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Music

20 years on from Fatboy Slim's mammoth Brighton beach party

It’s not too often that you see mass-scale live music events for free, especially not taking place on one of Britain’s most famous public beaches. But that is exactly what happened 20 years ago, on July 13th, 2002, in Brighton. It was curated by big-beat dance pioneer Fatboy Slim and, depending on who you ask, it was either “the last perfect rave” or “complete and utter chaos”.

More than 250,000 ravers descended on Brighton beach for Big Beach Boutique II, when only around 60,000 people had been expected to attend. The event is considered Brighton’s ‘Woodstock’ moment and brought the southern coastal town to a complete standstill.

Fatboy Slim emerged as an electronic superstar in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Born Norman Cook in Bromley in 1963, he studied at Brighton Polytechnic, giving roots to the legendary beach party that would later take place. Cook found musical fame in the Housemartins, a guitar band based in Hull. He would adopt the pseudonym Fatboy Slim in 1996 when he started to DJ and produce electronic dance music, though he had previously DJ’d in his teenage and adolescent years. Slim would achieve his first UK number-one single with ‘Praise You’ from the 1998 album You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.

Back to the 2002 event, a perfect storm of good British summer weather and Cook’s rising popularity as an international star contributed to the overwhelming crowd down on Brighton’s seafront. Reports suggest that the crowd was actually twice Brighton’s population at the time. Just a year earlier, the first of the Big Beach Boutique events only drew a crowd of around 40,000.

Some attendees of the rave have spoken about it as the best night of their lives. Martin, 22 at the time, said: “It is without a doubt one of best memories I have since moving to Brighton. It was electric, absolutely electric, I’ve never seen anything like it since. There were people raving all around, on top of lampposts, it was absolutely amazing. I’m so grateful and thankful I got to experience something like that. I’m glad I’m a part of history and that I can say I was actually there.”

In fact, so many people attended that many began climbing the pier or anything else they thought they could scale to get a better look at the stage. While thousands of ravers will have had the utter time of their lives, many also experienced a day of dread. Around 150 people were injured, with some having to be rescued unconscious from the sea. One woman sadly died after falling from the pier, and another man later died after suffering a heart attack at the end of the show. Ambulances could not get those suffering to medical centres because the streets were so packed.

Event-goer Emily, who was 31 at the time, said: “It was utter lunacy. We could not get close enough to hear, let alone see anything. People were hanging out of buildings and standing on top of cars just to try and get a look. You could sense something was wrong, that there were just too many people. Ambulances were trying to get through the crowds and people were hanging off the back just to get away. At the end we could not get home and all the hotels were full so we had to sleep under the pier.”

Cook himself expressed regret at the scale of the event, claiming that though he had organised the show with Brighton council, he had “created a monster”. He said, “I didn’t enjoy it as much as last year what with people falling over and things going on. I never thought it would turn out like this.”

A monster it was, with some of the crowd turning nasty in the heat, full of alcohol and other illicit intoxicants. Christopher, 15 years old at the time, commented: “The worst part was trying to make our way out. There were people sitting on top of the beach shelters throwing glass bottles from the top, down into the crowd. A woman was struck right next to me and dropped to the floor, I tried to help her but her friends took over. I still cannot believe people were throwing glass bottles at us from above, it was really scary thinking we were going to get hit.”

The aftermath took nearly a week to clean up and cost around £300,000 (partly paid for by Cook). People missed their trains and had to sleep on the streets and under the pier. Police officers had to receive trauma counselling.

Ultimately, the event was a legendary night that we are unlikely ever to see again. It will live long in the memories of those who were fortunate enough to attend it, though it will also serve as a future warning to those who experienced a night of horror.

A 20-year anniversary concert of Big Beach Boutique II with Fatboy Slim is scheduled to go ahead on July 22st, 2022, though it is a safe, ticketed event and will likely be a far cry from the fated night of 20 years ago.

Check out full footage of the legendary night below.