In a recent Tangents piece by Kevin Pearce, he let slip that he didn't really start paying attention to what we've come to accept as dance music till quite late in the day. This seems to be a common experience amongst people with a broadly indie rock background. But it happened the other way round for me: the best stuff was at the beginning.
Not right at the beginning, mind, because for most of us the beginning was Farley Jackmaster Funk and Darryl Pandy: fat, luridly dressed blokes with lacklustre late disco songs. Then came the 'Jack' era, tinny records with those terrible silent movie clip videos. It's part of the official Acid House myth that no-one in the South of England listened to house before 1988: to believe that, you have to forget that Steve Silk Hurley's 'Jack Your Body' was a number one single. I remember spending an afternoon in autumn '87 in a bland chain pasta place on Queensway, and getting a soundtrack of minimal house all through the meal. It sounded like the future, but not a very tempting one.
It was 'Pump Up The Volume' that changed my mind. I confess I was initially intrigued by it because of its alt pop connections (Colourbox, AR Kane, 4AD) but actually you had to listen very carefully to spot the looped feedback. Rather than some dodgy hybrid, 'Pump Up The Volume' turned out to be a great dance record, one I enjoyed defending to kids from my school who were under the delusion that still listening to the Pistols and Stiff Little Fingers was a radical gesture in the late '80s. After M/A/R/R/S came Bomb The Bass's 'Beat Dis'. At first it sounded like a blatant rip-off of 'Pump Up The Volume', but it turned out to be an even better record - a funkier, more dancable take on the cut-and-paste stuff Steinski and Coldcut had been doing. (Incidentally, there's no back dated, intellectual b-boy elitism in the Steinski reference: Janice Long used to play his records constantly, and the NME put one 'And The Motorcade Sped On' on a free single). At their best, all the Chemical Brothers have ever done is chunkier modernisations of 'Beat Dis'. In early '88 there was also the delirious genius of 'Theme From S'Express', which was how disco should have sounded but so rarely did. Their other singles were splendid, and even the album - which stretched everything a bit - was pretty good. And the videos were great. Whatever happened to Mark Moore, anyway? At the tail of end of that summer, Inner City broke loose from the po-faced Detroit techno scene with 'Big Fun' and 'Good Life', which no matter how many times it's remixed, still sounds devastating to me.
What, you may be asking, about the 'proper' great records of the time? At a magazine I was working for last summer we spent a lot of time listening to a best of Derrick May, just trying to figure out how the hell everyone had decided 'Strings Of Life' was so perfect. With no luck. Unless you actually have a club sound system in your house, it sound thin as hell. And as important as Acid House was sociologically, it ended up killing dance music for me. The messy pop thrills went, and tracks started being round the ecstasy rush, and people would try to convince you N-Joi's 'Anthem' was "an amazing, amazing thing..." There was a new seriousness - leading to the horrors of intelligent techno, progressive house and intelligent drum and bass, often instigated by rock and jazz exiles, the people who didn't dance. And on the flipside, there was a further dumbness: handbag's tireless Eurodisco, garage's mindnumbing positivism - every time I hear Ultra Nate singing "Because you're free/To do what you want to do" I want to bludgeon her with a UN report on poverty. There were still great records - LFO's terrifying 'LFO', Deee-Lite's peerless 'Groove Is In The Heart' (great b-side, too) but the incessant four-four thump sucked the life out of it all. Like the Grateful Dead, it was music that supposedly sounded great on drugs. It's an idea that I've never bought into: what's the point when there's so much music that's great without the aid of a ropey £10 pill brought from a strange man in a Hawiian shirt?
Mind you, as I write this I'm listening to 'Button Down Disco' by Clinton (Cornershop's other guise): a brilliant, inauthentic mess of multi-cultural references and stealings from all over dance music. Made by people with an off-beam guitar pop background. Which is precisely where 'Pump Up The Volume' came in, twelve years on.
© Mark Morris 1999