Ecstasy (LRB, January 2003)


This is an extended review of Decca Aitkenhead’s book ‘The Promised Land; In Search of the Perfect E’. The review first appeared in a slightly edited form in the ‘London Review of Books’ (23/01/2003)

The 1990s were years characterised by the astonishing market penetration of products like mobile phones, Microsoft’s Windows and Starbucks coffee shops, but an even more remarkable example of booming sales and global spread over the last fifteen years is the massive rise in the consumption of Ecstasy. In 1988 Ecstasy was a secret, now it’s a cliche. In the first few months of 1988 an educated estimate of the number of Ecstasy tablets taken during a weekend in Britain would have been something like three or four thousand. Now estimates are as high as two and a half million every Saturday night.

Throughout this boom, Ecstasy has been illegal in Britain, categorised as a Class A drug alongside heroin and cocaine. But this hasn’t stemmed the demand for Ecstasy, especially its widespread worldwide use in nightclubs. Half a million regular users and two million occasional Ecstasy users in Britain can’t resist the lure of its effects; a euphoric, very sociable, mildly hallucinogenic combination of the soft focus of marijuana and the anxiety-busting rush of amphetamine.

Ecstasy – MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) – was created in 1912 by Merck Pharmaceuticals of Germany, but never marketed. In the Second World War various applications for MDMA were tested by American forces; to fend off exhaustion, as an appetite suppressant, and a truth drug. It’s said that MDMA confirmed its reputation as a ‘hug drug’ when soldiers were given MDMA to alleviate battle trauma, only for three quarters of the soldiers then to renounce the folly of war and express a desire to make peace with the enemy.

MDMA was rediscovered and studied by Alexander Shulgin, a biochemist at Dow Chemicals, in the early 1960s, but remained a secret within academic and medical communities into the late 1970s (and widely used by psychotherapists to give patients insights into personal problems and to unblock emotions). Inevitably, MDMA began to leak out onto the streets and, alerted to its increasing recreational use, the authorities in the USA moved an emergency ban in the early 1980s (in Britain Ecstasy was already covered by the catch-all definitions in the Misuse of Drugs Act).

The surge in Ecstasy use in the late 1980s is wholly attributable to the associations the drug gained with the dance music scene. A new wave of dance music was emerging, with its roots in various twisted, dancefloor-friendly digitally-produced records made in New York, Chicago and Detroit. Techno house and MDMA would both have survived without each other, but their marriage was mutually beneficial; together they gave birth to rave culture.

The role of illicit drugs in pop music has always been strong, going back to reefers and the jazz crowd, and to mods dancing all night at the Scene, the Flamingo or the Marquee with a head full of pills. So close is the connection that various drugs have also influenced the sound and composition of music; Pete Meaden, an early mentor to the Who, encouraged the group to perform songs that mirrored the speed rush. In reggae, there’s almost a sacramental link between marijuana and the deep spaces of dub. Sometimes drugs are the only way to unlock the music; it’s debatable whether even the most determined listener can appreciate the finer points of Frank Zappa without a brain half fried on LSD.

Although they were separately both present in the USA, MDMA and dance music first formed a close alliance in Europe in 1987 and 1988. Rave culture spread from various clubs in Britain – the Hacienda in Manchester, ‘Shoom’ in London – with the most frenetic activity often found in places off the mainstream map; nights in Stoke, Blackburn, Ayr. When I was DJing on the club circuit in the early 1990s one of the most enthusiastic crowds was the audience at a club called ‘Angels’ in Burnley.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that rave culture took hold in places bitten hard by recession and in small towns lacking cultural and social opportunities and desperately in search of a sense of community. Ecstasy can create in a club what writer Simon Reynolds has called ‘collective intimacy’. The combination of this feelgood sociability with the visceral tingle of music that shadows the Ecstasy experience – driving between warm calm and frantic crescendos – is what appeals to the E heads.

