Veteran DJ Richard Sen selects gems from the dawn of house music in the UK. If it ain't Chicago, what exactly is it, then?
During the 1990s, the American music press was bracing for the electronic dance music invasion that never came. Magazines and websites were full of breakdowns of the various genres and subgenres of "techno" music, often created by British producers and DJs. But, except for some notable big hits from Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, and Fatboy Slim, "techno" remained for the most part an underground concern. Artists were snapped up by major labels, hyped, and then dumped when their records didn't sell.
Thirty years earlier, British artists had taken uniquely American musical forms, blues and rock'n'roll, turned them into something sharper, edgier, and cutting-edge, and then sold them back to America by the millions of units. But history did not repeat with techno. House music, the forbearer of techno, was invented in Chicago and refined in places like Detroit and New York. But in England, it made forays into the mainstream much more readily than in the States, starting with Chicagoan Steve "Silk" Hurley's Number One hit "Jack Your Body" in 1987. While none of the two dozen tracks gathered here were big hits in the UK, they helped lay the groundwork for breakthroughs by 808 State, LFO, and others.
The title of This Ain't Chicago is telling. It begs listeners to compare and contrast its contents with the Chicago and American standards. It also reveals the fact that, while American house music was very much centered on notions of place, in the UK it was relatively rootless. Based on the evidence there, that made for more diversity, but it also made for a lack of true identity. What is the classic "UK House Sound"? Well, it ain't Chicago, or Detroit, and that's about as close to an answer as you'll get.
What you will get with This Ain't Chicago, though, is a fairly broad sampling of the house sounds that were making inroads in various clubs throughout the UK between 1987 and 1991. And, while there are some very good tracks here, in general they lack the charisma and the soul of the best house that was coming out of the America during the same time. There are no exhortations to "jack your body" or "get up" here. This is dance music first, party music a distant second. Though house has always been more about rhythm than melody, only Julie Stapleton's smoothly percussive "Where's the Love Gone" offers a genuine vocal hook. The robotic, Kraftwerk-inspired chill of Playtime Toons' "Shaker Sound" provides the maximum degree of detachment. Most of This Ain't Chicago falls somewhere in between.
It's clear that what American and English house music have most in common is the Japanese machines used to make it. Like their American counterparts, these tracks are full of the chattering hi-hats and coughing snares of vintage Roland drum machines. As always, the "acid" tracks are defined by the squelchy, squishy tones of the Roland 303 bass machine. They are in the minority, here, though, perhaps because acid house in general has aged relatively poorly. The "Acid Mix" of S.L.F.'s "Show Me What You Got" does provide a highlight, working in a bit of piano house for good measure.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the most effective tracks on This Ain't Chicago are the ones that most closely mimic the Chicago and Detroit sounds. Bang the Party's "Bang Bang You're Mine" and Julian Jonah's "Jealousy and Lies", and Rohan Delano's "Inflight", with their trolling basslines and moody synths, nail the pouty sexual tension of the best vintage house.
Some permutations are less successful than others. Colm III's "Take Me High" is Chicago house as interpreted by Disney, while Ability II's "Pressure Dub" is bleepy and abstract. The tracks that employ metallic elements of industrial music don't fare so well. Witness what sounds like dying cows on Static's "Iron Orbit".
Despite the absence of big hits, This Ain't Chicago does feature some names you might recognize. Bizarre Inc, whose "I'm Gonna Get You" would later bump hips with the mainstream, here deliver the shimmering if cold "Technological". Andrew Weatherall of Screamadelica and Boy's Own fame, mixes the surprisingly thumping "The World According to Sly & Lovechild". Maybe the highlight of the entire set, though, comes from a supergroup of sorts. A Guy Called Gerald ("Voodoo Ray"), poet/musician Edward Barton ("It's A Fine Day"), and hip hop group Chapter and Verse combine forces as Us for the sharp, catchy "Born in the North". Full of the regional pride that has always been a big part of UK music and featuring Barton's sassy, nasal, half-barked declarations that "I am / We are / They're not born in the North", the track has the passion and focus that many of its contemporaries lack.
You can almost look at This Ain't Chicago as you might look at English reggae. It's not exactly from the source, it does not have all the unpolished grit of the original music, but it nonetheless is evidence of a musical culture that is open-minded, and it yields some very good, if not definitive, stuff in its own right. In the years to come, Aphex Twin, Roni Size, and others would blaze new trails in electronic dance music. That could not have happened without the music on This Ain't Chicago.