A Socio-Historical Perspective on Acid House
By Giovonni Lobato
There are some things that are impossible to describe if you haven't been there. The smell of the ocean. The sound of the forest at night. These are things that can be evoked, but never completely summoned. They are experiences that both entice and escape the uninitiated. To try to understand them any other way is almost futile. Almost. That's because the effect of these indescribable things on the people and places around them is as important as their intrinsic characteristics. The ocean seeps into cars and chills their drivers. The forest ambience tunes the mind to the whispers through the silence, like the wind through the trees.
Dance music is one of these special experiences--experiences that are better analyzed in terms of their social context, their effects upon the people and places that are directly and indirectly associated with them. It is impossible to fully comprehend what changes physically and emotionally when those driving beats collide with the audience, pumping and punching through each torso, tracing audible curves through the writhing bodies vibrating sympathetically with the humming sub-frequencies. If you ask me, its effect is somewhere between electricity and magnetism, and those metaphors aren't strong enough. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then by the distributive property, writing about dance music is like dancing about dancing about architecture. Dance on that.
So how do we frame a conversation about dance music? How do we approach something that seems to be 20 percent music and 100 percent black magic? Having determined that social context matters, we need a scene of undeniable historical importance. Disco? Trip hop? UK jungle? Dance music is so deeply genre-specific it's almost recursive. How can two things so overwhelmingly different as drum and bass and trance be considered aspects of the same parent genre? We need something both representative and hugely influential.
In terms of sheer impact, the obvious choice for our model is acid house. Its rhythmic, harmonic, and vocal usages still pervade the current of contemporary dance music. The beat was infectious, and from 1987 to 1989, it was all over the U.K. And as with any good infection, the body wants it out. With acid house came a renewed and strengthened set of anti-party laws. Yet though the authorities were able to rid the world of acid fever, its evolved strains (rave, drum and bass) would prove twice as strong and contagious through most of the '90's.
Clearing the Floor
It is essential to maintain a distinction between acid house the genre and acid house the movement. While acid house the genre started out (like most forms of house) in clubs in Chicago, the movement it spawned in the United Kingdom encompassed many other rhythms and genres, including the chill Balearic beat of the Ibiza clubs and the industrial techno of Detroit. But both aspects of acid house can be traced to one very, very long song.
After Patrick Cowley died and took Hi-NRG with him, DJs in Chicago were still infatuated with the electronic soul of "I Feel Love" and "Do You Wanna Funk?" Simultaneously, they craved the futuristic, machine-driven sounds of Kraftwerk. These tastes came together in house music. As with most forms of dance music, subgenres materialized at a rapid pace as soon as house established itself in the mid-eighties. Many of these subsets grew out of new technologies, none more notable than acid house.
The Roland corporation released the TB-303 Bassline synthesizer in 1981. It was originally intended to mimic the sound of a human bass player, but a band of house aficionados named Phuture swiftly put a stop to that. In 1987, they decided to turn the accent up, the resonance higher, and the pattern function on, and acid house was born on the revered single "Acid Tracks." The track featured the distorted "squelch" of the TB-303, accompanied by a funky yet driving four-on-the-floor drum sequence. The repetitive, abrasive synth rhythm both energizes and hypnotizes. As it pans through the sound field, it places the listener in a temporary trance, dazed and dizzy, dancing and floating through the flowing and dynamically evolving sound. Acid house quickly proved a hit in Chicago. But across the pond, it would take a bit of coaxing for British youth to accept this new club sound.
Like many important musical movements, acid house the movement started as a reaction to another equally popular subset: in this case, soul. What few dance clubs there were in England at the time were dominated by jaded old DJs playing jazz, funk, and rare groove records to small audiences. But ten years of full-on soul music had taken its toll on even the most diehard clubgoers. They wanted a change, but they weren't willing to accept just anything. Hip-hop had just landed on the circuit from across the Atlantic, but its boisterous beats and spoken lyrics often caused a disconnect with the audience. It wasn't until a rogue Pennsylvanian DJ named Greg James was imported as the resident DJ at a new London club called the Embassy that the groundwork for electronic dance music was put in place.
