Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Hidden Music of Future Past

 In the week that Robin Gibb and Donna Summer both died there have been many articles about disco, and the sense that it has remained ubiquitous despite its startling fall from grace at the end of the 70s. Was disco really a “future music” as we hear in Summer’s number 1 smash “I feel love” or is it mired in its age inseparable from those images of John Travolta in the white suit? It seems when you have the likes of Paul Gambacinni and Mike Read wheeled out, that they are not responding to disco’s future-modernism, but its cheese. Gambacinni has never to my knowledge praised anything countercultural, whilst Mike Read’s credentials for discussing disco in any way are damaged by his absurd banning of “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

We love disco because of its nostalgic hedonism – and when we talk about it we talk primarily about the good time music that included everyone from ABBA to Zappa. (“Sheik Yerbouti” indeed.) The excellent crate-digging of the “Disco Discharge” series does return us to the future shock of disco – but is as often seen rummaging around the 80s as it is finding gems from discos heyday.

House music - which began, to all intents and purposes, half a decade later seems to me to still be the future music that disco promised to be, but without the cheesiness, and without the superstars or the iconic movie. It remained black, gay and urban enough to mean that though eighties stars like Paul Weller, Pet Shop Boys and ABC dabbled in it, you’ll look hard to find a rock band making any house moves. (Though it could happen, as the various U2 remixes show – but it was the “remix” that created that at one remove.) As the “future disco” series of contemporary compilations shows, there’s a thin line between the most processed of disco moves and the more soulful side of house. Modern incarnates like dubstep seem to weave in and out of genre, creating a hybrid electronic dance music.

Yet, house music – during the decade on from 1985/6 – remains the soundtrack to the late 20th century without the attendant nostalgia of bands like the Stone Roses reforming. There’s a vast variety to the house music of that decade – and subgenres multiplied – but has there been a musical form as recognisable as house since rockabilly? Whether it’s the Shamen’s “Move Any Mountain”, Candi Staton and the Source’s “You Got the Love” or Underworld’s “Born Slippy”, these are clearly brothers and sisters in house. Underworld began as pseudo prog-pop band freur, Candi Staton’s voice was lifted and placed over a Frankie Knuckles backing, and the Shamen were a psychedelic indie band who went more house than the Roses or Mondays would ever dream of.

It is 30 years since the Hacienda opened – and the club was probably one of  the first places in the UK to play house. Of course house didn’t come from nowhere. The underground disco of the early eighties was metronomic, machine music, at its best when flirting with electro beats like Shannon’s “Let the Music Play.” But house music simplified things as well as innovating in its own way. The innovations were stylistic and startling. For a start, house was the first music since the 1950s surf explosion to be primarily instrumental. Instead of verses and choruses, we had orchestral stabs, piano breaks, synthesizer breakdowns. Structurally these songs weren’t the blues. Hearing “Jack Your Body” and “Jack the Groove” (the first two breakout records) in 1986, at a disco in Preston I immediately heard a fracture with the jazz-soul-funk music that went for club music in the mid-80s. And that was probably the last time summer where anyone who really liked dance music went to a “disco” rather than a “club” or a “rave.” Hacienda was the first, but stark (and not so stark) house clubs turned up all over. It may have been particular drug-fuelled subgenres a year or two later that led to the phenomenon of the free party movement, raves and warehouse parties, but it was also happening in traditional night clubs – often turned over to house (and suddenly without a dress code) on a Monday or Wednesday night.

Whereas disco had Summer and the Bee Gees, a genuine superstar of the genre, and the most successfully crossover act to reinvent themselves as disco, house had nobody – not unless you count the “superstar DJs”. Even now, nearly 30 years later, it is clubs (Cream, Ministry of Sound, Hacienda) and DJs that are the most associated name with the genre – though to be honest the distinctions were always vague. A DJ could be become associated with a venue – a “night” might be more important than the venue where it took place – and early records by Frankie Knuckles or Marshall Jefferson or whoever, guaranteed a career for these luminaries for many years.

