Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House Matthew Collin with contributions from John Godfrey (Serpents Tail)
Disco Biscuits Edited by Sarah Champion (Sceptre)
'Ecstasy' is a brand name. According to tradition, the tag first became attached to the drug MDMA (3-4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine) some time in the early eighties, when it moved out of the American psychotherapeutic community in which it had circulated for over a decade, and into wider use as a recreational drug. The street-dealers needed something punchy, and with its connotations of sexual abandon, the word 'Ecstasy' served them more than well, propelling the drug into mass use, international prohibition and ultimately a social significance only matched, in the pharmaceutical stakes, by the sixties flowering of LSD culture.
First synthesised in 1912 by the Merck pharmaceutical company of Darmstadt, Germany, MDMA, intended merely as a base for the preparation of other pharmaceuticals, had been largely forgotten until a Californian chemist called Alexander Shulgin made up a batch in 1966. Shulgin, whose unusual psychopharmacological researches were beginning to get him into trouble with his employer, the Dole Chemical Company, was the first to recognise MDMA's mood-altering effects, dubbing it an 'empathogen'. So deeply affected was he by his MDMA experiences that Shulgin eventually resigned his job, built a laboratory in his garden shed, and embarked on thirty years of research into MDMA and related compounds, 179 of which are detailed in his eccentric autobiography-cum-pharmacopoeia, PIHKAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved).
In 1977, Shulgin gave MDMA to Leo Zoff, an elderly psychologist. Zoff, on the verge of retiring, instead became the drug's most zealous convert, travelling round America and introducing the substance which was beginning to be known as 'Adam' to an estimated 4000 other psychologists and psychiatrists. This community of believers, many of whom had seen their hopes for LSD therapy dashed when it became a drug of mass abuse, tried hard to keep 'Adam' a secret, discouraging press coverage and even the publication of scientific papers. But Adam's transformation into Ecstasy had its own momentum, and in 1985 possession was made a criminal offence in the US.
To the non-user, 'Ecstasy' is a powerful word, a concentration of Western culture's root images of drug taking. Ex-stasis - to stand outside oneself, to be transported; the Bacchanal, Christian mysticism, orgasm and poetic frenzy, all wrapped up, courtesy of Romanticism, in an orientalist packaging of sensual dreams and visions. Saatchi and Saatchi could have done no better.
Duly, in the ten years since the drug burst into the British popular consciousness, the 'ecstatic' aspect of MDMA has caught all the press. The enduring tabloid image of its use is of the interior of a club, semi-naked girls with lycra tops and waterbottles, boys with their shirts off chewing gum. Dilated pupils, hormones, and sweat. Primed with the ready-made cultural cues suggested by the drug's name, commentators can feel they already understand what is going on; an unpleasantly Pavlovian form of pleasure-taking, vacuous, escapist and pernicious. Combine this with a second image, that of the shyly-smiling face of Leah Betts, the iconic victim who took 'just one tablet' on her eighteenth birthday and dropped down dead, and you have a neat and powerful story. Here is a drug that transforms your daughter from a well brought-up girl into a banshee nymphet. Oh, and in the process it could very possibly kill her. Pleasure and punishment. A hoary old Christian moral tale and a perfect argument for prohibition.
These are the terms in which we are encouraged to understand the phenomenon of Ecstasy use. Heated rhetoric places the drug firmly into the medico-legal context which, in almost all public debate, seems to be the only acceptable frame for discussion of any proscribed substance. As a means of understanding Ecstasy's impact on society, it has obvious limitations. Notably the language of escapism, illegality and self-harm is powerless to explain the extraordinarily rich and diverse culture which has arisen around the drug.
At the centre of this culture is music. The evolution of House and Techno, synthetic descendants of seventies Disco and European electronic pop, has been largely driven by the Ecstasy experience. In a process hinted at by pioneers of black dance music as early as the nineteen-sixties, familiar elements of the traditional popular song - verse-chorus-verse structure, harmonic resolutions - were stripped away, leaving eerie cyclic patterns of bass and drums, overlaid with the barest remnants of melody. These hypnotic, trance-inducing rhythms and sparse, repetitive melodic loops, almost incomprehensible to ears accustomed to more conventional musical forms, can make startling and beautiful sense when combined with MDMA.
