Books: Clubs but no trumps

John Tague is unimpressed by recent accounts of the first ten years of club culture
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The Independent Culture
It's now ten years since the phrase "acid house" first entered the language. At the time, the arrival of a dance revolution - new music, new clothes, new ways of behaving and new drugs to take - prompted predictions of cultural Gotterdammerung: a phenomenon that would change forever the way music was created and received, that would end the dominance of the band as a musical force and, through widespread use of the drug ecstasy, give its users a taste of utopia. Enlightenment seemed just a dance beat away.

Ten years on and those early predictions look laughably naive. Club culture - though something of a fading force here in the UK - is now a recognised multi- national, multi-million pound industry, as mature and dependable as property. But 10 years is a long time for a youth culture to endure, and almost all the writers who have analysed this subject agree that something important has happened and continues to happen as far as the dance revolution is concerned. But exactly what that "importance" might amount to remains elusive. Now, prompted by the tenth anniversary of the second Summer of Love of 1988, several books have appeared to map the story of club culture and offer some suggestions about what it all might mean.

Energy Flash (Picador, pounds 9.99) by Simon Reynolds and Adventures in Wonderland: A Decade of Club Culture by Sheryl Garratt (Headline pounds 12.99) are both heavily indebted to the original account of ecstasy culture and acid house, Altered State by Matthew Collin (Serpent's Tail pounds 6.99). Published last year, this was the first book to map the history of house, from its earliest manifestations in the black, gay clubs of New York, Chicago and Detroit, to its remorseless rise as global commodity. As a social history it remains unmatched, but Energy Flash follows a self-consciously different approach to Altered States and concentrates on close analysis of the music.

Reynolds is one of this country's finest and most intellectually engaging music journalists, and since his early days on Melody Maker in the late Eighties has consistently championed the radical and left-field in popular music. However, he freely admits that he missed out on the early years of the dance explosion, finally getting involved in 1991-1992 when the house scene was beginning to splinter into a number of different and mutually antagonistic directions. Consequently Reynolds is a little weak about assessing the early, breakthrough years of house but is strong on examining the multiple and sometimes hilarious sub and sub-sub-genres and spin-offs of house that have developed this decade (hardcore, drum and bass, ambient, trance, gabba, "happy" gabba, happy hardcore, darkcore, "intelligent" jungle, techstep, handbag, hardbag, speed garage, big beat etc etc).

Consistently illuminating about his subject, Reynolds can, at his weakest, be given to fits of theoretical excess. It's fair to say that anyone who earnestly "theorises" about the grim noise that is gabba house (particularly nasty Dutch house that reaches speeds of 250 bpm and beyond) risks ridicule, but Reynolds is too eloquent a writer to make a fool of himself. Analysing "hardcore house" in terms of the thought of French theorist Paul Virilio or relating pirate radio to the ideas of Deluze and Guattari could make for a boring, po-faced read, but Reynolds has a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of enthusiasm for his subject that is ultimately infectious. He's a writer who manages to transmit the excitement he feels about the music into his prose - a rare gift, and one that makes him incessantly rewarding to read.

After the intellectually rigorous, if occasionally earnest, analysis of Reynolds, Sheryl Garratt's Adventures in Wonderland promises a little relief. Eschewing a theoretical approach, Garratt produces a straight- forward narrative of how the last decade of club culture has evolved. She relies on plenty of first-person testament from those who were integral to the scene's development and throws up the occasional notable moment. (Tony Colston-Hayter, for instance, organiser of the infamous large scale Sunrise raves of 1989 and comically dubbed the "The Mr Big of Acid House" by the tabloids, has never found a niche since leaving the scene, unable to find any pursuit as remotely exciting and lucrative as fighting with the police to get 15,000 ravers waving their arms around in a field.)

The acid house story is certainly a story worth telling, but the way Garratt tells it seldom makes it worth reading. Compared to Altered State or Energy Flash, Adventures in Wonderland seems rudderless, and too often depends on a sort of "I was there, look-how-cool-I-am" trendier-than-thouness that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

More wrestling with the cultural issues raised by the rise of ecstasy and its attendant culture comes in a couple of essays in the collection DIY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain ed George McKay (Verso pounds 11). this mixed bag of essays records the exploits of the multi-faceted party and protest underground that has grown up over the past decade or so. The sundry deeds of such groups as Reclaim the Streets, Earth First, Dongas Tribe, Spiral Tribe, Tonka and other sound systems/ad-hoc ex-hippie traveller groups are committed to prose with various degrees of success. Two essays, "The Great British Ecstasy Revolution" by Mary Ann Wright, and Hillegonda Rietveld's piece on the politics of DIY dance culture attempt a critique of the political and social implications of the rise of dance, and particularly the free festival underground pioneered by the likes of techno hippie collective the Spiral Tribe. But for all their ambition, these essays are disappointing and ultimately say very little about the phenomena they attempt to analyse. It seems the "meaning" of house culture remains elusive.

Running throughout all these attempts at "reading" the dance explosion is the anxiety that it doesn't amount to much at all. For all the extravagant claims of its protagonists and practitioners, there's a worry that rave is little more than a particularly sophisticated commodity perfectly tailored for late 20th century leisure time hedonism.

So among all this wracking of brains to construct valid theories to explain dance culture, it comes as something of a relief to turn to Jane Bussman's Once in a Lifetime (Virgin pounds 9.99). This deeply silly book is another record of a decade of acid house. But instead of the approach of Collins, Reynolds and Garratt, it doesn't present a master-narrative of the rise of dance, nor does it attempt anything approaching analysis. Instead, arranged chronologically from 1988, it presents a collection of anecdotes and first-person accounts from those who were involved in the scene, along with photographs, reproductions of flyers and other paraphernalia from the past 10 years. For all its flaws (and there are many) this is the one book which captures the sense of fun and abandon that characterised a decade of dance: a decade of (in its own words) havin' it, largin' it, getting luvdup and losing it. Like the scene itself, Once in a Lifetime consists of 50 per cent bullshit, 40 per cent fun and another 10 per cent of worthwhile insight. And that, I think, is just about the right balance to strike.