Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Cultureby Simon Reynolds
In Generation Ecstasy, Simon Reynolds takes the reader on a guided tour of this end-of-the-millenium phenomenon, telling the story of rave culture and techno music as an insider who has dosed up and blissed out. A celebration of rave's quest for the perfect beat definitive chronicle of rave culture and electronic dance music.
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By Simon Reynolds
Little, BrownSimon Reynolds
All right reserved.
IntroductionI'm lucky enough to have gotten into music at the precise moment-punk's immediate aftermath-when it was generally believed that "the way forward" for rock involved borrowing ideas from dance music. "Lucky" in that I arrived too late to get brainwashed by the "disco sucks" worldview. My first albums were all postpunk forays into funk and dub terrain: Public Image Limited's Metal Box, the Slits' Cut, the Talking Heads' Remain in Light. Any mercifully brief fantasies of playing in a band involved being a bassist, like Jah Wobble; I learned to play air guitar only much later.
In the early eighties it didn't seem aberrant to be as excited by the electro-funk coming out of New York on labels like Prelude as I was by the Fall or the Birthday Party. As much time and money went into hunter- gathering secondhand disco singles and Donna Summer LPs as sixties garage punk compilations or Byrds albums. Starting out as a music journalist in the late eighties, I devoted most of my rhetorical energy to crusading for a resurgent neopsychedelic rock. But I still had plenty of spare passion for hip-hop and proto-house artists like Schoolly D, Mantronix, Public Enemy, Arthur Russell, and Nitro Deluxe. In early 1988 I even wrote one of the first features on acid house.
That said, my take on dance music was fundamentally rockist, insofar as I had never really engaged with the music's original milieu-clubs. This was perhaps forgivable, given that eighties "style culture" dominated London clubland. Its posing and door policies, go-go imports, and vintage funk obscurities were anathema to my vision of a resurrected psychedelia, a Dionysian cult of oblivion. Little did I realize that just around the corner loomed a psychedelic dance culture, that the instruments and time-space coordinates of the neopsychedelic resurgence would not be wah-wah pedals and Detroit 1969, but Roland 303 bass machines and Detroit/Chicago 1987.
My take on dance was rockist because, barely acquainted with how the music functioned in its "proper" context, I tended to fixate on singular artists. This is how rock critics still tend to approach dance music: they look for the auteur-geniuses who seem most promising in terms of long-term, album-based careers. But dance scenes don't really work like this: the 12-inch single is what counts, there's little brand loyalty to artists, and DJs are more of a focal point for fans than the faceless, anonymous producers. In the three years before I experienced rave culture on its own terrain and terms, I accordingly celebrated groups like 808 State, the Orb, and the Shamen on the grounds that their music made sense at home and at album length. Today I cringe when I recall that, reviewing the second Bomb the Bass LP, I proposed the term "progressive dance" to describe this new breed of album-oriented artist. This divide between so-called progressive electronica and mere "rave fodder" has since become for me the very definition of "getting it completely wrong."
I finally got it "right" in 1991, as one drop in the demographic deluge that was 1991-92's Second Wave of Rave, carried along by the tide of formerly indie-rock friends who'd turned on, tuned in, and freaked out. It was some revelation to experience this music in its proper context-as a component in a system. It was an entirely different and un-rock way of using music: the anthemic track rather than the album, the total flow of the DJ's mix, the alternative media of pirate radio and specialist record stores, music as a synergistic partner with drugs, and the whole magic/tragic cycle of living for the weekend and paying for it with the midweek comedown. There was a liberating joy in surrendering to the radical anonymity of the music, in not caring about the names of tracks or artists. The "meaning" of the music pertained to the macro level of the entire culture, and it was much larger than the sum of its parts.
"What we must lose now is this insidious, corrosive knowingness, this need to collect and contain. We must open our brains that have been stopped and plugged with random information, and once again must our limbs carve in air the patterns of their desire-not the calibrated measures and slick syncopation of jazz-funk but a carnal music of total release. We must make of joy once more a crime against the state." This paragraph by New Musical Express writer Barney Hoskyns, written in 1981, changed all my ideas about music, setting me on a quest for the kind of Dionysian spirit that Hoskyns here located in the Birthday Party. As a fan I found it in Hendrix and the Stooges, as a critic in bands like the Young Gods, the Pixies, My Bloody Valentine. But apart from the odd bare-chested maniac or bloody-shirted mosher, I'd never witnessed the kind of physical abandon imagined by Hoskyns on any mass level.
