Electronic shock treatment: how dance music was born

30 years on from 1988’s Second Summer of Love, a flurry of eye-witness accounts of the rise of electronic dance music are hitting shelves.

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The heart’s rhythm is controlled by electrical signals. It beats faster when it is exercised, aroused, made to work. This is good for the heart if its rhythm returns to normal soon after. But what if it wants to keep pulsing at 128 beats per minute, the tempo of disco and house? Or faster, like techno or drum and bass? And what happens to people when they become in thrall to the music and charge onwards mechanically, electronically, at speed? Do they become slaves to the rhythm? Do they end up destroying themselves and the world around them? Or do they become superhuman?

The history of electronic music is a history of these fears. Margaret Thatcher made this much clear in 1989, in a memo to Archie Hamilton, MP for Epsom and Ewell, which is quoted in part in Matthew Collin’s Rave On. Hamilton’s uncle Gerald had been disturbed by an all-night rave that had taken place in his native Hampshire. “If this is a new ‘fashion’ we must be prepared for it and preferably prevent such things from starting,” Thatcher wrote. The lack of understanding in those withering single quote marks is clear. Plus the thing “starting”, of course, refers to the movement of people to a different beat, letting their bodies go loose, as well as their politics, and their minds.

Maggie was slow on the uptake, given the Second Summer of Love had taken place a year earlier in 1988. The 30th anniversary of this British pop culture moment – which was fuelled by tracks made from increasingly affordable music technologies, and by the flood of ecstasy into the country’s clubs – has fuelled a rush (pun intended) of new books about electronic music. What’s striking about all of them is not just their exploration of authority’s terror of “repetitive beats”. They also explore new kinds of music as stimuli for possible utopias, for potential-filled spaces defined primarily by sound.

These books span personal and journalistic perspectives, with the former, perhaps understandably, working best for those who know this world already. The Secret DJ, written by an anonymous, famous, globetrotting character, fulfils all of Archie Hamilton’s uncle’s nightmares from page one. “Dance music is simply fucking huge, mate. It’s big. It’s larger than Jupiter’s codpiece,” the writer exclaims (it’s definitely a he).

It’s a strange book. It aims to tell “the true story of DJing”, but its laddish bravado about the rise of dance music feels oddly quaint, set as it is in those turn-of-the-century days where club culture bigwigs called people “gargantuan wobbling tits”. It only comes alive when it talks about yesterday’s blissed-out club kids becoming “very angry and reactionary men” because of “the drain” on their brain chemistry, and when it describes the industry depending “on personal collapse and its manipulation”. This feels timely in the wake of the suicide of superstar 21st-century DJ Avicii, and it’s made clear that the till-ringing business of engineering euphoria is not a palatable one.

Dave Haslam’s Sonic Youth Slept On My Floor – about being a music fan in the 1980s – is much more affecting. That title sounds like an anomaly, but it’s not: Haslam shows us how the early days of electronic music emerged from a dizzying mix of genres – his days as a fanzine writer hanging out with Morrissey are of equal import to his discovery of acid house. “I was in the midst of a mess of excitement,” he says, and you’re there in the moment with him.

He picks apart the founding myth of the Summer of Love – that Nicky Holloway, Danny Rampling and Paul Oakenfold went to Ibiza in the summer of 1987, took ecstasy, and brought club culture back with them – gently and winningly. Nottingham DJ Graeme Park was playing house in his hometown in 1986 after all, and the Haçienda started its own nights the next year. Crucially, this subculture first developed outside the national media, Haslam tells us. “The nights at the Haçienda were unpredictable, and also uncharted; there were no role models, no media coverage, no online videos, and no one had laid down laws about what was cool and what wasn’t.”

The one factor that sped up the thrill was chemical, however. “The use of ecstasy spread like a wave from the corner under the balcony, across the club,” he says of the Haçienda in early 1988. “If you’d visi-ted… at the end of January and hadn’t returned until the end of March, you simply wouldn’t have recognised the place; a revolution had occurred.”

Another personal narrative frames a bigger, historical book: David Stubbs’s bewitching Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music. We begin with a boy in a bedroom one Sunday afternoon in July 1977, a time “still coated in dark-brown war-surplus paint, barely relieved”. Into this world crashes Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, the first single to be based entirely on two synthesised backing tracks, that Brian Eno told David Bowie was the future, and that revolutionised pop.

Stubbs’s book is fascinating on how far back in time this longing for new sonic futures goes. He quotes Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, written in 1626, which envisages a place where sound is expanded for the express purpose of enlightening its people: “We have sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-soundes and lesser slides of sounds,” it gushes. Fascinatingly, this passage hung in the offices of Daphne Oram, founder of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, who enhanced atmospheric storytelling through sound in our living rooms from the late 1950s. We’re also told of Bettina von Armin’s letter to Goethe, written when Michael Faraday was doing his first experiments with electricity (“music is the electrical soil in which the soul lives, thinks and invents”, she wrote), plus the story of Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium, an early electronic organ which was intended to play music down phone lines (sadly, he didn’t live to 141 so he could sign up for Spotify). These examples, and their connections with our lives, are brilliantly handled.

