Partying During Wartime

Keith Robinson has gone from throwing parties in Glasgow to piloting a mobile soundsystem in the war-torn Balkans to serving his country in Afghanistan. Ray Philp reports on an extraordinary life.

August 24, 2015

In 1991, Keith Robinson, a tall, mixed-race Celtic fan from the West End of Glasgow, threw a party in an old railway tunnel. A banner with Saddam Hussein’s face was hung on one of the walls. The revellers who made it to Kelvinbridge, holding Hussein-branded tickets, saw “Death Or Glory” written on another stretch of canvas; there were paintings of warplanes, too, and other Gulf War-referencing murals rendered in 2000 AD-style artwork. House and techno music bought from 23rd Precinct, a now-closed record store on Bath Street, punched its way through the speaker stacks. Robinson’s first Desert Storm Soundsystem party, where rave culture and armed conflict became restive allies, was also a synopsis for his improbable life story.

Throughout the ‘90s, Desert Storm Soundsystem – a rotating cast of characters led by the charismatic Robinson – organised free (and usually illegal) parties across the UK and mainland Europe, and eventually became a part of the continent’s Teknival movement, a more politicised, anti-corporate distillation of the UK’s early rave scene. In the middle of the decade, Desert Storm went to Bosnia, via Croatia, to provide humanitarian relief during the Balkan conflict alongside aid convoys. Instead of handing out food, though, Desert Storm offered locals something else: a party. In a documentary tracking their first journey to Sarajevo, Robinson put it thusly: “We don’t think that music is a luxury. We think it’s an essential. Yet it’s always one of the first casualties of war.”

Keith Robinson

Desert Storm was a transient presence in Scotland’s electronic music scene. DJs whose careers have been defined by stability – James “Harri” Harrigan, Domenic Cappello, JG Wilkes of Optimo and Andrew Weatherall, among others – all played at these parties, but they seldom stayed in Desert Storm’s orbit for long. Robinson organised raves in warehouses, fields, barns, tunnels and remote peninsulas. He once drove up with a friend in a Porsche to a 17th century-style mansion, Formakin House, and told the landlord they were bringing 100 people to take part in a film shoot. (A variation of a smokescreen that Robinson used regularly in the party’s early days).

“I remember the day of the gig; must’ve been 800-900 of us,” Robinson said when we met at his East London HQ. “He looks over the balcony into the courtyard: Andy Weatherall’s coming in, we had everybody there. I said to the guy, ‘Well, I think that’s 100 of us in now.’ There were about 900 coming up the drive. I thought he was going to punch me.”

Stories like these might give off the impression that Desert Storm Soundsystem was a seat-of-the-pants enterprise – and it sometimes was – but Robinson was a shrewd operator amid the chaotic flux of Scotland’s embryonic rave scene. When Glasgow was awarded City of Culture status by the EU in 1990, clubs were granted 5 AM licenses. Once the city council retracted them the following year, Robinson rode in with his camouflage truck and provided a space for people to keep dancing once the city’s nightclubs were cleared out.

Keith Robinson

But, as the ‘90s rolled on and the police began to grapple with ravers, Robinson collided with the law more frequently. Gangs became a problem, too. Early Desert Storm parties charged clubbers for entry, which attracted the attention of Glasgow’s criminal underworld. To protect himself and his crew, Robinson hired his own heavies, but this only made things worse, and he was wrestling for control of his own parties towards the end. By 1996, they had left Scotland for good.

“The trouble about money in Glasgow and clubs is, there’s dodgy characters,” Robinson said. “It was a dodgy town. One guy came to the door and said: ‘I’m on the guestlist.’ I said, ‘What’s your name?’ And he wasn’t on the guestlist. He said, ‘No, no, I am on the guestlist.’ And he pulled out a huge machete. And I said, ‘Well, mammoth machete, you’re in!’ [And the doorman said] ‘And here’s my security tag, Keith, I’ll not be working for you again.’” (Robinson told the journalist Matthew Collin about the VIP area of a similar night he organised in Glasgow, which was full of “E’d-out maniacs with machetes, all totally wired.”)

