By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
So we go to the American Legion Hall, and The Orb’s show that night turns out to be one of those life-begins-again experiences, like Patti Smith at the State Theater in Minneapolis in 1978, or Madonna at Danceteria, or Anderson live in Brooklyn. Onstage there are little men at machines against a spectrum of candy colors, and a yummy-fun beat that makes everyone dance without thinking about what they look like dancing. The place is full of supercute and friendly boys chewing gum to relax their jaws, and the music goes on forever. Like the plot of a French movie, the dramatic arcs in The Orb‘s music take many minutes to unfold. This is so cool! I keep repeating, until eventually my friend gets fed up with my enthusiasm and decides to decompress me with a sneer. “It’s just too bad you decided to get into this now,” she says.
“Well, because it‘s over.”
“Yes. Over.” a
And to the extent that The Orb was rave -- which is debatable, as all labels are -- it was, really. The London scene had already bubbled overground and then imploded in 1993, stifled by an odd conspiracy between popular culture and law enforcement. I had high hopes for this culture, but they were always ridiculous: Like the mythic ‘60s counterculture Thomas Frank debunks in The Conquest of Cool, ’90s rave was never really the global love revolution it was branded to be, PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity and Respect) notwithstanding. (“I used to want to sign my e-mails ‘Fuck PLUR,’” says Lynn Hasty, founder of Green Galactic, a promotions house for the artists and musicians of digitized culture. “All those promoters putting PLUR on their fliers were also the ones spending all this time and money bringing over acts from Europe and then not getting the right permits.”) As early as 1995, a British fusion of rock and rave was poised to break into the mainstream Top 40 charts, starring the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers. People in the scene were already starting to reject the term rave; people outside of it knew enough to say they hated its music (“techno,” to them) and mock its drug. Madonna was singing along with Orbital; Pepsi had sponsored its Ministry of Sound tour, named for London‘s most famous electronic-dance-music mecca. Paul Oakenfold had left his job as an A&R man and toured as the opening act for U2, one of the many bands he remixed in his early days as a producer. A&R scouts jammed the Winter Music Conference in 1996 looking for talent.
In those years, I went to a lot of parties -- in a cave on the beach just north of the city; on a plot of desert bordering a bombing range; in a building somewhere just east of downtown L.A. that used to be a jail where punk and electronica collided in a band called Crash Worship, who had a habit of covering their audiences in maple syrup. I discovered local collectives Moontribe and the Integral Gathering, and tailgated caravans of cars in the middle of the night to enchanted parties in nearby (or not-so-nearby) canyons and mountains. These were not raves, I was always told, but they all had common ground with raves: There was always a DJ, there was usually someone with MDMA, and the people who came to hear the DJ were as much a part of the performance as the DJ himself. They were not passive observers adoring a rock star, but interactive participants in a spontaneous scene. The music changed the crowd; the crowd changed the music. Part of this was no doubt a side effect of the MDMA, which awakens in its users a downright panicky need for self-expression. But the other part was the music itself: Rhythm-centric and machine-made, electronic dance de-emphasizes the almost always pseudonymous individual who makes it. It was a long time before the news got out that Fatboy Slim, for instance, is not a band, but a witty Brit named Norman Cook. (“Any fan I can distract from Hootie and the Blowfish,” he famously said, “is another soul saved.”)
It’s a strange paradox of underground scenes that they‘re almost never diverse, and the electronic dance music scene of the early ’90s was no different. There was a gay scene and a black scene, and at desert parties or warehouse parties it was hard to find a DJ who wasn‘t white and male; the majority of breaking commercial electronic dance acts have been British. “When I was playing the club scene in the early ’90s, gay people walked one way, and straight people went another,” remembers DJ Irene, who got her start in the early ‘80s playing house parties, and later held a regular Friday night spot at Arena. “It was all segregated, and nobody mingled.” The closer she gets to mainstream success, however, the more integrated her following has become. The crowd that came to see her play Spundae at Circus on an October Saturday night was impossible to classify: Valley girls, black gay men, Latinos from Montebello, her hometown. Ravers smelling of patchouli, with dreads in process. Everyone danced.
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