From these pockets of activity in Britain, the network began to go global. The new dance music and Ecstasy invaded new territories, almost always hand in hand. At the fall of the Berlin Wall a new generation of Berliners embraced techno, and they were also getting high in the Low Countries (and R&S, one of the key record labels of the period, was established in Belgium). By then I was being flown over to France by hip young operators to DJ in clubs in Paris and Lyon, but, despite my best endeavours, the French seemed largely unreceptive to rave culture (one of the events, the first rave in Lyon, was particularly lack lustre). Some two or three years later, the land of Gitanes and Kronenburg finally caught on to Ecstasy. The young man who had lost ten thousand francs organising the first rave in Lyon launched a series of techno compilation CDs. The first sold over 150,000 copies; his attempts to bring rave to Lyon had a lucrative, happy ending.

In the late 1980s, those of us who had spent much of the decade being chased down city centre streets at two o’clock in the morning by gangs of lager-crazed idiots wielding broken bottles and pool cues, were never convinced that Ecstasy was more harmful than alcohol.

In Britain, our stringent drug laws have done little to curb drug use. For thirty or forty years, drug policy has been pulling all ways at once. Heroin users, for instance, have been offered rehabilitation, heroin substitutes or counselling, and, other occasions, crackdowns, bodysearches and criminal records. Maverick MPs and police officers have suggested legalising Ecstasy, whilst others have even opposed the instigating of a Royal Commission, fearing any step towards liberalising the drug laws. Although cannabis is on the way to being downgraded to a category C substance, Home Secretary David Blunkett recently rejected recommendations from the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee to downgrade Ecstasy to a category B drug, a move also suggested by the Association of Police Officers back in October 2001. Meanwhile, in Manchester, police have spent upwards of a million pounds carrying out undercover operations to close clubs where Ecstasy users gather.

In America the music scene moves slower than in Britain, guided less by the word on the streets as the heavy hand of vested interests, commercial radio and corporate control. Ecstasy was common in gay clubs in New York in the 1980s but its widespread use was delayed until the mid-1990s; the amount of Ecstasy seized by law enforcement agencies in America increased a hundred fold between 1993 and 1999. In America, recent Ecstasy evangelists have included hip hop stars like including Eminem and Pink, but so far the most enthusiastic consumers in America are white college kids, many of whom see raving, and MDMA, as part of an alternative, new age, lifestyle, like LSD among the Woodstock generation; drug taking as an aid or a short cut to spiritual enlightenment.

In Britain, Ecstasy use has tended to be closer to headless mod hedonism than hippy idealism but in the late 1980s, during the first flush of enthusiasm for E, rave culture was credited by its supporters with helping to break down down barriers of race, class and sexuality, and raised hopes that that the sociability of the dancefloor, the hugs, the bottles of water passed around, the shared smiles would carry over into more pluralist and tolerant attitudes in daily life. Unfortunately, claims ten years ago that football hooligans under the influence of Ecstasy had forsaken violence were overstated; it’s more likely that the lull in the violence was a result of the shock of Heysel and Hillsborough, better policing, and all-seater stadia. Pills were never going to root out violence on the streets, the product of Britain’s bitter tribalism.

The progressive potential of rave culture has also faded because of the fate of dance music. Ecstasy use is still primarily a club drug, and in dance music’s most creative phases this gave the drug credibility, but now, as dance music is firmly mainstream, so is the drug. This is similar to the way the Sixties counter culture expected drugs to open the doors of perception and set up a revolution in personal relationships and political structures, only to see idealism dribble away in the 1970s, the music degenerating into long-winded guitar solos, bad dancing and Genesis. One legacy of the dance music revolution of 1988 is the feeble commercialism of Sophie Ellis Bextor.

Nevertheless, some changes have been permanent. Rave culture opened the door for digital music, and also paved the way for the rise of a new generation of superstar DJs like Fatboy Slim and Paul Oakenfold. In Britain there’s no doubt ecstasy – cooler, cheaper and more socially acceptable than getting drunk – triggered a rise in wider recreational drug use, and confirmed that there’s a historic but largely hidden part of British society that is untamed, ungovernable. In many circles, the British are renowned for being out of control, not just a nation of uptight, dreary characters ripe for portrayal by Hugh Grant; there’s also a troubled, troublesome Britain. The Britain of ‘Trainspotting’, ‘Sweet Sixteen’, So Solid Crew, late night raves, hanging around the park, and dodgy drugs.

