans. Back beyond the molecular mix that spawned it all. 

 

As I pushed the squeaking sack barrow along the street, we passed several vans making deliveries to the very grand but anonymous central London addresses. I realised then that we’d made a mistake. Instead of wrapping our cargo in an old bedsheet and rope, we should have packed everything in plain cardboard boxes and brown paper. That way our load would have looked like any other delivery. Mind you, that still wouldn’t have explained why one sack barrow needed seven or eight rather scruffy people accompanying it. 

“This must be the place!” My cheeriness failed to hide the apprehension in my voice. 

After hearing about the elders’ visit on the radio, I’d managed to get the phone number of the building where the meeting was taking place. After a short time on hold, I got through to an office where a woman quizzed me about what my interest in attending the meeting was. I replied that I represented a community group called Spiral Tribe that wanted to show support for the elder’s cause. She took my details and gave me the time and address of the meeting, which I hoped was as good as an invitation. 

With minimal fuss we managed to bump the loaded sack barrow and ourselves in through the huge front door and into the polished marble lobby. A man in an immaculate suit blocked our way. He looked more like a bodyguard than a receptionist, but he smiled and asked how he could help. 

‘We have an invitation,’ I reassured him, and myself. 

He asked for our names while he walked over to the desk. As he moved, I noticed we all shuffled around the sack barrow in a vain effort to block it from his view. 

“We are Spiral Tribe!” I attempted to announce as I boldly strolled up to the desk, but it came out a bit more mumbled than I’d hoped. 

He’d glanced down at his list, then looked up and, to my amazement, said, ‘You’re expected.’ He then very graciously walked us through the building and ushered us and the sack barrow into a room that had an enormous mahogany table at its centre. And like the ubiquitous marble and gilt decorations, it too was polished to a mirror gloss.

 

We took our places around the table. Opposite us was a group of middle-aged men in dark, pinstriped suits. They appeared to have been drinking at lunch as their faces were flushed – more purple than red – and they didn’t speak between themselves, at least not coherently, but rather in snorts and grunts. I got the impression that they were complaining about something. Perhaps it was indigestion. Whatever it was, they seemed to want to make their feelings of discomfort – or was it disapproval? – clear. 

There was also a small group of younger people, dressed smartly but not as stiffly as the men. One of the women introduced herself to us as an Oxfam NGO and mentioned quietly that the men in suits opposite were, in fact, government officials. 

At the head of the table were the two elders. They sat patiently waiting for us all to settle. Both had white hair and beards and wore scarlet headbands and loose-fitting, dark blue clothes. In between them was a white guy in a beige suit. He didn’t give off the same hostile aura as the other officials. He stood up, cleared his throat, and introduced himself as the lawyer representing the elders. He asked that the blinds be drawn as they had a slide show. Being on the side of the table nearest the windows, Aztek and I obliged. He continued that the elders didn’t speak English and so he would be making the presentation on their behalf. He pulled down a screen and asked for the lights to be turned off. The government men were nearest the switches, but they didn’t move, so instead the woman from Oxfam got up. 

Zander and I grew up in the sixties and seventies. And by chance we lived twenty minutes away from Britain’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE). As the name suggests, it’s where they designed and made atomic bombs. Even when we moved a little further west towards Oxford, we were still surrounded by government nuclear laboratories and US nuclear missile bases, Greenham Common being the most infamous. Our mum was one of the Greenham Women who protested against the cruise missiles there. I went on my first nuclear disarmament protest when I was fourteen. Zander was just twelve. 

To us kids, the idea of a nuclear war seemed unthinkable, if not for the fact that only thirty years earlier the US had dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing a quarter of a million people – mostly civilians. 

Even as conscientious teenagers we still didn’t fully realise the extent of the catastrophes unleashed on the world in the name of creating capital and holding power. At school I’d had some classes in economic and social history, and so had a vague idea about the British Enclosures – laws that allowed the wealthy to steal land from the poor – the slave trade and the genocidal pro- grams of colonisation. These histories always positively equated capitalism with civilisation. But when I walked into that opulently decorated room in London with my friends and our sack barrow, I still hadn’t connected all the dots. 

As the carousel of the slide projector turned and the first image clunked into place, the lawyer began to tell us exactly what the British had been up to. 

The lights came on. I blinked while my eyes adjusted. The gilded ornaments, polished marble and antique furniture had taken on a heavier, lifeless atmosphere. The same glassy-eyed atmosphere as a room of hunter’s trophies. 

Slowly people started to get up. I sat where I was. There were a few murmurs, but the mood remained solemn. The elder’s presentation had been about their dispossession and the plutonium that now poisoned their lands. With a half-life of 24,000 years, it was topping up the toxic load of all the injustices against the planet and her peoples. And just as plutonium has lasting toxicity, it begged the question: what are the long- term effects of the slow and invisible violence of insidious land appropriation, dispossession and extractive capitalism? 

The lawyer was packing his papers away. Is this the right moment? The elders were still sitting, talking together. After hearing of such serious crimes against a people and their lands, would our presentation be appropriate? I checked myself. Just ask. 

I stood up. 

“Before you go,” I addressed the elders, “would it be possible to give you a short presentation of music?” I glanced across at the government men. They scowled at me. The Oxfam woman raised her eyebrows. 

Introducing myself and the others, I explained our idea. The lawyer quietly translated my message while the elders gave me a studied look. 

The lawyer answered, “Thank you. Please.”

Not sure if that was a yes or a polite no, I hesitated. The elders stood up, smiled and nodded their encouragement. 

Breathing a sigh of relief, I said, “Well, we just need to hook up some power.” I looked around the room, but the others were already on it. Justin ran a cable to a power point. Simone positioned the UV. Debbie and Zander unfurled my painting. Joe took charge of the smoke machine. Sasha switched the lights off. And Aztek pressed play. 

The little guerrilla rig we’d wheeled in on a sack barrow kicked in. The backdrop bounced UV colours into the room, which reflected in every polished surface, transporting us out of the oppressive building and into a new space. The elders were the first to start dancing. Their lawyer politely bobbed his head in time to the beat. The government men immediately left the room. 

After our presentation, Aztek and I gave the elders the tape and backdrop. I attempted to say a few words but only managed to say how sorry we were to hear about what had happened to them and their lands. I admitted that we didn’t know how to help, but I hoped they’d accept our small offering of art, music and solidarity. Not as people in power, but just people. 

In that shared moment of deep eye contact and warm handshakes, the connection between us all was strong, but it didn’t solve the problem. That of the government men, and their type, slipping out of the room, no doubt to continue with some other catastrophic scheme. 

A Darker Electricity: The Origins of the Spiral Tribe Sound System is out now via Velocity Press.

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