In 1994, Desert Storm drove to London to take part in a protest against the Criminal Justice Bill, legislation that outlawed unlicensed raves with “repetitive beats” in open spaces. It was a fateful trip: not only did a chance meeting give Robinson a renewed sense of purpose, but it set him on a path that took his soundsystem abroad.

Robinson and several others, including Ally McKinnes, a former resident DJ at Desert Storm, travelled down south in October in their truck, which they referred to as the Rapid Deployment Vehicle. “It had a box on the roof, and the sides would pop off that, so you had your bass bins belting out the side of the van,” explained McKinnes, who briefly produced music under the Desert Storm name with a friend, Jamie Cloughey.11One of their records, a release on Soma called Desert Storm / Scoraig ‘93, was mildly successful. “You opened the back doors, and the decks were there. And the generator was inside it, with an exhaust poking out the driver’s side.”

Desert Storm - Desert Storm

The van made its way slowly through a crowd of tens of thousands of people, and parked in the middle of Trafalgar Square. As bemused police officers looked on, protesters surrounding the van twirled and jumped to the house and techno playing from the RDP. The reverie of two previous protests, held in the May and July of that year, didn’t survive to the third gathering. After the protest was ushered along to Hyde Park, police lines closed in and the demonstration became violent. Officers in riot gear formed lines of plastic shields as they advanced on dancing demonstrators.

At some point amid all the fighting, someone approached the van. “I’m saying, ‘Get away from the van’, because the cops are attacking it,” Robinson remembered. “He says, ‘Can you take my number, can you take my number?’ I was like, ‘You’re mad!’ He says, ‘Naw, give me your number!’ He’s back up the road and we’re sitting there [back in Glasgow], our brains bazoongad from this thing. The phone goes. ‘Oh, my name’s Paddy, remember? The crazy Scottish guy that nearly got done in by the cops trying to get your phone number.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I do remember you! What d’you want?’ And he goes, ‘Do you want to take your soundsystem to Bosnia?’”

Adrian Fisk

Desert Storm HQ is a unit in a two-storey business park in Walthamstow, which sits between a row of MOT garages and a residential area. Robinson led me to an office that was stuffed with the contents of an entire house. A long wall of metal shelving housed ragged cardboard boxes of belongings: rollerblades, socks, sleeping bags, a cymbal. There were gas cylinders of various sizes near the door. An Xbox console and a television sat in one corner; on the same side of the wall was a boxed-off recording studio, with a drum kit, mixing desk, and a Novation synth inside. Harsh daylight glinted off the pots and pans stacked on top of another synth. (“It was tidy, and now – look at it! I just can’t do it all now. I can’t get the staff,” Robinson said, by way of apology.)

Everyone’s dead – your granny, everything. But if these guys have come all this way in this crazy vehicle and they’re doing a party, then it must be getting better. That’s what people think.

Keith Robinson

This room seemed a mirror for Robinson’s train of thought – his anecdotes, crammed with random details, often took the scenic route to get to the point. He delivered stories with a theatrical pomp, as if he was reciting a play with a cast of two or three people. After a long and candid chat about his time in the Territorial Army – he joined after hearing about a terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport, in 2007, and served in Afghanistan before resigning in 2014 – we managed to get round to his trips to the Balkans.

“We were bringing cultural aid, as we saw it,” said Robinson, “instead of tins of beans, which they didn’t even like, it turns out. People were bringing tins of beans and sausages, to a Muslim country! Feeding them pig! If they’d found that out, there would’ve been riots. I think that we had a massive effect. It’s been horrible. Everyone’s dead – your granny, everything. But if these guys have come all this way in this crazy vehicle and they’re doing a party, then it must be getting better. That’s what people think. They’re rushing out their houses, ‘Whoa, I’ve made it, I’m alive.’ And I’ll tell you what, they loved it. They’d never heard any music like this in their lives.”

