Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch
Saturday, April 29 2000, 1:15 PM
It's not often that a piece of popular music criticism can be described as a mammoth undertaking, but Generation Ecstasy certainly fits the bill. A large percentage of the music books out there consist largely of hot air. They inflate the content of a magazine article to hideous proportions. But even though Generation Ecstasy tops out at over 400 pages, I never had the sense that I was wasting my time reading this 25-year history.
I've been a big fan of Simon Reynolds's music criticism since I first ran across it in the late 1980s, when I used to pore over the pages of New Musical Express and Melody Maker with religious fervor. I hadn't yet learned to look for the by-line, but there was something about Reynolds's prose that made it impossible to overlook his name. Some of his longer pieces from that period were compiled in his book Blissed Out, which is so beautifully written that it convinced me to purchase records I was sure I'd dislike. And that's quite an achievement. Yet for all the respect I had for Reynolds as a writer, I never expected him to do the kind of in-depth research that culminated in Generation Ecstasy.
This is not to imply that Reynolds has lost his feel for language. Generation Ecstasy is full of fine writing, like when he describes being turned on to rave culture:
"This time, fully E-d up, I finally grasped viscerally why the music was made the way it was; how certain tingly textures goosepimpled your skin and particular oscillator riffs triggered the E-rush; the way the gaseous diva vocals mirrored your own gushing emotions."
There are many passages like this one in the book, simultaneously precise and evocative. In fact, I imagine that Reynolds's descriptions of the relationship between music and Ecstasy could serve quite nicely as a surrogate for the drug itself.
But in spite of Reynolds's literary prowess, by far the most impressive thing about Generation Ecstasy is its scope. It provides the sort of history which popular music has rarely witnessed: exhaustively detailed and coherently argued. Reynolds does his best to document the diversity of rave culture, from its origins in 1980s techno and house through the "electronica" era of the late 1990s. He deserves praise for explaining the particularities of race, class, and drug-use which have defined the different rave scenes over the years. More impressive still his is facility for explaining how and why the records and rituals of one scene -- like Manchester in the late 1980s -- were transported to another -- like the San Francisco Bay Area of the mid-1990s.
And Reynolds consistently reminds us of his basic point. Trained by our high-school and college English teachers to concentrate on the text -- the music, in this case -- our critical faculties need to be radically reconstructed if we are to understand rave culture at all. Because it renders the distinction between text and context meaningless. "Rave culture is more than music plus drugs; it's a matrix of lifestyle, ritualized behavior, and beliefs. To the participant, it feels like a religion; to the mainstream observer, it looks more like a sinister cult." In other words, rave culture is a total experience.
I've known enough ravers to confirm Reynolds's assessment. Yet I'm troubled by the implication that rave culture is fundamentally different from other forms of music consumption. Punk may not produce the same kind of total experience as rave culture, but it certainly has the power to be all-encompassing. To use an example from close to my home, the regulars at Berkeley's 924 Gilman Street in the early 1990s were obviously there for more than music. Many of them never even went inside, or played basketball during the bands' performances if they did. And yet they were undeniably members of the peculiar community that had coalesced around the club. I suppose what I'm really getting at here is the need for a detailed history of punk to match Generation Ecstasy. Who knows? Maybe one of you will write its companion piece.
Generation Ecstasy is available from Routledge