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Mad For It

The Guardian (UK)
by Matthew Collin
March 28, 1997


TOO far gone. No way back. At least, that's how it seemed at the end of 1995, during that strange week when Leah Betts lay in a coma and, day after day, the image of what was to be her death-bed was there on newsprint and screen. Each day the mood became more hysterical, each day another nuance of a secret society was exposed - this is what our children have been up to, and we never even suspected - until there was nothing left to tell.

The billboard poster, the beginning of the Betts family's subsequent anti-drug campaign, was a deeply unsettling sight: their 18-year-old daughter's photograph, framed in a black border like an obituary for a culture, with a stark slogan, 'Sorted'. It was meant as a warning, but felt more like an accusation - look what you've done - and it revealed the private fantasies of a generation. A final confirmation that Ecstasy culture was mainstream had come to every high street in Britain.

Just over a year later, a company that made its name at the tail-end of the illegal rave scene of the late eighties released a CD sponsored by a perfume for men. Fantazia had long ceased to promote huge parties, and had moved into the more lucrative and less demanding business of the mass-market dance compilation album. Its alliance with Lynx demonstrated once again how much had changed within dance culture since its outlaw origins in Thatcher's black economy. 'Football teams have sponsors. It doesn't affect the game,' responded Fantazia's Andrew Gallagher - although observers of the commodification of soccer during the nineties might disagree.

This is Ecstasy culture as it approaches its tenth summer, reaching out as far as possible. More than 15 years after the first Britons were introduced to Ecstasy on excursions into New York nightlife, and over a decade after house music emerged from the black gay clubs of Chicago, the synthesis of the two has produced the largest and most enduring youth culture Britain has ever seen. The Ecstasy boom's sounds, signs, symbols and slang have become all-pervasive, part of the everyday landscape. Switch on television: the millenarian rumble of drum and bass advertises deodorants and Tory newspapers; psychedelic graphics sell soft drinks and junk food. The Post Office declares itself 'sorted'.

The dance scene is now a highly lucrative business for operators on both sides of the law. In 1993, it was assessed by market analysts at the Henley Centre to be worth pounds 1.8 billion a year; a wild estimate, perhaps, but indicative of the stakes for which club promoters, record companies, radio stations, DJs and drug dealers are vying.

A few examples: on New Year's Eve 1996, it was rumoured that the DJ Jeremy Healy picked up pounds 15,000 for playing records for a few hours. 'Superclubs' like Liverpool's Cream and London's Ministry of Sound have taken niche marketing to new heights of sophistication, starting t heir own record labels to release DJ-mix CDs, launching merchandise and clothing, opening bars and shops, promoting nationwide club tours and package holidays to destinations like Ibiza. The Ministry, financed by James Palumbo, former City dealer and son of Lord Palumbo, the multi-millionaire property developer and retired chairman of the Arts Council, is the world's biggest club merchandising company, with an estimated turnover in excess of pounds 10 million, and is striving to become a force in the record business.

The Ministry has linked up with brands like Pepsi and Sony for sponsorship deals. The club Renaissance is backed by Silk Cut cigarettes, the Hacienda by Boddington's beer. Sponsors are buying into subcultural credibility. In the early nineties, club flyers mimicked corporate logos, twisting them into cheeky drug references; now many promoters have established their own, instantly recognisable logos for accessories and CDs. The first wave of acid house raves was checked by government legislation; now huge leisure corporations like Granada are cashing in with clubs based on that formula. Mainstream house clubbing, with its closed-circuit security cameras, registered door supervisors and council-imposed procedural guidelines, is the regulated opposite of its outlaw past.

Last year, the British Tourist Authority launched its first campaign since the sixties to target the 18-30 age group. It printed a magazine, UK Guide, that aped the youth press and focused on what were considered to be two of Britain's main tourist attractions - Leeds club culture and the rock band Oasis, with a guide to Oasis-speak straight from club dance-floors including drug-inspired slang like 'sorted', 'bangin' ' and 'mad for it'. House, it intimated, had finally been made safe for tourists and casual consumers.

