[9 December 2010]
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.
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.
The quest for freedom extends to love and sexuality and Altered State makes explicit that house music, the alpha to the omega of techno in the electronic dance music genre, came out of the underground gay culture that exploded into the world after the Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969. The gay scene in New York City and elsewhere (the Daughters of Belitis in San Francisco was a lesbian counterpart in the west) was marked by the requirement of having places to socialize away from the prying eyes of straight people and the batons of the police. It was at these parties, in lofts and bars that the first evolution in dance music began: the invention of the modern dance music DJ.
The pioneering DJ’s in the late-‘60s were less Dick Clark and more shaman. They would hold hours long dance parties in the underground gay clubs and lofts of New York City, playing everything from Led Zeppelin to James Brown. They pioneered the art of DJ’ing by mixing in elements from other sources playing on a separate turntable and tape decks. Sounds like African drum rhythms that would punctuate the beat of the song. They also began using volume to mix songs together, helping to create a seamless experience, and utilizing graphic equalizers to accentuate low-end frequencies. These techniques would typify house and techno music in the years to follow, also influencing hip-hop. Existing technology was being used in unexpected ways to create art.
Almost from the beginning electronic dance music had international roots. Over the next decade and a half DJ’s would pick up their craft in New York and then be transplanted to Detroit, giving rise to Techno, or Chicago, where house music was born. From these locations other DJ’s would begin traveling worldwide, ending up in places like Brazil and Ibiza. It was from Ibiza that the music would make the ultimate leap to London. The uninhibited, hedonistic Ibiza was where in the mid-‘80s young, unknown DJ’s like Paul Oakenfold would take the right drug, hear a certain beat and be forever transformed.
The music was much more than just music. It was the egolessness of overpowering rhythm, intoxication on a euphoria inducing drug and dancing with thousands of other people for hours. This combination had the inscrutable ability to transform people’s perception of the world and their place in it. Today’s Burning Man Festival is a relatively watered down version of the days long parties that came out of the explosion of the house music and techno scene in late 80s London. Loosely affiliated groups formed, the most well known was Spiral Tribe, which used the music as evangelizing vehicles to blast open the doors of people’s perceptions. Spiral Tribe and others hoped to change the world through the experience. The music would last for several days straight, the drugs would flow, and new levels of consciousness would be attained, if only temporarily.
These massive parties eventually became known as raves, and recent history shows that they’re as popular as ever. The Love Parade rave held in Germany in July 2010 had 1.4 million attendees, according to the Los Angeles Times (also at that rave a crowded tunnel and a panicked crowd resulted in 18 deaths). It’s difficult today to say that groups like Spiral Tribe attained anything beyond blazing the path for organizing massive parties, but at the time it must have seemed like they were setting the world on fire.
As has been repeated so often that it’s become cliché, the culture and music eventually became a business, and given the interplay of drugs and money it was inevitable that organized crime and law enforcement would become involved. The cycle of fringe culture, transformed to criminality, transformed to legitimate business is one that Collin documents carefully and not without a noticeable twinge of regret. He invokes a once vibrant scene that due to criminal involvement, government intervention and eventual takeover by moneyed interests, became a hollow shell of its former self.
Nothing good can last; such is the way of the world. The gentrification of one culture inevitably leads to the creation of another. Working class disco music led to house and techno, but not before it became Saturday Night Fever. Matthew Collin makes the convincing argument in Altered State that marginalized and disenfranchised cultures are the ones from which true cultural innovation springs. While bordering on a truism the idea has resonance. If it’s folk music, or jazz, the blues, or the avant-garde in writing, painting or even technology, it’s seemingly those on the periphery of mainstream culture who invoke what will eventually become the new mainstream. Every new idea must first appear as heresy, and a bunch of people high on drugs, some of them possibly gay and others definitely black dancing maniacally to loud unintelligible music in dark, scary clubs, was definitely heresy.
It’s in the shadows of pop culture that the future is being born. Perhaps somewhere in a slum of Mexico City, an apartment in Moscow, or a tract house in Austin a new sound is being unwittingly coaxed into life, built around the tools at hand and the human need to create. Perhaps in a nearby University a psychedelic drug that is easily synthesized with common household chemicals is being discovered. Is this the future? We can only hope.