Friday, 18 February 2011

Musical revolutions

Big emotive tunes are back and with them the hands in the air. But unlike the first rave awakening of the late 80s/early 90s that led to the various utopian and dystopian futurisms of techno and jungle, the rave experience is now taken for granted. And with music so often soundtracking every other aspect of our life, the hands in the air are often in another place, remonstrating as the tunes take on a hyping role at protests and marches against another ideological assault that threatens to take even more away than Thatcher did.

The rave was a utopian site, the thing-in-itself that had been delivered to the people by the people themselves. Many may scoff at the idea of rave being a youth movement in any political sense but not if you understand it on those terms. This mass awakening, as naive as it sounds, was the endgame, the immanent state back then. We were living in and to some degree had willed a post-political world to come along (our ‘spaced out’ youth barely noticed the 90-91 recession). It was like a na├»ve version of the communications/gadgetised utopia we’ve since thoroughly welcomed in the new millenium, where the main drug is staring at the screen, sharing and interacting for hours and hours of every day and don’t dare take it away, this is the New Life. All this has to be understood in a context where the past had far less licence to impinge on any 'new' scene and where there was no cornucopia of dance music, altered zones and modes as there is now (different scenes, different genres, different vibes or even all this hauntologically layered into one track).

Rave had fed on many of the chief attributes of many 80s subcultures – the manic buzz of the football hooligan, the crusty anti-capitalist/anarchist alternative, the left-leaning aspirations of 80s protesters in general – and assimilated all of this into a euphoric defiance of Thatcherite anti-society in a development which was almost universally recognised as essential for the soul of British youth. Orbital and warehouse raves and drug were returning for us our lost, atomised society. By the time rave had really expanded we’d had our last big protest spectacle – the poll tax riot in 1990 a culmination of 80s dissent against Thatcherism – but sound systems were not part of the protests in those days. So to join such an alluring autonomous zone was almost to acknowledge the slightly cultic stature (despite its nationwide scale) of the movement, and one after one we came over and assumed the slightly glazed-over look of converts. The first time I walked into a full-scale do in early 91, at the Park Prewett psychiatric unit in Basingstoke no less (the rave was called Evolution), the intensity and subversion of normality were clear. Your pints of lager with the pub-rock on the jukebox really don’t interest me now at all; you’re still a mate but I have wider connections.

The main factors of any scene constantly change their role and relationship in its structure – music does not always lead and the people follow. At times the set and setting, what people want from the society and where they want to get into their head, predominated. Rave’s initial burst in 1988/89 was not led by upfront music – most of the classics were made in 86 and 87 so old in dance culture terms. After the first-generation ravers frantically caught up with Chicago and Detroit, British guys began to produce but initially added little to the sound.

So the pre-90s tunes represented nothing so much as that thing-in-itself, the desired state. May’s Strings of Life had the euphoria, and of course would later be endlessly adapted by whatever scene that wanted to appropriate it, but in Britain such epiphanic tones became insufficient. The tunes had to start playing catch-up to this fast evolving alternative reality that the rave offered. In 92, I could be in east London one week rocking down the warehouse or driving round the home counties the next, looking for the do (I swear we would have reached Castle Morton if it wasn’t for bursting the tyre on my mum’s Metro). We needed more going on the beats, more outright madness in the vocals, not everything uplifting. This it did, evolving into the stylistically uncanny jungle – where rapture and rupture combined. The following excerpt from the Pump Up the Volume dance history doc is great for Beltram talking about Energy Flash going beyond right-minded definitions of house, and Goldie talking about the mindfuck that was Rage, how Terminator took that up another level and how the producers wanted to exceed not emulate the by-now bewildered Detroit elders.

