[14 September 2011]
The late, great Tony Wilson of Factory Records fame reckoned contemporary music revolutions occurred every 13 years: the Beatles’ first album was released in 1963; after which in 1976, punk kicked off; then 13 years later, in 1989, dance music came up smiling. Aside from the fact Wilson’s theory ran aground shortly after—otherwise, 2002 should have been something amazing; well, better than Britney Spears’ Crossroads—I would argue any attention paid to dance music would best be spent on 1991.
For those 12 glorious apex months, dance music’s potential to amaze seemed boundless. In part because, after Acid’s Big Bang and the outward formation of what was fast becoming a dance universe all to itself, so many bright new worlds of possibility began to sparkle, ripe for exploration. In 1991, the dance music scene was so much to do with that the brilliance of The New: the thrill of fresh and exciting styles, new and instant possibilities realised. No doubt because it was an underground scene—totally self-sufficient, and unhindered by the big-wheels-turn-slowly scheduling processes of the mainstream music industry. What was a thought on a Monday, was a tune on a Tuesday, pressed, circulated, played out and well on the way to being a must-hear by Friday. The majority of all this only made possible by the creative application of sampling and sequencers and the lax (but soon to contract) state of general copyright law.
Strangely though, even when dislocated by time and pulled away from their underground roots, the vast majority of the following 15 tracks now sound like pop in the broadest sense. That’s inevitable, I guess, because everything gets assimilated. What was outer-edge musically once has to—by the very birthright of commercial gravity—become today’s core and staple sound. Fair enough, all things change, and time must pass. But, believe me, for that single summer of 1991, with dance music at the year’s heart, and such thrills coursing through your veins, it was entirely and briefly possible to feel like you were at the sharpest, leading tip of what life was really, truly and most beautifully all about. What follows, is in no way a definitive top 15 dance tracks of the year, nor is it the 15 best. That’s a subjective call too far, in a genre way too broad to measure so precisely. Instead, these are 15 dance tracks—some pure, some nearer pop—that help tell the story of what the form was up to in 1991.
As a British act, Nomad stand as an historical marker, illustrating the dual fascinations of dance music going into 1991. Musically, it’s close to the roots of house in the Chicago sound, but the vocals and rap are distinctly English (yet even saying that, they suggest perhaps New York’s new jack swing). Plus, there’s that euphoric synth-strings sound of house (via disco), and the horn-loop is utterly R&B.
Mirroring the American/British duality of rock ‘n’ roll as it progressed into the 1960s (when the Beatles, in thrall to America, created their own sound which was perversely exported back to the USA), dance music as we now know it may well have exploded out of Britain, but was ultimately born on the ultra-underground Chicago and Detroit warehouse party scenes. Which, in turn were a machine-made homage to Germany’s Kraftwerk; all as a bizarre evolution of disco.
KLF stood for Kopyright Liberation Front, reflecting the desire of Bill Drummond (the non-hatted, front-seat passenger in this video) to (at least in the late 1980s) create a British answer to hip-hop. The fact that Drummond and musical partner Jimmy Cauty became the KLF and jumped aboard the emerging dance scene only goes to show how broad the genre’s gene pool was—and how open it was to and accepting of interpretation.
In truth, “3AM Eternal” (a paean to—as the video depicts—that fuzzy, loved up come-down-from-Ecstasy hour after a rave) is borderline punk in its sensibilities, yet at heart is a cleverly considered pop track, albeit one sneakily employing dance music affectations (rising crowd elations, thumping bass-drum kicks, the drug-friendly width and reverberating nature of its sonic palette). For the song’s rebellious spirit, the KLF were taken to the heart of the dance scene, even if the records were never played in clubs.
Forget the hoopla about Florence and the Machine, the cross-genre excitement of an indie act covering a dance tune. This mix of “You Got the Love” had it all bagged back in 1991. Starting life as a white-label before receiving an official (read: legally approved) general release, this is simply Candi Stanton’s sublime a capella gospel vocals cleverly grafted over an instrumental mix of Frankie Knuckles’ legendary “Your Love”. Mash-ups are common currency now, but back in 1991 they were rare. When they did happen, though, they were done live—and invariably blew the roof off.
One nation under, well, two grooves—that’s about the best way to describe Britain as a dance nation, circa 1991. While house was the dominant notion, across town in small, sweaty cellar clubs, an offshoot scene was building, in praise of the break-beat; fueled by the very tracks from which American hip-hop’s hottest samples were being quoted. Into the middle of which, decidedly lopsided—more hip-hop than house—came Massive Attack, gaining major attention upon the release of their second single, Unfinished Sympathy”. Released ahead of the album Blue Lines in February of 1991, the track has since become a classic. Built from strings and heartbreak and looped-beats, it would—thanks to its widespread adoption as dance music’s come-down track of choice—be the song to help cross the band over to a whole new, broader audience.
For some reason, British alternative rock bands seemed to gravitate towards dance quicker than most. Perhaps because that genre was already somewhat enthralled to the psychedelic optimism of the Byrds and narco-icons such as Stone(d) Brian Jones. Case in point: the original Shamen, which existed as a weird, none-more-1980s hodge-podge of psychedelic guitars and drum loops (think: Primal Scream when they were rubbish being serenaded by an over-caffeinated drum machine). However, by the album In Gorbachev We Trust, the Shamen was already dropping none-too-subtle lyrical hints of transformation (“MDM-Amazing / We are together in ecstasy”). So when they reappeared as they are here—a salivating duo on behalf of the Ecstasy party—it didn’t really come as much surprise.
