Into the Groovy

Raving about Simon Reynolds's techno-historical treatment, Generation Ecstasy

Let me begin by stating that I have seen Simon Reynolds do the methylenedioxymethamphetamine boogie. Moreover, I have, on occasion, shared water bottles with him. This seems important to note for two reasons. One is to reveal that books are sometimes reviewed by colleagues and/or friends of the author. (And 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.

And so, with critical objectivity sullied all around, it remains to be said that Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture (Little, Brown) is a landmark, a hefty sociocultural history of rave culture and its soundtracks. As the engine of nearly all that is exciting in modern pop music, the dance and DJ genre has never been the subject of a proper history. In truth, it's never been deemed worthy of one. Dance and DJ culture, on the other hand, has (as if it could really be separated from the music). Plenty of writers have had a go in this area. Among the best books is Sarah Thornton's 1996 Club Cultures (Wesleyan/New England), a smart set of subcultural sociologies that offers a discussion of club music's pop profile, and dissects sock-hop evolutions and the intersection of the over-ground with the U.K. rave underground. There's also Matthew Collin's 1997 Altered State (Serpent's Tail), a good read that gets deeper into the history of DJ music but ultimately finds the British rave scene more compelling than the actual sounds.

But Reynolds goes further, fusing sociology, cultural analysis, history and plenty of solid, close-read music criticism. He's a rock crit by trade, not to mention a vinyl hound and an all-around data freak. 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. Reynolds's discography pinpoints the first house music 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 salvo of mega-sub-bassy Northern England house (Unique 3's "The Theme"). With a nod to David Toop, perhaps the sharpest chronicler of British DJ music around, he traces the development of the various house subgenres and offshoots, including jungle, trance, gabba, happy hardcore and big beat.

Generation Ecstasy may seem like useless arcana to some, but no more so than recognizing the proper place afforded Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" or James Brown's "Cold Sweat" in rock and roll history. And unlike rock, this is a secret history, one that, outside of record-shop chat and DJ magazines, simply hasn't existed until now. True, Reynolds is enamored -- maybe over-enamored -- of dance music's myriad micro-genres -- hell, he named plenty of them himself. But he does more than just list releases and sort styles. He does his best to explicate what each sonic shift means and the cultural reality it reflects. Among other things, the book documents the evolution of bells-and-whistles anthems when short DJ sets became the norm at multi-artist raves; the growth of darkside and gabba when Ecstasy burnout and amphetamine abuse transformed the psyche of mid-'90s dance; the spliff worship that shaped drum 'n' bass and trip hop; and the reactionary move toward ambient and "intelligent" techno.

In much of his critical work, Reynolds has indulged an obsession with musical experience that creates an "apocalyptic now," where past and future, consciousness and critical thought, are whited-out in moments of grand-mal bacchanalia. In the introduction to Generation Ecstasy, he quotes critic Barney Hoskyns from a piece he 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, at times, like random information. Yet it's an admirable desire to get beyond the facts that gives the book its veering tension and its bold heart. Like many of us, Reynolds got his utopian imagination fired up after experiencing the synergy of the effects 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 E), or that its stumbling blocks also have a lot to do with drugs (misuse, abuse and counterproductive laws). After all the dashed promises and self-delusion of late-'60s psychedelic culture, he actually has the cojones to suggest that music and drugs might yet be able to change the world. God bless him.

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