Various Artists: Hardcore Traxx - Dance Mania Records 1986-1997

Ray Barney and Parris Mitchell, 2014

The Chicago house education continues with this nice package that gets into the genre's second, early '90s phase, including something called "Ghetto House".

Various Artists

Hardcore Traxx! - Dance Mania Records 1986-1997

Label: Strut
US Release Date: 2014-02-11
UK Release Date: 2014-02-10
Label website

House music, for all practical purposes, started in Chicago. It's great to see that now, after two decades of haphazard, hit-and-miss collections, that music is being anthologized properly. Compilations like Still Music's Kill Yourself Dancing and Bang the Box, and Strut Records' Only 4 U have placed some of the lesser-known but crucial Chicago house labels in their proper context, reviving not a few lost classics in the process.

Hardcore Traxx is a worthy extension of the trend. The focus here is Dance Mania Records, a relatively long-lived label that was active from 1986 to 1997. Even within house music, a lot happened over that 11-year span, and Hardcore Traxx tracks some crucial stylistic changes and innovations. As with its predecessors, Hardcore Traxx does not command everyday listening. But it does provide an ample history lesson as well as a handful of great moments from a time when house was still fresh and rule-breaking.

The two-disc, 24-track compilation gets started just as the primitively thumping initial stage of house was giving way to smoother, digitally-enhanced compositions. The former style is represented by leadoff track "7 Ways" from early house star Marshall Jefferson, masquerading as Hercules. Probably still the best-known thing here. The rhythm, with its slinky bassline and snares 'n' handclaps rhythm, is classic Chicago house. Over that, Jefferson's deep, detached voice details various methods to "make you jack". It's like a new, space-age Barry White, and it's still one of the all-time great house tracks.

Most of the music on Hardcore Traxx dates from the early-to-mid-'90s, so putting the 1986-vintage "7 Ways" first makes sense. But it also sets an impossibly high bar for what follows, and not everything has aged so well. House Master Boyz' "House Nation" was a success in its day, but nearly 30 years later its stuttering vocal samples are just annoying. Conversely, the full-on piano/diva house of Victor Romeo's "Love Will Find A Way" still charms and invigorates.

The smoother, early-'90s feel comes across on Vincent Floyd's nice, appropriately-titled "I Dream You" and Da Posse's mildly funky "Don't Try to Fight It". Club Style's "Crazy Wild" is basically a pumped up version of 808 State's landmark "Pacific", a reminder of the freewheeling days before samples had to be licensed. Elsewhere, Strong Soul's "Twinkles" tries its hand at drum'n'bass, while Romeo's "Ride the Ride Rhythm" is a groovy example of that short-lived subgenre, hip-house.

While the first half of Hardcore Traxx is fairly eclectic, the second half is dominated by what became, for better of worse, the sound most associated with Dance Mania. This was "Ghetto House", a style marked by tight, minimalist arrangements, pounding rhythms, sub-bass, and, often, ribald sexual references. The sleazefest gets started with Paul Johnson's "Feel My M.F. Bass", works its way through Parris Mitchell's self- explanatory "Ghetto Shout Out!!" and Jammin' the House Gerald's "Black Women", and winds up with Traxmen's "Hit It From the Back". Not much left to the imagination there. The music takes the commanding, no-nonsense feel of classic Chicago house and moves it to the logical next level. The almost tribal percussion effects, slicing hi-hat, and dizzy bassline of DJ Deeon's "Da Bomb" are wicked indeed, and it's easy to hear how this stuff would be nearly impossible to resist on the dancefloor. However, the meanness carries over to the lyrics. The concurrent Miami Bass sound, which spawned hits like Tag Team's "Whoomp (There It Is)" dealt mostly in a machismo and sexism that was so outsized it was nearly tongue-in-cheek. But Tracks like "Da Bomb" and "Black Women" smack more of a troubling misogyny and seem to advocate outright violence toward women. They're a long way from "7 ways to make you jack".

Thankfully, Hardcore Traxx doesn't end there. Robert Armani's "Ambulance" is frantic techno-noise that almost predicts 8-bit. Deeon's own "Hypnosis" is classic acid house. It's a reminder that the mid-to-late-'90s "golden age" of electronica was about to hit. With it would come more innovation, even if house itself would lose its freewheeling roots and stagnate. Hardcore Traxx is a nicely-curated, often-listenable reminder of those roots. And with founder Ray Barney having recently revived the label, the Dance Mania story isn't over yet.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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