Their first trip to Bosnia, in mid-December, 1994, came after the worst of the fighting between Bosnians and Croats had ceased. The Washington Agreement signed in March of that year brokered relative peace between the two nations, but travelling to Bosnia still posed significant dangers, and the scars of war – leaking water, cracked walls, huge potholes, shelled buildings – were marked on the roads and tunnels leading there.

Adrian Fisk

What followed is documented in surprising and astonishing detail by Desert Storm themselves and other journalists, including Collin; some of the stories read like a raver’s mythology. Heading to Tuzla, they snaked around the Croatian coastline, whose sea-ward Jugo winds nearly blew the truck onto the rocks several times. They drove through Sniper’s Alley, a boulevard in Sarajevo that was as dangerous as it sounded, in the dead of night, with their lights off. (As well as sniper fire, passing vehicles were vulnerable to anti-tank rounds.) By New Year’s Eve, they’d arrived in Tuzla, an industrial town in the north-east of Bosnia that the UN had prematurely declared a safe zone. (Bosnian Serb militia fired on civilians there a few months later, in May 1995, killing 71 people.)

After scrapping a plan to put a party on in a basketball stadium, they drove around town with techno blaring from the truck. (“We were playing a Carly Cox-y kind of techno,” said Robinson, whose music had begun to accelerate away from the Detroit and Chicago sounds of his early parties.) They were soon approached by armed soldiers, who urged them to turn the music up and turn the lights off – a perverse inversion of the instructions they used to get from police in Glasgow.

As the DJ played La Luna’s “Bang to the Beat of the Drum,” a fast, breaks-infused techno record, people flooded out of their homes, and some cracked assault rifles into the pitch-black night.

They passed a police station, where jubilant officers fired their guns skywards and danced on their patrol cars, and later pulled up at a housing estate. As the DJ played La Luna’s “Bang to the Beat of the Drum,” a fast, breaks-infused techno record, people flooded out of their homes, and some cracked assault rifles into the pitch-black night. A small, hand-held laser danced with the sparks from the tracer fire.

Tuzla was a significant destination for the Workers Aid For Bosnia-led convoy. The man who approached Robinson during the CJB protest was from the anarcho-syndicalist organisation, which official charities heading to Bosnia refused to recognise. If something had gone wrong, they had no support network to fall back on. “Tuzla was a miner’s town that had very strong left-wing roots, and because of those roots it stayed multi-ethnic,” Drew Hemment, a former journalist who accompanied the convoy, told me. “So, Tuzla was the only place in the whole of Bosnia that didn’t just fracture along ethnic lines, because it had very strong left-wing roots. And it also had historic links to the left-wing union movement in the UK. During the miner’s strike [of 1984-85], Tuzla miners sent support – food and other stuff – to the UK miners. It was a very special place, but very fragile and oppressed from all sides.”

According to Desert Storm’s Facebook page, clubbers had to sprint for 300 yards to the front door to avoid sniper fire.

Desert Storm returned to Tuzla in the summer of 1995, and went to Sarajevo not long after the Dayton Peace Accord, which ended the Bosnian War ten days before Christmas. Necessary journeys through Sniper’s Alley apart, they were savvy enough to avoid Sarajevo until the ceasefire; had they entered before then, they risked being shelled or kidnapped by Bosnian Serb forces, who were already taking UN peacekeepers hostage towards the end of the war.

Once in Sarajevo, they drove around playing techno to publicise the party they were throwing in Club Obola that night, the first time the city had hosted a party of that kind in more than three years. (According to Desert Storm’s Facebook page, clubbers had to sprint for 300 yards to the front door to avoid sniper fire, and would sometimes spend days sheltering inside the club.)

