Originally published in 1997, this review of ‘Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House’ by Matthew Collin, with contributions by John Godfrey, is from the 1998 updated second edition. Detailing the growth of ecstasy culture in the UK, from its roots in the United States, Ibiza and in the phenethylamine MDMA, the book examines the many threads that came together to create the underground dance scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The 1980s, an era dominated by the rampant neo-conservative free-market economics of Thatcher and Regan, is the socio-political backdrop for this story of the rise of ecstasy culture in the United Kingdom. The combination of a marginalised youth traveling to Ibiza, a new style of music being developed in Detroit, Chicago and New York and the gay black scene, all entwined to become a potent mixture of influences that led to one of the largest counter-cultural youth scenes the UK had ever experienced. The individualistic endeavour that was so ingrained in the politics of the day enthused this cultural landscape, although this was not to the liking of the politicians who promulgated the laissez-faire perspective.
Turntable innovation—with its electronica, looping beats and pulsing noises—provided the technology for the heightened, experiential awareness that many in that time were looking for; an escape from the stylistic conformity of Thatcher’s banking, miner-bashing, Britain. Not since the 1960s psychedelic heyday had such a mass voyage been embarked upon. However, rather than LSD providing the chemical impetus for this technological self-discovery, it was the phenethylamine 3, 4-methylenedioxymethampthetamine (MDMA). And, as with all cultural drug experiments, it became a lens through which society could come to terms with itself. All of which is astutely described and analysed by Matthew Collin in Altered State.
“Ecstasy culture offered a forum to which people could bring narratives about class, race, sex, economics or morality. Again, its definition was subject to individual interpretation; it could be about environmental awareness; it could be about race relations and class conflict; it could be about the social repercussions of the drug economy[…]all stories that say something about life in the nineties” (Collin 6).
MDMA was first synthesised in 1912 by the Merck pharmaceutical company but soon disappeared from view. It was not until the drug was later synthesised by Alexander Shulgin that it began to have an impact within the Western cultural scene. Shulgin, who later became a reluctant hero to the ecstasy culture, introduced the drug to the psychologist Leo Zoff, who began using the drug as part of psychotherapy because of the feelings of empathy it gave to users, along with helping to break down mental barriers. The drug soon became popular with the psychotherapy circle in the US and the “therapeutic community distributed in the region of half a million doses of the drug in a decade” (Collin 28). Indeed, the drug went by the name ‘adam’ and ‘empathy’ for some time, until it began leaking out into the wider social when one entrepreneurial dealer renamed it ‘ecstasy’. From there, the drug was being taken socially in fashionable groups. However, some, via the followers of the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, found its way to the island of Ibiza and was met by traveling young Brits.
It was not long before the heady combination of the developing electronic dance music and MDMA was exported back to London. From this point the story becomes fractal and Collin explores this with the neat equation of honeymoon, excess and come down. Small tribes of people who identified themselves with certain musical genres and the drug would set up scene, the scene would grow, become too popular for the clique, which would splinter, along with the music, into other scenes and this pattern would repeat over and over again across the country. The equation reflected both the individual’s ecstasy experience, with many saying that one cannot find the original honeymoon buzz, which, in looking for, would lead to an excess of taking and an eventual comedown, and also the scenes themselves, which fluttered up and out of existence. Acid house, garage, techno, and eventually jungle and speed garage proliferated, and interesting as they did, so the quality of the drug was adulterated with MDA, ketamine, or simply non-psychoactive agents. Eventually, as ravers and travellers came into contact, the groups themselves would be embittered toward one another and be caught in this cycle.
“There was a more complex problem. Although some travellers embraced the new festival format with glee and others enjoyed the economic gain of supplying party favours, significant numbers actively disliked house music and found the non-stop pulse of the sound systems deeply depressing. This was partly a generational divide: many older travellers were happy with their folk and rock stages; some had children who were kept awake all night by the thump of digital drums” (Collin 214).
One might hope that the recognition of their countercultural places would in some way endear these groups to one another, but ecstasy was also the root of their destruction. The early nod at psychedelia, with the ‘peace and love’ motif, was eradicated by gangs moving in on the business, raves themselves becoming businesses and the eventual commoditisation of the whole scene. Water cost extortionate prices, violence and threat came hand-in-hand with the drugs, and the original honeymoon was blasted with the excess of the political atmosphere. Ecstasy use at the dance—whether in raves, free parties, festivals or clubs—was the element most virulently demonised in the press and the government acted against the countercultures with great force.
A series of bills and laws were introduced that began to marginalise the original ethos’ of the scenes, and indeed the very way in which they functioned, and had the effect of setting travellers against ravers, soundsystems against soundsystems. It comes as a surprise that a unification between them was never reached. They had a common enemy—the establishment—and had they acted as a single force then perhaps, in defeating them, they could have opened their own cultural spaces legitimately instead of being herded together. As it was they continued to splinter until they were truly capitalised. Machiavelli would have been proud of the way Government handled the problem, and disgusted at the way these groups could not form a coherent defence.
Collin’s book is an extremely detailed, well researched cultural history, filled with first person interviews from all sides of the argument, and seamlessly woven together into an engaging and emotion-provoking narrative. The legacy of this era is still felt acutely today in Britain. While Radio 1 and massive, expensive clubs have fully capitalised on the musical legacy, free and squat parties are still grooving the motions and developing new beats for the aforementioned social control tools to rip on. The government, once again Conservative (although it appeared to be no different under the façade of Blair’s New Labour) are still cracking down on people having fun and squatting and, more excruciatingly blindly, against drugs themselves, which is to say against the people who use them. As well as being a great history, this book is terse reminder of how the few control the many.