I was watching the video for the Pet Shop Boys” dance single “Vocal” and it took me back to a happy time”the UK summer of “91, seen?
We used to say “seen” as in, “that track is gonna be massive, seen?” I think the word is borrowed from Jamaican-London patois. It’s one of many accessories that defined the time from baggy pants, hoodies, long woolly hats by Stussy, and golfing hats (the kind Japanese tourists wear nowadays). Another good signal was the yellow washing-up gloves, the sign of a real raver. Those, and the subverted-brand logos on hoodies, plus the deep-set club-dark eyes…the Polaroid sunglasses…the whistles…face paint…the pills”wow, the pills!
They don”t make them like they used to. Today’s pills are for kindergarten.
I remember one famous pill called the Snowball, so-called, I imagined, because once the rush began, it gathered and gathered momentum exponentially, taking you straight up to heaven in a thought bubble while you try to keep hold of your legs and dance, but increasingly you notice”wait, my legs aren”t working!”and maybe you stop dancing. And when you stop, the world starts dancing.
You”re trapped, you realize. Trapped in between dimensions, where if you ever stop dancing, the world takes off and turns into a giant merry-go-round circus, with little horses going up and down, up and down; and”hey!”wasn”t that a guy with a V for Vendetta mask riding one of the horses, and didn”t he lift the mask and stick his tongue out at you lewdly with hostile intent? And did his face not then morph into the bared fangs of a wolf of Cerberus?
You start dancing again: anything to stop the visions of fun turning to madness via a Gothic hall of carnival mirrors.
Welcome to England circa 1991, the era immediately following the revolutionary summer of 88 (or 89) when free parties ruled the country, powered by ace amphetamine and ecstasy pills from Holland. When, as the 90s picked up, the first generation of happy hardcore ravers turned dark and the bass bins and junglist breakbeats whirled us into the permanent night of the city, as opposed to the morning glory of the festivals; into North Face and other hip-hop gear, as if steeling yourself against a barrage not of Alpine storms but narcotic thunder as opposed to smiley-face T-shirts and klaxons and white gloves”and the Vick’s mentholated paste, for when you”re “rushing, mate. I”m rushing, aren”t I?” Or “rolling,” as our American friends say.
We were sixteen years old. We didn”t give a fuck. It was a beautiful time. Seen?
Let me return to the Snowball pills. What the dancer was experiencing was a mixture of hallucinations incited by 2CB (a hallucinogen), MDMA (the real Ecstasy), ketamine (today’s cocaine), and, as the legend went, a pinch of heroin”just to knock you off your legs. In the Snowball era”I remember it well, the summer of 92″you”d often see people crashed out in the backs of clubs and marquees, engaged in a tongue-twisted conversation with their “other.” This would be the Snowball effect. You took one at your peril. But what a ride! What excitement as you closed your eyes and swallowed and surrendered yourself to Wonderland with your band of brothers, sitting in the front room of some heavy dude you don”t know but who had left prison recently and been in several times for battery and spousal abuse! You just keep nodding to the music and smiling; it’s not hard. What a ride”it went on for 12 hours or more, inspiring legends about ravers “who never came back down.”
It was black marketing, mainly. What was happening was simply an excess of tripping (hallucinating) and dissociation (total lack of coordination and feeling between mind and body”a side effect of ketamine). I think there was no real MDMA in them at all; it was just some gang’s idea of a good laugh to wipe out a rave generation. Well, maybe it was true”after that summer the music did get darker and darker. And so what? Where else could it go? It’s not like getting happier and happier would have sounded cool.
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