Mars By 1980’s main argument sits in its title: Stubbs argues that the optimistic, futuristic longing in electronic music has more or less gone. On the whole, electronic music is suffering a “horrifying, suffocating homogeneity”, he writes, with a surfeit of “turbo-charged, Auto-Tuned Europap” flooding the charts. Oddly, Stubbs only discusses grime briefly, and largely ignores its forebears like jungle, garage and drum and bass. Club culture also takes a backseat in his book, although there is an entertaining yomp through the 1992 Castlemorton Free Festival (a week-long rave in the Malverns where participants were told to “bury your shit”). These omissions might be because Stubbs’s fellow Melody Maker alumnus Simon Reynolds wrote the urtext on club culture, Energy Flash (1998), for the same publisher as Stubbs. Still, it feels like an odd gap.

Matthew Collin’s Rave On propels us with the greatest amount of noise and squelch into the present day. With years of experience in club culture as former editor of style magazine i-D, and as the author of one the first books to give historical weight to the Summer of Love moment (1997’s Altered States: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House), Collin has since become a foreign correspondent. The skills he’s gained in that field marry well with his attempts to explore how the electronic club music that began in America, without having success there, went out into the broader world, and eventually – in a much altered state, ironically enough – returned home.

Rave On describes in fascinating detail how electronic music scenes bubble up in places that are in the depths of poverty, despair or unrest. The Detroit and Berlin chapters are particularly powerful. Techno began in Detroit in the mid-1980s, Collin writes, as “an attempt to dream another potential destiny into existence”, and he describes that movement’s pioneers – Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, also known as the Belville Three – as thoughtful inventors working in difficult circumstances. He also captures the post-industrial city around them in memorable, flak-jacketed phrases: “Nothing could really prepare you for seeing the ruins of Detroit up close, unless perhaps you grew up in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Techno was largely dismissed in America when it first emerged, and Collin argues convincingly about racism being at the heart of this attitude. (Techno can “happen somewhere else,” says DJ Carl Craig to Collin, “but it can’t happen here.”) In Berlin, techno was the first “youth culture that started at zero on both sides”, says German DJ Tanith, because it was heard on each side of the Wall. It was also fitting, Collin hints, that one of Berlin’s great post-Cold War techno clubs, Tresor, rose up around Potsdamer Platz, the heartland of the Weimar Republic, which was also divided as part of the Wall’s no-man’s land for nearly three decades. Tabula rasas get pulses racing again, get people acting and moving and dancing. It says much that the Belville Three “felt comfortable in their surroundings”, the Berlin-dwelling Swiss musician and DJ Thomas Fehlmann tells Collin, remembering them first coming to the city in the 1990s.

In modern-day Dubai, Iran and South Africa, electronic music takes on a similar political weight. Fragments of sound are shored against the ruins of political, religious and cultural systems, and takes on an urgent, euphoric sense of purpose. The South African DJ Jake Lipman responds with clout when asked by Collin if electronic music can change things: “It allows people to express themselves in a positive way. How can it not be good?” Collin adds, “He responded so vigorously that he almost knocked our coffee cups off the table.”

Collin also dissects the corporate takeovers of club culture in moving detail. His account of the story of Berlin’s Love Parade is horribly sobering: here was a festival reclaiming a liberal spirit on the roads where Hitler once held his rallies, beginning in the summer before the Wall fell, which turned into an empty-hearted profit-chasing charade and ended with the deaths of 21 people in a crush in its new location of Duisburg in 2010. We also rave in Las Vegas, where ideas of possible utopias are constantly recorded, filtered in bright colours and shared, and find out how selfie culture – the surveillance of DJs’ behaviour through tweets, gifs and memes (there is “no hiding place any more for caner DJs” in Ibiza, Collin writes), is warping this music’s more intangible spirit.

But this change is also bolstering the underground in other, more interesting ways. Collin’s descriptions of Berlin’s superclub Berghain today are particularly wonderful in this light. In this place where cameraphones have always been banned, where music, sex and adventure come together in multifarious ways, club culture, all of culture, can grow in its own, unfiltered manner. “It is one of the few remaining places in Western Europe where you can exit the matrix”, Collin writes, and in those words we hear the dreams of Francis Bacon, Daphne Oram, the young Dave Haslam and David Stubbs, ringing out. You can’t stop them. The beat races on. 

Jude Rogers is a music critic and broadcaster

Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music
Matthew Collin
Serpent’s Tail, 384pp, £14.99

Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music
David Stubbs
Faber & Faber, 464pp, £20

Sonic Youth Slept On My Floor: Music, Manchester, and More: A Memoir
Dave Haslam
Constable, 352pp, £20

The Secret DJ
The Secret DJ
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce