The Agony and the Ecstasy

It’d be difficult to pinpoint when exactly it occurred to me that a kind of musical sea change was in the, uh, air in Los Angeles — but it had definitely happened, and it was something substantial. As precise a point as any was the year 1994, when the English electronic duo Orbital played a rather huge rave-style event at the Shrine Auditorium, in front of more than 4,000 fans. The germ of the “rave” scene had actually long before been planted in L.A., say as early as 1990, and there’d been tons of secretly held raves or at least electronic-dance-type events all over the city for years. So, the consciousness was there. But this show at the Shrine — which had originally been planned for a venue in Long Beach, whose fearful city fathers pulled the plug because of advance publicity in the L.A. Times detailing the wild E-fueled escapades of the rave scene — gave solid proof that a break had been made. It was a break in the mold that had dictated in essence since the beginning of the rock & roll era in the ’50s — if you wanna get weighty about it — that there was rock & roll (white) and there was dance music (black), and fuck you if the twain shall meet.

Sounds funny that I should reference Orbital — two paleface English guys — as the catalysts of a consciousness about dance music, basically a black art form, but what I’m talking about is the idea spreading out on a mass scale on this night at the Shrine that it was possible and even important to know about music for moving to while (possibly) taking your mind along for the ride. Rock music’s province for years had been the head, a situation paradoxically exacerbated by the punk “revolution,” without a doubt the most overintellectualized phenomenon in the history of music.

Punk rejected complacency, sure, but it also put down sexuality, an unnatural demand that had grown tiresome by 1979. Dancing — I mean real dancing, not just smashing into each other and twitching and acting nervous — was considered something that sort ‰ 60 of non-scenesters did; it wasn’t white enough. Here at the Shrine, however, you could see that literally thousands of youths — not insignificantly, of varying races — had shown up to reject anti-sensuality, to reject the idea that relevant, rocking music had to be played with guitars and drums (and had to address social issues literal-mindedly), and to maybe consider the enormous possibilities for total and complete musical meltdown.

A bit starry-eyed, yes, but you have to understand that to get to that point was for some of us a huge breakthrough. It probably wasn’t that night alone, but that night represented to me a point when we — the actual listening masses — were ready to accept that the rock & roll mold had grown moldy and rigid, and worst of all had enforced a kind of social/racial separatism. The “dance consciousness,” of course, had been here on the “fringes” — they’d been slamming radical mixes for nonwhites and the white hipoisie at Jewel’s Catch One for ages, for example, and at, say, Marques Wyatt’s house nights at his clubs BBC and Mac’s Garage and really numerous small places around town; but the barriers were still standing.

It’s not the dancing that’s particularly important; what’s more important is that in short order and down through the years since Orbital’s Shrine appearance, the possibilities suggested have infected Los Angeles in a big way. Huge events such as what they’ve got going at dance clubs like Spundae and many others happen every weekend, where thousands gather to bump & grind into the wee hours — and perhaps free their minds as well. Meanwhile, however, and on any night of the week in L.A., you can seek out and find an enormous variety of exploratory music that is mostly electronically generated and most of which has its by-now often obscure roots in dancing, from drum & bass, techno and hip-hop to gabber, house, vintage funk/R&B/soul stuff, trance, full-on experimental and purely abstract electronic strangeness. In the right hands and on a good night, those who care to think about such things will find that — even considering the apples-and-oranges aspects of the idea — the smashing of musical/social barriers in L.A.’s current electronic scene is as intense, if not far more radical, than anything punk rock ever proposed. And for this seeker, anyway, that is truly progress.