Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

Ecstasy and Idealism

Summer, Manchester, Britain

Every season needs a soundtrack, and 1989's was the trippy dance beat of Madchester, a music born in the nightclubs of gritty northern England that recaptured some of the fun of the 1960s and embraced the hope that the new world order might involve lots of dancing and hugging. The scene's two best bands — the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, both of them from Manchester — successfully blended funk grooves, rock-star attitude and, crucially, a sense of unity with their audience, the feeling that there was no divide between the people on the stage and the people dancing away below. It was a spirit that, at least for that second summer of love (the term itself a nod to the '60s), entranced ravers around the world.

Twisting the punk ethos, Madchester embraced a spirit of what might best be described as eclectic egalitarianism. DJs mixed soul and electro, house and Latin. The biggest names flew to the U.S. on weekends to play clubs and search for the most obscure old vinyl (it was still vinyl then, though that would soon change). "Anything went, as long as it was good," remembers Mike Pickering, who was a DJ at the pivotal Haçienda club in Manchester. "The house music that came out of that is what you'd call mainstream club music now, but back then it was something underground. Plus [the Haçienda was] free for anyone on the dole."

One of the reasons for the movement's sense of fraternity was chemical. Far more than the acid-inspired psychedelic rock of the '60s or amphetamine-fed '70s punk, Madchester was fueled by its drug of choice: ecstasy. "You'd go to the Haçienda, and there'd be this music that was just unspeakably f___ing rubbish," Noel Gallagher, songwriter for Manchester rock band Oasis, later told an interviewer. "Then you'd have an E, and it was like listening to classical music."

Some musicians complain that the quality of ecstasy tablets has deteriorated — pills now retail for less than $1 each, down from $40 a pop 20 years ago, and are as likely to induce mild shivers as provide a weekend's worth of life-changing euphoria — bringing the music down with it. The Madchester sound has not had the lasting impact of punk or hip-hop. The Haçienda has been replaced by a soulless block of executive apartments, the hopeful, hedonistic youths that once filled its dance floor having long since departed. But in other ways the moment lives on: in the idea behind social-networking sites that many working together is better than one, that mashing together genres is a way of making one and one equal three.

And there's perhaps one other lingering lesson. Shaun Ryder, 46, lead singer of the Happy Mondays, struggled when the party finally ended. For a time, he complained, every penny he made in royalties went straight to paying off debt that stemmed from not-a-care-in-the-world nonbusiness deals made in Madchester's heyday. Embrace-the-world idealism is well and good, but it's worth making sure you've signed a solid contract.

MacBain is reviews editor of British music weekly NME