Bootleggers, bondage and law-breaking bashes! The scandalous history of the wild party

From Prohibition-busting cocktail parties to all-night raves, illegal gatherings have been at the centre of modern culture for decades. So why do they still have the power to shock?

For more than a month now, the press has been full of stories of “illegal” parties in Downing Street. The government, we are told, has almost ground to a halt because of the scandal.

Given the coverage, one might easily get the impression that the law-breaking bash is a recent invention, something that could only happen in lockdown, driven by privilege and an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Yet the modern party began life as a crime just over a century ago, when the Volstead Act banned the production and sale of alcohol in the US. As the New York Times explained in 1920:

You cannot carry a hip flask.
You cannot give away or receive a bottle of liquor as a gift.
You cannot take liquor to hotels or restaurants and drink it in the public dining rooms.
You cannot buy or sell formulas or recipes for homemade liquors.
You cannot …

It was not technically illegal to drink at home – but procuring the booze for a party meant breaking the law. Not that that stopped everyone. The first “cocktail parties”, claimed the hard-drinking writer F Scott Fitzgerald, who was at most of them, were held in 1921. By the following year the New York Times was complaining that the once-innocent word “party” now meant, by definition, an “inebriate” bash. Fitzgerald found the whole thing so intoxicating that he wrote one of the century’s defining novels, The Great Gatsby, about a bootlegger famous for his decadent parties and limitless cocktails.

Prohibition was America’s first culture war, imposing the conservative morality of teetotal small towns on cities vilified as warrens of drunken immigrants – Italians with their wine, Irish with their whiskey, Germans with their beer. Revisionist historians claim it was a success, reducing illness and crime. But that’s a narrow view of an extreme attempt to remake modern life. Prohibition changed behaviour all right – for it put wild parties at the centre of modern culture.

Cocktails, the classic lubricant of the 1920s party, may have helped hide the awful taste of bootleg spirits. Or perhaps they just got you drunk faster. Either way, the rise of cocktail parties redefined what a party was. Soon this cocktail scene had spread to Europe. Even though drinking was legal in the UK, the aristocratic Bright Young Things in 1920s England managed to give their parties a spectacular excess that outraged and entertained the onlooking, purportedly sober and dull, masses. When police deferentially but firmly tried to end a party at St George’s Baths, London, in 1928, the Bright Young guests, all boozing in their bathing costumes, tried to get the bobbies to join them in the pool. Another novelist, Evelyn Waugh, evoked the permanent drunkenness of the decade in Vile Bodies’ nauseous opening on a wave-tossed ship in the Channel:

“Oh,” said the Bright Young People. “Oh, oh, oh.”

“It’s just exactly like being inside a cocktail shaker,” said Miles Malpractice.

Yet those who really wanted to party hard in the 20s and early 30s headed for Weimar Berlin or surrealist Paris, where the norms of the time were more profoundly defied. Brassaï’s 1931 photograph Gay Ball at Magic City is sometimes mistaken for an image of Weimar decadence but actually shows men in everything from full drag to black tie dancing at a decaying Paris amusement park that found a new lease of life as a gay party venue. Brassaï was delighted by its “immense, warm, impulsive fraternity”.

Patrons at Le Monocle night club in Paris in the 1920s.
Patrons at Le Monocle night club in Paris in the 1920s. Photograph: FPG/Getty Images

The Weimar republic’s endless uneasy party is preserved in paintings such as Max Beckmann’s Die Nacht – a true party from hell, with bondage, in a room that’s drunkenly shrinking – and Otto Dix’s depictions of sailors, sex workers and jazz bands. It was crushed in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. But – in modern mythology at least – they kept the decadence going.

The image of Nazis cavorting in wild romps was paradoxically created by Hitler’s own propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. After Hitler had the leaders of the SA, the party’s streetfighting wing, massacred in 1934, it was said at least one of the leaders was caught in bed with another man in a Bavarian hotel. Goebbels whipped this up into a denunciation of the SA as “asocial” Weimar types.

But did the Nazis actually party hard? A Soviet war correspondent, Konstantin Simonov, told how when the Red Army entered Berlin in 1945 he found the wreckage of a final fascist feast. Some German officers and their girlfriends had sealed themselves in a bunker with as much champagne as they could find for a blowout worthy of the dying gods. A half-century later, artist Mat Collishaw restaged this debauched scene in a series of pictures called Burnt Almonds, portraying a “desperate last party of champagne, sex and cynanide”. Yet the artifice of his photographs acknowledges that an obscene party involving Nazi officers and sex workers mixes history with our fantasies of what evil looks like.

