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.~
Light a candle. Draw the required sigils. Now, raise your arms above your head and slowly, gently, exhale your soul. You won’t need it here. This is Audioccult, and it’s time to get low. Illustration: SHALTMIRA
“God damn the sun,” shrieks Gira into my ears, but he never had to suffer eternal Berlin winter. The heat and light bakes my soul scabby, and I cover my mouth to deflect a taco burp. Six brahs on the train are screaming, “DAFT PUNK,” in each other’s faces… what year is this? Guess what, it’s the year of Daft Punk and I’ve already booked a stay in the Rave Cave. Blinking shades and a ripped tee that says “TOUGH CUSTOMER” on the front and the back is a receipt for a motorcycle (allegory for hating authority). 28 pounds of outdoor lighting strapped to my torso and I wish I was dead.
“This place is cra-I SAID THIS PLACE IS CRAZY,” is abruptly ejaculated into my face as I pass through the huge iron pillars. I don’t know the name of the shooter, so I give the twerp a look. His blinking sunglasses (2009 model, old starch bullshit) shifts into liquid metal form when mine flash the strobes and he backs off. 16 new texts arrive simultaneously as I hit the dance floor, the DJ looking blankly into the distance. His booth is flanked on either side by 60-foot crows shrieking like air horns, nearly drowning out the insistent loop of totally sweet Daft Punk classics. Haha, wow. Amazing. I remember this song. This one’s a classic. So cool. Listen to that guy play his synthesizer; good shit. Fire off a flurry of CAN U BLIEVE I GET PAID 2 WRITE THIS to 16 whoevers, toss that glasstic bullshit to the sky and disappear amongst the swaying, sweaty placeholders.
///#FLESHWORLD#/// booms the bass; which one is this? Oh yeah, that’s my fave DP track for sure. I better pump my fist extra hard in the air; that way people who are looking at me will see that I enjoy it. I better yell too; that way even if they aren’t looking at me they’ll hear and be pleased with my enthusiasm. Crank up the torso spotlight to maximum, this is can’t-miss dancing!!! The strobes are flashing, the crows are screaming. You think you’ve tasted Becks before? You haven’t tasted Becks like this. I wipe the blood from my ears and nod to the bedazzled, bedenimed sewer-woman next to me. This is it. This is the life. At last, I can dance.
Like wordsmith H.P. Baxxter, Modeselektor also have a special place in their hearts for challenging lyrics, as shown on “Shipwreck” from last year’s Monkeytown. The song was co-written and sung by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, himself no stranger to crypticness:
slap on your face.
And she laughs,
slap on the cake.
And laugh, slap
on your face.
And they laugh slap on your face.
And they laugh, slap on, slip on
Read Part 1 “It’s the haircut, I guess.”Read Part 2 “Every audience loves pyro”
GB: How did you discover rave culture?
HP: Rave was omnipresent in Hanover, where I lived back then. We had the British BFBS broadcast with DJ Steve Mason, and many of the UK soldiers that lived in the Hanover area attended these raves. I think that’s the reason why these raves were so different to those in other cities.
GB: I still own a lot of the tapes that I recorded from the radio. Steve Mason was an extremely important DJ.
SS: As was Tim Westwood with his BBC show on hip-hop. He had this incredible voice. I always asked myself what a man with such a voice looks like.
GB: The difference between then and now is that nowadays we don’t have these practically religious wars between genres anymore. Frankfurt against Berlin against Cologne against Hamburg—this was a conflict back then. Every city seemed to have their own fraction of rave society. But they were true enemies. It was like in the old DAF song: “Alle Gegen Alle” . . .
HP: And everybody hated Scooter. But I’ll tell you one thing: the hate wears off. You learn to live with it. And the best thing is that in 2012 everybody seems to love Scooter.
SS: Honestly, when I heard “Hyper Hyper” for the first time in 1995 I thought: Now it’s over. We loved Detroit techno and Scooter was the antithesis while at the same time so much more successful than everybody else. For me, “Hyper Hyper” marks the point when suddenly you could hear commercial techno blasting from pimped out Golf GTIs racing through our village. I thought it was the end of techno.
HP: I get your point.
GB: We didn’t have Nirvana. With the fall of the Wall, we immediately became regular visitors of the legendary Tresor club in Berlin’s Leipzigerstraße. Underground Resistance, Sonic Destroyer, Cosmic Baby, Kid Paul or Tanith in the mid-nineties—it was just a singular moment in techno.