Hardcore dance music was now in constant mutation, its producers barely able to keep up with the direction. For a few years more, perhaps up to ’95, the underlying sentiment was perhaps ‘can this music keep getting any better?’ (looking back now, take this with a pinch of salt and understand it as a typical 90s indulgence). And in a sense this was true, the ‘spirit of the rave’ or maybe even the drugs could not actually keep up with how deranged the music had become. Techno joined jungle as the main musical strand feeding this – two worlds where some respect was had for the other although not until mid-decade was there any trading of methodology. The former, and I’m talking here really about its Orbit/Knowledge phase, offered a very protestant, functional sonic template for the deliverance of utopia. Rhythm was everything – it had none of the sense of destabilisation of jungle. Much of this overall manic spirit was acknowledged and probably helped inspire the fruitless fight to keep the warehouse and field dos alive, in the protests against the Criminal Justice Bill.

But when we had to accept the hegemony of the controlled environment and the true acceptance of what, if anything, we had achieved (the weekender lifestyle basically, not a great legacy) – many sonic elements of those rave/techno/jungle years returned in more compromised, functional genres such as handbag house – the tunes playing second fiddle to the subcult again.

Now the playing field is acknowledged to be far, far different. The postwar possibility was being taken away in the 80s, but with none of the crazed marketisation (join up if you believe in living life riven by debt, if you don’t mind being just seen as a ‘consumer’ with ‘assets’ to ‘trade’ in a ‘market’) with which the sons of Thatcher are now delivering. In the 80s too her reckless divide-and-rule socio-economic strategy meant people could opt out of society, take the Vurt and discover zones of possibility in Britain’s broken cities while picking up their giro. This is not to deny the legitimacy of many of the strands of protest but arguably it gelled with a kind of indulgent cheap hedonism (just think how dance-able so much of the 80s agit-indie is). These are the preconditions that 80s protesters had been fighting off in aiming to deliver the promise of rave.

[If much of 80s ‘alternative’ music was eminently danceable, as people have been continually rediscovering from the late 90s, it had aims other than mere danceability and its weakness on these terms was that it was cultic, not populist, something rave then jungle often aspired to be. Techno was a bit more esoteric for most tastes but everybody understands the impetus of a 4/4 and its rhythmic base recombined with the hardcore from which it had split to make the many variants of happy hardcore/4-beat/bounce which prevailed in predominantly white poor towns].

Nobody would predict that then this cultural revolution of rave would lead to a fully corporatised and assimilated culture, but in the end not enough of its constituents fought to take it to the next level and its reliance on market supply for conspicuous consumption (all of the varied scenes never lost their dependence on the narco buzz, though drugs of choice did change) meant it slipped back overground. Firm prods in that direction came not only from the CJB but also from Radio1 types desperate to buy in to the culture. Maybe the veneer of subversion on ready supply from the legitimate urban club environment was actually enough.

Big dance tunes are just as important today, and the shock of the new sound probably just as intense in youthful minds as it was back then. But people are not fighting for the right to dance, very far from it – it’s the least of their worries and why would they anyway when delicious next-level line-ups are just a stroll off Kingsland Road away. Having a big dance in a field is not a political statement now, and all the warehouses are full of creatives chilling out in their think-zones between projects while the iPod plays whatever song you want from the cradle. They’re also in the fields, at those heavily branded festivals (aargh). There’s a sense that as far as our technologised society is concerned there is too much out there to enjoy to spend time bothering to react against. We buzz off the click. At the dance, we’ll blah-blah about our latest connections and blogs, share some shit virtually or otherwise.

Not so on the political front, where causes are legion and defending them seems more vital than ever before. Whereas the well meaning Generation Ravers and left-leaning sympathisers of the era liked a bit of a party with their protest and occasional anti-capitalist kick-off, leading to the ultimate mass surrender of the anti-Iraq war march, now there is much more urgency, and more diversified tactics, thanks in large part to 'Web II'.

Thus youth movements do not focus on escapist, delirious, uncanny music (though this exists in good, healthy and unclassifiable quantity), they’re looking for stuff that represents their disaffection, disenfranchisement and the making use of negative energy for creative force – think Tempz’ next Hype and of course Lethal’s legendary Pow!, even the contorted rage-inside of bro’step. Direct protest music is seen as a bit gauche and a bit too much of a fixed statement to really work in the current context (and while Guardian journos look for the next Clash/Bragg/Redskins-esque ‘voice of the generation’ none has stuck with the diverse movement, and neither are they likely to). That music which abounded in the 60s, 70s and 80s led to the climax of the ultimate revolutionary band – Public Enemy – being seen rather tragically as a white middle-class man’s plaything.