The liberation of Paris in 1944 was welcomed with a much nicer orgy – a spontaneous bacchanal of drinking and sex took over the city. From there it was just a short hop to the postwar party era, where decadence was no longer the privilege of Bright Young Things but available to everyone in an age of consumer democracy and pop culture. Rock’n’roll generated parties to make Fitzgerald blush – yet here again the real mayhem was laced with fiction.

What Marianne Faithfull and Mick Jagger got up to in 1967 is one of those fantasies. Britain was blown away when an overheated press added its own lurid details to what was actually a quiet drug-taking party at Keith Richards’ house, Redlands. The civilised, if trippy, evening became a myth of excess when police raided (egged on by the News of the World) and were horrified by the “strong sweet smell of incense”. It did result in one of the greatest modern British artworks, when Richard Hamilton turned a photo of Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser handcuffed in a police van into his acid-coloured masterpiece Swingeing London 67.

Rock stars, not least the Stones themselves, would party much harder. Unfortunately, some of the most shocking stories about Led Zeppelin’s antics appear to be absolutely true. Witnesses have confirmed the story of the sublime hard rock band’s hotel room party in 1969 involving a freshly caught shark – the hotel was on a Pacific pier – and a young woman. It’s best told by Frank Zappa in his song The Mud Shark: “Say one night you checked into the Edgewater Inn motel with a 8mm movie camera, enough money to rent a [fishing] pole, and, just to make it more interesting, a succulent young lady with a taste for the bizarre …”

Kate Moss at her 30th birthday party in 2004.
Kate Moss at her 30th birthday party in 2004. Photograph: CG2/WENN

As they say on BBC iPlayer, these lyrics reflect the time in which they were written. So does the claim that people with dwarvism were paid to walk around Freddie Mercury’s party at the Fairmont hotel, New Orleans, in 1978 with plates of cocaine strapped to their heads. That seems to be folklore, but some of the many stories about this party must be true, such as that naked models wrestled in a pit filled with raw liver. One party this century that competed with it, and even had Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood in attendance among the much younger artists and fashion stars, was Kate Moss’s 30th in 2004. It reputedly climaxed with some of the guests taking part in an orgy at Claridge’s. With true erudition in party history, Moss called it The Beautiful and the Damned, after Fitzgerald’s second novel.

Don’t stop me now … Compared with the sins of the rock patriarchs, the parties that got Britain’s authorities outraged in the late 1980s and early 90s were joyous and harmless. That didn’t stop the Criminal Justice Act 1994 using some unintentionally comic language to try to specify exactly what was so wrong with a rave. Section 63 on “powers to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave” defines one as “a gathering on land in the open air of 20 or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and … by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality”. It carefully explains that “for this purpose … ‘music’ includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.

Music characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats once again pumped out illegally in 2020 at lockdown raves in warehouses left empty by the pandemic. Participants who were caught were, of course, fined without any need for a Cabinet Office inquiry to establish if they were at a rave or just a noisy, sweaty work meeting.

A rave in Coventry in 1991.
A rave in Coventry in 1991. Photograph: UniversalImagesGroup/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Even before the pandemic so severely narrowed the field of social interaction for law-abiding citizens, the politics of wild parties was changing. Values are different. Many of the rock world’s legendary antics now look like abuse and elicit not amusement but revulsion. And there’s another kind of party that shocks: the depraved secret gatherings that rulers and the rich enjoy, or are imagined to enjoy. Here again fictional outrages abound, ever since Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine for imaginary crimes including depravity and keeping wine under her bed to bribe the Swiss Guards.

But former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga parties” appear to have been real. According to young women who were there, the politician and media magnate’s private gatherings started as dinner parties and ended with women having to strip and pole dance until Berlusconi chose his partner for the night. One account describes him starting the entertainment by producing a statuette with an enormous penis, which the women had to lick. A pole dancing room also features in recently released photographs of what is claimed to be Vladimir Putin’s new secret palace.

If excess is always enlivened by a hint of the criminal, the definition of wildness will change with the laws. It’s a long way from The Great Gatsby’s Prohibition shindigs where flappers and stockbrokers danced in the moonlight, to Boris Johnson and the staff of 10 Downing Street getting in the Tesco rosé and M&S snacks. The scandal is in proportion to the limits imposed by lockdown on everyone else, of course. At the No 10 double party on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral someone, it seems, drunkenly sat on a child’s swing and broke it. It’s a detail in its pathos worthy of Fitzgerald.

Contributor

Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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