When James arrived in London in 1979, he was surprised to see that most UK DJs chose to use hard fades--switching from one song to the next, announcing the name, and letting it play. This passive style of sequencing was anathema to James, who had come up playing disco music and was used to stringing tracks together for much longer spans, crossfading and mixing in between each to form a continuous arc bolstered by the four-on-the-floor kick drum. Although quite popular amongst DJs in the rest of Europe, this approach was relatively unheard of in England, and when James began assembling his sets this way, he was met with popular acclaim but professional disdain. Soul purists saw it as a corruption of the sanctity of the song, but the clubgoers loved the continuous yet vacillating rhythm. James's "new" technique was a hit, and began to carry over into other genres, conditioning listeners of all tastes towards the repetitive entrancement of acid house.
Yet by the mid 1980's, disco was just about finished. The working-class clubgoers were tired of having to change from their jeans and football jerseys to more presentable attire just to have a good time at their chosen institution. The music was stagnant, and everybody wanted something fresh. Around this time a group of DJs was brewing up something interesting in West London, most notably Irish brothers Noel and Maurice Watson. While hip hop was their forte, they both became obsessed with house after Maurice took a trip to New York in 1986. Convinced it was the new sound, they played classic house cuts including "Acid Tracks" to their crowds, but were often met with empty floors and even boos from people hostile to this so called "homo-music." Only a few of the bravest and most open-minded chose to stay on the wood panel and keep dancing. Their efforts were valiant, but it seemed dancers just didn't have the proper mindset for the Watsons' music. So perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that the problem wasn't the music, or even the times. It was the drugs. A little round pill would change everything.
They Should Have Called It Empathy
In 1987, on a trip to Ibiza, Spain, a popular island vacation spot for young English travelers, Paul Oakenfold, Trevor Fung, Danny Rampling, and a few other London DJs made two discoveries that would come to define the Acid House movement: The idyllic and eclectic music selections of Balearic dance clubs, and more importantly, ecstasy. The crew was especially inspired by DJ Alfredo of Club Amnesia, who spun music from a wide variety of styles, providing an enthralling but relaxing sonic canvas for the euphoric neon lines and colors of an e'd mind. You could argue that the pristine track selection and mixing of DJ Alfredo and his Ibiza peers was what propelled the inclusive and inspired musical and social atmosphere of the island. That argument, however, would be wrong.
Ecstasy works by telling the brain to allow the body freer access to dopamine, which stimulates physical movement and induces euphoria, and serotonin, which intensifies sensual perception. It affords the user a heightened sense of self-worth as well as facilitating an exaggerated level of social interaction. Basically, you feel more positively connected to yourself and everybody around you. Originally conceived and intended as a pharmaceutical antidepressant, it turned out to be the perfect prescription for the social anxiety plaguing English club culture.
It was Paul Oakenfold's goal to bring the energy and environment of Balearic dance to the U.K., and he partially succeeded with his central London club, Future. But it was his traveling buddy and fellow DJ Danny Rampling who, with his wife Jenni, would popularize the culture in England, with their members-only South London club Shoom, named after the surging sensation of an ecstasy rise. Just as cocaine had fueled popular (read: straight and white) acceptance of disco, so too did ecstasy afford popular (read: straight and upper-class) acceptance of house music in the U.K.
Yet Shoom wasn't able to capitalize on its ethos of inclusion and acceptance for the simple reason that it was private. The guest list was limited to its mostly upper-class members and the occasional celebrity or two. This is where Paul Oakenfold truly made his mark. In 1988, he started a Monday night party at club Heaven called Spectrum. It was completely open to the public, had no dress code, and was absolutely fucking insane. Drug use was rampant, the DJ was king, and the dance floor was filled with entranced youths of all races, sexual orientations, and class designations. It was a regular Bacchic utopia.
The dream of acid house, unfortunately, was still only a dream, and the ultimate problem with all great dreams is that one wakes up from them. Due to antiquated English club laws enforcing a 2 A.M. closing time, the somnambulists populating acid house clubs like Shoom, Spectrum, and Trip had to find other means of entertaining themselves if they wanted their full dream cycle. Cue the birth of illegal after-hours warehouse parties. What started as unsatisfied youth playing dance tunes from their cars morphed into an enormously expanding subculture, complete with noticeably more underground music (hard and acid house), specific fashions (smiley face shirts), and a rallying cry, "ACIEEEEDDDDD!!!" The scene even had its own zine, Boy's Own, which highlighted the up and coming DJs, the newest tracks, and a listing of all the big parties for the season.