In the same way that the days in a working week can shuffle anonymously into one another, dangerous incidents and near-death experiences became commonplace for Robinson. There were too many “hairy moments” to recall, he said, although a few did come to him later. He told me about a flat he stayed in at Sarajevo with a view of the Serb lines, where he found bullet holes opposite the window he had just been looking out of. The risks of violence were just as great, if not more so, in Croatia.

“We went into this really bad town [in Croatia],” Robinson said. “There were Mercedes at the gates, in towns – that wasn’t good at all. And you could see that these people weren’t friendly. Bearded, large ones. We went to town, went to get a coffee. And the guy was not friendly – he was throwing the cups at me. I went out and said ‘I think we should just go.’ As soon as I got out, this Mercedes came past the tables in blacked-out windows and one window went down and inside was this huge bearded guy with an AK pointed straight at us. We finished our coffees and left.”

Keith Robinson

When Robinson returned from duty in Afghanistan, he was promoted to corporal, and discovered he had a talent for teaching soldiers. “You ever seen that film, Full Metal Jacket? I based myself off that, the Scottish, black version of that,” he said. “I made it all really funny, but with a serious glint. I was really good at it, like a duck to water.” Robinson was wearing a navy 6 SCOTS t-shirt, his old regiment, and we spent the first 30 minutes of the conversation on our feet while he told this story. He sometimes paced the room in his large, black army boots.

The military was good for Robinson – it was a rare period of stability in his life – but it changed him. In old documentary footage from his time in the Balkans, he seemed relatively relaxed and nearly always smiling in spite of the devastation around him. In person, he was a more restless presence: standing, sitting, walking, gesturing. There was a surprising intensity to his manner. (“Keith’s eternally looking for something,” McKinnes told me over the phone. “He’s a free spirit. There’s nobody else I know that would do the things Keith’s done, and gone on the missions and the journeys that Keith’s been on.”)

A party’s a party to me. Bosnia, wherever it is, it’s just a party.

Keith Robinson

“I’ve always had a moral compass, I’ve always helped people,” Robinson said, answering a question I hadn’t thought to ask. “When I came back from Europe after living in very difficult circumstances, living in Europe in trucks organising raves, my moral compass wasn’t busted – it was better than most people’s – but it was a wee bit skew-whiff. But coming out the army, it was perfected. Your loyalty, integrity, selfless commitment, respect for others, all this stuff. I’m not saying you’ve got to do that all the time, but you’ve got to aspire to it. I came back from that changed, definitely. I’ll never go to many firework shows again. I don’t like loud bangs, and I don’t like people queuing behind me. I’m different now.”

Robinson and two fellow Desert Storm crew members22A young DJ, Terry Beach, who’d brought a battered record bag full of jungle, drum & bass and gabber, and a French roadie who propped himself against a desk as he dozed off, still holding a lager. were about to pack their gear for another Desert Storm event, somewhere outside of London. For most of his 20s and 30s, the army was just a uniform for Robinson’s parties. It’s something else now; an epidermal layer, perhaps. The vague pacifism of Robinson’s youth has grown into, in his mid-40s, a more world-weary outlook, one he wears with pride.

Lessons learned during his time in the army have been applied, to some extent, to Desert Storm’s day-to-day operations, too. His experience as a soldier has given Robinson transferrable skills, which he’s found useful for organising more recent Desert Storm gatherings. I asked Robinson whether putting on parties in the Balkans during the war had changed his outlook on them.

“Actually, no. What it did it to me was, ‘If we can do parties there, we can do parties anywhere.’ A party’s a party to me. Bosnia, wherever it is, it’s just a party. I like to come across in the media as profound and all that. I’m an intelligent person who thinks on my feet. But, at the end of the day, it’s just a party. We just put parties on. That’s what I do. Party, party, party, party. Apart from a small break to party with the Taliban instead, then it’s party, party since I was 14.”

Header image © Courtesy of Keith Robinson