The dance scene has been transformed into a dance industry. Its codes have been cracked and nothing can remain underground for any length of time. In the 1995 book Highflyers, journalist Stephen Kingston lamented that house has been commodified and neutered the way psychedelic rock had been at the end of the sixties. Clubbers have become a huge marketplace for corporate concerns, following the classic trajectory: revolt into style, rebellion into money. The outlaws have become the new establishment. The dream is finally over, Kingston insisted, its fragile spirit extinguished: 'The house movement has been herded into a capitalist corral. Club culture used to talk a lot about freedom. It's turning out to be the freedom to be farmed.' Many things have changed and nowhere more so than in the realm of music itself: pop's social relations have been comprehensively rewritten.

At the heart of Ecstasy culture is a concerted attempt to suspend normal transmission - if only for one night. A mission to reappropriate consciousness: to invent, however briefly, a kind of utopia. Its prevailing ethos is inclusive; open to individual definition. It is about participation rather than observation, about being involved - whether making a record or selling a bag of pills. As the digital bassline throbbed through flesh and bone and the first rush of Ecstasy coursed through the veins, people were transformed, freed into a playground sprinkled with the fairy dust of MDMA; liberated to act out characters that their everyday lives would not allow; intensely, vibrantly alive. The world seemed to turn upside down, inside out. The dance floor became the focus of attention, not the stage; the hegemony of the star system was overturned as cheap computer technology offered unprecedented opportunities for do-it-yourself creativity.

A thousand flowers bloomed in a wonderland where, for a moment, anything seemed possible. Perhaps it was, perhaps it still is. Earlier this year, a young unknown from Derby released a song that he had recorded in his bedroom for a few pounds. Your Woman by White Town, the alias of Jyoti Mishra, entered the charts at number one. Although it wasn't strictly a dance record, its sampled electronic textures placed it in the do-it-yourself dance culture. Mishra refused to publicise his hit with the usual interviews and photo-sessions. He bore no resemblance to the stylised image that even alternative pop stars project.

The bemused look on his face when captured on his doorstep by a paparazzo demonstrated disinterest in the holy grail of celebrity. He honestly preferred to stay in his bedroom and programme his machines. He is not alone. Since the late eighties, a self-supporting, ad hoc production network has developed around dance music, based on inexpensive home studios, small-run white-label records, and a distribution system hooked together by a web of mobile phones. It is an independent alternative based on the same ethic of DIY autonomy that punk rock once propagated, but with a reach far wider than punk ideologues ever dared to envisage. It has catalysed an enormous output of recordings.

The dance boom forced the record industry to find new ways of packaging and selling music in a rapidly fragmenting marketplace. In its early stages, house music was unconcerned with the rock mythologies of authenticity, career development, the musician as artist, or with the staples of rock commodification: the live gig and the album. However, the rise of recognisable and marketable (often white) techno and ambient bands who played live gigs and worked in the record industry's format of choice, the compact disc, rather than anonymous (often black) recording studio deities whose main mode of production was the relatively unprofitable 12-inch vinyl single, made house and techno comprehensible to business and rock press.

The major labels sought to exploit the urgency and cash of the swelling independent sector, just as they had assimilated profitable elements of the hippie and punk movements. They launched subsidiary dance operations headed by scene heroes, bought out or affiliated themselves with independent labels, issued mix compilations, marketed DJs as celebrities, and used remix to bolster product sales and longevity. And while some of the premier electronic auteurs received just rewards, there was a backlash against the cheesy and the commercial as the synthetic pulsebeat of house was reduced to cliche in records cynically manufactured to throw E-heads into raptures.