Soon these parking-lot and warehouse parties had morphed into full-on events themselves, moving farther and farther out of the major cities and into the countryside and suburbs. This expansion had multiple intentions. One was to avoid increasing police pressure on the all-night parties, symbolized by the "anti-rave" bill introduced by MP Graham Bright, which imposed tough fines and jail penalties on any organizers of illegal after-hours parties. The second was to attract the sizable, bored, and relatively well-off suburban section of U.K. youth. These new converts became known as "Acid Teds," and were more or less despised by the original progenitors of acid house. They represented not only the explosion of a counterculture into a popular culture, but also the corporatization of dance music. These raves were planned and executed for profit, not for the benefit of the music, emotion, or collective ideals of acid house. Huge DJs were given hour-long sets at these festivals, much too short to reach into their collection for a deep cut. Rather they stuck with the songs they knew would get a rise out of the audience. The raves became the radio of a popular sound, repeating the same anthems for a crowd of what had become consumers of an experience, not active participants in it.
Due to the poisonous influences of anti-party legislation and monetization, acid house had petered out to a trickle by the summer of 1989, and its feeling wouldn't be recaptured until rave slowly reemerged starting in 1990, energized once again by the simple promise of a good time for all.
From "Me" to "We"
While acid house was first and foremost a hedonistic youth movement, to equate it with its shallow pretexts is to ignore what can only be described as a fundamental shift in the social consciousness of an entire British generation. A stifling discomfort had been introduced into the English cultural fabric by almost fifteen years under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. These years were marked by a rebound in Britain's economy at the cost of a rising poverty line, unemployment, and extremely conservative moral legislation, comparable to Reaganomics in the United States. The youth culture reflected the national culture: fragmented into anti-social, non-interactive groups based on wealth, race, and sexual orientation. Because of this, acid house was uniquely positioned to become the catalyst for an ambitious societal reassembly.
The first thing acid house offered was a common beat, a rhythm that each kid could grasp and make his or her own. It was invitingly easy, just four kick drums and some writhing synthesizers, with perhaps a wash of calming Balearic added in when things got too hardcore. This universal simplicity chipped at the racial and class walls. Anybody could dance to acid house, and its staunchly apolitical ethos stood in stark relief to the class warfare waged elsewhere in the U.K. At an acid party, there was no rich or poor, black or white. There was just us.
But don't think for a second that a level playing field was all that was needed to engage English youth. Even if everybody in Britain loved each other as family, they were all still too socially awkward to meet on the dance floor. The U.K. was a society of wallflowers. Fortunately, the punch was spiked. With ecstasy.
LSD had facilitated the cognitive expansion necessary for ordinary American kids to break through the conservative social constructs of the '50's into the liberal open-mindedness of the '60's. Likewise in the late '80's, widespread use of ecstasy created a nightly collective euphoria that destroyed any social anxiety felt by British youth active in acid house. It also provided a gateway for an important but too often still ignored influence on modern electronic dance music: gay sensibilities. Ecstasy made you feel comfortable and happy with yourself, and inclined you towards social interaction with a group of like-minded individuals. Club culture was essentially born from gay culture, but it was ecstasy that made it acceptable in the minds of English working-class males.
All of the influences and changes manifested in acid house can be boiled down into one specific cultural development: Britain was transitioning from a "me" generation to a "we" generation. This new group of English young adults was rebelling against the crippling competitive individualism of Thatcherism. This was crystallized by the acceptance of a new, interesting, and compelling genre and club culture, as opposed to the contrived self-satisfaction of soul enthusiasts. Music was no longer something to be heard by yourself or for your own pleasure. The days of the rare groove DJ playing deep cuts at a members-only club were gone. Every song had to be experienced by everyone.
These sentiments were echoed and sustained by the rave movement of the early '90's, but since then, dance music has once again slowly slipped into the realm of corporate influence. The digital revolution has created a generation of kids who are used to experiencing music in solitude, little white earbuds plugged into their iPods, tuned out of the communal understanding of performed music. Modern raves are now a costly but profitable scheme for promotion companies, and some are little more than fronts for drug distribution. The popular youth culture has once again reverted to a "me" generation, no longer seeking a mass mutual experience, but a self-indulgent high.
If we know one thing about dance music however, it is that it is at once intensely static and ineluctably cyclical. Acid house claimed that to truly experience the beauty of a musical humanity, one must become willingly a part of the many. But this took time, effort, and the promise of something captivatingly different. And while we may have yet to reach that pinnacle, the squelch of a TB-303 reminds me that something better is always waiting past the next crossfade.
ED NOTE: Special thanks to Robert Christgau for contributing this article from his NYU class and editing this piece.
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|