The British have never seemed able to embrace temperance when it comes to illicit drugs and alcohol. In the mid-1960s a hospital stomach pump discovered that a mod who had been found collapsed on Wardour Street had taken no less than seventy six Drinamyl tablets (better known as ‘purple hearts’, manufactured by Smith, Kline & French of Welwyn Garden City). The increase in recreational drug use in recent years has also led to manic misuse and wreckless experimentation. A horse tranquilliser, Ketamine, is rife among clubland’s current generation of experimenters (the drug itself has acquired the nickname ‘Special K’ and a reputation for plunging the user into lost moments of zombie-like derealisation known as the ‘K-hole’).

A generation of clubbers discovered that alcohol dulls the effects of Ecstasy; they threatened a permanent shift in leisure habits away from alcohol (one New Year’s Eve in the early 1990s, I was DJing in a club full with six hundred people in for five hours and, incredibly, throughout that time the club owner sold just one pint of lager). There’s documented evidence that there was large-scale panic in the brewing industry. The breweries began to alcopops with names and advertising drawn from drug culture, and increased their lobbying for extended licensing hours (as well as maintaining the brewing industry’s regular contributions to political party funds). Subsequently the number of licensed premises in the city centres of Manchester and Leeds has doubled,and there’s been a nationwide increase in the number of bars opening late into the night. This has had the effect of instigating something of a return to alcohol among the young, bringing with it the perils of binge drinking, less safe city streets, and increased violence in taxi queues. And more profits for Mr Wetherspoon.

Just as 1990s boom products like mobile phones have hit a sales plateau, so there is some evidence that changing trends in music are depressing the demand for Ecstasy as teenagers forsake dancefloor podiums for the pleasures of the nu metal mosh pit and the older crowd follow artists like Badly Drawn Boy and David Gray whose work is not much enhanced by MDMA. Nevertheless, just as hash became in the early 1970s, Ecstasy is easy and cheap to obtain, and passed round through friends rather than bought off a street corner (this is something acknowledged by the recent Commons Select Committee who recommended that a distinction should be drawn between ‘social dealing’ between friends and large-scale ‘supply for gain’).

The average clubber now pays £4 or £5 per pill (in contrast to the £20 shelled out by the first ravers back in 1988). Economics would suggest the drop in price by suppliers is in order to maintain demand but it’s also a result of the way users understand the free market and are into bulk buying and shopping around. Furthermore, rather than being manufactured in Holland or the former Soviet Union, now more Ecstasy is made in the UK, so the pills have less complicated supply routes. True to our reputation as entrepreneurs and shop-keepers, the UK has seen a rise in the number of backyard chemists, as evidenced by a recent police operation which uncovered a small factory making fake Viagra in Oldham.

Health scares triggered by tragic deaths have been a feature of the history of Ecstasy use. Possibly because the victims are usually youngsters looking only to spice up a weekend or an 18th birthday party, not hardened drug users, most deaths attributed to Ecstasy hit the headlines. Often the deaths are followed by police warnings that there are rogue drugs circulating, but despite the variety in the ingredients found in pills sold as Ecstasy, poisonous killer pills are virtually unknown. Although it seems that very occasionally an individual can react badly to the drug, dehydration, overheating, or excessive/compulsive water drinking are the most common causes of fatal Ecstasy incidents. Around two million people are using the drug, if only occasionally, and there were 27 deaths last year attributable to Ecstasy use, or a cocktail of drugs including Ecstasy (Ecstasy plus amphetamines can increase a heart beat to dangerous levels, and any use of alcohol accelerates dehydration). Heroin, with fewer users, kills 800 a year. It is also estimated that 160,000 deaths a year have a connection with alcohol or tobacco use.

Although potential users with heart problems or a history of epilepsy are warned off Ecstasy, theories to explain why certain individuals seem most at risk, and what long-term effects prolonged Ecstasy use might produce, are inconclusive. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there can be downsides, however; including impaired judgement, short term impotence, and moodswings. Large doses can lead to anxiety, confusion and paranoia (often exacerbated by traces of amphetamine or LSD contained in a particular pill). MDMA itself stimulates the body’s production of dopamine and serotonin, creating that euphoria and intensifying sensory stimuli. In addition to the effects of sleep deprivation, and the low mood commonly experienced during the ‘come down’, it seems inevitable that messing with a mood regulator like serotonin will have some effect on mental health, and perhaps help create the conditions for clinical depression.

