Dance Music (Late 80s, 90s)
Time for Breen to act like Lotsaheart and talk about some elements and history in Dance music, and indulge in what it really is all about. And that’s the truth! Actually, I will only mention the songs I find conducive to laying bare a genealogy of Dance music today. If I fail at the genealogy factor, screw me.
I thought of this idea while writing about my favourite 90s music, a decent part of which is dance-oriented. And I mean ‘dance-oriented’ not ‘electronic-oriented’ (Electronica). I’m talking about a sub-genre of Electronica. So expect tons of gaps.
But I wanted to write this because I feel that dance music is, in some ways, at the core of some of today’s best pop music. Not sure what I’ll put across here, but I’ll be content with showing a reader what Dance music has amounted to, and what makes it so great for what it is. There is history, but there is also opinion and bias. Deal with it. If it brings someone to like it even more, then I will have done something to the effect of promoting its tacit siren of optimism, and that’s the whole point of this post.
First I’ll say that there is a lot of music out there that would be considered ‘precursors’ to dance music: Disco, Donna Summer, New Wave, Kraftwerk. There’s a lot. What I’m writing about, though, is the music that emerged from the 80s and blossomed in the 90s; the music that allowed us 80s-born children to identify beats and time signatures with a nod of the head.
So let’s start with New Order. The reason for this is important, for out of the ashes of post-punk was this end result of fed up, battered nerves: young adults messing with little drum machines, frail voices, and partial stances to the wish to deify punk. We must grant, too, that they probably felt some liberation, having now had removed from their lives as writers the torment and distraction of Ian Curtis. I’m sure we can attribute the greatness of New Order to its individuals as writers whose ideas were suppressed in Joy Division. I’m happy about both, but New Order gets me more.
The song is strong and only gets stronger if one hears its later, remixed versions. I hope you hear new music in this song. I mean, I hope you can hear the Arcade Fire in its drums and the pushing guitar chords that accompany it. Shame on you if you don’t, because, really, it’s there…
Less serious in scope but equally serious in reception, however, was the campy and yet stoic response to punk of Neil and the other guy from Pet Shop Boys. They’re dapper Englishmen who would have an idea — whatever idea that was — about what a song really should sound like. I say this because their covers are always outstanding. They made, in my opinion, the best version of an old country song now too notorious for its own good.
The important thing with the Pet Shop Boys was this intelligent intention one perceived behind their dance music. It was ballsy for the time, considering how all that the early 80s furnished listeners with was an ephemeral hint of decency in electronic pop. (And, as a side-note, this band is the favourite of a former, English philosophy professor of mine. He is in his early 60s, and still clinging to the Dionysian element of his soul. I think he once said at a party that they were the only pop out there. OK…)
In America there was little response by way of serious intentions in Dance music. There were, however, a few who decided to make a name for factory-produced hits. It didn’t work for long, but it worked for a little while. Everything to America as this point in time was the tits. Tits on men and tits on women. Here’s the saying: “Isn’t that the tits!”
Back in England, though, all of the important stuff happened. A rage was felt in the beauty of certain British beats: Drummer of Jesus & Mary Chain went on to make a cool, groovy take on pop music. It was called Primal Scream, and the album was called ‘Screamadelica’. The songs were hazy dance makes, totally, almost wholly situated in a recess of laid-back production that was still aiming at greater, more poignant works of rhythm. Almost there….
Yea, the songs were eponymous enough..
In time, this album will fare influence later in this post.
There were still in the U.S. some core-driven dancers making songs. They had some kernel of musicality, as evidenced by the fact that a lot of these songs appear in sports events, the place where only ‘energetic’ music is played, primarily for their dance quality. I couldn’t avoid this group growing up. A perennial feature of my pre-teen life was seeing my friends misspell this band’s name.
Pinball machines, swinging arms, bushwhacking. There’s no limit.
Another feature included seeing people mistake this video’s singer’s sexual persuasion as male, when she was in fact a Belgian-Congolese who just so happened to be looking like a guy singing about the women dancing about her in the video. I don’t know who she wants to have sex with. And I don’t really care.
A much stronger version of Dance music found fruition, again in England, in Rave music. It was a bit of a blow to the English music community, because its potential for strife and hedonism threatened some kind of etiquette behind the closed doors of others. It definitely engendered and endorsed drug use, whose users, however, were slack-jawed hippies only looking for values. Still, it started as one of the first underground secrets of the British music community since The Beatles’s pop music in The Cavern.
It had a centreman, a prodigy named Liam Howlett. First he did Rave, then he did stuff that was better.
You can actually see all the guys dancing in other videos of early Prodigy tracks from the ‘Experience’ album era. You can tell they weren’t grown up dancers, but only newcomers. Whatever was this new pulse of music, it made these punks move to it. Most of them hadn’t danced at all before coming together as a band.
