There’s a place that some of us like to go for a mash up. I was there a bare six months ago, staring back at a girl. Her eyes were inescapable. She stood, gleaming bright and clear azure against the pitted night sky darkness. This stunning girl staring at me from across the garden, striking, her gaze piercing mine. And now, here, six months later, she’s back again. The last time I saw her she was an elegant vision, perfect and sepia lensed angelic in a plain white cotton dress, with dark brunette hair and a smile that seemed to say “I want you. Do you want me?”
She’s back, but now she wears a military style coat more in keeping with the style of the season. How could anybody resist her? After all, she is a model. She is a package, which is a design, which is a product. She is an advertisement – a billboard. She stares down at a patch of grass with the owlish eyes of a judgmental TJ Eckleberg in The Great Gatsby as a thousand ravers mill and churn beneath, gurning indecisively or dancing, heads down, arms in the air. They are almost all oblivious to her but I can’t seem to divert my gaze. There’s something about her, something calculated to sell.
We are at the Black Swan, Easton, Bristol. And the bizarre juxtaposition of commerce overshadowing, almost leering over the fragile innocence of a late-night mash up is nothing short of iconic. The Swan is one of the oldest, most venerated temples of mash-up in the scene, if such a thing can be said to exist. But times are changing. There was once a time when the Swan, belovedly known as the Dutty Bird to the regular crowd, was the only place you could go for proper music. It was (and probably still is) Bristol’s best venue, the best place to escape the braying, posing idiots who seem to dominate so many parts of the Bristol music scene. But times are changing.
Once upon a time, such a long time ago now, I expressed a bleak-hearted fear that the idiots, resplendent in their polo shirts and peasant skirts, were about to storm the building. I was both right and wrong. Today there are no obvious fashion victims standing at the bar, for a far more sinister thing has occurred. They have become like us. No longer resplendent in their toss-pot polo shirts, they dress down and descend vulture-like, obvious in their mummy-bought sweatshirts or pre-muddied jeans, fresh back from Glastonbury – chic, rich enough to own ten dozen shoes but still holding on to their battered Dunlop Green Flashes for ‘sentimental’ reasons.
“Go deeper undergound” a review in a magazine suggested, “to the shamelessly dark Black Swan.” The magazine in question? The Sunday Times style supplement. I shit you not. Blink now, and read those words again. I did. They were still on the page when I looked a second time. The Sunday Times, in between articles on the latest it-girl, designer sunglasses and champagne tasting notes, recommended dinner at Hotel du Vin followed by a night down the Swan, then back to salubrious Clifton for a luxury bed in an exclusive hotel. And this is what we are up against – I hate to break it to you, but getting mashed up has become about being cool.
No longer a scene so abstract, gurners skull pills and dive into the clubs their parents warned them about, each night out a badge of honour, a badge of cool – a sense of belonging. But to what? Honest promoters, perhaps victims of their own successes, have ended up attracting an altogether different class of idiot. A type of idiot that fails so spectacularly to understand the mentality of an atomistic, individual scene that, on talking to them, you feel as though they’ve come on a day out to the zoo. ‘We’re just visiting. We’re just gaping. We’re just buying into the lifestyle for the weekend.’ And they’re here to take, not to give. Trying to strike up conversation with them was futile. They seemed uninterested in the music. “Oh, I’m just here because this is where my friends come now,” one of them confided in me, with a conspiratorial but unsettling wink.
The scene thrives on diversity, from hardcore ravers and hippies to the flip-side, the artists and bohemians and beat poets. We’re not all the same, but we are here for one thing – the party. This is something the day trippers can’t seem to understand. They are here simply because they are, because the herd has arrived. We never thought it could happen, or at least, those of us who thought might never actually thought that this would be the cash in, the sell out. Fortunately, the Dutty Bird isn’t serving up DP ’96 just yet, but already the idiot masses have started copying our style and selling it back to the mainstream. Skanc chic? Perhaps. But the fact is this – drugs, particularly pills, mdma – gurners –are back in fashion.
The retarded offspring of the summer of love ’88 has finally filtered through into the milieu of the mainstream, and taking drugs is as normal has having a cup of tea. Though whether or not 2004 constituted the third summer of love is still hotly disputed, it certainly was the point at which the new psychedelic revolution peaked, pushed over, and began to roll back. A lot of people were turned on to mushrooms and ketamine, still legal, and then moved into mdma and pills as well. But theirs is no spiritual quest – why are they here? Because they’re here, and for no other reason.
It’s a noticeable trend, and some promoters have wised up to it as well. At a free party in the woods the other week, I’d gone in search of a real night out, something the student bubble hadn’t beaten yet. What I found was another half-cocked party, an excessive cover charge and, surprise surprise, no atmosphere, no vibe, no party.
“These things cost money,” one sound engineer told me as I recounted my latest experience. “Yes, but you don’t do a party to make a profit,” I replied. Opinions varied, but at the end of the day, the oldest crusty at the party had it right when I asked him what he thought. “Years ago, when you had twenty thousand people showing up to a rave, that wasn’t a party,” he started, and I felt a barely perceptible note of sadness in the timbre of his voice. “When you’ve got thousands of people it’s a phenomenon, it’s something the promoters can cash in on. And it’s only a matter of time before they do.” And though the parties and the clubs still only count their visitors in the hundreds if they’re very good, or very popular, or very lucky, the fact that the underground music scene is now so marketable and fashionable after a decade in the wilderness is a cause for concern, for all of us.
Perhaps it’s why the house party scene has entered a new lunar cycle of vibrancy. It’s the only party you’re likely to end up at any more without a cover charge, and it’s here where the smaller soundsystems and fresh talent really thrive. Playing for friends, partying with friends – nobody is interested in their profits or their reputation here. Not that everyone is out to make money these days, (the promoters at the Swan, particularly, still do an excellent job at keeping the good music coming) but it is a noticeable trend. There was a time, after the last bubble burst, when rigs made money by hiring their equipment or services out to clubs, pressing up vinyl and feeding a scene that never lost its vitality. And free parties were a reward to the lost tribe, the few who carried on, the people who were really a part of something.
But maybe it’s more than that, now – now that the scene is on the rise again. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to grow up. Is necking a three for a tenner pill deal every weekend really a great way to live? Is it really that cool? Fuck off. These days it feels as if the scene is more about the drugs than the music. People have taken on board the former, not the latter, with Thompsonian total commitment, and there will eventually be fall-out, and casualties. What’s cool, anyway? Following the trend, or setting it? If the latter, then heed this, idiots: I’m sobering up. You can keep your false I love you! I love you! 3-am group hugs. I’d rather hang around with real people.