Created with electronic tools that break down the traditional barrier between trained instrumentalist and engaged listener, House music (the term has come to stand for only one genre, but is a plausible general label) has complete disregard for the ideal of virtuosity which governs, not only 'classical' music, but rock and jazz. In place of the figure of the guitar hero, and the quasi-religious cults of personality which drive popular music marketing, are artists who may never 'perform' in public, may make music under a plethora of different names, and distribute their work through an underground network of Djs and specialist record shops. At the receiving end, the listeners and dancers may never even have a sense of the individual 'work' at all, experiencing it merely as an element in a DJ's mix of sounds, which, while usually coming from recorded media, may also include 'live' elements produced by manipulating electronics or (more rarely) traditional instruments.
Music is itself only one element in the key product of Ecstasy culture - the parties themselves. From the famous M25 raves of the late nineteen-eighties to the current proliferation of commercial nightclubs, Ecstasy has changed the patterns of British leisure. For many people, Saturday night now continues until sunrise, rather than stopping when the pubs shut. Though the combination of music, lightshow and dancing has well-documented origins in the psychedelic all-nighters of the nineteen-sixties, in its modern form, the illegal rave (now an endangered species, thanks to the efforts of Her Majesty's government and the police force) can be an experience of unprecedented potency. The sense of affirmation and shared purpose, of celebration which in certain forms can take on the contours of religious ritual, not to mention the sheer uncomplicated fun of a large number of people brazenly doing something illicit, combine together to produce events which, while centring on a drug, are much more than the mindless lotus eating of tabloid myth.
They are also popular. A 1994 Home Office survey estimates that up to a million Britons have tried E, while another often quoted figure is the estimate that over a million tablets are consumed every weekend. At ten pounds a dose, that represents an industry turning over half a billion pounds annually, supported by two percent of the population, all of whom are breaking the law to participate. Considered like this, Ecstasy use becomes central to any understanding of contemporary British culture, and 'Ecstasy culture' itself becomes a name for something far more significant than a collection of ephemeral trends in music, fashion or the visual arts.
All of which is by way of explaining why Matthew Collin and John Godfrey's Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House, is an important book. The authors have interviewed many of the key figures in Ecstasy's journey from Californian 'penicillin for the soul' to black market leisure industry, and from this and their own experiences have put together an authoritative and fascinating history. While the authors make no secret of their allegiances (the book is dedicated to 'all the friends who lived it with us'), Altered State examines policing strategies, media coverage and health scares with the same care that it devotes to elucidating the diverse cultural roots of Acid House music and its more recent offshoots.
Unlike LSD, which from Aldous Huxley onwards attracted a self-appointed avant-garde, concerned with shaping and directing the 'consciousness revolution', Ecstasy has, in its post-Shulgin incarnation, been a resoundingly democratic drug. Collin and Godfrey emphasise the diversity of its devotees, from snobbish New Romantic starlets pawing each other in the VIP rooms of mid-eighties London nightclubs, to Genet-esque itinerant thieves doing much the same thing on the beaches of Ibiza. A classless drug for a newly-proclaimed classless society.
As Collin and Godfrey put it, 'Ecstasy culture seemed to ghost the Thatcher narrative - echoing its ethos of choice and market freedom, yet expressing desires for a collective experience that Thatcher rejected and consumerism could not provide.' Even the proponents of LSD-driven psychedelic revolution have tended to excoriate E-culture's lack of ideology, portraying its appropriation of sixties love-and-peace rhetoric as debased or superficial. An American researcher, quoted in Altered State, recalls that "The man who first named it 'Ecstasy' told me that he chose the name because it would sell better than calling it 'Empathy'. 'Empathy' would be more appropriate, but how many people know what it means?" Empathy. Collective experience. In post Thatcherite Britain, living in the shadow of the Iron Lady's notorious assertion that "there is no such thing as society", MDMA's very biochemical effects have taken on an oppositional tint. The experience of taking Ecstasy, which can induce feelings of warmth, emotional depth and generalised, unconditional love, has for many people proved a powerful counter-argument to the dominant Neo-Darwinian political vision of atomised individuals competing against one another for scarce resources.
