Strangeways Here We Come
- The Promised Land: Travels in Search of the Perfect E by Decca Aitkenhead
Fourth Estate, 206 pp, £12.99, January 2002, ISBN 1 84115 337 0
The 1990s were characterised by the astonishing market penetration of products such as mobile phones, Microsoft Windows and Starbucks coffee shops, but an even more remarkable example of booming sales and global spread is the massive rise in the consumption of Ecstasy. In 1988 Ecstasy was a secret; now it’s a cliché. In the first few months of 1988 the number of Ecstasy tablets taken during a weekend in Britain was probably something like three or four thousand. Now it’s about two million every Saturday night. Ecstasy makes the user feel euphoric, very sociable, and provides a mildly hallucinogenic combination of the soft focus of marijuana and the anxiety-busting rush of amphetamine.
Ecstasy – or MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) – was created in 1912 by Merck Pharmaceuticals of Germany during trials of various amphetamines, but never marketed. In the Second World War various applications for MDMA were tested by the American Forces, which had evidence that it could fend off exhaustion and act as an appetite suppressant, as well a being a truth drug useful in interrogation. MDMA was rediscovered and studied by Alexander Shulgin, a biochemist at Dow Chemicals, in the early 1960s, and was mass produced for use by psychotherapists to help patients unblock emotions. Inevitably, MDMA began to leak out onto the streets and, alerted to its increasing recreational use, the authorities in the US moved an emergency ban in the early 1980s (in Britain, Ecstasy was already covered by the catch-all definitions in the Misuse of Drugs Act).
The role of illicit drugs in pop music has always been strong, going back to reefers and the jazz crowd, and mods dancing all night at the Marquee with a head full of pills. Various drugs have also influenced the sound and composition of music; Pete Meaden, an early mentor to the Who, encouraged the group to perform songs that mirrored the speed rush. In reggae, there’s almost a sacramental link between marijuana and the deep spaces of dub. It’s debatable whether even the most determined listener could appreciate the finer points of Frank Zappa without a brain half fried on LSD. The combination of feelgood sociability with the visceral tingle of music which itself shadows the Ecstasy experience – moving between warm calm and frantic crescendos – is what appeals to the E-heads. The surge in Ecstasy use in the late 1980s is wholly attributable to its link with the dance music scene. A new wave of dance music was emerging, with its roots in various twisted, dancefloor-friendly digitally produced records made in New York, Chicago and Detroit. Techno-house and MDMA would both have survived without each other, but together they produced rave culture.
MDMA and dance music first formed a close alliance in Europe in 1987 and 1988. At the time I was DJ-ing at the Hacienda in Manchester, and although it was the music that mattered most to me, I watched as clubbers, always looking for new thrills on a Saturday night, and in thrall to the new dance music, found that the increasingly plentiful Ecstasy pills decreased inhibitions and intensified the effects of the music. Rave culture spread from clubs such as the Hacienda, and Shoom in London, to smaller towns like Stoke, Blackburn, Ayr. One of the most enthusiastic crowds on the club circuit was at Angels, in Burnley. Rave culture took hold in places like this, towns bitten hard by recession and lacking cultural and social opportunities. Ecstasy can create in a club the sense of community often lacking in such towns, what Simon Reynolds has called ‘collective intimacy’.