The Age of Love: acid house as a charismatic religious uprising

At the moment I’m researching the cultural practices of ecstasy in the 20th century, which has given me the excuse to read some fine books on the history of pop music. The latest is Matthew Collin’s Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House, first published way back in 1997 and since updated. It’s a bravura piece of historical journalism.

Collin begins by tracing the history of MDMA, from its first patenting by Merck in 1912 as a blood-clotting pharmaceutical, to its rediscovery by Russian emigre chemist Alexander Shulgin. Shulgin synthesised various psychedelic drugs in his home laboratory in California and tried them out with his friends. He tried MDMA in 1967, and introduced it to an elderly psychologist friend, Leo Zoff, a decade later. Zoff in turn introduced the drug to thousands of his fellow therapists over the course of the late 70s and 80s.

Collin writes: ‘The therapeutic community is estimated to have distributed in the region of half a million doses of the drug in a decade. Therapists would give their patients MDMA during their sessions to break down mental barriers and enhance communication and intimacy.’ It was initially known as Adam, a name ‘with subtle religious overtones’ (yes, very subtle), and then became known as Empathy or, sometimes, XTC.

Alexander Shulgin in his home laboratory

The fledgling E community tried to avoid the mistakes made with LSD in the 1960s, and to heed Aldous Huxley’s advice to keep it among the intelligentsia and away from the masses. Timothy Leary, who famously ignored Huxley’s advice in the 60s, was in agreement this time: ‘Let’s face it, we’re talking about an elitist experience [for] sophisticated people…We’re talking about dedicated searchers who are entitled, who’ve earned a bit of XTC.’ But something as fun as E was always going to be hard to keep a secret. Evangelical pill-heads started to distribute the drug more widely, complete with flight manuals explaining how to take it (‘this is a toll for reaching out and touching others in soul and spirit’). And then the more business-minded started to flog it across the US.

It proved particularly popular in gay discos, like the Paradise Garage in New York, where DJ Larry Levan created a heady mixture of the spiritual and the profane: ‘Under the spell of Levan’s narcotic mix, people seemed to transcend human limits’ wrote journalist Frank Own. ‘Men crawled around on their hands and knees howling like dogs, while others gyrated and leapt as if they could fly.’ In Chicago, Frankie Knuckles created a similarly euphoric vibe at the Warehouse. It was a church for the unchurched: ‘It was very soulful, very spiritual”, Knuckles tells Collin. ‘For most of the people that went there it was church for them.’

Knuckles helped to develop the mechanics of acid house ecstasy: he bought a Roland TR-909 drum computer, to create layers of pounding drum and piano. A trio calling themselves Phuture used another machine, the Roland TB-303, originally intended to generate basslines for guitarists to practice with, to create alien-sounding electronic squelches that would come to typify acid house. Meanwhile, in Detroit, three musicians inspired by Kraftwerk and Alvin Toffler’s futurology – Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – developed a more robotic, emotionally-sparse electronic music, which they called techno. If house music incorporated some of the soulful and uplifting vibe of gospel, techno was more transhumanist, imagining a dystopian future of man-as-machine. Here’s what is often considered the first ‘acid techno’ track: Phuture’s Acid Tracks.

The tension between house and techno is a fissure running through ecstasy culture. Is it transcendent spiritual music re-connecting us to some childlike golden age, or machine noise pounding us into an emotionless robot future? Is the high we feel an intimation of the divine, or merely a chemical rush? There weren’t always clear battle-lines between these two philosophies – at a club, you could find yourself dancing with a robot-man on one side and a Goa trance elf on the other.

The Summer of Love as a charismatic revival

E was criminalised in the US in 1985, but by that point the drug had already gone international, in large part thanks to the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or Osho, the controversial multi-millionaire Indian guru. Many of his followers took the drug, and one devotee, Hugh Milne, wrote in his book, Bhagwan – The God That Failed – that ‘the euphoric mood-altering drug Ecstasy was discreetly slipped into rich sannyassins’ drinks just before fund-raising interviews’. By the mid-1980s, according to Arno Adellars, ‘the Dutch followers of Bhagwan were taking so much ecstasy that several supply lines were necessary to meet the demand’. E had come to Europe.

