Can you feel it?
Rose Boyt on acid house
I began to notice it happening when I was working on the door of the Café de Paris. A new drug called Extasy arrived from New York, Fat Tony started playing some new records from Chicago. That was house music. It was called house music because you could make it in your house – it was supposed to be home-made. It shared the egalitarian gesture of DIY with punk but was no artless three-chord thrash. This was machine music strung out on an electronic pulse. The records were repetitive, sparse, powerful and tuneless, created by DJs using cheap technology, the lyrics limited because there was nothing to say. Extasy induced the same sense of emptiness. As a nation we took the new music to our hearts, distorted it, and called it acid because it sounded weird. Acieeed.
THE SUMMER OF LOVE 1988. I don’t know where I am. The crowd has sealed up between me and the door. In my face an ultraviolet light is shining, blinding me. Then blackness. The white pulse of a strobe beats like my heart. Can you feel it? My heart-beat.
Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, Boy George. All the smiley tee-shirts are smiling at me. Smiling faces flash on and off out of the darkness because they are happy.
Happiness is in fashion. I am embraced by several people I do not know.
Smoke drifts from the little nozzles of electric censers, obscuring the shape of the basement in which we are dancing. The low ceiling is perceptible a foot above my head. I can raise my hand and touch. On contact with it the ends of my fingers are filmed with moistened dust. I feel my nails make crescent indentations – the ceiling must be made of polystyrene. I can’t see the walls. I try to understand, to make out scale and distance, but it is like guessing the hazy space of greyness between shoreline and horizon. I am convinced I have faculties apart from sight that I can use to erect around me some sense of place – radar, for instance, or extrasensory perception – but even though I try, by closing my eyes and breathing deeply into my lower abdomen in the hope of getting in touch with some neglected power, I seem to forget the question I am so keen to answer; it detaches itself from a soft patch of skull in the centre of my forehead where it had adhered and moves away from the prickling space behind my eyes; with some fondness and a little smile I let it go.
The noise inside me is so loud I can’t hear the words that issue from mouths fluttering so close to mine I feel the pressure of shining breath on my lips and tongue. My heart-beat is speeded up and amplified. It begins to pour out of the bank of speakers stacked up around me. It is so easy to dance. It is my time.
I am smiling and waving my arms about because the music makes me happy. There is nothing inside my head but happiness. My friends are dancing with me, transformed by the light, incorporeal, monochrome. But to touch them, to hold them in my arms and spin, to kiss, to feel a hand close on my breast, to stumble and float together in the gaps we made in that mass of bodies by our progress within it, is extasy.
The smiley face was the emblem of 1988. It reminded people of when they were children. It was a wordless symbol of bliss. Suddenly people found happiness. Extasy made the music move you. Acid was too mental, too experimental. ‘Are you on one, matey?’ was the question of the day.
New clubs opened where the new drug and the new music could be enjoyed. Cool was uncool. Strangers greeted one another with peace and love. The urban ethnic acid look began to evolve. Mystic symbols, long hair and frenzied dancing were revived. These accessories of Sixties hippy ideology were sported as fashion items and no one could remember whether they had once had meaning as gestures of revolt or not. The inevitable interest of the police gave partygoers the sense that the party in itself was an antisocial act. They talked Shiatsu, star signs, save the whale. The new style appropriated bits and pieces from the past because people began to yearn for a time when everyone was nice to each other.
Acid house? That was then, this is now. The music and friendship have changed me for ever. Last night at a big rave in a field near Blackpool I said hello to a policeman. I told him we just wanted to have a good time. He looked puzzled. The police are human but they can’t cope with the idea of people enjoying themselves. They are confused because they can’t find the violence they are looking for. This is political, twenty thousand people enjoying themselves in a field. I am bored with Extasy now but I love to dance. I do not like violence. I used to be a bit of a hard man. Now I love mankind and my mind is free.
I know I am destroying myself. Everyone keeps telling me.
Everything begins with an E/Extasy, love, sex and danger/What planet are you on? Planet Extasy/Who do you know? No one. Take a trip with me/Drop a tab of E and dance the robot with a stranger.
My boyfriend gets out of it about four times a week. Sometimes he stays in and takes heroin. When he goes out he takes Extasy or acid. Or both. He is destroying his mind. When he isn’t on one he goes down the pub and drinks lager. I look at him and wonder if he is still in there.
I take E because I like it. I have a problem with anxiety and depression. When I go out I feel too self-conscious to enjoy myself. When I take E I forget about my problems. I feel like a completely different person. I feel equal to the people around me. I know they are looking at me but I don’t care. Cocaine makes me paranoid. Heroin is too dangerous. I have tranquillisers on prescription from my doctor but the idea of taking them depresses me.
Extasy is supposed to be a designer drug. It was designed to give the ultimate high without the drawbacks of come-down or addiction. I’ve had it in New York and it’s perfect. I wouldn’t touch the stuff on sale in London.
