Books: Dance to the music of time

Geoff Dyer learns raving history
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The Independent Culture
Altered State: the story of Ecstasy culture and Acid House by Matthew Collin with contributions from John Godfrey, Serpent's Tail, pounds 10.99

Future social histories of our period will make much of the outcome of next week's election. Yet in the context of the sea change engendered by chemicals and music described here, that event seems like an incidental detail. The structure of feeling of Britain has been changed in ways that will be manifest long after the next government has come and gone. Fashion and music change quickly, but we can take solace in Ecstasy culture's "unprecedented longevity". The music has kept improving and, amazingly, the scene has kept growing. Altered State explains how.

The chief difficulty in writing about E culture is the enormous gulf between those who have been part of it and those outside. From within, the tone tends towards the cringe-making sub-literacy of the recent Disco Biscuits anthology. Back in the late 1970s, by contrast, someone like Dick Hebdige puffed up his reputation by putting "youth culture" through a sub- Roland Barthes mincer, the novelty depending on the palpable gap between what was being discussed and the style of its dissection. Since the hallmark of E culture is that it is participatory, any attempt to process it in these terms would be laughable.

Matthew Collin's and John Godfrey's excellent book is dedicated to the friends "who lived it with us", but it is also a model of judicious evaluation and clarity. True to their subject, they emphasise that their version of events offers one of a number of possible remixes. It is hard to imagine that theirs will soon be bettered. Much of the story - from the rediscovery of MDMA (the active component of Ecstasy) in the 1960s, the Warehouse, lbiza, raves and Leah Betts ("a symbol not of innocence defiled but of the chasm in understanding between generations") to super-clubs catering for "the chemical generation" - will be vaguely familiar. Yet events already semi-mythical are synched in with obscure incidents, and the experiences of ravers, to create a narrative that is constantly informative and utterly compulsive. Since the initial acid-house cult has long since splintered into God knows how many sub-sects, this in itself is no mean achievement.

Even more impressive, though, is the way that the narrative is shaped. A few minutes after starting the prologue, you feel a rush of admiration for the way that the myriad inflections and ambiguities have been arrayed. "The recurring story within Ecstasy culture," it argues, "is of people coming into the scene, being inspired by the revelatory flash of the primal Ecstasy experience, then ... altering the direction of the scene itself by applying their own personal frame of reference to their experience."

The attractions of E culture are obvious: "It is the best entertainment format on the market, a deployment of technologies - musical, chemical and computer - to deliver altered states of consciousness." At the same time, it "offers a forum to which people can bring narratives about class, race, sex, economics or morality." While the culture challenged the "vested interests that control the leisure industry", its dependence on an illegal drug meant that gangsters were soon fighting over the profits. "Thousands danced in blissed-out ignorance" of the fact that "their pleasures were facilitated by violence and terror".

On the one hand, E culture is subversive - "as drug use became normalised criminality was democratised". On the other, subversion has been commodified. Like all the best historians, what's more, the authors have that knack of making this analysis an inherent - rather than supplementary - quality of the narrative itself.

Altered State is not just timely; it was crying out to be written. Anyone who has played a small part in this still unfolding story will want to read this book because it explains what they have lived through; anyone who hasn't, should.