Young people discover a new way to enjoy themselves that doesn’t adhere to the official social guidelines and the government intervenes on behalf of those it doesn’t affect under the guise of doing so on behalf of those it does. Nitrous Oxide, colloquially known as Laughing Gas, is the current cause of minor moral panic on account of some British youngsters publicising themselves inhaling it on social media. Once again, a little historical perspective is in order, though I wouldn’t necessarily expect that from our PM, who reacts to every transient tabloid headline as though his birth certificate gives his date of birth as yesterday.
Laughing Gas Parties were a short-lived craze amongst the younger members of the English aristocracy as far back as the turn of the nineteenth century and continued to be used for recreational purposes by medical students well into the twentieth. During the pre-corporate outdoor festival era of the early 1970s, balloons were often sold containing Nitrous Oxide to enhance the vibes, no doubt. The practice has drifted in and out of fashion ever since, though had always remained one of the best kept secrets of the chemical netherworld until users started to broadcast their experiments on Facebook and YouTube. It was only a matter of time before officialdom stuck its oar in, and Lambeth Council have now banned the substance for non-medical purposes, threatening the now-compulsory ‘on-the-spot fine’ of upwards of £1,000 for those naughty boys and girls caught offending.
Twenty years ago, another illicit drug was causing a far greater social pandemic across the pages of the newspapers and on the nation’s television screens, Ecstasy. In some respects, the limited attention span of the public has rendered the scale of hysteria surrounding E an almost forgotten phase of youth culture in this country, even though it was the last seismic scene in a tradition stretching all the way back to the Teddy Boys. The 60s, Glam and, especially, Punk have all been reassessed and celebrated by the pop nostalgia industry, whereas (bar half-hearted revivals by young clubbers) the original Rave era remains locked in a cultural limbo.
In the late 1980s, as Mrs Thatcher famously issued her ‘There is no such thing as society’ proclamation, an alternative society was taking shape right under her nose. It had travelled from the abandoned industrial warehouses in the ghost town centre of Detroit, where electronic music stripped of its accessible melodious coating was reborn as a sleek, hypnotic beast called Techno. In Chicago, like-minded alchemists grafted sampled vocals from old Soul records onto Techno’s backbone and, in the process, created House. The sonic scientists who had cooked-up this radical reinvention were shady, shadowy figures who certainly had no desire to be famous or see their pictures in the papers. Anonymity was essential; what counted above all else was the music. There was no attempt at making it palatable for the mainstream or the charts; it was purely designed with the discerning clubber in mind, preferably one who had ingested Ecstasy, the one-time wonder-drug of early 80s New York club-land that had now decamped to the sunnier corners of Europe.
On E, the pulsating bass-lines and mesmeric drum-beats of Techno made perfect hallucinogenic sense as it imbued the same harmonious feeling of brotherhood with one’s fellow man and desire for a chilled-out ambience that cannabis had for the hippie generation twenty years before. When those who had sampled the liberating effects of Balearic vibes on holiday returned to a Britain in the grip of cold, calculating casino capitalism, they set about recreating the euphoric effects of Ibiza on home soil by importing the right soundtrack and locating their own empty warehouses to reclaim – and in the old industrial wasteland of Thatcher’s Britain, there was no shortage of those. The indoor warehouse parties that preceded the more publicised outdoor illegal raves largely took place far from the media spotlight, but soon the demand for the records that acted as a backdrop to such events proved so great that they began making inroads into the Top 10. It wasn’t long before those in attendance at the clubs and warehouse parties that had promoted these new sounds began to have a crack at their own records – with unexpectedly spectacular results. Soon, the charts were not only awash with the American pioneers of House and Techno, but with those they’d inspired on this side of the Atlantic – S.Express, D-Mob, Coldcut, The Beatmasters, Bomb The Bass; and when the significant role E had played in this revolution reached Fleet Street, the British mash-up of House and Techno acquired a memorable moniker – Acid House.
Naturally, the more sensational the reports became on the warehouse parties, the greater grew the number of youngsters who wanted to check them out. By the summer of 1988, the nation was in the throes of its greatest moral panic since Punk as stories of drug-crazed teenagers dancing the night away in vast, jam-packed derelict factories or in the middle of the countryside reached hysterical proportions. Yet, behind the tabloid frenzy and the knee jerk response of MPs, few acknowledged that those who were choosing to spend their weekends in a mad dash to the destination of another secret party were embarking on a quest to find an alternative, and once they’d downed a couple of Es and evaded police pursuit to congregate in the latest location, their senses had been tuned-in to a world where the smash & grab gains of The Yuppie had no meaning whatsoever. Here, everybody genuinely was equal; here, everybody was on the same soothing wavelength – a blissful, peaceful Nirvana where one generation rejected the values of another, just as the hippies freed themselves from the restrictions of the 50s. It was a wonderful illusion, naturally; but one that captured the imaginations of those who felt Thatcher’s material world had nothing to offer them.
Of course, the perpetrators of the society that the Acid House generation were escaping weren’t going to let them get away with it. The clamour for putting a stop to it all came from a tabloid press who relished something new in youth culture to get hot under the collar about; but there was now intense pressure on Parliament to introduce legislation that could curb the freedoms of the ‘Ravers’, and it eventually came in the shape of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which passed into law under John Major’s Government in 1994. It describes the Rave soundtrack as ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’, something that was relentlessly mocked by those it was aimed at; but the scene itself carried on regardless.
A 1992 BBC documentary, ‘E is for Ecstasy’, interviewed several Ravers who were in their early-to-mid-20s at the time, all of whom enthused as to the effect E had had on them, in contrast to the medical experts featured, who warned of ignorance concerning the long-term damage of the drug on its users. It was still far too early into the widespread use of Ecstasy then to predict what that long-term damage might be. Well, it’s not anymore. All of the Ravers interviewed in the documentary will now be in their 40s (scary realisation, I know), and it’d be interesting to see where they are now and what, if any, impact their time spent raving the night away on E as hedonistic youths has had on their health, both physical and mental. I’d hazard a guess that the answer is probably not much.
I suspect most are now responsible parents with more mundane concerns on their minds. What politicians forget in their rush to condemn and legislate is the rapid pace of change one goes through in one’s teens and twenties. At 16, you’re embarrassed by your 13-year-old self, and at 23, you’re equally ashamed of your 18-year-old self. Even Shakespeare said, ‘I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting…’
Nothing new in this world, eh?