- Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House by Matthew Collin and John Godfrey
Serpent’s Tail, 314 pp, £18.99, April 1997, ISBN 1 85242 377 3
- Disco Biscuits edited by Jane Champion
Sceptre, 300 pp, £6.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 340 68265 5
‘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’ propelled the drug into mass use, international prohibition and ultimately a social significance only matched, in the pharmaceutical stakes, by the flowering of an LSD culture during the Sixties.
First synthesised in 1912 by the Merck pharmaceutical company of Darmstadt, MDMA – intended merely as a base for the preparation of other medicaments – had been largely forgotten until Alexander Shulgin, a Californian chemist, made up a batch in 1966. Shulgin, whose unusual psychopharmacological research had begun to get him into trouble with his employer, the Dole Chemical Company, was the first to recognise MDMA’s mood-altering effects; he called it an ‘empathogen’. So deeply affected was he by his MDMA experiences that he eventually resigned his job, built a laboratory in his garden shed, and embarked on thirty years of research into the drug and related compounds, In PIHKAL (‘Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved’), his autobiography-cum-pharmacopoeia, he gives details of 179 of them.
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 around America, introducing the substance, which was beginning to be known as ‘Adam’, to an estimated four thousand other psychologists and psychiatrists. This community of believers, many of whom had seen their hopes for LSD therapy dashed when LSD 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 United States.
Saatchi and Saatchi could not have improved on the choice of the word ‘ecstasy’. In the ten years since the drug burst into the British popular consciousness, the ‘ecstatic’ aspect of MDMA has gripped the imagination of the press. The enduring tabloid version of Ecstasy use depicts the interior of a club; semi-naked girls with lycra tops and water bottles; boys with their shirts off, chewing gum; dilated pupils, hormones and sweat. The drug’s name is enough to make commentators feel they understand what is going on – an unhealthily Pavlovian form of pleasure-taking, vacuous, escapist and pernicious. Combine this with the shyly smiling face of Leah Betts, who took ‘just one tablet’ on her 18th birthday and promptly died, and you have a powerful story. Here is a drug that transforms your daughter from a well brought-up girl into a banshee nymphet, and in the process could very possibly kill her: a persuasive argument for prohibition. Public debate now places Ecstasy firmly in a medico-legal context – the only acceptable framework for discussion of any proscribed substance. As a means of understanding the drug’s impact on society, this has obvious limitations: the rhetoric of ‘escapism’, ‘illegality’ and ‘self-harm’ is powerless to explain the rich and diverse culture which has rapidly developed 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 begun by the pioneers of black dance music in the Sixties, familiar elements of traditional popular song – verse-chorus-verse structure, harmonic resolutions – were stripped away, leaving eerie cyclical 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.
House music (the term has come to stand for only one genre, but is a plausible generic label) has no regard for the ideal of virtuosity which governs not only ‘classical’ music, but rock and jazz. In place 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, though usually derived from recorded media, may also include live elements produced by manipulating electronics or (more rarely) traditional instruments.
Music is only one element in the most visible product of Ecstasy culture – the parties. From the famous M25 raves of the late 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, light-show and dancing has well-documented origins in the psychedelic all-nighters of the Sixties, in its modern form the illegal rave (now an endangered species) can be an experience of unprecedented potency. The sense of affirmation and shared purpose, of celebration, almost of religious ritual, not to mention the sheer uncomplicated fun of a large number of people brazenly doing something illicit, together produce events which, while centring on a drug, are not fairly represented by the mindless lotus-eating of tabloid myth.
A 1994 Home Office survey estimates that up to a million Britons have tried E; and something like 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 2 per cent of the population, all of whom are breaking the law to participate. ‘Ecstasy culture’, then, is a name for rather more than a collection of ephemeral trends in music, fashion or the visual arts.
Matthew Collin and John Godfrey have interviewed many of the key figures in Ecstasy’s journey from a Californian ‘penicillin for the soul’ to a black-market leisure industry. From this material and their own experiences, they have put together a 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 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, in its post-Shulgin incarnation, has been a resoundingly democratic drug. Collin and Godfrey emphasise the diversity of its devotees, from snobbish New Romantic starlets in the VIP rooms of mid-Eighties London nightclubs to itinerant thieves 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.’ The proponents of LSD-driven psychedelic revolution have tended to excoriate E culture’s lack of ideology, portraying its appropriation of the love-and-peace rhetoric of the Sixties 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?’
