Following the new publication, with new material, of his renowned book on rave culture Energy Flash, Angus Finlayson catches up with the internationally recognized music critic and author.
Energy Flash may not be the only book written on ’90s British rave culture, but it’s probably the most inspiring. Its author, Simon Reynolds, was already an established music critic when he caught the rave bug in the early ’90s, having written about the outer fringes of underground rock in Melody Maker and elsewhere. But in the ecstasy-fueled, mutant form of house that would come to be known as UK hardcore, he found the perfect subject for his highly distinctive brand of music writing, equal parts pulpy evangelism and para-academic theorizing. The original edition of Energy Flash, published in 1998, charted the growth of UK hardcore and its spawn, from jungle and drum’n’bass to UK garage, and influenced a generation of music journalists, theorists and enthusiasts in the process.
The new edition of the book (the third, following a 2008 update) features an additional bumper chapter covering the last five years of development in dance music, including the explosion of EDM in the US, dubstep’s rise to global ubiquity and the steady migration of dance music culture from “analogue” to “digital” media. In many respects, Reynolds has continued the project set out in the original book, and UK-centric sounds such as UK funky and post-dubstep are covered in reasonable detail. But his chief fascination seems to be with the EDM fever currently sweeping the US, reflecting his continuing commitment to electronic music’s brashest, most critically maligned children. Electronic Beats caught up with Reynolds—a long-term resident of the US—during a recent trip to London, to get a more personal perspective on the past five years in dance music, from kicking the record-buying habit to having second thoughts about drug culture.
This edition of Energy Flash comes five years after the last one, and you’ve written another book, Retromania, in that time.
My editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone, had this idea which I’d never considered before. He saw the three main books I’m known for—[post-punk history] Rip It Up, Retromania and Energy Flash—as a trilogy. Because they’re all thinly disguised or sublimated autobiography. And they’re about two eras of forward motion and then Retromania asks, “What happened?” Also the kind of person who was formed by the post-punk era, and then saw the instantiation of that spirit in some weird way in the rave era, would be the kind of person who is very confused by this retro culture, asking, “What’s happened to our sense of time?”
So with those three books, do you think that at each stage you were writing for your peers? Are you writing for a readership that’s aging with you?
Well, part of the reason behind doing an update was obviously in the hope that younger people who missed the first edition might buy it. I never really feel like I’m writing for anyone—I can only write what I think is true, and that’s then going to reflect my own experiences, where I am in my life. I think it would be a dishonest book if I tried to second guess some opinion that would be more appealing to a younger generation. I’m expressing my own view. I suppose that inherently would resonate more with people [of my generation]. But I think I’m inclined to find positive things where I can—I’m not in the game of trying to bum people out.
I think one of the inevitable things with music is that the period of its emergence—that period when something emerges and everyone is on the same vibe together—tends to make for a more compelling story. That’s why you have so many books about the ’60s in rock, and then as each decade goes by, there are fewer momentous books, more specialist biographies. I’m surprised nobody’s done a book about dubstep. That seems like an obvious marketing move, from a publisher’s perspective, now that it’s massive. Although, you could say dubstep was a kind of emergence, but for me, for a long time it was within something that already existed. With acid house and the early days of rave, something completely new came into being. A whole subcultural architecture was built. And then subsequent [styles] were extensions to the house.
You were never really a fan of dubstep in its early stages, were you?
I didn’t love it. I liked it as album music. One problem for me—I don’t know if it got more wild at the London events, but the ones in New York were very kind of mellow. And it was just a bit slow for me. I think I liked it more as it got nastier-sounding.
You were one of the few people who defended its crasser elements as wobbly basslines became a central feature.
Yeah. To be honest I don’t spend a lot of time listening to wobble. But the times I’ve heard it in situ, it is pretty exciting. At home I would probably listen more to your Martyns and 2562s, or the Hessle Audio compilation, something like that. But on a dancefloor, the jump-up stuff… I like to see people reacting. Partly because I’m an introvert myself, so I like to be in an environment where I can do that because everyone else is doing it. But also it’s material to read. If there’s actual behavior—dance moves, people wearing interesting clothes—it’s all grist to the mill of writing, for me.
You’ve said before that grime was your last obsession, in dance music terms.
I wouldn’t say it was the last obsession, but it was the last one where I felt like I had to own the music on vinyl. And it was getting really hard and really expensive. I’d mail order these things, or I’d buy them on my trips back to England. And they were expensive, ugly, the sound was bad. Grime was the last one—I did buy a few bassline things on vinyl but they were even shitter sounding, it just seemed pointless. I’m still, I wouldn’t say obsessed, but very interested in following what’s going on. But I don’t have that desire to have it, in the way I did with 2step. The other thing is that everything went on the internet. Take [music writer] Tim Finney in Australia—he’s a fanatic for funky and now jackin house. And he can be as on top of it as anyone—except for people actually living in the north of England— through the internet. Because there’s enough sets online. So the whole way of being a fan of music has changed.