The dance scene thrived on participation and community - heresies in Thatcher's individualistic 1980s - but as the leisure industry moved in to privatise its profitable elements, a participant culture was slowly transformed into a consumer culture. Community broke down as dance music shattered into confusing yet fascinating genres and sub-genres, each chasing the New and the Now. But liberated zones survive and prosper. At home with their Akais and Ataris, Jyoti Mishra and thousands of others sift through the possibilities, running programs which are controlled by them alone.

Yes, things have changed: drug culture, too, has colonised the mainstream. In the 1990s, recreational drug use went through a democratisation that mirrored the evolution of the dance scene. Music sold pills, pills sold music, and the whole thing built, the frenzy rising to a peak - perhaps, with hindsight, that strange week in 1995 - when the private fantasies were finally made public and the whole thing rushed over the top. Leah Betts's death wasn't enough to stem the tide. How could anyone believe that the clock could be turned back? A vox-pop of clubbers in leading dance magazine Mixmag the following month confirmed this. Yes, it was tragic, people responded, but some kind of freak accident that wouldn't put most of them off swallowing another pill that weekend. 'There's been plenty of deaths,' said one. 'You just go out and do it the next weekend.' 'Alcohol rots your brain and your guts and no one stops drinking when someone dies from that,' insisted another. 'I know the risks, and I'm willing to keep on taking them.' One of the central dynamics of Ecstasy culture is the attempt to re-create the initial euphoria, to relive the exhilarating high, to chase the thrill of the rush. This has produced a recreational drug culture on a scale bigger than any in Britain this century. It is difficult to overstate the impact that Ecstasy had on perceptions of drug-taking. It was, many believed, not only an alternative to alcohol and tobacco, but a less harmful alternative. This was extended to justify drug consumption across the board.

To those who had never taken illicit substances, Ecstasy's innocuous appearance was the opposite of what they had been told about drugs. There were no hypodermic needles, no ritualistic preparation. It came packaged, not as a seedy drug, but as the ultimate entertainment concept, with its own music, clubs, fashion and media - and to many it was the euphoric peak of a lifetime. In the 1980s, government drug campaigns hectored the young with images of addicts as pox-ridden anorexics, but these were far removed from the experiences of Ecstasy. Thousands of sunny smiles, the chatter of positivity, embracing total strangers - little wonder that Ecstasy's impact was to give people an overwhelmingly positive experience of illegal drug use. The chemical generation passed through the doors of perception into a world where drugs were not only acceptable, but glorious. Thousands upon thousands just said 'Yes!', again and again.

Euphoria has given way to excess and comedown, as it does within any drug scene. The realisation finally hit - after years of disbelief fuelled by media misinformation and government propaganda - that people were actually dying after taking Ecstasy, and dying horribly, with blood pouring from every orifice. There in the temple of unlimited pleasure, some of that peculiar innocence evaporated. Even though most of the deaths were attributable to avoidable conditions like heatstroke, self-doubt crept in. The miracle drug lost some of its shine.

But surveys in the mid-nineties indicating that around 50 per cent of British youth had tried illegal substances offered a clear message: prohibition had failed. Where did this leave government rhetoric - the war on drugs? If Ecstasy had been incorporated into the mainstream leisure/ pleasure equation; if, as an often -cited estimate suggested, half a million people were taking it each week, what did that make Britain's youth - a generation of criminals? Government responses to Ecstasy have been belated and irrational, inspired more by the frantic mood of moral panic than by any genuine understanding of how drug use has changed. The war was lost years ago.

As the 10-year anniversary of Ecstasy culture approaches, none of the questions it posed have been resolved. Even more people are willing to chase the dream - bliss - wherever it may take them. Although it is no longer secret or subterranean, the social experiment continues. The voice of Adonis, its baritone looming from the crackle of cheap vinyl pressed during house music's infancy, sounds ever more like a prediction fulfilled: 'I lost control, I sold my soul. Too far gone - ain't no way back. . .'

Copyright (c) 1997, Guardian Newspapers Limited

Adapted from Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House by Matthew Collin
with contributions by John Godfrey
published by Serpent's Tail on April 11, 1996