Discover more from This Week in The 90s
The Prodigy go 'Out Of Space' in search of a better world [November 15, 1992]
Plus: Simply Red, Guns 'n' Roses, Faith No More, and Aphex Twin
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of November 15, 1992.
This week in 1992: 📰 The Queen’s annus horibilis gets even worse as Windsor Castle is gutted by fire, 📽️Robert Redford leads an all-star ensemble in hacker classic Sneakers, 📺 and audiences meet Edina and Pasty as Absolutely Fabulous debuts on BBC Two.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Would I Lie To You’ by Charles & Eddie, which we’ll talk about next week! But today, let’s look at…
This week’s Number 14: ‘Out Of Space’ — The Prodigy
In 1912, a German chemist called Anton Kollisch was working on a new medication to help control bleeding. He developed a synthetic compound with the catchy name of “N-Methyl-a-Methylhomopiperonylamin”, but his research ended shortly after when the war disrupted supply chains.
After the war, various organizations experimented with variations on Kollisch’s compound. The U.S. military ran trials in the 50s, but those trials were abandoned when they discovered that the substance didn’t kill commies.
Near the end of the 60s, psychopharmacologist Alexander Shulgin started exploring the psychoactive elements of the drug. His grad students had—very eagerly—trialled the drug on themselves and discovered that it made them feel affectionate and chatty.
Shulgin called the drug Window (because it makes you transparent) and started marketing it to therapists. Other companies also sold the drug under names like called Empathy (because it aids couples counselling) or Adam (because it returns you to a prelapsarian state.)
Window/Empathy/Adam had another weird effect: it made music sound really good. An opportunistic businessman called Michael Clegg started selling it in Texas under the name Sassyfras, throwing Sassyfras parties where Texans could merrily dance the night away.
Clegg was a quite dodgy hustler, but he had a knack for marketing. He realised that his product needed a better name than Sassyfras (or Window) he created a new brand: Ecstasy.
The Feds were not happy with the growing recreational popularity of ecstasy, which was on every college campus by 1985.
By 1985, Sassyfras had spread to every college campus in America, and the government were pissed. They made MDMA an illegal substance, and encouraged other nations to do the same. Ecstasy usage soon plummeted across the States.
But now it was popular on the Spanish island of Ibiza, a place that was already home to drugs and great music. Holidaymakers brought ecstasy home to their own countries, so the party never had to end.
Soon, ecstasy found its true spiritual home: a damp, miserable island where the government were working hard to stamp out joy.
I’ll take your brain to another dimension
The British working class have a proud history of getting fucked up.
The 60s and 70s saw the emergence of the quirky Northern Soul movement in towns like Wigan and Blackpool. Young people would work their menial jobs all week to earn some cash, which they would then spend on amphetamines so they could up to 72 straight hours just dancing. Not drinking, or fighting, or screwing. Just dancing.
Northern Soul music was mostly Motown and R&B, but nobody cared about the artists or the song. Dancers only cared about the bassline, the rhythm, and the beat, which had to be a minimum of 100bpm.
Northern Soul happened in towns that were already pretty grim, and which became even grimmer when Thatcher started shutting down mines and heavy industry. This was the era of “there’s no such thing as society”, the era of “greed is good” and “fuck you buddy”. Thatcher and Regan were building a world where all human life boiled down to one aspiration: get rich or die trying.
But what if another world was possible?
At this moment in time, there were so many groups who yearned for something different. First, you had the crusties—the people who turned their back on society and adopted alternative lifestyles, living in vans and squats, trying to stay off-grid.
Then you had working-class kids abandoned by Thatcher. Some of these kids fought back through radical politics, becoming communists or anarchists or trade unionists or—sadly—skinhead racists. But most kids don’t want to join a party. They want to go to a party.
On top of all that, Britain had a rapidly growing immigrant community, many of whom faced quite brutal social exclusion. Fair to say, I think, that quite a few of them were also depressed by mushy peas, drizzle, and Showaddywaddy.
