Strangeways Here We Come

Dave Haslam

  • 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’.

From these pockets of activity in Britain, dance music and Ecstasy found new territories. At the fall of the Berlin Wall a generation of Berliners embraced techno; R&S, one of the key record labels of the period, was based in Belgium. Some countries were more resistant: by then I was being flown over to France to DJ in clubs in Paris and Lyon, but, despite my best endeavours, the French seemed largely unreceptive. Two or three years later, they finally caught on. The young man who had lost ten thousand francs organising the first (lacklustre) rave in Lyon launched a series of techno compilation CDs. The first sold over 150,000 copies.

Ecstasy was common in gay clubs in New York in the 1980s but its use didn’t become widespread until the mid-1990s: the amount seized by law enforcement agencies increased a hundredfold between 1993 and 1999. In America, recent Ecstasy evangelists have included hip hop stars such as Eminem and Pink, but the most enthusiastic consumers are white college kids, many of whom see raving, and MDMA, as part of an alternative, new-age lifestyle, as LSD was for the Woodstock generation.

In Britain, Ecstasy use has tended to be more hedonistic, but during the first enthusiasm for it, rave culture was claimed by its supporters to break down barriers of race, class and sexuality. Some people hoped that the sociability of the dancefloor – the hugs, the bottles of water passed around, the shared smiles – would carry over into more pluralist and tolerant attitudes in daily life. It was even claimed that under the influence of Ecstasy football hooligans had forsaken violence. But nobody now overstates the drug’s ability to transform society, and belief in the progressive potential of rave culture has faded.

Ecstasy is still primarily a club drug, and in dance music’s most innovative phases this gave it credibility; but now dance music is firmly mainstream, and so is the drug. Just as the 1960s counter-culture expected drugs to open the doors of perception and set up a revolution in personal relationships and political structures, only to see idealism dribble away and the music degenerate into long-winded guitar solos, one legacy of the dance music revolution is the feeble commercialism of Sophie Ellis Bextor.

Nevertheless, some changes have been permanent. Rave culture opened the door for digital music, and also paved the way for superstar DJs like Fatboy Slim and Paul Oakenfold. In Britain there’s no doubt that Ecstasy – cooler and cheaper than getting drunk – triggered a rise in wider recreational drug use, and confirmed the existence of a troubled, troublesome section of society: the Britain of Trainspotting, So Solid Crew, late-night raves, hanging around the park and dodgy drugs. The increase in drug use has led to reckless experimentation. Ketamine, a horse tranquilliser, is rife among clubland’s current generation. It has acquired the nickname ‘Special K’ and a reputation for plunging the user into a zombie-like state.

When clubbers realised that alcohol dulls the effects of Ecstasy, a permanent shift in leisure habits seemed imminent. One New Year’s Eve in the early 1990s I was DJ-ing in a club. There were six hundred people in there for five hours; incredibly, throughout that time the club sold just one pint of lager. There was panic in the brewing industry. The breweries began to develop alcopops with names and advertising drawn from drug culture, and stepped up their lobbying for extended licensing hours (as well as maintaining their regular contributions to political party funds). The number of licensed premises in the city centres of Manchester and Leeds has doubled, and there’s been a nationwide increase in the number of bars opening late into the night. This has resulted in a return to alcohol among the young, bringing with it the perils of binge drinking, less safe city streets, and increased violence in taxi queues. And more profits for Mr Wetherspoon.

Just as other 1990s boom products – mobile phones, for example – have hit a plateau, so there is some evidence that changing trends in music are depressing the demand for Ecstasy as teenagers forsake dancefloor podiums for the nu metal mosh pit and the older crowd follow artists such as Badly Drawn Boy and David Gray, whose work is not enhanced by MDMA. Nevertheless, like hash in the early 1970s, Ecstasy is cheap and easy to get hold of, and passed round through friends rather than bought from a street corner (this was acknowledged by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee which recently recommended that a distinction should be drawn between ‘social dealing’ between friends and large-scale ‘supply for gain’). The average clubber now pays £4 or £5 per pill (in contrast to the £20 shelled out by the first ravers back in 1988). The drop in price is partly in order to maintain demand but it’s also a result of the move to bulk buying and shopping around. Rather than being imported from Holland or the former Soviet Union, more Ecstasy is now made in the UK, so the pills have less complicated and expensive supply routes. There has been a rise in the number of backyard chemists producing all sorts of drugs: a recent police operation uncovered a small factory making generic Viagra in Oldham.

