Simon Reynolds’s new book on dance culture comes in two versions. The American, Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture, is simpler and more linear. The British, Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Club Culture, loops around in a druggier way and is accompanied by an illustrative CD. With the argument cut differently in each book (different chapter sequences, some different material), reading them back to back is like listening to different mixes of a 12-inch single. It’s the same book, but sets up different readerships.
In Britain publishers have seized on 1998 as the 10th Anniversary of Acid House, and Energy Flash has to be read as one of a number of books of club history and reminiscence. The best of Reynolds’s competitors, Sheryl Garratt’s Adventures in Wonderland: A Decade of Club Culture, is in effect another mix: the same stories, the same key interviews, the same photographs. For a generation of British youth, dance music is now an embedded physical memory, and these books (Reynolds’s included) function as print repositories for familiar dance-floor tales–how Europhile techno producer Derrick May was dismayed by what British clubbers did to his Detroit sounds; how Paul Oakenfold and his DJ friends had an epiphany in Ibiza; how the Hacienda housed the rise and fall of Madchester. Rave culture, in short, has left a permanent imprint on British pop mythology that Reynolds must address.
But in the States, judging by Reynolds’s own account, rave remains a fringe culture, a distorted mirror of an exotic British scene that was itself a distorted amplifier of an African American sound. Modern dance music needs an accounting to American readers in different terms than for British readers, and Generation Ecstasy is duly lucid, comprehensive, and smart. Reynolds uses a variety of approaches: straight narrative, I-was-there reportage, critical theory. Arguments vanish and recur, grounded in a relentless series of track descriptions, lovingly analyzing and evoking numbers you’ve never heard and never will.
Through this undergrowth of musical detail two themes sound out. First, 1990s dance culture can only be understood by reference to the effects of Ecstasy. Dance-floor sensibility, from smiley-face utopianism to fragmented panic, was an expression of E-consciousness. It was this consciousness that the best DJs understood; it was these DJs who kept the music moving to match the collective mood. Second, dance dramatically sped up the usual pop process of revolt into style. Reynolds captures well the buzz and disappointment of pop fandom–the excitement of learning a musical secret; the rush when you realize everyone else knows it too; the immediate realization that it is, alas, no longer a secret. On the rave scene this familiar pop process was materialized in the Ecstasy effect, in the effort of finding out where to go to dance and who would be going with you.
As Reynolds admits, Generation Ecstasy is part of this secret telling. He begins with a quote from fellow rock critic Barney Hoskyns: “What we must lose now is this insidious corrosive knowingness, this need to collect and contain.” Throughout the book there are echoes of Susan Sontag’s argument against interpretation. Reynolds values dance music over rock because of its meaninglessness, its supposed lack of stars and lyrics on which to hang a story. And yet his book is an exercise in containment, just as dance music itself is obsessed with genre labels, and he has no hesitation at all in linking “meaningless” sounds to changing social conditions, in treating producers like Tricky and the Aphex Twin as auteurs.
Indeed, in Reynolds’s account, ’90s dance music was the ultimate collectors’ music (all those knowing quotes and samples). Combine this with dance-floor dependence on do-it-yourself electronics, and it’s not surprising that you end up with an exclusively male musical form. There are reasons besides Reynolds’s book for thinking that the culture he describes is in terminal decline. In Britain, independent nightclubs are closing as dance music becomes part of corporate leisure and Radio 1 routine. Dance has changed pop industry practices (as punk did before it), but its final effect (like punk’s) will be to extend the boundaries of rock, with dance now absorbedinto its ideology, rather than to keep alive the avant-garde message that Reynolds is trying to inscribe in its history.
Meanwhile, for anyone over the age of 40, Generation Ecstasy is the best available wayinto what has always been a closed-to-the-grownups world. I’ve never taken Ecstasy,never raved, and what most struck me reading Reynolds in both versions is how reminiscent the experiences he describes are of my mod clubbing in the mid ’60s and disco clubbing in the early ’80s. Different sounds, different drugs, same exhilaration.