This is not to say that coherent political parties, ideologies or movements (apart from perhaps the Anti Criminal Justice Act campaigns) have been founded on the back of this kind of Ecstasy experience. Quite the opposite. Ecstasy has been the engine of a kind of mass reductio ad absurdam, in which the operations of the governmental, legal and medical establishments have come to seem senseless and dishonest to a large proportion of the people whose interests those establishments purport to represent.
For many of Britain's youth, most notably the urban poor who feel little identification with or interest in the activities of politicians, hugging a complete stranger in the centre of a crowded dancefloor is the nearest thing to the much-vaunted 'organic community' they have ever experienced. It is something worth driving 200 miles for. It is worth risking arrest on drugs charges, worth facing off the police in a muddy field. Indeed, the very fact that the State seems so concerned to prevent the formation of such community is a source of enormous moral confusion for many young people. The tension between the establishment and E culture can easily be interpreted as a conflict of good versus evil.
The language of epic struggle is in fact deployed on both sides of the Ecstasy divide. The 'war on drugs'. Freedom to Party. Lifeline. Liberator soundsystem. During the late-eighties and early-nineties period of huge illegal outdoor raves, there was a sense on the dancefloor, in the council chamber and in the media that a battle was being waged for the soul of Britain. Ecstasy had become a locus of modern heroic aspiration. To the local worthies whose communities were disrupted, it seemed self evident that they were engaged in a last-ditch defence of the citadel against the barbarian hordes. To the ravers the moral terrain seemed equally clear. When the drug that catalyses your most positive and life-affirming experiences is declared illegal, when (in the absence of unbiased medical information) the government-sponsored doctors seem to broker scare stories, when the police attempt to prevent you and your friends from coming together, could you not be forgiven for feeling that you are at war?
Conspiracy theories aside, the spectacle of parental authority in the guise of the police attempting to halt parties is almost a parody of youth culture's primal scene - the kids versus the straights, the town where the preacher and the police chief ban dancing. Yet this opposition, the stuff of musicals or light comedy, has now been enshrined in law. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 includes various anti-rave provisions and notoriously contains the first ever legal definition of a genre of music, empowering the police to prevent gatherings where people are listening to amplified sounds 'wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats'.
This description of House or Techno music is included in the CJA's list of criteria by which a policeman can tell he is in the presence of a 'rave', and hence may legitimately close it down (it must also be at least 'partly' outdoors and disturbing local residents). The necessity for a gathering to meet all these requirements can lead to some amusing situations, as I discovered at a small party somewhere on the South Coast. Things were well underway, with the soundsystem pumping and two or three hundred wide-eyed people dancing by firelight when, as expected, the police arrived. Immediately the DJ switched from techno to twentieth-century choral music. The bemused coppers were treated to the spectacle of a couple of hundred people stumbling around to the work of the Lithuanian composer, Arvo Pärt. They hung around for ten minutes, powerless to stop the event (since it did not meet the CJA criteria) , then left, much to the disappointment of one group of party-goers who had been enjoying the flashing blue lights.
The inclusion of the CJA definition, which seems to criminalise an aesthetic as much as a set of actions, has confirmed to the dancers what they already suspected - that as far as the authorities are concerned, drugs are not the only problem. Implicit in the whole lifestyle, the parties, the hedonism, even the simple act of staying up all night, is a rejection of the 'traditional' values of continence, moderation and the moral value of work which it has been the Conservative government's eighteen-year mission to embed into the social fabric of Britain. With the CJA, dancing became, in a small way, a political action, and 'ravers' ( in 1997 already a quaint word) joined travellers, single mothers, immigrants and the unemployed in the Conservative bestiary of parasites on the body politic.