The early days of E in the UK, from 1987 to 1989, have some of the hallmarks of a charismatic religious revival, akin to, say, the Toronto Airport Blessing that would occur in Canada in 1994. In both movements, airport hangars full of devotees found themselves twitching, jerking, even barking with ecstasy. In both, there was an apocalyptic sense that the world was changing forever, that a new age of love was dawning. In both, the inhibitions and self-control of adulthood were thrown off and the innocence of infancy embraced: charismatic Christians spoke in tongues (babbling like babies in a pre-verbal Eden), while raver culture embraced teddy bears, lollipops, dummies, romper-suits, and danced to remixes of themes from kids TV shows.

Here’s some footage of the Toronto Blessing:

And here’s a Sunrise warehouse rave from the Summer of Love:

Certain clubs inspired particular religious fervour, like the Hacienda in Manchester, or Danny Rampling’s Shoom in Southwark. Collin writes: ‘One Shoomer gave away all his possessions and the following weekend was seen running naked down the Portobello Road. Others came to believe that there were supernatural forces of Good and Evil battling for the soul of the city…A few, lost in Shoom, convinced themselves that Danny Rampling was some kind of messiah: the master of the dance, the orchestrator of emotions.’

But there was one big difference between the Summer of Love and the charismatic Christian Revival. When people come down from the emotional high of the Charismatic revival, those who needed something more intellectually sound could find some support in the Bible, or social support in community groups, or a sense of civic purpose in social action. There was precious little philosophy beneath the Summer of Love, except for the music, and the chemicals. The Sixties counter-culture was constituted in movies, literature, art, poetry. Where was the non-musical counter-culture of the ‘chemical generation’, besides Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (more of a paean to smack) and Damien Hirst’s hilarious pharmacy cabinets? The movies that tried to capture E culture were dire (The Beach, Human Traffic, It’s All Gone Pete Tong) perhaps because there was very little to capture.

And, as Alexander Shulgin noted, E follows the law of diminishing returns. The first times are incredible, the intensest surge of dopamine your nervous system has ever felt. The next few times are also great, but the body soon becomes accustomed to the drug. So clubbers searched for a way to get back to that peak experience, with cocktails of LSD, amphetamine, ketamine, cocaine, mushrooms, freebase. The collective euphoria of the dancefloor turned darker, uglier. People lost it, ended up in mental homes. Others ‘found solace in religion, joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Hare Krishnas, getting involved with Bahgwan Shree Rajneesh or other New Age cults.’

Many found solace in entrepreneurialism, making money from the business of secular collective ecstasy. In this, perhaps, rave culture is also akin to the mega-churches of the charismatic Christian revival. Except that, in the club scene, the business was rapidly taken over by criminal gangs, including some of the old football firms who’d by now come down from their initial high and realised they didn’t love everyone. From Sunrise raves in London to the Hacienda in Manchester, criminal gangs moved in, brandishing shotguns and machetes, giving club entrepreneurs the stark choice of either cutting them in, or being cut out. The country’s seemingly limitless demand for E and other drugs made fortunes for criminal networks, and it was this, Collin suggests, that inevitably provoked the Establishment into trying to control acid house.

The Jilted Generation

The Thatcher and Major governments’ various attempts at controlling and legislating the movement were clumsy, none more so than the Criminal Justice Bill of 1994, which outlawed ‘the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’ in outdoor ‘raves’. Collin notes: ‘Although other youth movements had inspired legal changes, never before, despite years of post-war moral panics about the activities of teddy boys, mods, hippies and punks, had a government considered young people’s music so subversive as to attempt to prohibit it.’