HP: I went to the Tresor too, but the vibe never really got me. I always preferred the huge raves and the moment when thousands of people literally feel the same energy at the same time. Rave culture had the opposite message compared to the introverted and cool new wave music that pre- ceded rave. With rave suddenly mass hysteria was allowed again. I was blown away by the first Love Parades. In a sense, with Scooter, we always tried to create this euphoric level of energy. Today I can say I understand why some people thought we were just a band that had been casted by a nameless producer. We probably looked like that. But we weren’t.
GB: I think Scooter were just too successful from scratch.
HP:The reason is probably because from day one we were able to press the big rave experience into the format of a four-minute track— the agitation, the crowd noise, the reverb you only get when you perform in a big arena. Thanks to this, many of our tracks have an energetic live feeling that appeals to a lot of people. At the Tresor you had these monotonous clong-dong rhythms that really didn’t appeal to me that much.
SS: In the Tresor it didn’t matter where the DJ was spinning his records. In the midst of all the fog and with all the strobe lights you couldn’t see anything anyways. Going out there was quite an intimate thing to do even if you were there together with a group of people.
HP: By the way, why did you guys choose an ape as your logo?
GB: Our graphic designer Martin told us to use the ape. He thought it was a strong image.
HP: And he’s right. A strong image is very important if you want to survive in show business.
GB: Scooter has the megaphone logo. Strong, but also a bit impersonal, don’t you think?
HP: There’s some truth to this, for sure. But I don’t think it would be a good idea to change a logo after eighteen years. I envy the Einstürzende Neubauten a bit for their perfect logo.
GB: I just realize that Scooter is like a strong brand, like Nivea or Coca-Cola.
HP: When I think of strong brands I think of Veuve Clicquot. It’s that orange label. The orange tells me: I like it. It’s happened to me that I would buy a bottle of Veuve and the cashier would try to convince me that they have better quality champagne for less. But, you know, I would never buy the nameless champagne. I want the orange one. It’s the same with Motörhead. There were dozens of bands that were as loud as Motörhead, but none of them had a logo of equal strength.
GB: They have the best selling t-shirts in the world, for sure. I spot someone wearing a Motörhead t-shirt at least once a day—regardless of where I am. ~
Ghosts on Tape is the alias of San Francisco-based Ryan Merry. He first came to our attention back in 2009, when Mary Anne Hobbs got him to do a mix for her (now, much missed) late night BBC radio show around about the time the Glasgow’s Wireblock dropped his Predator Mode EP. What caught our ears was his lo-fi approach to production, using an Yamaha sampler bought new in the nineties when he was still a teen.
Since then he’s clocked up remixes on labels as diverse as Planet Mu, True Panther and Friends of Friends, but we’ve been waiting three years for another release proper. Thankfully, the wait is nearly over as Nature’s Law/Logo drops on his very own Icee Hot label next week. That just about gives you enough time refresh your memory and to help you, we asked the straight-talking acolyte of rave ten all-important questions. In the words of the man himself: “Fuck that shit, LET’S RAVE.
1. Is any aspect of fame important?
Maybe not fame, but recognition for your hard work is certainly very nice. I’m not making the music that I make to get famous, I’m simply doing what I love to do, and it is an awesome feeling if other people love it too. I was definitely influenced by the generation of artists before me, and if I can have any impact on the next generation coming up, then I will be happy in knowing that I’ve fulfilled a crucial part of my job. We are all laying bricks on the foundation, and if we continue on a true, honest path of creativity, then what we are all building just becomes that much stronger in the future.
2. What goes in your coffee?
Sugar, cream, and sometimes shots of espresso. I require large amounts of caffeine just to function. I know I have a problem (admitting that is the first step, right?).
3. What does underground and mainstream mean to you?
To me, these words just signify an intention. If you are making music that is real to you, like what you honestly feel, that’s underground. If you are watering down your music just to gain mass appeal or trying to strike a chord with the lowest common denominator just to get famous, that’s mainstream. Degrees of popularity don’t really matter very much anymore in this day and age.
4. Should music be free?
For the most part, no. I understand that that’s the way things are these days, and it’s kinda futile to try to change it, but as a producer and now as a label owner, I know the hard work, dedication, and money that goes into putting out a record. It’s not just an MP3 to be rapidly devoured and discarded, it’s an actual labor of love that should have some value for generations to come, hopefully. I still buy lots of music. I may swap tracks with my close homies, but I still buy music pretty much every week. I also get promos and tracks from friends, which is different. I believe that everyone has to pay for quality products sometimes. If no one wants to pay for quality, then everything’s gonna go to shit. It’s a business just like anything else, and people that think that they are just entitled to free music without giving something in return are fucking spoiled brats. It’s like people that sneak into my club night. Yes, I can kinda understand that you don’t wanna pay, but the DJs that we bring out are not free. If you are going to illegally download, then you should make up for it by buying something too. Like for every 5 tracks you steal, pay for one. It’s better than nothing. I would imagine that almost every respectable DJ out there still pays for music sometimes. I’m not planning on getting rich off running a label and throwing parties, but I’m certainly not trying to lose money either. So if you like what I do, then help me not lose money to do it. This shit is not a charity and grown-ups understand that.
5. What defines your music-making process?
I construct my tracks mostly on my hardware sampler and drum machines. All the beats and rhythms and melodies come from me physically banging on the buttons. I like to put in work, re-arrange tracks, and re-do parts until it sounds right to me. There’s also a fair amount of improvisation and happy accidents that make their way into my tracks. I’ve been making music more or less the same way for many years now, and it’s been a process of figuring out what I can get out of working within some of the limitations that my gear has. That’s what I like: physically working, involving organic spontaneity, and having to work within limitations. I envy people that can just do all their music within their laptop and come up with something unique and soulful. It’s not my style at all; I really don’t understand it, so I think it’s impressive. If you just put me in front of a screen with infinite options, I’ll be lost. I’m like a caveman.
6. Do you believe in the paranormal?
You would think since my name has the word “ghosts” in it, I would be more into this stuff. The truth is that I just don’t know. I really don’t believe ghosts like in movies and TV shows and shit like that. But there are probably some kind of spirits around us, I’m sure that we just can’t see or feel or even comprehend them. So maybe?
7. Are you interested in politics?
I used to be, but I’m not too interested anymore. I still try to stay up on what’s happening, but politics in America are such a sad fucking joke that it’s just a waste of time and energy. It’s all “he said this,” “she said that,” hot air, bullshit, smoke and mirrors, manufactured outrage, and media manipulation to keep us divided and distracted. I’ve found that if you tune a lot of it out, and focus on what’s important to your life, what’s relevant to your actual reality, you will be a much happier and more productive person. Not saying that ignorance is bliss, because ignorance is just ignorance, but you can only pay attention to so much. These dickhead politicians don’t give a shit about us and never will. None of them. If one ever did, then they either get bought out or discredited real quick. It’s all a big game, and the only ones that get to play are the ones with lots and lots of money. The rest of us are just pawns. So fuck that shit, LET’S RAVE.
8. Raging or chilling out?
Both! I would say I do more chilling than raging, because if I didn’t, I think I would be dead. I do enjoy my downtime, and having alone time is very important to me. Sometimes I like to go out and stay up until 10 the next morning, because we are only alive once, so why not have some sketchy fun?
9. One thing you can’t live without?
God, this is the most cheesy and generic answer, but it would have to be music. I really can’t imagine my life without it. I have no idea what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing this. It’s given my life a purpose and function and I would probably be miserable without it. So yeah, either that or Netflix.
10. Together, or alone?
You cannot go it alone. With the right group of people you can accomplish so much more than you would be able to by yourself. That being said, having alone time is critical to figuring out what you want, who you are, and what you believe. Alone time equals introspection, which equals new ideas. You have to filter out other people’s opinions sometimes and find out what’s important to you.
The British live techno outfit Orbital are back with a new album, but it is not an excursion into Wonky hip hop or house as the title, er Wonky might lead you to believe. Not straying to far from their tried and tested template of emotional rave music for arenas and teenage hot boxes (Google it) the duo, made up of brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll, have enlisted the help of Zola Jesus and Lady Leshurr for vocal duties. Wonky will be the pair’s first album in over eight years. Paul has said of the album and his approach to music in general “”It has to give me butterflies. I have to make myself cry in the studio.” Wonky will be released in April. Thankfully, the cover art shown above is temporary…
You can download a free track, ‘Never’ below.