How Britannia got cool again

The British aren't very good at revolution. We're way too polite. In all our history, we've never quite pulled it off. Instead, we're a nation of armchair extremists. We like to walk the walk and talk the talk, but in reality we'd hate to cause any serious trouble. Ephidrina thinks maybe this is why we liked Ecstasy so much.

The Eighties were a bad decade for Britain culturally. The Thatcherite philosophy verbally encouraged individual freedom, while making the rich richer, the poor poorer, and gradually eroding our individual rights. The Government sold all our property and closed down our industry to make themselves rich, and we all turned into estate agents. Worst of all, TV was terrible, music was embarrassing and everyone looked like Joan Collins. When Ecstasy came along, it was like someone had opened a window.

Ecstasy began to trickle into Britain around about 1987. It was first popularized by DJ's and hedonists who'd discovered it in the clubs and dance parties of Ibiza. Armed with a handful of pills and lots of strange new "techno" music, a few enterprising individuals opened up clubs in London and Manchester. Word got around, and the winning combination of vibrant rhythms and great drugs pulled in the crowds. Inevitably, someone invited the police, and after a few messy raids in nightclubs, the more ambitous parties took their show on the road.

The raves - huge ticketed parties held in fields, warehouses and aircraft hangars - started in 1988. To foil the law, they were organised in secret, with the venue announced at the last minute on an ansaphone. When in 1989, the courts began jailing the organisers under the Misuse of Drugs Act, things had to change. The Government capitulated, clamping down on illegal parties while allowing nightclubs to stay open all night. Rave culture had arrived.

The next thing to happen was the music. Manchester, home of the only two good bands of the Eighties - The Smiths and New Order - was livening up again. As the decade turned, the Stone Roses redefined rock with the lolloping, menacing "Fools Gold". From Bristol came Massive Attack, with the heartstopping "Unfinished Sympathy". But the Ecstasy anthem was Primal Scream's lazy funk "Loaded". In the teeth of the Gulf War and crippled by recession, Britain was determined to dance.

The influence of the magic pills spread beyond the confines of the thriving club scene. In 1991 and 1992, Ecstasy began to permeate into other walks of life. As more and more people discovered it, the national mood seemed to lift. Protestant and Catholic kids were hugging each other in the clubs in Northern Ireland. Amazingly, arrests for football violence dropped by 22% that year. It was never really confirmed, but many fans said this was because Ecstasy had replaced beer as the drug of choice on the terraces. Rival gangs were meeting in the clubs, taking tablets and calling truce.

Ecstasy culture penetrated the mainstream to the extent that drug use seriously began to threaten the alcohol market. Clubs were full of people using Ecstasy and drinking nothing stronger than pop. The enormous demand for an illegal drug had to be filled somehow, and club owners were faced with the choice between tolerating drug dealing or emptying their premises. Britain's criminal fraternity were quick to take control of the situation. Pretty soon, bad things began to happen. What had been a scene full of love, happiness and idealism was quickly inhabited by shady, violent characters interested in turning a fast profit. Smiling likely lads with poly-bags full of pills were replaced by scary guys with guns as the gangsters gradually took control of the drug supplies and then the clubs themselves. Naive kids with no experience of drugs were swallowing adulterated pills and getting sick. The scene became characterised by a pattern of chemical delight followed by hard, sharp comedown.

In the years between 1988 and 1995, the drug economy burgeoned. Just when the Government thought they had convinced us all that drugs were dangerous and anti-social, along came a drug, safer in some ways than either alcohol or tobacco, that turned you into everybody's friend. But the tragedy of ecstasy is - it's never as good as it was the first time. After that first flash of euphoria, nothing is ever quite the same. Always in search of that initial moment of clarity, Britain was on a binge, trying to recreate something lost forever.


The bubble finally burst in 1995, with the tragic death of Leah Betts. A fresh faced, middle class teenager, Betts fell into a coma after taking a pill in a Basildon nightclub, and never woke up. There had always been a handful of casualties, (on a par with the number of people who die annually from eating peanuts) but this girl was different. Her father was a retired police officer, and her mother a part time anti-drugs worker: hardly sympathetic to the glossy, grinning, highly profitable industry Ecstasy had become.

Betts was just what the media, the anti-drugs lobby, and most intriguingly, the breweries had been waiting for. While the coroner prevaricated over the exact cause of her death, a massive nationwide campaign filled newspapers and hoardings with Leah's pretty, smiling face, reminding us that "just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts." The inquest revealed that it wasn't just one tablet - Betts and her friends had taken them several times before. Furthermore, although the coroner's report was murky and inconclusive, it identified as a major contributory factor the amount of water she had drunk. In short, poor Leah had panicked when her experience turned bad, and drunk enough water to poison herself.

The case did reveal the extent to which Britain's violent underworld had inherited the scene. It emerged that the club in which Betts had taken the pill that killed her, and many more like it, was controlled by vicious criminals with no interest in the scene and the culture beyond the profit it could generate. Moreover, clubbers were loosing interest in a drug that was becoming harder to buy, and turning back to more traditional uppers like cocaine and amphetamines.

Ecstasy's now far less popular in Britain than it used to be. But it did force us all to dramatically reappraise our attitude to drug use. If anything, we're much more critical, and less vulnerable to bullshit and disinformation, since our love-affair with MDMA made us see things differently. People now find it easier to admit that they've used illegal drugs, and that they'd rather have the choice about how they enjoy themselves, instead of being stuck with alcohol and tobacco. Not that anything's really changed. The Conservatives still won the 1992 election, and were finally replaced in 1997 with a Labour Party that are virtually indistinguishable from the last lot. The Government are no closer to reforming drug laws, churning out all the same tired old rhetoric about the "enemy within". But just for a minute back then, it looked like things could have been so very, very different. When Tony Blair bleats smugly about "Cool Britannia", maybe he should stop to remember what it was that made us so damn cool in the first place.

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© 1998 E J Turner - All Rights Reserved Ecstasy's History Home Effects