If I’m lucky (?) enough to make it to extreme old age, I’m pretty sure that one of my last memories to fade will be the one perfect moment in my life. Not a sunset, not the birth of my (non-existent) firstborn, not even entering Sagrada Familia for the first time. Although that was pretty close.
No, my perfect moment took place in an arts centre in Cheltenham, on an ordinary weekend evening in the late 1990s.
It’s near the end of the night, and the dance floor is full, and the music is thundering out all around me, and someone’s gone absolutely mad with the dry ice machine so all I can see is white. The lights are flashing away, and I’m right in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a bunch of people I don’t know. The couple of guys I can see through the haze are very straight looking “blokes”, not a dreadlock or brightly coloured piece of clothing between them. Normally we’d not get on. They’d say something sexist or stupid or drunk, or I’d say something sarcastic or patronising or rash. But in the stuttering vision of the strobe, I can see them moved by the music as though controlled by strings, faces stretched in the same broad grin I can feel on my own.
And time…. stops. Imprints everything on my brain.
I feel it all. The sweet smoke enters my lungs. My eyes accept the light. My booted feet are rooted to the worn wooden floor. My hands are frozen white flowers, my hair like strands of twisted driftwood. I can feel the stage in front of me, the DJ booth behind, the bar in the corner. The people sitting along the edge of the room (Sitting? How can they be sitting to this music?). Outside in the courtyard and in the main bar people are talking, laughing, flirting, telling drunken anecdotes. Beyond that, the street is damp with rain, and the tyres hiss as cars move away from the traffic lights at the corner. And further, further… people everywhere, and we are all people. We are all just people. We are all just part of one big sphere of life and love. And if you could give this feeling, right now, that we’re all experiencing here on this dance floor, to everyone in the world, everything would be fixed.
And then, of course, time starts again and it’s just a really really great night. Which later turns out to be a shit night because we discover that the DJs are leaving and going travelling around Europe, and so this was one of the last times they’ll play here.
But that’s OK, because the music continues, right? Techno is here to stay, particularly this intense dirty in your face energizing obnoxious style of techno. Acid techno.
But no, it doesn’t continue. Somewhere in the next couple of years it slips away. The venues that play it in my area close down or change hands or – in the case of this particular one – are sabotaged out of existence by the local Liberal Democrat council. Sad, sanitised dance music appears in its place – some of it even calling itself “acid”.
And this disappearance is something I’ve always wondered about. For me, the late 1990s was a time of hope. Things were going in the right direction. In the UK we had a Labour government with a huge majority. Organic food was on the rise. Pointless packaging was being reduced. Public services were getting the investment they needed. And – on a very personal level – music and music culture was suddenly all about a sense of community, about being part of something, about something that made you feel oneness. Because techno – real techno – was about anger. About making things happen. About finding alternative ways of doing everything – barter, green energy, minimalism, tiny houses, low impact living, permaculture, protest. Everything. Remember New Age travellers? You can’t get a home that’s much tinier or less permanent than a bus. And despite the shaved/dreadlocked/dyed hair and tattoos and piercings, you couldn’t find a nicer, more thoughtfully intelligent group of people as a whole.
Now here’s something weird. I was trying to explain the New Age traveller movement to a friend in the US the other day, and I could find precisely no photos online that show it. (Yeah, there are one or two, but they’re individual people, or individual events, not images that present the reality as I remember it.) This is probably partly a function of a lack of cameras among that particular social group, but really…? None?
So here’s a question. Have you ever felt like somehow you’ve ended up in a parallel world? Where the past is shared with your own world and yet somehow the future – even the present – is completely wrong?
This is something I’ve felt on and off throughout my life; perhaps you can’t grow up with any kind of awareness of the historical relics around you and not feel this. The weird Victorian remains of my childhood island frequently conjured up visions of worlds that were not quite this one. Steampunk hadn’t been invented in the early 1980s, but if it had perhaps I’d have recognised these strange combinations of rusted metal and impressive feats of engineering.
I know it’s not just me that feels it – I once read an SF short story in which someone pondered on where the 1950s futurist movement was going, and discovered that the destination was in fact a parallel universe.
Then while I was studying for my Master’s degree, I discovered Gaudi. Now there was a man who was well ahead of his time. Or alternatively had been dragged through a vortex into a world that wasn’t his own.
The late, great Terry Pratchett describes this separation of two strands of a timeline as the Trousers of Time. So you can be separated from the timeline you expected to be on – were perhaps intended to be on – only by the thinnest of fabrics, and yet be completely unable to get back there, and moving further away all the time.
This chap has an interesting theory that the demise of acid techno was brought about by the influence of ketamine. Perhaps he’s right – certainly anyone I ever met who was on it was awfully dreary. He’s certainly got the description of the music absolutely spot on, describing it as “guttersnipe” and “joyously insane”. (I’m also enormously amused at his definition of the acid techno audience as “a new generation of activists, a collection of dissatisfied wasters, slumming rich kids, genuine revolutionaries, new age travellers, shameless drug buckets and total nutters”. Given that this is the music genre I most strongly identify with, and I’ve never been rich, I wonder which one I am?)
My own feeling is that the death knell of proper acid techno was sounded by 9/11 and the excuse it gave governments all around the world to hype the terrorist threat and restrict our personal freedom as a result. So now we’re liable to be searched when we go to IKEA to buy a new bookcase, and expected to put up with it, because if you don’t then you must by definition be some kind of terrorist, right?
You’d almost think that it was a deliberate attempt to put a lid on what was perceived as a dangerous social movement that was leading far too many people to appreciate the value of self-determination on an individual level and try to simply make the world a better place for us all to live in. Or is that just me?