The last place I'd expected to find a modern bacchanalia was in the cool-crippled context of dance music. But that's what I saw in 1991 at Progeny, one of a series of DJ-and-multiband extravaganzas organized by the Shamen. The latter were pretty good, and Orbital's live improvisation around their spine-tingling classic "Chime" was thrilling. But what really blew my mind were the DJs whipping up a Sturm und Drang with the Carmina-Burana-gone-Cubist bombast of hardcore techno, the light beams intersecting to conjure frescoes in the air, and, above all, the crowd: nubile boys, stripped to the waist and iridescent with sweat, bobbing and weaving as though practicing some arcane martial art; blissed girls, eyes closed, carving strange hieroglyphic patterns in the air. This was the Dionysian paroxysm programmed and looped for eternity.
My second, fatally addictive rave-alation occurred a few months later at a quadruple bill of top 1991 rave acts: N-Joi, K-Klass, Bassheads, and M People. This time, fully E'd up, I finally grasped viscerally why the music was made the way it was; how certain tingly textures goosepimpled your skin and particular oscillator riffs triggered the E-rush; the way the gaseous diva vocals mirrored your own gushing emotions. Finally, I understood ecstasy as a sonic science. And it became even clearer that the audience was the star: that guy over there doing fishy-finger dancing was as much a part of the entertainment-the tableau-as were the DJs or bands. Dance moves spread through the crowd like superfast viruses. I was instantly entrained in a new kind of dancing-tics and spasms, twitches and jerks, the agitation of bodies broken down into separate components, then reintegrated at the level of the dance floor as a whole. Each subindividual part (a limb, a hand cocked like a pistol) was a cog in a collective "desiring machine," interlocking with the sound system's bass throbs and sequencer riffs. Unity and self-expression fused in a force field of pulsating, undulating euphoria.
* * *
Getting into the raving aspect of house and techno somewhat late had a peculiar effect: I found myself, as fan and critic, on the wrong side of the tracks. In terms of class and age (as a middle-class twenty-eight-year-old), I should logically have gravitated toward "progressive house" and "intelligent techno," then being vaunted as the only alternative to the degenerate excesses of hardcore rave. But, partly because I was a neophyte still in the honeymoon phase of raving, and partly because of a bias toward extremity in music, I found myself drawn ever deeper into hardcore. Confronted by the condescension of the cognoscenti, I developed my own counterprejudice, which informs this entire book: the conviction that hardcore scenes in dance culture are the real creative motor of the music, and that self-proclaimed progressive initiatives usually involve a backing away from the edge, a reversion to more traditional ideas of "musicality." Hardcore is that nexus where a number of attitudes and energies mesh: druggy hedonism, an instinctively avant-garde surrender to the "will" of technology, a "fuck art, let's dance" DJ-oriented funktionalism, and a smidgen of underclass rage. Hardcore refers to different sounds in different countries at different times, but the word generally guarantees a stance of subcultural intransigence, a refusal to be coopted or to cop out.
In London, circa 1991-92, hardcore referred to ultrafast, breakbeat-driven drug-noise, and it was abhorred by all right-thinking techno hipsters. To me it was patently the most exhilaratingly strange and deranged music of the nineties, a mad end-of-millennium channeling of the spirit of punk (in the sixties garage and seventies Stooges/Pistols senses) into the body of hip-hop (breakbeats and bass). I've found no small glee in watching hardcore evolve into jungle and drum and bass, thereby winning universal acclaim as the leading edge of contemporary music.
But the experience of being in the "wrong" place at the right time has instilled in me a useful Pavlovian response: whenever I hear the word "hardcore" (or synonyms like "dark," "cheesy") used to malign a scene or sound, my ears prick up. Conversely, terms like "progressive" or "intelligent" trigger alarm bells; when an underground scene starts talking this talk, it's usually a sign that it's gearing up to play the media game as a prequel to buying into the traditional music industry structure of auteur-stars, concept albums, and long-term careers. Above all, it's a sign of impending musical debility, creeping self-importance, and the hemorrhaging away of fun. Hardcore scenes are strongest when they remain remote from all of that and thrive instead as anonymous collectives, subcultural machines in which ideas circulate back and forth between DJs and producers, the genre evolving incrementally, week by week.