All of these disparate groups trying to survive. And then: ecstasy. And dance music.
Here’s a new music with universal appeal. No lyrics, no instruments, no stars, no links to the past, just a DJ providing you with a steady beat. And here’s this drug, this magical drug that makes you feel like you’re soaring.
Hippies talked about peace and love, but ravers really felt it. When you come up on ecstasy, when you reach that perfect zenith, when your body sits into the groove—it’s impossible to hate anyone. It’s impossible to be angry. You are filled with the joy of being alive and being with people.
When the DJ drops the perfect beat at the right moment, something magical happens. You get transported outside of time, space, and identity. You become a feeling, a vibe, a rhythm. Free.
You catch a glimpse of Utopia, the other world they told you was impossible.
Find another race
“The government didn’t know what it was. The police didn’t know how to control it. The kids ran it.”—Keith Flint
Rave culture metastasised very quickly across Europe, but Britain is the place where it felt like ravers might actually overthrow the government.
The establishment fought back. BBC banned ‘Everything Starts With An E’ (but were oblivious about ‘Ebeneezer Goode'), while the tabloids made rave culture seem like a death cult.
By 1992, things were reaching a tipping point.
The Prodigy had emerged the previous year as a bit of a novelty act with their first single, ‘Charly’. Around the start of 92, the band met Mr C of The Shamen who, according to Keith, “gave us a patronising pat on the back, and said, if you get a year out of it, then enjoy that year.” The view at the time is that rave music—proper ‘ardkore rave music—was a fad that would die out before it went mainstream.
But The Prodigy did cross over, escaping the illegal warehouse rave scene and making it to mainstream radio. The follow-up singles were hits, and Experience proved that it was possible to make a great rave album. Rave culture was here to stay.
Meanwhile, ravers got their own Woodstock in the form of the Castlemorton Common Festival, a massive illegal rave on public land in the summer of 92. It started when police prevented crusties from hosting the Avon Free Festival. They set up camp in Castlemorton with the help of several techno sound systems, and soon 40,000 ravers were there. It went on for a week.
At this exact moment in history—the latter half of 1992—it feels like something is happening and anything is possible. Maybe rave will save the world. Maybe the youth will rise up, overthrow the government, make MDMA available on the NHS, and create one nation under a groove.
Pay close attention
Spoiler alert: nobody found Utopia.
The UK government has a shockingly draconian response to all this. In 1994, mere weeks before The Prodigy dropped their sophomore masterpiece, Music for the Jilted Generation, Parliament passed the Criminal Justice Bill, which banned squatting, gave police greater stop-and-search powers, and criminalised trespassing.
It also specifically banned illegal raves, which it defines as a gathering of 20 or more people listening to “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”
Jilted Generation included a lot of anti-police songs, plus this sleeve illustration:
Dance music became more of a commodity, as club promoters realised that they could charge whatever they wanted. DJs became as big as rock stars. The Prodigy became literal rock stars—‘Firestarter’ is a song written for beer, not pills.
When you talk to old-skool ravers who were there in the early 90s, they’ll tell you about an even bigger problem: the drugs turned to shit. Ecstasy became cheaper and more widely available in the 90s, but the purity declined, and pills were often cut with speed or other amphetamines.
A drug-based Utopia was never achievable, of course. The Nazis tried to build an empire based on crystal meth, and that didn’t quite work out (although in fairness they seem to be making a comeback.) Heavy, long-term ecstasy usage can fry the brain in a way that leaves you in a state of anhedonia, unable to feel any happiness, locked out of heaven forever.
The music, however, is still pure and uncut, and still delivers that bump. You can listen to ‘Out Of Space’ while doing the dishes or picking the kids up from school, and a little bit of that excitement comes back. And if you close your eyes and lose yourself in the beat, you can sense another world that’s alive somewhere, waiting for us to find it again.
Thanks for reading! Drop a comment if you have any thoughts.
