I've always wondered how well historians actually documented history; based on what "revisionists" tell us, we know they weren't always very accurate. Over the past seven years, I've been privy to the evolution of dance music and rave culture—from illegal break-in raves that featured squelchy acid house, to the big commercial, techno- and breakbeat-era Ticketmaster-sponsored parties, to the word-of-mouth gatherings with jungle and experimental noise. So has Simon Reynolds, a longtime dance critic for The Wire, Spin, and The Village Voice, who writes down his experiences in Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture. It's disconcerting to read a history of something you've lived through, but while Reynolds' version of events isn't exactly wrong, he doesn't always get it quite right. Like the historians before him, his own subjective perceptions color the time line and importance of each emerging style, at times stressing a minor part of rave subculture that was vital to only a precious few.
by Simon Reynolds (Little, Brown & Co., $25)
Matthew Collin made the only other formidable attempt at documenting rave subculture in his 1997 book, Altered State. But Collin's book began as a straightforward documentation and fell into a downward spiral, quickly becoming a book about ecstasy and drug use within the scene. Generation Ecstasy gives a nod to the drug underworld, but the author smartly acknowledges, it's the music, stupid. Reynolds exhaustively catalogs and critiques every aspect of the rave culture: the differing subsections of music (house, techno, jungle, hardcore, gabber, etc.), each style's fan base, the artists, the drugs, and all of the underlying social implications. The early chapters resonate the loudest: Reynolds deftly deconstructs the mechanisms of the music, breaking it down to its infancy—Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa, and precursors like Can and musique concrete. As a time line, the book is invaluable—covering what happened when and who did what, and how it all converged to become techno music. If you want to know about Larry Levan and Autechre and Alec Empire, you'll find it here.
Because the book is also a critique, Reynolds subjects us to an entirely too long section on his favorite genre, gabber, a form of music that resembles a dentist drilling a hole in your teeth. And though his biases are clear—the rougher, the darker, the more blue-collar, the better—this means that house music proper gets almost completely overlooked, while the edgier subgenres like tech step jungle and gabber and rip-off artists like Tricky receive more accolades and attention than perhaps warranted.
And like Altered State, Generation Ecstasy loses steam a few chapters in. Reynolds starts writing like a doctoral student attempting to describe and dissect nearly every important or semi-important 12-inch ever released. "Unlike rock music," he writes in the introduction, "rave isn't oriented around lyrics; for the critic, this requires a shift of emphasis, so that you no longer ask what the music 'means' but how it works." But Reynolds becomes trapped by his own rule of thumb; after a while so much description becomes merely the mind-numbing sound of a writer writing. Describing the new genre of jungle, Reynolds writes of a track with "reversed B-lines emitting a sinister, radioactive glow, a sound dubbed 'dread bass' after the Dead Dred track that made it famous; shuddering tremolo effects like a spastic colon; metallic pings and sproings like syncopated robot farts." Yes, but what does it sound like?
Much of the writing in Generation Ecstasy was culled from Reynolds' previously published work in Spin, The Wire, the Voice, and the chapter endings often feel tagged on. But in a way, Reynolds aptly mirrors the rave audience's fickleness. He winds you up for a new genre (first house, then techno, then jungle, ad infinitum) and then, by chapter's end, inevitably declares it old hat. It's a cycle that's repeated throughout the book, and it kills any momentum this story-in-the-making should have.
Tricia Romano writes about popular music for Seattle Weekly.