Lord of the Dance

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

Let me begin by stating that I have seen Simon Reynolds do the methylenedioxymethamphetamine boogie. Moreover, I have on occasion worked with him and shared water bottles. This seems important to note for two reasons. One is to permit the revelation that books are frequently reviewed by colleagues and/or friends of the author (yes, I know: You thought people wrote jacket-copy blurbs for the money). The other is to confirm that Reynolds, a British music journalist and currently a senior editor at Spin, genuinely digs rave and DJ culture. He's been known to dance and take drugs and stay up past sunrise, just like hundreds of thousands of other groove-riding yahoos around the world. He is, to a great extent, a Believer.

With critical objectivity thus slightly sullied, it remains to be said that Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture (Little, Brown), a hefty socio-history of rave culture and its soundtracks, is something of a landmark. For one thing, this engine of nearly all that is currently exciting in modern pop, dance, and DJ music has never been the subject of a proper history. (In truth, it's never been deemed worthy of one.) The culture, on the other hand--as if it could really be separated from the music it revolves around--has, and plenty of writers have had a go. Among the best books are Sarah Thornton's 1996 Club Cultures (Wesleyan/New England), a smart subculture sociology that offers a discussion of club music's pop profile, while dissecting sock-hop evolutions and the intersection of the overground with the U.K. rave underground; and Matthew Collin's 1997 Altered State (Serpent's Tail), a good read that plumbs deeper into the history of DJ music, but ultimately finds the British rave scene more compelling than the actual sounds.

Reynolds goes further, fusing sociology, cultural analysis, history, and plenty of solid, close-read music criticism. He's a rock crit by trade--his previous titles include the early-'80s punk history Blissed Out, and the provocative The Sex Revolts,co-written with partner Joy Press--and, with a nod to David Toop, Reynolds is perhaps the sharpest chronicler of British DJ music around. He's also a vinyl hound and an all-around data freak, and his hunger to canonize and categorize the mysterious 12-inch miracles that built rave culture is one of the things that makes Generation Ecstasy so essential. His discography pinpoints the first house 12-inch (by general consensus, Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence's "On and On"), the first Roland 303 acid-house track (Phuture's "Acid Tracks"), the first slice of mega-sub-bassy Northern England house (Unique 3's "The Theme"), and, like the man said, goes on and on, tracing the development of jungle, trance, gabba, happy hardcore, and big beat.

Such may seem like useless arcana to some, but, in fact, it's no more superfluous than recognizing the place of Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" or James Brown's "Cold Sweat." This is a secret history that, outside of record-shop chat and DJ magazines, simply hasn't existed until now. True, Reynolds is enamored, and maybe overenamored, of dance music's myriad microgenres; hell, he named plenty of them himself. But he does more than just list records and sort styles. Reynolds does his best to explicate what each sonic shift means, the cultural reality it reflects. Thus, he offers an evolution of bells-and-whistles anthems when short DJ sets became the norm at multiartist raves; the growth of darkside and gabba when Ecstasy burnout and amphetamine abuse transformed the psyche of mid-'90s dance floors; the spliff worship that shaped drum 'n' bass and trip-hop; and the reactionary move toward ambient and "intelligent" techno. When he's on, Reynolds makes these differences visceral through some surprisingly scatological prose; that your average American pop fan can barely distinguish between these genres at present only amplifies the value of his work.

While writing with the detail of the reference librarian, Reynolds also indulges an ongoing obsession with musical experience that creates, as he puts it, an "apocalyptic now," where past and future, consciousness and critical thought are whited out in moments of grand-mal bacchanal. Along these lines, he quotes critic Barney Hoskyns from a piece Reynolds says "changed all my ideas about music": "What we must lose now," Hoskyns wrote, "is this insidious, corrosive knowingness, this need to collect and contain. We must open our brains that have been stopped and plugged with random information, and once again must our limbs carve in the air the patterns of their desire."

If that isn't the sound of a rock critic trying to shed his skin, then I'm Natalie Imbruglia. Certainly, Generation Ecstasy is informed by a profound need to collect and contain, and it's heavy with what can feel like random information. Yet it's this admirable desire to get beyond the facts, ma'am, that gives the book both its veering tension and its bold heart. Like many of us, Reynolds got his utopian imagination fired up after experiencing the synergy of Ecstasy, booty-shaking, crowded dance floors, dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music. He's not ashamed to suggest this collective art-magic might have the potential for broader social revolution. He's not embarrassed to note that the nut of this potential has a lot to do with drugs (specifically Ecstasy), or that its stumbling blocks also have a lot to do with drugs (their misuse, abuse, and counterproductive prohibition). After all the dashed promises and self-delusion of late-'60s psychedelic culture, Reynolds actually has the faith to suggest that music and drugs might yet be able change the world. God bless him.

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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