In the wake of health scares and subsequent harm reduction initiatives by central and local government, most Ecstasy users have learned to manage their drug taking. Users ease themselves in by first taking halves or quarters and drink water to avoid dehydration, clubs provide chill-out rooms, and , some of them, on-site medical teams. Intriguingly, newspaper reports of Ecstasy-related deaths don’t seem to reduce demand, as Ecstasy users reassure each other that more people are killed by aspirin each year than by Ecstasy, and that you’re more likely to choke to death on a peanut than die by taking an Ecstasy pill. Zero tolerance and ‘Just Say No’ campaigns also have little effect, as users believe they will always know more about drugs than the law-makers, who generally lack credibility, most of all because of the way harmful drugs such as alcohol and tobacco are officially sanctioned. If the authorities wish to deal with drug misuse in Britain they have to confront this charge of hypocrisy or double standards, as well as to acknowledge that whatever the straight world offers young people it’s not en ough to prevent alienation, unhappiness, boredom, and the urge to get wasted.

Law makers also need to acknowledge that in a climate in which we’re led to believe that almost all social and mental health and cosmetic problem has a pharmacological solution, it’s perhaps understandable that young people believe that somewhere there’s a drug to make you happy. Hundreds of thousands of Britons and millions of Americans make recreational use of prescription-only drugs; including Prozac, Viagra, various opiates, sedatives (like Diazepam), and stimulants, including Ritalin. Drugs are booming, in and out of the medical community. There’s a large part of the global population now reliant on chemicals. Science assures us that there are drugs available that will prolong our life, cure depression, and adjust anti-social behaviour; even to provide a clearer complexion, and increase muscle definition; that Xenical (the so-called ‘fat-buster’ drug) can help us lose weight, that Ritalin (which is more potent than cocaine) can combat Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, and Zyban can help us give up smoking.

Decca Aitkenhead believes in the emancipatory power of Ecstasy. As she sets out at the beginning of her search for the perfect E she admits the inspiration of her early and best experiences of Ecstasy at a club called ‘Strangeways’ in Manchester in 1993. Nearly a decade later and on the threshold of marriage, she wants to feel that euphoria one more time before settling down. Her fiance, Paul, accompanies her on these adventures, her personal trip round the world. ‘The Promised Land’ is a travelogue rather than an investigation; she pops plenty of pills, but it’s soon clear that Aitkenhead is not after the big picture (she’s not going to give a detailed a description of the effects of Ecstasy, fully explain the physical or social consequences of Ecstasy use, uncover the supply routes, or expose the dealers and manufacturers).

Ecstasy pills vary in quality, many cut with other drugs, caffeine, food dye, starch or glucose. Periodically clubbers complain that the quality has deteriorated but this is often because the drug’s effects can be blunted by heavy use, but there is also some evidence that in the early 1990s dealers dumped poorer quality tablets in Britain where it was believed that some of the more undiscriminating customers were to be found. In Amsterdam, meanwhile, the local authorities encouraged testing areas in clubs where users can discover the purity and the strength of their pills. I assume Decca Aitkenhead realises that after a few moments sitting in a coffee shop in Amsterdam she would soon introduced to someone who knows someone who could give her some perfect Ecstasy. No doubt aware that the book could end before it had really begun, she leaves Amsterdam until the end of her journey, and chooses to start her quest in Detroit.

There’s possibly some justification in going to Detroit; it was there that techno pioneers in the mid-1980s began making the kind of music that would fuel rave culture, although they were mostly clean-living young men who spent a lot more time at home with their computers than out on the dancefloor; they have all since professed amazement at the role Ecstasy played in propelling their music into global recognition. But during a day aimlessly walking the streets, Decca and Paul fail to find the drug or even an Ecstasy dealer. On most occasions Decca casts herself as worldly wise in contrast to the hapless Paul – cautioning him against scoring drugs from strangers on street corners in San Francisco, for example – but then, in Thailand, she hands over cash for drugs to a taxi driver outside their tourist hotel in Bangkok.