Listening to this stuff, I’m sure you can hear how dated it is. It really is. But it still holds some of the schemata of latter-day dance tracks; and I find it hard to slight it for what it is, which isn’t bad. I mean, if you actually situate yourself back in 1991, this stuff doesn’t seem so queer: it’s just far removed from the formulaic sound we all have of Dance music, which we’ll get to.
But if any 90s Dance track weighs in on my mind, at this point, it’s ‘Mr. Vain’. It came from Germany from a band who levelled out the German partition of Dance music along with The Real McCoy. I once cried when I transcribed the song to its chords on an acoustic guitar. I played the introduction quite seriously, then went to roll the chords with the words. I Can’t believe I thought so highly of the song to play it on the guitar. And to feel something about it is just mentally irregular at this point. Those certainly were the dissident days for Breen.
But then the Prodigy, again, made a song that took just a snippet of the American dream of grunge music — the opening F# riff of Nirvana’s ‘Very Ape’ — and made after it an exercise in beat and scorch which, in my mind, shifted the sound in Dance music towards something more industrial. And with the invocation of the 4/4 beat, we kinda get here the nuance of what was already a French thing, ie. the House beat, but made super accessible.
Now for 4/4 House beat on stilts: Around this time, too, came a track from the Underworld, this time from the perspective of a druggie (after played on-screen unequivocally by Ewan McGregor, though I highly doubt the depth of the song’s player’s drug rave: all that is shouted is ‘lager, lager, lager, lager’). And it was actually totally original at this point. Its real beauty, I think, is the smooth, reverbial character of the opening three chords. They only feature in, maybe, 30 % of the song, but they are what that song is all about.
The Prodigy came to jump on the bandwagon of using female vocals to their effect. Whatever crap English Dance music engendered in America, the English could do it better. (Still, I enjoy my country’s “Dance Mix” records). A lot of the work of the Prodigy goes unrecognized these days, I find, and it’s too bad because it’s very good.
More of those poignant American tones…
Now most Dance music today is grounded in the majority of music that follows. These people would say that they were the synthesizers of past traditions. DJs, for the most part, they would work together, come in twos. Hard to know if this was a new thing, since there hitherto had been many duos. But in Dance the first big one to do justice to the name were the Englishmen the Chemical Brothers.
Originally known as producers, they were the Dust Brothers. They started their first song from their first record as an homage to Kraftwerk, with its introduction. They made the cover art, also, as a tacit nod to Dylan’s second album.
But their penchant for past relics and commentary found better expression in a few French guys who had been their friends since the beginning, opening up for them at concerts. Daft Punk made Dance music because of ‘Screamadelica’ (there we go). They named their record ‘Homework’, and tried to begin their album with an even better tribute to Kraftwerk. Not sure it’s a better tribute to the latter, but it’s an indication of how influential the Chemical Brothers were at that point.
“The Brothers Gonna Work It Out”
“Da Funk Back To The Punk, C’mon”
These are the mantras which lay behind today’s evident legacy of Dance music. Personally, I think Daft Punk put more thought into their creations than the Bros. But that’s me.
Here are the two groups caught chatting on a bus, charting through Paris, with an excellent Thomas Bangalter (short-haired Daft Punk member) track playing in the background (the track is titled “On ‘Da Rocks”)
(Thomas may be more active, but Guy is just too cool for school. Check out the hair and the smokes. He knows how to smoke. His French is even sounds better too. Anyway @ 0:47 you hear Bangalter’s tune, and @ 1:10 you see Tom Rowlands of the Chemicals chatting with Bangalter of the Punks. This video shows Daft Punk about 2 years before their debut came out. Pretty good shape for an up-and-coming act.)
Europe had still its continuum of English electronica artists. And most credit ought to be given to the English for this. There was so much of it there. I put, above, the Underworld track. But there’s another club classic that gives us, as usual, that single segment, or riff, that marks the goods off from the rest.
The last great Dance track to come from the 90s, to loom as anthemic, to stand ground with ‘Insomnia’, ‘Born Slippy’ and ‘Confusion’, is Daft Punk’s ‘Alive’. Their first track, it’s nothing like today’s nano-wired hybrids and pastiches. Back in ’93 it was first titled ‘The New Wave’, denoting its hint at a turn in Dance music. It’s nothing complicated. It’s what makes Daft Punk’s early work so great: sound waves simpliciter meets skeletal beats.
Anyway, there were other 90s Dance acts to come with all these, but not much of their output was too interesting to me. Sorry. Most of the interesting stuff would come from acts already mentioned. So I’ll sorta end it here, but with a coda note wielding the music of one of the few good Dance acts in a while, Justice.
Hope someone enjoyed some of this.