Health scares triggered by deaths have been a feature of the history of Ecstasy use. Recently there have been accidents when very young children have chanced on the drug, but most deaths attributed to Ecstasy have tended to be among youngsters looking to spice up a weekend or an 18th birthday party. Usually, deaths in clubs are followed by police warnings that rogue drugs are circulating, but despite the variety of ingredients found in pills sold as Ecstasy, killer pills are virtually unknown. Very occasionally an individual can react badly to the drug, but dehydration, overheating or excessive/compulsive water drinking are the most common causes of death. Around two million people are using the drug, if only occasionally, and there were 43 deaths in 2001 attributable to its use, or that of a cocktail of drugs including Ecstasy (Ecstasy plus amphetamines can increase the heartbeat to dangerous levels, and any use of alcohol accelerates dehydration). The long-term effects of repeated Ecstasy use are not yet clear. MDMA stimulates the body’s production of dopamine and serotonin, generating euphoric effects and intensifying sensory stimuli; in addition to the effects of sleep deprivation, and the low mood commonly experienced during the come-down, it seems plausible that manipulating a mood regulator such as serotonin would have some effect on mental health, perhaps increasing the risk of depression. Most Ecstasy users have learned to manage their drug-taking, to ease themselves in by first taking halves or quarters, and to drink water to avoid dehydration. Many clubs provide chill-out rooms, and some have on-site medical teams. Newspaper reports of Ecstasy-related deaths don’t seem to have any effect on demand: users reassure each other that more people are killed by aspirin, and that you’re more likely to choke to death on a peanut. Zero tolerance and ‘Just Say No’ campaigns also have little effect, as users believe they will always know more about drugs than the law-makers. I spent much of the 1980s being chased down city centre streets at two o’clock in the morning by gangs of lager-crazed idiots wielding broken bottles and pool cues, and have never felt convinced that Ecstasy was more harmful than alcohol. Although cannabis is being downgraded to a category C substance, David Blunkett, convinced that Ecstasy can have a toxic or fatal effect on some individuals, recently rejected recommendations from the Home Affairs Committee to downgrade it to category B, a move also suggested by the Association of Police Officers back in October 2001. Meanwhile, in Manchester, police have spent upwards of a million pounds over the last ten years carrying out undercover operations to close clubs where Ecstasy users gather.

There are, we are assured, drugs available that will prolong life, cure depression and adjust antisocial behaviour. If we’re to believe that every problem has a pharmacological solution, it’s perhaps understandable that young people believe that somewhere there’s a drug to make you happy. Decca Aitkenhead believes that in Ecstasy we have found it. As she sets out on her search for the perfect E she admits wanting to recapture her experiences of taking Ecstasy at a club called Strangeways in Manchester in 1993. Nearly a decade later and on the threshold of marriage, she wants to feel that euphoria one more time before settling down. Aitkenhead’s wish to replicate what she felt then reflects the way that Ecstasy, so fleeting in its effects, can create a feeling that every moment matters but every moment is disappearing. She also captures something of the frantic, addictive nature of clubbing, the urge to find a community of allies in a world of conflict and violence, and the lure of loud music, bright lights and sexual frisson. Her fiancé, Paul, accompanies her on these adventures. The Promised Land is a travelogue rather than an investigation; she pops plenty of pills, but Aitkenhead is not after the big picture (she doesn’t offer a detailed description of the effects of Ecstasy, fully explain the physical or social consequences of Ecstasy use, uncover the supply routes, or expose the dealers and manufacturers).

She starts her journey in Detroit, where techno pioneers in the mid-1980s began making the music that would fuel rave culture, although they were mostly clean-living young men who spent more time at home with their computers than out on the dancefloor, and have since professed amazement at the role Ecstasy played in propelling their music to global recognition. During a day aimlessly walking the streets of Detroit, Decca and Paul fail to find the drug or even an Ecstasy dealer. Aitkenhead writes fluently and avoids some of the common shortcomings of club culture commentators: there’s no cultural studies jargon, and her interest in music, though enthusiastic, isn’t weighed down by the minutiae of who remixed what when (her title is borrowed from Joe Smooth’s song of the same name, which brilliantly brings gospel emotion to its pleas for freedom and unity; Aitkenhead’s use of it to imply that Ecstasy can make all your dreams come true does it a disservice).

In many ways her book isn’t a great advertisement for drug-taking. Thailand, where she finds the most drugs and the least happiness, is especially joyless, though she fares better than some of the people she meets, gangly lads with blank stares, ‘eyes empty of recognition, plates of nothingness’. Potential Ecstasy users might also be deterred by the nonsense talked by its most enthusiastic users. In one club Aitkenhead enjoys a debate about who is wearing the best sunglasses (wearing sunglasses in a club is a fashion faux pas of the highest order: a recent issue of the club magazine Muzik put it high in a list of nefarious modern trends, second only to spam e-mail offering cheap access to pornographic websites). Most tellingly, what she seems to learn on her travels is that even the very best Ecstasy can’t transform a bad night out into a life-changing experience. In Cape Town, she finds great E but the clubs are packed with bland bodybuilders circled by vacuous blondes rather than the magnificent Mancunian bohemians she remembers from Strangeways. Ecstasy is easy to find, the promised land less so.