Lord of the Dance

Rock crit Simon Reynolds writes the first comprehensive account of the rave revolution

If there is a stylistic drawback here, it's that the freestyle flow between first-person reportage, music criticism, and cultural theorizing is sometimes flooded by tidal waves of data. As someone who never made it through, say, Deleuze and Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia, I don't mind his academic condensations of same, and it's tough to fault the author's ambition. To be sure, Generation Ecstasy is an extremely ambitious book: Its punk equivalent would blend Jon Savage's England's Dreaming with parts of Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style and a good chunk of the Trouser Press Record Guide. There is a huge amount of information and provocative musing, and no doubt many sections could be expanded into books themselves. The section on the early post-disco scenes of Chicago (birthplace of house), Detroit (ditto techno), and New York City (ditto garage), is worthy of one, if not three volumes itself.

As a British-turned-transcontinental critic, Reynolds gets points for the time he spends not just on our first-gen progenitors, but on the fits and starts of the present-day U.S. underground. Since rave never became the pop phenomenon it was/is in the U.K., our domestic scenes have evolved much differently. For every one that has "burned out"--say, the first era of San Francisco and El-Lay party culture--there are a dozen other scenes sprouting up around the nation, including new scenes supplanting dead ones. These undergrounds are young, overwhelmingly teenage, and infinitely less jaded than those of their U.K./U.S. elders. Reynolds doesn't really get past the surface of scenes in Orlando, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and yeah, Minneapolis. But he did slog through the mud with everyone else at the Even Furthur Festival in Bumfuck, Wisconsin back in '96, and even devotes a chunk of a chapter to it. Ultimately, though, he still hasn't gotten to the heart of American rave, a culture that may still be too nascent and atomized for sensible survey.

Obviously some hard choices needed to be made for a book of this scope, and I'm sure some people will question the omission of a fuller treatment of disco and gay club history. More curious is the relative absence of American hip hop, whose connection to rave and especially jungle has never been adequately discussed. As British phenomena, Tricky, Massive Attack, and the Bristol scene get their due, as does the Mo' Wax label and their Yank MVP, DJ Shadow. But among U.S. rap legends, only the Wu-Tang Clan, for some reason, merits some substantive discussion of its music and place in the discography. De La Soul maestro Prince Paul, Gang Starr jazzbo DJ Premiere, and Public Enemy's Bomb Squad production team--all of whom arguably informed the palette of U.K. rave and trip-hop as much as anybody--do not. In the end, Generation Ecstasy centers on the British rave revolution (which, to be sure, was no less than a revolution), and the American scene necessarily takes a back seat to that discussion.

One last gripe: Generation Ecstasy deserves a companion CD (or three), as with the U.K.-only companion to Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces. In lieu of that, one hopes some spirited record labels start reclaiming and reissuing the music history contained in Reynolds's book, which at the moment stands as a definitive volume on a wide world of music. As for the stories and histories and dubplates unsung here: Bring it on, scenesters, we're all ears.

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