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Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture

by Simon Reynolds

(Little, Brown)

By Michaelangelo Matos

Nineteen ninety-eight is the tenth anniversary of rave culture, and though it hasn’t elicited the kind of hoopla that, say, the 20th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s did, it hasn’t gone unremarked either. But while ravers may be every bit as self-interested as baby boomers, rave nostalgia seems like an oxymoron, not least because techno ain’t over yet. Still, the subculture is attempting to sum up its contributions to popular culture so far, with everything from parties dedicated to capturing “that old school vibe,” as a flyer from Chicago put it, to cover stories in British magazines about “acid house ten years on” to compilations like Moonshine’s Classic Rave.

This comes at an awkward juncture in the music’s evolution in the U.S., where rave has yet to get huge the way it has in Europe. Ecstasy and the music that heralded its arrival in England changed that country’s pop culture irrevocably. Here, though the impact has been significant, it’s still largely subterranean: ravers have played unwitting muse to fashion designers and drum ‘n’ bass has been appropriated by everyone from R & B producer Timbaland to New York art rockers Soul Coughing. But the broad popular assumption, shared by most critics, is that the music in its pure form can’t survive outside the nightclubs, and thus its appeal is limited to a cadre of diehards who might as well not exist as far as the real world is concerned.

This line of thinking isn’t entirely unfounded: even if the average consumer likes the stuff, getting a toehold in it can be tough. Techno is famously not artist oriented or personality driven; its canon is a shitload of 12-inch singles designed to remain obscure no matter how legendary or influential they get. The history of rave is largely a series of fleeting, incandescent moments in clubs or warehouses–and it’s true that there’s nothing quite like hearing the music in its proper context. But it’s equally true that the music needs no context to be enjoyed–saying techno can’t work at home is like saying you need to be sitting at a concert hall in front of an orchestra to appreciate classical music.

Such contentions are a driving force behind Simon Reynolds’s Generation Ecstasy, the British critic’s third book and the most visible evidence of the scene’s anniversary-inspired introspection. The near definitive account of rave’s rise has plenty of cultural context: overviews of scenes, personality profiles, analysis of “the psychic and physical costs of [rave’s] rampant hedonism.” The music is talked about as part of a larger cultural trend, and the very title of the book is Reynolds’s bid to lend the 1990s the sort of unified-aesthetic credibility so often claimed by the children of the 1960s, but what’s most notable is that Reynolds also spends a lot of pages discussing individual slabs of wax as if they might be worth hearing in their own right.

Apparently this is news–particularly regarding the music’s first six or seven years of existence. This was its most fertile period, one of the most exciting eras of pop music, yet the music from this time is still routinely dismissed as mindless kid stuff, repetitive and numbing and weird. Which it is–and that’s what makes it great. Rave culture, as Reynolds understands and so many other critics don’t, didn’t change people’s lives because it was smart or interesting or well thought-out. It changed them because it was the most exciting fun imaginable, in the most current terms possible. It was genuine youth music, capable of dividing generations like punk and rap before it.

In his review of Generation Ecstasy for the Minneapolis alternative weekly City Pages, Will Hermes writes, “Generation Ecstasy deserves a companion CD (or three), as with the U.K.-only companion to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces. In lieu of that, one hopes some spirited record labels start reclaiming and reissuing the music history contained in Reynolds’s book.” This blatantly ignores that, to a great extent, they already have. The early 90s saw more than enough dreadfully packaged, one-good-cut-plus-filler techno compilations–Continuum’s This Is Techno series springs to mind. But there are a good dozen or so that still stand up today, not just as nostalgia but as living music. Back when critics were salivating over dull “masterpieces” by the likes of Hole, albums like Moonshine’s Speed Limit 140 BPM Plus 3 (1993) and Profile’s Best of Techno Vol. 3 (1993) and History of Our World Part One: Breakbeat & Jungle Ultramix by DJ DB (1994) were released to almost no fanfare. They’re actually as exciting as the aforementioned “Pazz & Jop” poll winner was purported to be.

So they got missed–no big deal, right? It wouldn’t be if the rock intelligentsia hadn’t continued to shower praise on ordinary and even subpar techno albums. When Spin named as the 19th-best album of 1996 Logical Progression–a compilation centered around Good Looking Records label head LTJ Bukem, in whose image all the double CD’s tracks were laid–writer Sia Michel proclaimed, “Epochal techno compilations come out about as often as Ellen DeGeneres.” True, but Logical Progression isn’t one of them by a long shot. Was it chosen because Bukem is a figurehead and therefore easy to write about? Because Michel (and I’m hypothesizing of course) hadn’t heard more than a handful of techno compilations and the first one that made sense to her was therefore “epochal”? Because it’s easier to attribute “artistic merit” to Tangerine Dream with breakbeats than to the three-note keyboard riffery over pounding bass drums that gave early techno fans such a pure rush?

Likewise any techno that’s made strictly for fun is devalued–unless it’s really similar to rock ‘n’ roll. Ignoring early rave comps like 1992’s Kickin Mental Detergent while focusing on arena-techno artists like the Chemical Brothers and Underworld (as Charles Aaron and Hermes did in Spin’s big electronica package in late ’96) might seem obvious–one’s silly, one’s, ahem, serious. But KMD is a blast, all innocent pleasure and the urge to get up and dance all night. Underworld is pretentious and angsty, batting you over the head with a “message,” which is something along the lines of “The sky is falling” (now there’s a new angle). The underlying implication–that techno that acts like rock is somehow inherently superior to techno that acts like techno–is faulty. This is why Reynolds’s book, if anyone reads it, will be a godsend: by celebrating the records that originally converted ravers and not just the more commercially friendly stuff, he points the way to smarter, less fearful home listening.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.