So in 20 years we see music playing a variable role in youth movements. Sometimes it affirms, sometimes it represents, for a few years way in the 90s it was beyond the party and almost beyond producers’ control.

The author blogs on music and other ephemera at Sonic Truth and tweets here


W. Kasper said...

I recall waking up after a particularly surreal, implosive weekend of 'bingeing' to the announcement that Princess Diana was dead.

The convergence of personal circumstances, with the disturbing mass hysteria her death generated, is where I marked subculture's grave. Along with Roni Size' dull album winning the Mercury, indie hegemony, the sudden boom in British cocaine use (goodbye good vibes!), and of course New Labour - with its relatively effective pacification of pop culture and oppositional politics.

Its traces remained via the internet, but I'm not sure if that web 2.0 could constitute a 'subculture', for obvious physical reasons. Although it appears (from my old fogey distance) that subcultural vitality is making something of a comeback...

Culla said...

yes, the middle of 97 from the labour election to the death of Di was a key period in an unlikely cultural counter-reformation. The coda of flatulent Beatles brass on Oasis' All Around the World (reprise - Be Here Now was released in August) gelled with the wailing necrothon attending diana's passing and the early (yet-to-deliver) Labour triumphalism for a depressing few months.

ps, i had carl's post in mind from a while ago on the Beach when thinking of the communication revolution the high-powered internet brought us - 'a real world, an exciting new world of interconnectivity and emerging technology'

Joe said...

Hi there,

I'm currently writing a thesis on the changing role of rave culture within people's lives in the 21st century. This article is really interesting and useful to me; do you mind if I quote bits of it in my essay?

Also, I don't suppose you have any other bits of media that deal with this same issue? Whether they're blog posts such as these, or academic documents, documentaries, etc. Anything would be useful.

Very well written post. Thanks for your help!

carl said...

Joe.. would you fancy contributing to this blog yourself...if so send one of us an email and we'll add you...

maybe a few bits of your work in progress...?


Culla said...

Hi Joe, feel free to quote and attribute, both to myself and Up, Close and Personal.

as for other material, well i did an overview of the 00s in music and culture which may help

a search on the blog would also turn up plenty of rave-themed articles, such as this:

best, Culla

Joe said...

Hi guys, sorry for the late response...

Sounds interesting Carl... My dissertation is due in at the beginning of next month, I'll definitely send you a copy when it's prepped. I'd really like to see what you both think of it. Although I don't think it's anywhere near as eloquently put as this blog post, it does deal with a range of similar issues.

Thanks for the links Culla, really useful. By the way I was linked here from Simon Reynolds whom you are no doubt aware of; funnily enough it was his article "Rave Culture: Living Dream or Living Death?" that was one of my initial inspirations for this project.

That was written in at the end of the twentieth century and effectively gives same message as your blog post, without the hindsight of the musical progressions of the last ten or so years. That's not a diss at all by the way, it's just... isn't it funny how so little has changed??



Steph said...

Excellent post (and ace blog which I only came across via a search for Castlemorton - the free festival or all free festivals that ultimately was the beginning of the end!). When I've got a mo I'll definitely come back to this and write some more...

There was a short period around the early-mid 90s (however naive it was looking back right now), that I honestly though that some of revolution might just happen to the soundtrack of 'repetitive beats'. We'd had acid house, emergence of rave culture, the poll tax riots, the fight against the Criminal Justice Act, anti-road movements, Reclaim the Streets and J18 just before the new millenium.

The clash of black music/culture, of dance music/culture, of crusty/traveller music/culture met a political spirit through those years of Thatcher, then Major, and that it heralded a proper change.

Of course, what we got was 'New Labour' fully embracing the same neo-liberalism, and I think by the early noughties that moment was lost again.

carl said...

Steph, would you like to write a post for us on the above (I'd love you to )if so send us your email address and I'll add you to the contributors list