Remember when dance music was exhilarating and innovative? Remember when it was still a cultural presence? Remember those days?
One reason for the sharp decline in dance music's popularity over the last couple of years, beyond its reaching of an obvious saturation point, is that as a form, it completely lost the ability to surprise. By now, chances are that when you walk into a club you already possess a fairly clear sense of what to expect from the DJ's crate. For those paying closer attention, it's been this way for years now. You choose your sub-genre (House, Trance, Breakbeat), and within that framework what you get is a fairly predictable set. The same is true when it comes to buying dance music compilations; what you're purchasing are known entities. While you may not know each individual track, the music largely runs to a specific and predictable formula.
A new collection, Acid Classics (Trax Records), reminds us that it wasn't always this way. The disc celebrates the birth of acid house, a genre that first propelled the dance explosion, providing lift-off for a music revolution. It's a collection that belongs in the reference section of any serious dance music library, occupying a place a place not unlike Elvis Presley's Sun Label recordings (or similar of that time) for those concerned with rock. Like those earlier collections, it's unlikely to find regular rotation on anyone's play-list, or even more than the most occasional airing, but for those aficionados obsessed with music genealogy, it's more or less an essential document.
Before acid house, dance music was still striving to emerge from the detritus of disco. 'House' music had already surfaced in the underground clubs of Chicago, and sure, it seemed different from disco -- but different how? Acid house broke all association with disco. The sounds twisting their way through club speakers -- an accident of creation on a Roland TB-303 Bass Line machine -- had never been heard before, and for a post-disco generation of dancing youth, this was something undeniably their own. Unlike disco, the new sounds and textures were so raw and raucous they afforded no apologies to anyone.
As a descriptive, almost half of the cuts on this collection feature the word 'acid' in the song title. The source of the term 'acid house' may be forever lost to mythology and lore (my favorite, although least likely explanation, is that acid was being dropped into the water supply at legendary underground club Music Box in order to inspire increased dance-floor madness), but the music itself is indisputably linked to the Roland TB-303. The first acid track was called, strangely enough, "Acid Trax", and appropriately it opens up this set. "Acid Trax" was created by Marshall Jefferson and Nathaniel Jones under the moniker Phuture, thereby offering dual innovation on the twosome's part with their attempts at a futuristic dyslexia.
Several important recordings are offered here, including two from Pierre's Pfantasy Club (which suggest how quickly trends spread, both in music and in spelling), along with one from Farley Jackmaster Funk. These are tracks that were seldom ever played in their entirety, even in clubs, and they certainly weren't created with a casual night home on the sofa in mind. Listening outside of an adrenaline fuelled environment is listening out of context, and not especially rewarding.
Still, closing out the set is "This Is Acid" from Maurice Joshua with Hot Hands Hula (and no, I'm not kidding about the name). This may well be the most obviously recognizable cut on the album. It's where acid house becomes more familiar to us, where a core set of stripped down elements combine to create a greater, more complex effect. It points to a time, if you will, where acid house was no longer content to merely make sounds, but found a need to express itself in a cogent, recognizable language of its own.
Quite what dance music feels the need to express at present is difficult to imagine. These are not particularly times when anyone feels like dancing, and it's only natural that the music reflects that. There is little of the spirit of adventure in current dance music, and the 'lounge' movement of recent past years might well be imagined as dance music slowing down and going to sleep. It may be some time before the wake-up call is sounded, but I imagine that when it is, it might sound primitive and wild, strange and esoteric, somewhat in the spirit of the tracks found on this compilation.