Aitkenhead writes fluently and thankfully avoids some of the regular pitfalls of club culture commentators; there’s no cultural studies jargon, and her interest in music, though enthusiastic, isn’t weighed down by the minutiae of who remixed what when. Nevertheless, there are occasions during her journey when a little bit more context would be appreciated, a willingness, perhaps, to linger and learn. As it is, the soon-to-weds are only in Detroit for a few hours before they’re off somewhere else.

Occasionally, Aitkenhead probes deeper into the places she visits. In South Africa she takes time to explore some of the links between drug dealers, gangsters and the policing crisis in the country (but, again, you’re left wondering what led to her to believe that perfect E was more likely to be available in Cape Town than anywhere else in the world, perhaps even places off the international tourist trail; Wolverhampton, say, or Welwyn Garden City). Some of the more satisfactory chapters describe her time on part of the island of Ko Samui in Thailand, wandering through beach-side villages incorporating pub grub, tattoo parlours, fake Prada and a plentiful selection of bar-girls. Aitkenhead is intriguing writing about the bar girls and their customers; men on the lookout for a different promised land. The Western male tourists and the bar girls are playing some kind of depressing game; as the girls act out a particular and not very interesting version of the perfect girlfriend – quiet, compliant and attentive – the men feel irresistible and in control.

In Manchester back in 1993, Aitkenhead had a taste of intense communal bliss at ‘Strangeways’, and looking to replicate that, she captures something of the addictive nature of clubbing, in the sense that often – but not necessarily aided and abetted by drugs – the urge to find a community of allies in a world of conflict and violence is strong, as is the lure of loud music, bright lights, sexual frission, and illicit, unbridled hedonism; it’s certainly a more alive and colourful lifestyle than the drudgery and grey tones of the workaday world.

‘Strangeways’ was obviously the best kind of club, different to your average discotheque; a community, with the regulars each week part of the spectacle, the soul of the club. Pre-Ecstasy eras had their own valuable spaces, basements, and dance halls, of course. The gay clubs of New York and London, and clubs like the Nile in Moss Side, Manchester, were important institutions, giving communities unity and a focal point, as well as an outlet for good times at the weekend. Songs that have recorded the intensity living for the weekend include the Easybeats ‘Friday on My Mind’, Dobie Gray ‘Out on the Floor’, Sister Sledge ‘Lost in Music’ , and Alicia Bridges ‘I Love the Nightlife’. In the rave era, although much of the new music was instrumental, there were a handful of songs which articulated the idealism around at the time, the sense of one nation under a groove. One of them was Joe Smooth’s ‘Promised Land’, which Aitkenhead has borrowed for her title. Given the song brilliantly brings gospel emotion and a civil rights sensibility to its pleas for freedom, unity and positivity, Aitkenhead’s implication that a simple dose of Ecstasy can make all your dreams come true does it something of a disservice.

In many ways, though, some possibly inadvertent, Aitkenhead’s book is far from a great advertisement for drug taking. Thailand, where she finds the most drugs and the least happiness, is particularly joyless, although she fares better than some of the people she meets, insomnia having turned faces grey and gangly lads developing blank stares ‘eyes empty of recognition, plates of nothingness’. Potential Ecstasy users might also be deterred by some of the nonsense talked by its most enthusiastic users. In one club Decca enjoys a debate about who is wearing the best sunglasses, but wearing sunglasses in a club is surely a fashion faux pas of the highest order (a recent issue of the club magazine Muzik put it high in a list of nefarious modern trends, second only to spam email offering cheap access to pornographic websites). Most tellingly of all, what Aitkenhead seems to learn on her travels is that even the very best Ecstasy can’t transform a bad night into life-changing experience. In Cape Town, she finds great E but no rave attitudes (the parties are packed with bland bodybuilders circled by vacuous blondes rather than the magnificent Mancunian bohemians she remembers gathered at ‘Strangeways’). Ecstasy is easy to find, the promised land less so.