Flying with the greatest of ease

ALTERED STATE: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House by Matthew Collin with John Godfrey Serpent's Tail pounds 10.99
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The Independent Culture
Former Face and i-D journalist writes book about the social impact of Ecstasy and its endlessly unfolding backdrop of competing musical sub-genres. Irvine Welsh thinks of something nice to say on the jacket. There are no surprises in this story so far. The shock comes when you lift the cover to start reading and discover that Altered State, far from the brisk cut-and-paste job which might have been anticipated (and which would still probably have sold by the truckload), is actually an intricately detailed and extremely well-researched cultural history.

For the benefit of those who have seen it as their patriotic duty never to compromise their Britishness by taking any tablet which might cause them to dance wildly in the streets or kiss people they don't know, Collin kicks off with an instructively embarrassing first-person account of a debut Ecstasy experience. "Were there demons in this other world?" demands the suitably effusive authorial voice in the enigmatically titled prologue "A Night In the Eighties". "Would we come back unharmed?" Judging by the euphoric tone of the ensuing few paragraphs ("You'll be all right, it's good, it's good, ride it ... A huge, glowing magical YES") the answers to these questions would seem to be, respectively, "No" and "Maybe". Much credit is due to the book for daring to address the possibility that, for some people at least, the correct responses might be the other way round.

Collin's writing tends towards two very disparate poles. On one side is the jaunty triumphalism of such ringing phrases as "How we reached the peak of human experience and what happened afterwards". On the other there's an occasional tendency to lapse into the sort of pseudo-scientific sociological jargon ("temporary autonomous zones", "a forum to which people can bring narratives") to which chemical-generation poet laureate Irvine Welsh has also been known to have recourse at moments of high seriousness. But the apparent contradiction between these two approaches is actually not unhelpful. The leap of faith required to resolve it is the same one demanded by this story's compellingly complex inter-relation of personal and public moralities.

While much has traditionally been made of the apolitical nature of Ecstasy- induced hedonism, the British establishment would hardly have mobilised such a weight of resources against its more blatant manifestations if they had seen things that way. And yet neither is this one of those simplistic sagas of state power and cultural resistance so beloved of bearded historians. Altered State makes it intriguingly clear that the late Eighties' unprecedented outbreak of mass communal pleasure-seeking was equally a reaction to and a development of the dominant political ideas of the Thatcher era. "Echoing its ethos of choice and market freedom," is the way Collin puts it, "yet expressing desires for a collective experience that Thatcherism rejected and consumerism could not provide."

Acid House's original soundtrack - the house and techno sounds of Chicago and Detroit - were made by unlicensed adaptations of the same new technology which had destroyed those American cities' industrial futures. Similarly, the rogue entrepreneurs who delivered the music and its vital chemical accoutrements to an eager new British audience were adapting the libertarian capitalism that had laid waste to their environment to uses its authors would never have dreamt of. This logic of appropriation spun off in all sorts of unexpected directions - from legal party-organisers putting the newly-privatised British Telecom's brand new icebank system to good use outwitting the police, to pasty-faced ravers enhancing their sense of physical disorientation via liberal applications of menthol rub.

Even Ecstasy itself - or MDMA, to use the scientific name coined by its inventor, Russian exile Alexander Shulgin - took a pretty strange trip. From its early enthusiastic adoption by the American therapeutic community (Collin gleefully notes that upwards of half a million capsules were distributed by US mental health care professionals before the drug was finally declared illegal there in 1985), via gay nightclubs in Texas and New York, through the raucous reunions of "loved up" Londoners who couldn't bear to come back to earth when they came home from Ibiza, to its final resting place on the front pages of the tabloids as the scourge of decent British suburban youth: the drug's ever-expanding allure proved stronger than the determination of each successive clique of aficionados to keep it to themselves.

"No one wants a Sixties situation to develop," arch-LSD evangelist Timothy Leary had observed prophetically in the early stages of MDMA experimentation, "where sleazy characters hang around college dorms peddling pills falsely labelled XTC to lazy thrill-seekers." The dialogue between mass and elite cultures which runs throughout Collin's story parallels another - potentially more fraught with danger - between purity and adulteration. Of the supposed Ecstasy tablets seized by police at the Fantazia legal rave at Castle Donnington in 1992, 97 per cent were actually made of something else: vitamin pills, hay-fever capsules, paracetamol.

It is in this contested area, between the millennial dreams of those whose lives Ecstasy has energised, and the grim realities of the far smaller number the drug (or crude imitations of it) has scarred for life or even killed, that Altered State does its best work. Collin turns an admirably steely investigative eye on the criminal takeover of the Ecstasy infrastructure - the switch, in the memorable phrase of one of the participants, "from double-barrelled name to double-barrelled shotgun". In doing so, he sheds valuable new light on several enduring Ecstasy myths, most notably that of the drug's role in the late-Eighties decline of football hooliganism.

No doubt some terrace hardmen forgot their petty hatreds in the delirium of the dance, Collin contends, but others saw the money-making opportunities and moved in to run things. The only problem with what this book appealingly terms "pirate utopias" is that pirates tend to want to live in them.