In the climate of Tory Britain, MDMA’s biochemical effect took on an oppositional character. Shulgin’s ‘empathogen’ provided a powerful counter-argument to the bleak vision of atomised individuals competing for scarce resources. Hugging a complete stranger in the centre of a crowded dance-floor is still something worth driving 200 miles for; it is worth the risk of arrest on drugs charges, worth a face-off with the police in a muddy field. Indeed, the fact that the state has seemed so concerned to prevent the formation of such obviously communal events is a source of moral confusion for many young people.
The language of epic struggle – War on Drugs v. Freedom to Party – is deployed on both sides of the Ecstasy divide. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, a period of huge, illegal outdoor raves, there was a sense that a battle was being waged for the soul of Britain. Local worthies whose communities were disrupted believed they were engaged in a last-ditch defence of the citadel. To the ravers the issues seemed equally clear. When the drug that catalyses your most intense and positive experiences is declared illegal, when (in the absence of unbiased medical information) government-sponsored doctors seem to be brokering 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 v. 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, the first ever legal definition of a genre of music, enabling the police to break up 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 may legitimately close it down (it must also be at least ‘partly’ outdoors and disturbing local residents). It doesn’t always work, however, as I discovered at a small party on the South Coast. Things were well underway, with the sound-system 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 20th-century choral music. The bemused coppers were treated to the spectacle of a couple of hundred people stumbling around to the work of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. They hung about for ten minutes, powerless to stop the event, then left, much to the disappointment of a group of partygoers who had been enjoying the flashing blue lights.
The CJA definition has confirmed what the dancers 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 was, for 18 years, the mission of Conservative government to inculcate. With the CJA, dancing became, in a small way, a political action, and ‘ravers’ (in 1997 already a quaint word) joined travellers, immigrants, single mothers and the unemployed in Conservative demonology.
Music, fashion, photography, computer animation and club visuals have all done well out of E. Writers, on the other hand, have relatively little to offer the scene, except in an after-the-fact way as reporters, chroniclers or mythologisrs. 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 Disco Biscuits at a (non-dancing) party, 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 – why, then, the literary silence?
Disco Biscuits is unlikely to make many converts. The writing is at its best when, as in Gavin Hills’s ‘White Burger Danny’, it restricts itself to a near-documentary account of parties and people. E culture’s variety is well represented, and Martin Millar’s squatland South London, Alex Garland’s backpacker Thailand, Jonathan Brook’s Ibiza and Jeff Noon’s fantastical Manchester have little in common, apart from the constant presence of narcotics. Ecstasy is only part of the roster of drugs, real and imaginary, which seems to form the collection’s primary raison d’être. At times this obsession with the brute act of drug-taking degenerates into something very like chemical pornography, texts which exist only to record heroic feats of consumption. The reader comes away with little from ‘Two Fingers’ Puff’ or Nicholas Blincoe’s ‘Ardwick Green’ other than a desire to skin up and to avoid mixing acid, speed, Ecstasy, cocaine, smack and amyl in the men’s room of a provincial nightclub.
A sense of pleasures guiltily taken pervades the book, as if the sheer weight of moral sanction against drug use had forced much of the writing into its present shape. Several of the stories get no further than attempting to convey sense impressions of paradoxically compressed and edgy good times. Many seem to be struggling against the influence of the canonical drug-writings of the Beat and Hippy eras. Burroughs looms large, as do Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. In these respects, the book is accurate: the guilty darkness hovering at the edges of pleasure, and the Oedipal battle with a generation of former rebels turned cultural arbiters, are authentic aspects of Nineties experience. After Aids and the massive come-down of the Eighties, the sense of childlike celebration which characterises many classic Sixties drug-culture texts is no longer available. We are not 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.
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 rises above the ephemera of the scene, Altered State keeps politics in the foreground even as it tells picaresque stories of rave promoters with suitcases of cash, Manchester lads breaking into warehouses or Spiral Tribe’s Iain Sinclairish attempt to topple the state by setting up a sound-system 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 mass-market clubbing and the current revival in the popularity of cocaine, this kind of stock-taking is needed if we are to understand the long-term impact of an era which pitted the state against the young, and created an endemic distrust of authority.