I make these observations from the experience of being involved in and writing about the club scene in London extensively over the past year, but anyone who has been to a deep/tech house club night in London over the past few months will be familiar with scenes which could potentially be from Danny Boyle’s ‘28 Bumps Later’ where a cast of expressionless zombies try their best to crawl across a wall to the bar, making a combination of baby steps and aimless lunges to guess where the floor might be.
It seems paradoxical that a music-based movement has spawned a subculture which is entirely disinterested in the music it’s associated with, but it has. Let me take you back a few months to one particularly hot spring weekend. A selection of some of my favourite international DJ/producers were billed to play a warehouse party in Hackney (I’ll spare them the naming and shaming because the issue is much larger than that) which on paper, with the names on display, should have been the party of the year. What in fact transpired was merely a confirmation of what I’d suspected had become the primary clubbing experience for my generation: a ketamine fuelled non-event. Half way through the night I looked out onto a stagnant crowd and watched the room sink further and further into a k-hole until the beats were at walking pace and the dancefloor had no more vivacity than a wave of un-coordinated nodding heads.
To the DJs and the crowd the music was secondary; something to have on in the background while everybody disappeared into their own world. Nobody cared what tune was playing; the DJs themselves seemingly more interested in the gaggle of idol-worshipping girls behind the decks. There were people walking around in sunglasses indoors - at night - in April. I’d come to expect that sort of posing and image-conscious clubbing at Pacha or Hed Kandi, but this was a supposedly underground warehouse party in a cutting-edge part of London with some of the finest house DJs in the world. How had this scene become so unhealthy? Being in a room with such a downbeat vibe even took the fun out of MDMA, I felt like the only person interested in the party and after a few hours I got my coat and left.
What was more alarming was the reaction the following week by people who had been there. If you believed the hearsay, I’d been at the most amazing party since the last supper. The messageboards were full of it, word-of-mouth spread, but I just didn’t understand, where were all these people who had such a great time on the night? They certainly weren’t on the dancefloor. Then something dawned on me, the elements which are important to me: the music, the crowd, the vibe, the things that have made clubbing that special, meaningful thing that we love, are playing second fiddle to getting as wonky as possible on ketamine and gushing about how great the whole thing was afterwards. The scene, it seems, has become a charade.
You might say ‘getting off your face on drugs in a club is nothing new, it’s the same across the board’. Well, not quite. Acid House was arguably the first youth movement where the clubs were fuelled as much by the drugs as they were the music. For the first time, two separate entities which had co-existed for decades finally entered into an unbreakable marriage. One seemed meaningless without the other, furthermore in ecstasy’s case, one actually enhanced the effects of the other. Briefly, the way ecstasy works is by flooding the brain with serotonin and dopamine, which heightens perception and creates exhilaration. This is why a) the music sounds so good and b) you want to tell each and every person on the dancefloor how much you love them. Ketamine on the other hand is a very different ball game. It jams electrical neurotransmission between brain cells, distorting the senses and effectively separating body and mind. It’s nothing new either, it was discovered in the sixties and used relatively safely as a medical anaesthetic. Within a few years a band of psychedelic experimentalists looking for an alternative to LSD had begun to utilize its recreational advantages, but it wasn’t to find its way into clubland until mid-nineties New York, much to the surprise of its original users.
The reason for their surprise, and the root of the problem we’re faced with today, is that trying to enjoy ketamine in a club environment is like trying to push a square through a round hole. They just don’t go together. You become dissociative, you lose your co-ordination, and you become separate from your surroundings; in effect, K is the quintessential ‘anti-party’ drug. If ecstasy brings a club together under a collective consciousness, ketamine divides it up again into a collection of individual non-responsive egos. If ecstasy makes you one with the music, ketamine shuts it out and ignores it. If ecstasy is energy, ketamine is lethargy.
This begs the question: Given the choice, who in their right mind would go to a club and take an anaesthetic? People who aren’t interested in being a part of what’s going on around them, that’s who. People who have grown up on a diet of shit pills and celebrity culture. People to whom being able to say you saw a particular DJ is more important than what tunes they’re playing, and how can you care about the music when the most excited reaction you can muster is a gormless smile and a thumbs up? The club scene has always had an element of this, but to an increasingly large section of my generation music is just a voice in the backseat while ketamine takes you on your own private journey.
The next time you’re at a club or a big-billed house night in London, look around you. How many people are dancing? Really? And how many people are wandering around on autopilot or sat on the side-lines unable to move and uninterested in what’s going on around them. There’s even talk of ‘Wonky house’ (which is surely an oxymoron) being made by ketted-up producers who are every bit as much of the problem as the zombified clubbers. The foundations laid out by the loved-up generation are slowly sinking into a mass k-hole, and if those loyal to the music (and the Mandy, let’s not beat about the bush here) don’t get back onto dancefloors and start hugging eachother again, 20 years of positive clubbing experiences are under threat of being undone. And to those who should know better, next time you’re stocking up for a night out, think, isn’t a party full of people on bumbles much more fun than a walking wonky graveyard?
I’ll end on a poignant quote I read recently from a seasoned disco queen on the subject which highlights how far the ketamine epidemic has spread: “If you like your world in slow-motion and want to become one with the wall then save it for the afterparty, don’t stand there bog-eyed and get in my way while I’m Vogueing.”
Follow me @tomdisco
This article was first published in 2010