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Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House
by Matthew Colin

Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House
Matthew Collin
Serpent’s Tail
London 1997

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In Matthew Collin’s Altered State, Ecstasy culture and the dance scene find their chronicler. Collin’s history of ten years of acid house is not just a celebration of the scene, but an intelligent, informed examination of the diverse origins and influences of dance culture, devoid of the hysteria that characterises so much writing about Ecstasy.

Collin’s involvement in the dance scene from its very early days is evident, but he manages to avoid a smug been-there-seen-it-done-it approach. Instead, the benefit of his involvement and experiences are combined with extensive research and documentation to produce what must be the definitive ‘biography’ of this counterculture.

The longevity of a scene which so many saw as ephemeral is due, in Collin’s argument, to the ‘open access’ formula of drugs and dance: ‘a culture with options in place of rules.’ There is a lack of dogma about the acid house experience which lends itself to perpetual reinvention, yet simultaneously exerts an influence on the society which created it. Collin argues that the culture embraces you, makes you feel a part of a common cause. And it is no coincidence that, just as Thatcher’s government set out to destroy society, ‘E came along and made everyone feel part of a new society.’

By placing the dance scene within its cultural context, the book is able to draw parallels between this counterculture and the dominant culture from which it developed. Although the ravers of the late 80’s were rejecting Thatcher’s definition of society by creating their own, they embraced the materialism of Thatcherite politics with a massive black market in drugs and illegal warehouse parties. The generation of entrepreneurs that Thatcher dreamed of ended up being chased by her police force and condemned by her government.

One of the strengths of the book is that it is not afraid to confront the controversies that surround the dance scene. In documenting the euphoria of the Ecstasy experience, he does not fail to acknowledge the inevitable comedown. He is understanding of the police, while critical of the laws that they must operate under. He addresses the problems of legalising drugs, while arguing that there must be an acceptance that drugs are taken, illegal or not. He sympathises with the grieving parents of Leah Betts, and other drug casualties, but warns against hysterical drug panic. Collin’s suggestion is that the victims of Ecstasy have forced the dominant culture to take a more rational approach to the scene. Betts, the middle class ‘postergirl for the anti-E brigade’, has created an acceptance that while the dance culture may be demonised by parents, to their children it is an accepted part of a night out with friends.

If there is to be a new dialogue between the ‘chemical generation’ and the governing powers it would be difficult to find a more rational, intelligent spokesman than Collin. He argues against ignorance; of drugs, of countercultures and of the scene itself, and with the publication of Altered State he gives us no excuse to remain ignorant of the influences of the last ten years. With Collin as its chronicler, it’s a very happy 10th birthday for Ecstasy culture.

Reviewed by Pippa Wright


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