Playing Al-Qaeda to the Major government’s neo-cons were a techno-anarchist collective called Spiral Tribe, who travelled across England with their sound-system in the summer of 1991. For the members of Spiral Tribe, acid techno was not a weekend thrill, it was a hardcore lifestyle. The members showed their complete devotion to it by shaving their heads like monks or military recruits, and wearing black military fatigues. The Tribe’s charismatic spokesperson, Mark Harrison, says: ‘The unspoken rule or initiation with Spiral Tribe was that you had to live it, twenty-four hours a day.’

Spiral Tribe attempt to put the voodoo on Canary Wharf

Collin writes: ‘Spiral Tribe began to believe that techno was the new folk music…and for it to take proper physical and psychological effect it must be played as loud and for as long as possible; they started to imagine that the Spiral Tribe was in some way connected to prehistoric tribes of nomads…that free parties were shamanic rites which…could reconnect urban youth to the earth…thus averting imminent ecological crisis.’ Harrison would sound positively Pythagorean in his vision: ‘As legend would have it, there’s a musical note that will free the people..’ Their techno-pagan antics culminated in an abortive attempt to ‘zap’ Canary Wharf with techno, thereby stripping the evil pyramid of its dark power. ‘Even though it only lasted one hour, we had to do it’, explains Harrison. ‘It was a victory for us because that pyramid doesn’t work any more, it doesn’t have that power’.

Predictably, Spiral Tribe were soon closed down, although the techno-crustie resistance continues and elements of it survived into the Occupy movement, another somewhat millenarial uprising. Meanwhile, the Criminal Justice Bill did nothing to end the popularity of electronic music. While the illegal rave scene declined, clubs became professionalised, and a new breed of superclub rose up – Gatecrasher, Cream, Renaissance, Ministry of Sound. Dance music became like disco – a brief chemical holiday from the ennui of 9 to 5 office capitalism. The sounds and visuals of dance music became ubiquitous, heard and seen in every movie or advert. It became part of the establishment, with DJ Tiesto playing the 2004 Olympic opening ceremony, and Underworld playing the 2012 Ceremony. The nation’s drug-taking has not gone down, however, so criminal gangs must presumably still be making a killing…but the trade seems to have become more organised.

Now, in the last two or three years, dance music has suddenly gone mainstream in the US. In the late noughties, people were amazed that top DJs like Paul Oakenfold could earn £750,000 a year. Now, thanks to the enormous US dance scene, DJ Tiesto earns a reported $250,000 a night, and an incredible $22 million a year. ‘Rave culture’, writes Rolling Stone this month, ‘has taken over this generation full bore’. Next month sees one of the biggest ever electronic dance festivals – the Electronic Daisy Chain in Las Vegas. To British retired ravers in their 30s and 40s, the new revival may seem garish and commercial. But to the kids on the dancefloor, on their first pill, it must seem like the Age of Love is finally dawning.

4 thoughts on “The Age of Love: acid house as a charismatic religious uprising

  1. “Way back in 1997”?! You sure know how to make a guy feel old! Just a personal view from the stone age, but I imagine that mixing amphetamines with psychedelia would make the psychedelic experience more kinetic, so what was mainly for “heads” in the 60s took on a different character in the 90s. But I’m interested in these “flight manuals”. My impression (as a relic) is that the rave scene (especially dubstep and drum and bass in disused warehouses or out in the countryside) is pretty unstructured. Would some (or even many) of the people attending such events have read “flight manuals”? And how closely connected are these manuals with the kind of radical political agenda I notice among some young people? Perhaps you could provide a link to an example of such a manual; I’d be very interested to see what kind of beastie we’re talking about here!

    • Hi John

      The flight manuals Collin mentions were right at the start of E being widely sold, in the mid 80s in the US, so a few years before the rave scene. Id love to see one too! Here’s the page where he mentions them. I agree, I dont think anyone at a rave would have been much interested in any sort of manual!

      • Oh and the ‘way back in 1997’ was partly a reference to the absurdity of reviewing a book that came out 16 years ago! I’m just researching the topic, so blogging about it is helpful for me to summarise my thoughts on the book.

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