And if you liked it, share it!
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 9 (New Entry): ‘Temptation (Brothers In Rhythm remix)’ — Temptation
Three songs of this week’s featured songs are from the 80s, which might seem a bit ridiculous for a 90s email, but one of them is ‘Blue Monday’ and another is ‘Temptation’, so shut up.
Brothers In Rhythm made the sensible decision not to interfere with the original too much (how do you improve on perfection?) Instead, they layer on some beats to emphasise the house music elements therein. A very good reworking of an absolute classic.
By the way, now seems a good time to recommend Rip It Up And Start Again by Simon Reynolds, which tells the story of music’s post-punk years. Reynolds brilliantly explains why bands like Heaven 17 are a natural progression from the Sex Pistols.
Number 11 (New Entry): ‘Lady Godiva’s Room’ — Simply Red
People used to talk about Simply Red the way they discuss Coldplay today: a dull band, inexplicably popular, quite punchable frontman.
But Coldplay have written some decent songs, and so too have Simply Red, and this is one of them. It’s a bit more jazzy and a lot less poppy than the stuff on Stars.
It originally appeared on the B-side of a 1987 single, ‘Infidelity. This live version appeared on The Montreux EP alongside covers of Cole Porter and Bill Withers.
Number 12 (New Entry): ‘Yesterdays’ — Guns ‘n’ Roses
A fun game to play is “ what would you put on Use Your Illusion if it was a regular 10-track album?”
I’m not sure I’d include ‘Yesterdays’, but I would certainly consider it. It’s very pleasant.
Number 27 (New Entry): ‘How Does It Feel?’ — Electroset
I emailed you all with a social media poll last week, and thanks to everyone who responded.
Now I am addicted to polls, so here is another one:
(Some background: I absolutely loathe Orgy’s sub-Marilyn Manson version from 1998 and you would actually be surprised at how often I complain about it IRL.)
Number 38 (New Entry): ‘Everything’s Ruined’ — Faith No More
Angel Dust is the gift that keeps on giving. Just a really fun album from a really fun band. They should have released every track as a single. ‘Jizzlobber’ could have been the Christmas Number One.
Album of the Week
Selected Ambient Works 85-92 — Aphex Twin
Richard D James has a reputation that’s beautifully summarised in this cartoon:
People refer to Jame’s music as IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music, and I’m struggling to think of a less enticing name for a genre. Diarroehacore? Rhythm & Infanticide? No, both of those genres are more appealing than IDM, which just sounds exhausting. It sounds like homework.
Even the title of this album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, sounds incredibly dorky, like a dull collection of political essays. It’s not the kind of thing you’d choose in the jukebox.
That said… it’s really good. Not “hmm, I admire this technical achievement” good, but “I am completely hypnotised by this groove” good. It is occasionally beautiful, frequently surprising, and often quite good fun.
The opening track, ‘Xtal’, actually has some late-night Ibiza vibes, a blissful chillout with hi-hats and haunting female vocalisations. Nerds won’t admit it, but it’s practically club music.
Some tracks on here date back to James’ days as a teenager in Cornwall. The one-minute song ‘i’ was created with a ZX Spectrum connected to a sampler, while the later ‘Green Calx’ sounds like a ZX Spectrum game that has mutated and escaped the lab.
It’s fascinating to witness his evolution over the course of SAW85-92. ‘Ptolomy’ plays with hip-hop and house beats, while ‘We Are The Music Makers’ allows him to dick around with time signatures (and Gene Wilder samples).
But ultimately, this is not intended as a museum piece. Selected Ambient Works is the living manifesto of an enormously talented artist and a blueprint for much of the future of electronic music.
Definitely an album that you can nerd out to, if you want. It’s very rich and imaginative and, yes, intelligent. But it’s also a regular record that you can enjoy when you want some nice beats. Maybe just don’t put it on in your local pub jukebox, eh?
Thanks for reading! Drop a comment if you have any thoughts.
And if you liked it, share it!