There has really only been one musical innovation in the past 30 years, and that was the advent of electronic dance music. House, techno, garage, these are the genres that spawned the hundreds of sub-genres that exist today in jungle, break beat, ambient, down-tempo, balearic, and their ilk. While it can be an alien landscape to the uninitiated, it is the quintessential music of our time.
The music is only half the story. The culture behind the music is what made it a phenomenon: the DJ’s, the dancers and fans, the record labels, the club owners, the rave organizers, the bits and pieces that comprise electronic dance music. Like any other movement it became popular because it was at once novel and a way for people to connect, to gather around the common cause of getting ridiculously high and then dancing for hours and hours.
Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House
(Serpent's Tail; US: Apr 2010)
Dance music was a movement; probably the only true grass roots, worldwide, pop culture movement that we’ve seen so far in history. It’s probably become too fragmented to still legitimately be called a movement, there are now literally hundreds of sub-genres, but at one time it was the soccer of music. You could walk into a club in New York, London, Madrid, Rome, Ibiza, Rio Di Janeiro, Mexico City or San Francisco and even if you couldn’t speak the language, you could get high, meet people, and dance.
As a club-goer and fan of the music, Matthew Collin had a front-row seat to the electronic dance music explosion that took place worldwide in the late-[80s and early [90s under the guise of house music, techno and what would become rave culture. As a working journalist he possessed the wherewithal to document and put the seemingly disparate pieces of the scene together. His book, Altered State, was originally published in 1997 and quickly became the de facto history of the genre and its culture. It has now been revised and updated by Collin to account for the developments of the last 13 years.
The book rightly puts the UK at the center of the story, not only because Collin is an Englishman, but also because that is where the disparate pieces came together to spawn what would become rave culture. Collin is a quintessential British journalist. There is little grandiosity, few sweeping generalizations, but always a critical eye towards what was good and bad about the revolutionary scene he documents. Even the revolutionary part is up for discussion. Collin can’t quite bring himself to say that the events that he documents actually meant much of anything beyond being an extreme way to have fun.
However, he points out that at the time it seemed like a worldwide revolution was underway. The music, the drugs, and the resulting experience were magnetic. In the drab world of ‘80s Thatcherite London, it must have seemed like a day-glo nuclear explosion had occurred. People were running around in neon t-shirts and shorts, sporting headbands and bottles of energy drinks, with smiles on their faces that didn’t match the milieu. At the time, it was definitely the beginning of something new.
Where did electronic dance music come from and how did London become its launching pad? Collin is adept at putting the historical pieces together, revealing the lattice work of cause and effect which make up a mass cultural movement. Technology, drugs, art, politics, business, culture, race, sexuality, and fashion, all of these intersected to produce something entirely new and impossible to predict.
In a way the story is almost too simple. Can anything else happen when massive amounts of drugs and loud thumping dance music are combined? Much like the ‘60s and the rock ‘n’ roll revolution that occurred at that time, a psychoactive drug was unleashed on a population that had nothing to look forward to but a future of 9 to 5, two kids and a mortgage. It was an instant success.
MDMA, or Ecstasy as it eventually became known by, was the rocket fuel that propelled the dance scene forward. It was the match that struck fire to the kindling of boredom and complacency that in hindsight typified mainstream culture in Europe and the US in the ‘80s. It had nothing in common with the normal party drugs of alcohol and cocaine that tended to numb consciousness. Ecstasy made the world seem like it was as meaningful, exciting and important as you had been told it was supposed to be.
It would stay that way until 1985, when like most things that interfere with your desire to go to dead end jobs and watch TV afterwards it was made illegal throughout the world. Its illegality would eventually result in the empowering and enriching of international organized crime and the criminalizing of normal people who had no other intention than having a good time. However, the popularity of Ecstasy shows that in many ways true grass roots culture, whether it has to do with drugs or not, is the result of the unconscious quest for freedom. People chose Technicolor over black and white movies, and so it goes for consciousness.