For the newcomer to electronic dance music, the profusion of scenes and subgenres can seem at best bewildering, at worst willful obfuscation. Partly, this is a trick of perspective: kids who've grown up with techno feel it's rock that "all sounds the same." The urgent distinctions rock fans take for granted-that Pantera, Pearl Jam, and Pavement operate in separate aesthetic universes-makes sense only if you're already a participant in the ongoing rock discourse. The same applies to dance music: step inside, and the genre-it is begins to make sense. Like sections in a record store, the categories are useful. But they're also a way of talking about the music, of arguing about what it's for and where it should go.
In the late eighties, "house" was the all-encompassing general term for rave music; Detroit techno was originally treated as a subset of, and adjunct to, Chicago house. But by the early nineties, not only was house's primacy challenged by "techno"-now a distinct genre with its own agenda-but house itself started to splinter as a seemingly endless array of prefixes-"tribal," "progressive," "handbag"-interposed themselves in order to define precise stylistic strands and taste markets. What had once been a unified subculture based on a mix of musics began to fragment along class, race, and regional lines, as different groups began to adapt the music to fit their particular needs and worldviews.
When I first started going to raves in 1991, you could still hear a broad range of styles within a single DJ's set, and wildly different DJ sets on the same bill. But within a year, rave culture had stratified into increasingly narrower scenes. It became all too easy to avoid hearing music you weren't already into and mixing with people who weren't your "own kind." To say "I like techno" became a meaningless claim by 1993, since the original black American sound had mutated, under pressure from various British and European subcultures, into three main genres: hardcore and its ultrafast Dutch variant, gabba; jungle, a bass-heavy hybrid of hip-hop, reggae, and techno; and Teutonic trance, with its metronomic beats and cosmic imagery. Each of these soon began to fracture into numerous subgenres and sub-subgenres.
Despite this proliferation, one might generalize and say that there are really only three types of electronic dance music, determined by how and where the music is used. There's music for clubs: sophisticated, adult-oriented sounds like house, garage, and the more purist, Detroit-affiliated forms of techno. There are hardcore sounds designed for one-shot raves and for clubs that cater to rave-style teenage bacchanalia as opposed to more "mature" nightclub behavior: jungle, gabba, trance, happy hardcore. And finally, there's music for the home: album-oriented ambient techno and atmospheric electronica that appeals both to people who've grown tired of the rave lifestyle and to many who've never been into dance culture at all. Although Generation Ecstasy covers all three of these "types," my bias is toward the hardcore rave genres and the more functionalist, drug-oriented forms of club music.
What I'm proposing here is that music shaped by and for drug experiences (even "bad" drug experiences) can go further precisely because it's not made with enduring "art" status or avant-garde cachet as a goal. Hardcore rave's dance floor functionalism and druggy hedonism actually make it more wildly warped than the output of most self-conscious experimentalists. In Generation Ecstasy, I trace a continuum of hardcore that runs from the most machinic forms of house (jack tracks and acid tracks) through British and European rave styles like bleep-and-bass, breakbeat house, Belgian hardcore, jungle, gabba, speed garage, and big beat. A lot of exquisite music was made outside this continuum and is also covered in this book. But I still believe that the essence of rave resides with "hardcore pressure," the rave audience's demand for a soundtrack to going mental and getting fucked up.
This begs the question of whether the meaning of rave music is reducible to drugs, or even a single drug, Ecstasy. Does this music make sense only when the listener is under the influence? I don't believe that for a second; some of the most tripped-out dance music has been made by straight-edge types who rarely if ever touch an illegal substance (4 Hero, Dave Clarke, and Josh Wink being only three of the most famous abstainers). At the same time, rave culture as a whole is barely conceivable without drugs, or at least without drug metaphors: by itself, the music drugs the listener.
Rave is more than music plus drugs; it's a matrix of lifestyle, ritualized behavior, and beliefs. To the participant, it feels like a religion; to the mainstream observer, it looks more like a sinister cult. I think again of that declaration: "We must make of joy a crime against the state."
Excerpted from Generation Ecstasy by Simon Reynolds Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Simon Reynolds is a Consulting Editor at Spin magazine. He is the author of Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock (1990) and, with Joy Press, of The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'n' Roll (1995).
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