With a culture as rich and widespread as that surrounding Ecstasy, it is perhaps surprising that so little good writing has emerged from it. One answer may be that the arts which have flourished in this milieu are all more or less directly related to the main business of the party itself. Music, fashion, photography, computer animation and club visuals have all done well out of E, since the work can be created and disseminated within a party context. Writers, on the other hand, have relatively little to offer the scene, except in an after-the-fact way as reporters, chroniclers or mythologisers. The sleeve note and the club review don't offer much scope for verbal creativity, which in a party setting is the sole preserve of the MCs who whip up the crowd in clubs and rap over the music on pirate radio.
Disco Biscuits, a collection of 'new fiction from the chemical generation', is a conscious attempt to create the canon of Ecstasy fiction which has conspicuously failed to appear in the last ten years. It is a difficult project. To many observers, the lack of 'serious' E-related cultural material (which almost invariably means writing) is an indicator that the experience of Ecstasy is ultimately vacuous. When I mentioned at a (non-dancing) party that I was writing this piece, I was asked whether 'people who take E' actually read books. From Shulgin onwards, grandiose statements have been made about E's ability to enhance emotional articulacy, and its relative literary silence surely holds a question-mark over these claims.
Unfortunately Disco Biscuits is unlikely to make many converts. The writing is at its best when, like Gavin Hills' 'White Burger Danny', it restricts itself to a near-documentary account of parties and people. E culture's seemingly infinite variety is well represented, and certainly Martin Millar's squatland South London, Alex Garland's backpacker Thailand, Jonathan Brook's Ibiza and Jeff Noon's fantastical refraction of Manchester have little in common, apart from the constant presence of narcotics. Actually Ecstasy is only part of the roster of drugs, real and imaginary, which seems to form the collection's primary raison d'etre. At times this obsession with the brute act of drug-taking degenerates into something akin to chemical pornography, pieces of text which exist solely to record acts of heroic consumption.
A sense of pleasures guiltily taken pervades Disco Biscuits, as if the sheer weight of moral sanction that lies against drug use has forced much of the writing into the shape it occupies. Several of the stories get no further than attempting to convey sense-impressions of paradoxically compressed and edgy good times. Many give the impression that they are struggling against the influence of the canonical drug-writings of the Beat and Hippy eras. Burroughs looms predictably large, as do Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.
That said, both the sense of a guilty darkness looming at the edges of pleasure, and of an Oedipal battle with a smug generation of former rebels turned cultural arbiters, are authentic aspects of nineties experience, and in this respect Disco Biscuits contains some valid and truthful writing. After AIDS and the massive come-down of the Eighties, the sense of childlike celebration which characterises many classic Sixties drug culture texts is simply no longer available. We are never allowed to forget that pleasure has a price. Nor do we have the luxury of believing in permanent revolution or the imminent dawning of the age of Aquarius. If freedom is a possibility it only comes in the form of what the influential anarchist writer Hakim Bey calls 'Total Autonomous Zones', brief and unstable instants of freedom which flourish briefly before being crushed by the forces of order.
The aura of teen rebellion which surrounds the battle between E culture and British Conservatism tends to obscure the seriousness of the issues it raises. While Disco Biscuits rarely raises itself above the ephemera of the scene, Altered State maintains a wider focus, keeping politics to the fore even as it tells the picaresque stories of rave promoters with suitcases of cash, Manchester lads breaking into warehouses or Spiral Tribe's Iain Sinclair-ish attempt to topple the State by setting up a soundsystem on an occult spot near that symbol of Eighties greed, Canary wharf. As the idealism of the early years of Acid House fades, buried by the advent of mass-market clubbing and the current revival in popularity of cocaine, this kind of taking stock is needed, if we are to understand the long-term cultural impact of an era which has pitted the State against the young, and created an atmosphere of political alienation and endemic distrust of authority.
A version of this piece appeared in the London Review of Books.