For despite its ubiquity – even now, house nights proliferate, and often fit seamlessly with dubstep and other genres – house music remains a “hidden music” in a way that few other genres have done. The lack of big names is part of it; and to some extent the nostalgic memories of Spike Island, the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays and the Hacienda are as much about the scene that they ran parallel to as the bands themselves. I don’t think the young kids listening to the Stone Roses 20 years on would even relate to the band as part of the house movement. Indeed, I remember going to the Hacienda on a packed Saturday night in 1988 and you wouldn’t have heard a guitar all night. Cheaply packaged album series like Jack Trax and Warehouse Raves were the suburbanites way into this specialist genre; but at the same time the least expected tracks would jump out and into the charts. That house music can still surprise can be seen by the massive US number one, “Like a G6” by Far East Movement, a minimalist slice of acid house, two decades out of place.

A couple of years ago I digitised a few of my vinyl house records – thinking I’d put together a decent enough CD compilation – I ended up with 10 volumes and could probably have added ten more if I’d repeated artists, or included CDs. It’s a wonderful reminder of ten years of invention. Rave, acid house, techno, trance, ambient, even early jungle/drum and bass, are all there. There are brilliant songs (“You Got the Love”, “Promised Land”), great reworkings of pop hits (“Even Better than the Real Thing”) and exciting instrumentals. Listening to “No Way Back” by Adonis or “Alright, Alright” by Masters at Work or “Let’s Get Brutal” by Nitro Deluxe I feel like I’m still listening to a future music. Yet this would be like thinking Ray Charles’s wonderful “What’d I say?” was still the future sound in 1986!

Electronic music has always been part of my life – I was 14 when “Dare” came out – and so though I like guitars, I’ve always been suspicious of guitar-lovers insistence that theirs is the only “real music.” Yet as a genre, house, which to my mind existed in its pure form for about a decade (what comes after does seem nostalgic in some ways), remains refreshing and futuristic. It will never have a Paul Gambaccini gushing over the death of one of its superstars (though men in their late 40s might still come up to Dave Haslam or Paul Oakenfold or whoever and say “Tune!” when they play an old school classic) and, in looking which of my vinyl rips were on Spotify, I see its strictly limited: the pop hits and the tracks that have been recycled on compilation after compilation. As much 60s garage or Northern Soul, house was a music of delicious one shots and cash-ins; often the remixer on the title was more important than the original band. In a world where absolutely everything seems at hand and on the internet it’s quite nice to find there is a bit of a gap in the official record – only half of the tracks I’d digitised can be found on Spotify, and then often not the same mix. Wikipedia doesn’t give anything like the same reverence for one-offs as it does for bands. There are specialist sites where I guess you’ll probably find most things; and every charity shop has a pile of anonymous 12”s that are worth investigating – but despite the plethora of “Cream Classics” and other such compilations; it’s also a hidden future-past. Perhaps you had to be there, popping along to your local record shop each Monday morning (Ear Ere in Lancaster or Tracks in York, for me) and picking up whatever looked worth investigating. I was at University in 1986, and wrestling my friends away from “indie” music to listen to the “House Sound of Chicago” was an impossible task (most of them got it later, either through E, or through hybrids like Trance), and I’m a little jealous of those a bit younger than me who came of age when club culture was already in full swing. By the time I made it to the big city, Manchester, it was 1992 and house had almost become part of a bigger thing – or rather, it had gone a bit underground again, as bands like the Prodigy and nights like Megadog took it another direction.

I’ve kept up with dance music from afar – with R&B and dubstep appealing now and then – but away from club culture and with the demise of Record Mirror and other dance friendly magazines, its been a while since I’ve really took much interest. House is the music of my late youth if you like; that period when you suddenly feel too old for things, on the cusp of adulthood. Yet if I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic about this week, I don’t think it’s at all a nostalgic music. Crisp, minimal electronic music is a timeless style – and if most of it was produced cheaply in the late 80s and early 90s – it remains a somewhat hidden side of contemporary music; there is not, as far as I know, a “House Britannia” on BBC4. 

Listen to  My Spotify playlist

1 comment:

Shelley said...

This recession needs a "sound track," and one that cuts widely across all classes and ages.