Writhing on Ecstasy
Acid House inspired even the most unlikely ravers to brave the dance floor. But did it leave anything behind once the high was over, asks Caspar Melville
Rave, the last great youth cult of the 20th century, is dead. Perhaps you suspected as much. I know rave is dead because Radio 2 told me. It wasn't really anything that was said during the two one-hour specials on 'the second summer of love', featuring the testimony of numerous late-30 and 40-somethings who were there during the smiley-faced, 'acieed' chanting long hot summer of '88. It was just the fact that this programme was on Radio 2. Could there be a clearer signal that a youth movement has passed into history?
Rave, aka Acid House, was a dance music scene that emerged in London in 1987/8, and thereafter fanned out across the UK (and the world). Its core feature was the combination of a new form of psychedelic digitally-produced dance music (Acid House, mainly from Detroit and Chicago), with a newly-available drug, Ecstasy. It was characterised by loud, continuous 'acid' music played by DJs on a big sound system, strobe lights, dry ice and other disorientating visuals, and dance floors heaving with writhing bodies 'coming up' on their pills. And partly because of the drug-induced stamina of the ravers, parties and clubs ran all night and often into the next day. Although rave started in legitimate or at least semi-licensed clubland, it quickly became synonymous with large illegal parties in the city, and then increasingly further from the urban centres (and their attentive police forces) on airfields, private farmlands and stately home grounds across the country.
In themselves none of these elements was entirely new. Warehouse parties in disused industrial spaces had been a staple of London clubbing since the early 1980s; House music (if not 'acid') had been infiltrating clubs since 1986; drug-taking (though not Ecstasy) was pretty ubiquitous, especially in the gay clubs of the capital; and all-night dance parties had been happening in some quarters of the British city since the late 1950s. But the combination was unique. The pioneer Acid DJs, such as Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling, got the idea from their visits to Ibiza, that weird combination of hippy-trail mecca and British working class beach bummery. There they learned that music policies need not be rigid. Unlike the cooler-than-thou vinyl fetishisim of the rare groove scene, for example, early Acid was catholic in its selections. They also learnt that Ecstasy could be a perfect accompaniment to a night out at the club. The drug's unique ability to tap into the emotional and optimistic regions of the cerebral cortex - dealers in the UK first called the drug Empathy but found renaming it Ecstasy boosted sales - not only enhanced the listening experience, but created a warm social atmosphere which appeared to bond any crowd under its sway into an uplifted, utopian form of community.
The peak and trough effects of the drug suited and necessitated a long night session. Frequently ravers would continue into the next day as they necked more pills in a quest to recapture the feeling of the first rush, or to retreat from the depressing re-entry into the grey normality of the everyday.
It is this aspect of rave – the music/Ecstasy interface – that is its most defining and celebrated feature. It was this, the argument goes, which facilitated the profound change rave is thought to have made in our, until then, immobile society. Rave got Britain dancing. More specifically, rave got British men dancing. As DJ Barry Ashworth told rave's best historian Simon Reynolds, Ecstasy provided "a miracle cure for the English disease of emotional constipation, reserve, inhibition". Ecstasy reduced, not to say obliterated, social inhibitions. This, combined with its paradoxical impact on the sex drive – it dramatically increases sensuality and encourages tactility, but reduces the urge to follow through – made it an effective neutraliser of testosterone-fuelled tension or violence. Ecstasy really is a hug drug rather than a sex drug. To be approached for a hug by a random stranger, and not to recoil or smack them in the gob, really was new for British culture.
No longer trammeled by the need to be cool, or the desire to pull, no longer inhibited by their lack of grace or unfamiliarity with dance protocols, hordes of British men rushed on to the dance floor, and ripped off their shirts. For Reynolds this was about "losing it, losing your cool, losing your self-consciousness". So, before rave Britain was a nation of uptight wallflowers. Clubs, for men, were about pulling and fighting. Rave loosened us up to touch and feel, resolved what David Harvey called the "tensions of heterogeneity" – class, race, gender, all mixed up in "a promiscuous flux".
As a crepuscular gentleman indicated to me once, post-rave Britain is just very different, because "men of my generation didn't dance". Certainly rave suggested a whole range of social transformations in the last decades of the century. But is it that simple? Is it true that men didn't dance before rave? Not only are the claims made for rave exaggerated and in many cases unwarranted, but they rest on a misunderstanding of history.
