The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House
By Matthew Collin, with John Godfrey.
Serpent's Tail £10.99 pb.
Review by Ally Fogg
Squall 15, Summer 1997, pg. 53.
This is the story of how we reached the peak of human experience - and what happened afterwards" or so it says in the prologue at least. Actually the prologue is the peak of this careful, but slightly unsatisfying book, written by two former editors of i-D magazine.
It opens predictably with a 'my first E' narrative, then quickly raises some interesting analyses and observations, particularly that 'the typical cycle of Ecstasy use can also be mapped culturally.'
The argument is that an individual E user will typically have an evangelical honeymoon period for a few months, followed by a period of either diminishing returns or excessive use, then a comedown period of disillusionment and readjustment, and finally a rebalancing of equilibrium in a post-ecstasy world. The parallel is drawn throughout the book with a succession of 'scenes' which are destroyed by their own success, with fashionability leading to the loss of the original spirit and the attention of police and/or gangsters.
And that's about as sophisticated as the analysis gets. What we are left with are detailed accounts of how the music, drugs and technology of rave culture developed and then collided in the late eighties to change the face of popular culture forever.
We are led through the Summers(!) of Love in 1988 and '89, the 'Magical Mystery Tour' of commercial, unlicensed raves in '89 and '90, the Manchester Scene, the free party scene, Hardcore, Jungle and Drum and Bass. Many readers may be interested in the 'Techno Travellers' chapter which charts the convergence of the travellers' free festivals with the sound systems and ravers coming out of the cities, culminating in the magical mayhem of Castlemorton. It is a creditable chapter which begins at Stonehenge and the Battle of the Beanfield, ends at the ill-fated 'Mother' festival in 1995, and includes a glowing mini-history of Spiral Tribe.
For the most part, Altered State is a fascinating and very well-researched collection of trivia. If you didn't know that Soft Cell were Eckied to the eyeballs when they recorded their first album in 1981, you do now. More importantly, if you didn't know that the Thatcherite Yuppie scum who were behind commercial raves around 1990 included one who went on to manage the Crinkley Bottom theme park, perhaps you should.
Part of my reluctance to fully endorse this book is that the authors seem reluctant to criticise anyone. If you have been involved in any dance music scene in the past ten years then Altered State will probably say something nice about you and your friends. This means that the book will probably sell by the bucketload to an audience grabbing at any authentic document of their own culture, it is what Irvine Welsh on a cover blurb calls 'a positive affirmation'. It reminds me of Mark Lamarr's joke about Shaun Ryder: "Shaun used to be the lead singer of the Happy Mondays, and then went on to form Black Grape. So if you're watching Shaun, that's what you've been doing."
This book is aimed at the generation who have been 'on one and off it' for a decade. This is what you've been doing.