The whole thing makes me uneasy. I don’t really understand what is going on. As each new fashion has arrived I have altered my tastes to encompass it. I was into disco, jazz funk, soul, hip hop. I wore the right gear. It’s like being on a treadmill going round and round: you keep up for as long as you can, then suddenly you can’t keep up any longer. It leaves you behind, that makes me feel old.
This year we went on holiday to Provence. We used to go to Ibiza. The French thought we were mad. There was dancing in the village near our cottage to celebrate the Revolution or something. Most of the records they had were rubbish but we still enjoyed ourselves. About the heaviest groove they had was Madonna. It was mental. It doesn’t matter, being uncool. Ibiza used to be good. Amnesia used to be a good club, but now it’s full of lager louts on E wearing psychedelic shorts. Not my cup of tea.
I find the whole thing much more exciting than punk. Punks were so negative, so ugly, so violent. The raucous adolescent noise of punk must be an embarrassment to those who were making it at the time. I think that acid house is beautiful. Everyone is friendly, so genuine. There is no posing.
I know two people who were hospitalised after taking Extasy. One of them had to stay in a psychiatric ward for three weeks. The other has permanent brain damage. I’m talking about people I care about. Last summer it cost twenty or twenty-five quid a hit. This summer it costs fifteen.
Last year it was the summer of love. This year it’s the summer of love again. The raves now are classless. That means they are working class. People come from all over the country to enjoy themselves. They’ve read about it in the ‘Sun’. I don’t really enjoy hanging out with twenty thousand yobbos from Barnsley on Extasy.
THE SUMMER OF LOVE 1989. Queues of families outside the Warner West End buying tickets for Batman. Groups of young boys hanging around outside MacDonald’s Oxford Street. A pair of middle-aged scaffolders on a roof. Everyone is wearing psychedelic shorts, mother, father, daughter, son.
Every Monday morning the tabloids are full of horror stories about young people gathering in the leafy open spaces of suburbia or in the fields of some duped farmers to take Extasy and enjoy themselves. Police estimate that about eighteen thousand people turned up last weekend to party in a secluded spot outside Milton Keynes. The tabloids made it twenty-five. This is mass entertainment.
The legal part of the fashionable club scene in London has always existed through entrepreneurs or DJs doing deals with the management of established but unfashionable club premises eager to attract new customers; the DJs draw the crowd, the money taken on the door is split, and the profits at the bar are greatly increased. The new craze has grown in popularity and notoriety so massively that the restricted capacity of some night-club venues, and the fears of the management when faced with hordes of drug-crazed customers who don’t even drink, have led some of the entrepreneurs to take to the country. There are, I suppose, innocent fun-loving folk running events because they love music and want to make a few bob, but that is not the whole picture. Thousands of people trying to have a good time in a field is a big market for drugs. If the dealers run the events themselves there is big money to be made.
The location of a party is kept secret until the last minute for security reasons, so the person who wants to attend has to spend the best part of Saturday on the phone, dialling a secret number and being told over and over again to call back later or to call another number. When the information is finally given and the journey has been made, the men at the gate take £25 from each person. The punters who flock to these out-of-town raves are the other side of twenty. Inside the fence people are selling Extasy or what is supposed to be Extasy, a mixture of heroin and amphetamine or similar concoctions of cheap raw materials. These cocktails can give you brain damage.
The risk of catching Aids is increased if you are debilitated by drug-taking and so out of it you don’t know what you are doing. Extasy makes you love yourself. It makes you feel sexually attractive, sexy, easily aroused. You lose discrimination when chosing sexual partners and falling in love. Delusions of great insight and understanding are a common side effect of the Extasy experience. Great claims are made for the power of Extasy to expand your mind. You can feel it. In fact, frequent use blunts the emotions until they are unrecognisable and leaves the user with a sense of numb emptiness. I know Extasy victims who are incapable of unscrambled thought or feeling.
In London, all the old clubbers and those who’ve been around on the scene since the punk days have divided themselves up into those that do and those that have given up. Most of the people I have worked with in clubs and warehouse parties over the years still seem to be out there behind the decks or standing on doors of the same old places, spinning the new music, wearing the new clothes, drawing the same old punters. I no longer want to be part of all that. I feel too old.
And yet I enjoy the feeling of belonging engendered by immersing myself in a crowd. I saw Bob Marley and the Wailers at Hammersmith and sang along. I saw the Clash at the Rainbow and breathed the same air as three thousand others who were in love with Joe Strummer. I saw the Pogues on St Patrick’s Day and swayed with men who believed in Shane McGowan as they believed in Jesus. Who is the voice now? The distinguishing feature of this cult is that it has no new heroes. A few muddled ranters talk of peace and love but no one is listening. They are too busy enjoying themselves.
I used to like jumping up and down and making angry noises because I felt angry. Now the fashion is for smiling. Everyone is smiling and touching each other. Where is the anger? There is no fighting because everyone is blissing-out. Extasy makes you forget. It has the anaesthetic quality of heroin without the stigma. The acid house phenomenon keeps the people off the streets.