Independent Decade : Smiling face of the chemical generation

Rave culture
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The Independent Online
In 1986, when the first stirrings of the Ecstasy generation were surfacing, an older, watching world groped for terms to describe what it saw: designer drug, rave, chemical smile, techno music.

But those who had actually been there at the sweaty birth of acid house read these wooden accounts of their "fad" and laughed - for they knew they were on to something quite unlike anything anyone else had ever experienced.

No one will ever be certain why, 10 years ago, a 70-year-old slimming drug and a new kind of music originating in Detroit should have crystalised so explosively. A decade so far defined by Duran Duran and the discotheque had suddenly been overtaken by a drug whose possibilities appeared limitless.

This innocuous-looking white tablet was seamlessly joining Saturday night and Monday morning, in a magical world without dress-codes or self- consciousness, or slow, desperate dances around the handbags at 10 minutes to two.

Without, in short, all the prescribed nasties of prevailing nightlife. To be there as the sun came up was to be dancing - in every sense - to a very different beat.

Warehouse parties and illegal raves were taking place everywhere. The weekend began with that mysterious ritual, the chain of precision-timed phone calls, followed by a convoy excursion around the M25, and arrival at some strobe-splashed version of Utopia in a muddy field near Beckenham.

Alcohol and chat-up lines were suddenly, hilariously uncool; trainers, Lucozade and tracksuit bottoms were the raver's love affair.

It is amazing, now, to recall how reluctant clubs were to get involved. Owners took one look at a scene founded on an illegal drug and indifferent to drink, gave it five minutes and turned their backs.

Only a handful, like Manchester's Hacienda, gave house a home - and although this was starting to change (the Ministry of Sound, with its ground-breaking 24-hour dance licence, had opened in 1991), it was the Criminal Justice Act which effectively pulled the scene out of the warehouses and installed it on the High Street.

Every town in the country, however humble, now has at least one dance club, and a 4am licence is now commonplace. In most cities, you can dance legally until the following lunchtime or beyond.

To all intents and purposes, house music is modern pop music; Radio One fetes DJs like pop stars, Match of the Day picks club classics for its theme tunes. Corporate clubbing has become a cliche, clubs are market "brands". Ecstasy deaths are a fact of life.

But there is nothing much particularly special about the Ecstasy generation any more.

The chemical smile is neither knowing nor secret - yesterday's revolution has become today's Top of the Pops. This is as much a source of sadness to its earliest pioneers as it is to the anti-drug crusaders - for what Ecstasy has gained in institutionalisation, it has lost in wide-eyed wonderment.

A decade on, and we are already wondering what happens next.