To go back to what you said about “reading” behavior. You’ve described your reporting style as that of a “participant-observer”, and in that spirit you went to an EDM festival in LA in the process of writing the new Energy Flash chapter. How has your method changed over the years since writing the original book?
Well, I wasn’t on drugs.
And obviously you’re a bit more distant from the core demographic…
Older! [laughs] Well there’s a funny story about that which I didn’t put in the book. [At that time] we had our niece staying with us, she’s 17. We have an almost paternal, maternal relationship with her. She gets wind that I’m going to a rave, and she’s like, “I’m coming.”— she’s very pushy. I knew she’d really enjoy it, that’s the kind of music she’s into. So very reluctantly I took her. She’s under-age, so first I have to blag her through. We go to the security, I say, “She left her ID in her other bag, is it alright…?”—and I sort of do this gesture at myself, as if to say, “I am a solid, trustworthy, middle-aged man.” [laughs] Then as soon as we get in she says, “So you’re gonna be here, it’s alright if I go off and dance?” and to my horror I find myself saying, “Now, wait a minute young lady, you’ve got another thing coming…!” All this parental stuff.
So it was a somewhat frustrating evening for me. Luckily [the festival] was two nights, so one night I went on my own, and I did have a really good time. I got all the notes I needed, all the sense impressions. But it was weird, I was a parent with a surrogate daughter at this rave, for some of it. And I also did think—I’ve been effectively celebrating drug culture. Do I now think it’s a good idea for someone like my niece or, in a few years’ time, my children? I’m not so sure. I was suddenly seeing it from a different perspective, as a parent.
When you’re gathering “sense impressions”, as you put it, can you slide back into the mentality of a younger you, someone without these responsibilities?
Sort of. Obviously I’m more of an observer than a participant. But then this rave was not the full-on rave experience in itself. It was a very controlled event. I guess the festivals and big commercial raves in [the UK] had got to be like that as well by the late ’90s—big policed, organized events. But this was a step beyond that. A bit like an arena rock show.
You’re careful to be quite neutral, quite objective about EDM in the chapter. Do you think there is aesthetic merit to it, or is your curiosity strictly intellectual?
It’s not something I listen to very much. I like Skrillex. I don’t like Zedd, people like that. I don’t know, it could just be shit music with no merit. But I like to think that something that can mobilize that amount of excitement and energy, there must be something going on there. Also it does interest me that there’s this music that there’s no critical discourse around. There’s no defenders. Resident Advisor would never review a Zedd album. I have a reflex to think, whenever something is ignored and shunned, there might be something going on there. And historically there are many cases of that, where the critics are wrong. Black Sabbath is the biggest example of that. They were almost universally derided—no one saw it was the birth of a whole new kind of music.
One of the big themes you outline in the chapter is the shift from “analogue” to “digital” in music. You talk about EDM as being the archetype of digital music—in that it’s shiny, super-compressed, all-surface. Are you implying that EDM is the logical endpoint of the technological conditions that we live in?
I don’t know. I suppose I just felt it was the sound for a sort of ADD—I was going to say generation, but I’m the same. My attention span is shot, my ability to sustain long focused anything has been damaged through using computers. [EDM] can never let up being at eleven on the dial. There’s no relenting, there’s no space—it’s just a blast of energy. And the way it’s compressed and tweaked, and that digital sheen, all seems to be part of this. Emotionally it’s got a certain depthlessness. I think it reflects… we’re all getting depthless. After a day of being on the computer I feel like a depthless being.
When, in five years’ time, you come to write the next revision of Energy Flash, what do you think will be in there?
I don’t know if I will—you can’t really keep adding things to the book indefinitely. But you’re asking me for my wishlist? I think it would be interesting if something came out of EDM that was more musically interesting. If it went dark or something. It seems to be so bright and glaring, and even when it gestures at heaviness or craziness theres’s something insanely euphoric about it. It’s hard to imagine it going dark and twisted and abstract, but you never know—especially when loads of people are taking drugs. But I never really have any specific expectations or hopes for dance music, just that it will keep on being surprising. I suppose what I’d really like is some kind of twist that is big enough that it introduces some whole set of new behaviors, ways of dancing or dressing or something. Partly because I like to see those things happen in popular culture anyway. But also because those are things that my particular critical tools can do their work with. I like to have the full subcultural text to read, as it were.~