Take the old bloke above as an example. I don't know how old he was, but let's say somewhere between 56 and 71: or, to put it another way, somewhere between the age of Winston Rodney (aka Burning Spear) and James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. Both these singers are also dancers, and have been since their careers began. Not dancers in a professional, tip-tappy, Wayne Sleepy kind of way, but people who move rhythmically to music as a way to experience and articulate it. Rodney, since Bob Marley's death the elder statesman of roots reggae, is well regarded for his ability to 'drop a foot' in the dance – his idiosyncratic, shuffling skank is a pair with his haunting, insistent music. Brown dances not just to show off – though the fact that he was doing splits on stage well into his 60s suggests a certain showmanship – but as a way of conducting his band. He literally danced his music into being, conducting his bass players, drummers and horn section with his hips. It is simply not true that before rave men in Britain didn't dance. Okay, Rodney is Jamaican and Brown, American. But there have been Africans and Afro-Caribbeans living in Britain for centuries, and hundreds of thousands since the peaks of migration between 1948 and 1962. Black Britain has always danced, and arguably it was the model of the black dance – based around the sound-system, and the all-night blues party or shebeen – that is the unacknowledged stepfather of rave culture.
Rave taught straight white men what black men, gay men, and women knew all along: it's good to dance. But we need to go a little further than that: how did it teach them to dance? As indicated, Ecstasy acts to suppress inhibition. It makes the user receptive to external stimulus, especially amplified bass, but it also discombobulates, reduces dexterity, co-ordination and coherence. The celebrations of rave make much out of the fact that in rave people shucked off their identity and its constraints, they let themselves go, they opened themselves to emotion – they did whatever felt good. Certainly, as a corrective to some of the more po-faced excesses of cool London club culture, rave was a blast of fresh air, an important rupture. It returned the club experience, and dancing in particular, to infancy, in fact infantilism. It stripped away the hierarchy of technique and the pomposity of specialisation. All fine and dandy, except in doing so it neglected or misunderstood the history of social dance, and ushered in an era of what you can only call idiot dancing.
While we are all susceptible to the revolutionary narrative of throwing out the rulebook, and setting ourselves free, we need to approach the materialisation of this idea with some caution. Social inhibitions, constraining as they can become, are there for a reason.
What if our drivers suddenly took to the roads with the intention of throwing off all inhibition, doing whatever felt good, or the chef in your local restaurant? Okay these are functionalist, and dance is purposeless, its own fulfillment. But so are all arts; and dancing, not only that stuff in leotards and tutus, but the everyday having a bit of fun stuff too, cannot so easily be severed from its history as a form of popular art and social being. Nor should it be. Just as with all arts, social dance in turn cannot be definitively distinguished from its historical roots in spirituality, myth and custom. In oral cultures – such as that of the African diaspora, dance, the patterned movement of the body in public with music, is one of the ways that stories, attitudes, and skills are recorded, remembered and relayed.
Poetry, music and dance are the vehicles of memory where rhythm records and announces a way of being in the world, and the individual through his body updates, parodies, takes in and remixes cultural tradition.
Dancing is a kind of language, a form of communication between self and group. This is not to say that everyone can or has to dance, but if we over-praise the dance legacy of rave we leave ourselves poorer, because rave is denuded of the fantastical range of expression of which social dance is capable.
Camel hump, lindy-hop, breakdancing, skanking, body-popping and combinations of all these – have the ability to surprise, charm, flirt, threaten and project a kind of humanity inaccessible through the glassy-eyed rictus grin of the Ecstasy victim. Dance articulates – speaks and joins together – or at least it can. Dance and music, socially consumed, don't need drugs to create community; they can do that already.
The fact that raves brought a whole generation of white men into what had been, until then, the uncolonised space of the dance floor, was no mean feat, and deserves recognition. Rave and Ecstasy may have helped us become a more emotionally open nation, but how many male ravers have stayed dancing after the glow of their Ecstasy rush has faded?
Contemporary evidence that young people are shunning Ecstasy, dance music's market segment is declining, and live music is reappearing, suggests that rather than liberation, raving and its attendant frenzied, but strangely passive, forms of sociability, are nothing but the new conformism. Rave is dead. Long live dancing!
Caspar Melville is the editor of New Humanist. He still likes to shake a leg when he's allowed out.