Theoretically, this should be the last track on our 15, because “Temple Head” was an end-of-the-night track. And when I say end of the night, I do mean final, as in absolute. The house-lights would have gone up; the crowd think it’s all over. But then, the DJ would cheekily out of silence drop this as a good-night gift. Given the sweaty chewed-up messes we’d all become by 2am, this was still, however, a cut you could dance to with the lights on, simply because everyone would be giving it everything.
The Beloved were a rare and bitter-sweet anomaly across 1990-91. Having initially launched as a conventional five-piece indie band in the mid-‘80s (and with only a fairly derivative and middling sound caught mid-point between Joy Division and New Order to hold them back), one mass firing and a healthy dose of rave candy later, and they were back as a duo; studio-machined up to the hilts and brandishing a clutch of future dance-pop classic.
Their new-dawn album, Happiness (1990) came on like a breathlessly dilated Pet Shop Boys; all electrified of endorphins and desperate to spread the joy. Smiths-broody, but buzzed and buoyant, it launched four singles, of which “Hello” and “Sun Rising” were instant dance-pop classics in-waiting; tracks which managed to play out to (and satisfy both) the charts and the underground simultaneously without baffling either. No mean feat. “It’s Alright Now” later featured on their remix album from the following year, Blissed Out.
Firstly, if “Finally” by CC Peniston doesn’t put a smile on your face, you may want to call a doctor, because you’re probably dead. On the other, and while it may seem like a cliché to raise this matter here—specifically in relation to this track—if you passed through 1991 you would have marveled at seeing otherwise white-bread straight guys getting down with disco queens to the song. For those minutes, nothing was wrong with the world: two parties dancing together that otherwise might never have even crossed paths, let alone raised hands together in rapture.
“Progressive dance” was what they tried to call it. The title didn’t stick, but Tim Simenon (despite being cruelly absent when it comes to identifying Dance music’s integral figures) was arguably one of the pioneers of its limits across the 1990s. The term was coined by a British music critic desperately trying to sum up how Simenon, as Bomb the Bass, had pulled off what most thought was impossible in 1991: he delivered a viable dance album, a long-playing collection in the guise of Unknown Territory which was way beyond novelty (which is all dance acts stretched to album length had previously managed to serve). “Winter in July” was the album’s second single and a sadly overlooked dance classic from 1991, for its pioneering excursion into the reduced-BPM beauty Massive Attack would later be tapped for creating: trip-hop.
Once upon a time, dance music was about the groove. Now, it’s all about “anthems”: block-rocking tracks which are effectively little more than crescendos with titles attached. If the cuts don’t achieve an instant hands-in-the-air meltdown within seconds, they’ve failed. In between these two points, and most effectively across 1991, dance music was about ebbs and flows; the slow boil and the steady build. Of which “Move Your Body” by Xpansions is a prime example. Yet, its true kick-in at 0:28 was the point at which anthem-spotting in a set began to exert itself.
Is this dance music? Languid, sanguine; blissed-out and opiate-laced to the point where one suspects frontman Bobby Gillespie was (to borrow one of Jim Morrison’s phrases) “stoned immaculate”, Primal Scream’s “Higher Than the Sun” (despite its title) has got absolutely nothing to do with highs or peaks. It’s solely to do with the creamy ooze of coming down.
But is it dance music? Well, no, it’s not music to dance to. But for being the fourth single from—and one of the best tracks on—Primal Scream’s iconic Screamadelica album, “Higher Than the Sun” is dance music by honourable association. Equally, for being a sublime example of the style’s experimentation with slowed down tempos during 1991 (better to call it ambient house, than chill-out or trip-hop) “Higher Than the Sun” has rarely been topped.
I’ll risk a trouncing for including Seal’s debut solo single “Crazy” here. But it’d be worth it. No matter where Seal went after this (and who can blame a man for wanting a long-term career; besides, he’s married to Heidi Klum and I’m not, so what can anyone possibly say that would kill his everyday buzz?), “Crazy” is a perfect dance track. No matter that it was designed to, and only really works better in its—pop giveaway, ahoy—7” single incarnation over any of its 12” remixes. Who cares that it wasn’t delivered by a faceless DJ from the outer edge of left-field cool? Because say what you want, “Crazy” kicked like a mule in 1991 and still thunders today.
Centred round sampled interview snippets featuring Rickie Lee Jones, the Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds” was initially released in 1990, but by virtue of a re-release features here. Often the track’s parent album, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, would be played in its entirety as a soft-start ramp-up into the chill-out room’s ambient adventures. Which is somewhat fitting, given that Alex Patterson (essentially the driving force behind the Orb) was the architect of both the idea of the white (other or chill-out) room and the ambient house sub-genre.
Despite being too slow to pass for house and not slow enough to figure as trip-hop, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” still worked for the dance community. Rendered as four-on-the-floor and featuring a dub bass-line (further remixed by Andy Weatherall for added dance-friendliness), in truth “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is still nearer to what would now be termed electronica than dance music, even with its canny use of Italian house-styled piano and the pre-requisite 909 drum machine. Ditto, Saint Etienne never quite surrender the song’s entire conventional structuring to dance music simplicity. And with the benefit of hindsight, it’s still possible to pick up on the band’s trademark swinging ‘60s archness.
Twenty years on, and I still reckon “Papau New Guinea” sounds like its beaming across from another planet; emanating out less as straight music and more as a highly concerning rip between dimensions. Theoretically, “Papau New Guinea” should be filed under techno, simply for its speed and potent kick. But even that strangely sinister (and heavy) sub-genre of dance doesn’t nail what the song actually is. Listen to it once, then a second or a third time, and nothing on the track is quite what it first appears. Future Sound of London’s near-bulletproof classic is—well, it’s weird.