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Ready, Steady, Goth

Simon Warner

Just as the sounds on the dance floor borrow from Detroit and Trenchtown, Bombay and Cape Town, so those who groove to them take their sartorial vision, their individual style, from something closer to multiculture than subculture.

Jumped up, marked down,
We're falling around
Like low life
Hung up, strung out,
We're touching the town
Like low life

#151; from "Like Low Life", Gary Marx, 2003

Teddy boys and mods, punks and skinheads, rockers and ravers. There are few places that have enjoyed such a rich subcultural life as Britain during the post-war years. During those decades, adolescence in our conurbations has been marked by sequences of youthful gangs and groups, allegiances and alliances, most usually attached to a permutation of popular music's capricious mood. So teds, in the decade after the Second World War, became wed to the raw expressions of early rock 'n' roll, mods danced to American soul sounds in the mid-'60s, skins perversely stomped to Caribbean ska and bluebeat while taking a brutish dislike to black immigrants, in the later years of that decade, then punks raucously rode the new wave in the '70s.

Nor were these the only subcultural moments to lend colour to those ever changing times. If it wasn't homegrown tribes like the followers of glam or the New Romantics, casuals, clubbers or crusties, then American styles would also be co-opted and adapted. English beatniks tended to follow trad jazz rather than be-bop, indigenous hippies might be Led Zep fans rather than psychedelic heads, and London b-boys would construct a worldview based around Brixton rather than the Bronx or Compton.

What also happened in the midst of this testosterone-fuelled cavalcade is that a number of British-based academics developed radical interpretations of these subcultural manifestations, which ran counter to earlier US notions. While many American commentators of the '50s interpreted transgressive youth behaviour as juvenile delinquency, plain and simple, the fresh voices of the '60s approached these often anti-social coalitions from a less condemnatory position. Analysts like Jamaican social theorist Stuart Hall, cultural critic Dick Hebdige and other members of the influential Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, a lynchpin in the establishment of that new discipline, or multi-discipline, called cultural studies, offered fresh takes on these diverse subcultural expressions. In their Marxist model, the groupings formed by working class teenagers represented a potential threat to the complacent certainties of the dominant culture, symbolic resistance to perceived subordination.

It is some time since the Birmingham school's heyday and the years have moved inexorably on. Faith in the power of subcultural or countercultural forces to bring about social reform, never mind, revolution, has been long buried. Today youth still takes matters of style seriously; the skateboarder or the surfer, for instance. But issues of substance — manifestos for change, say — are regarded as rather less significant to the gangs on the street, the groups on the beach. Deep down, these teen displays are really rather shallow. Maybe they always were.

Such matters of leisure and pleasure, particularly those of the youthful kind, were very much on the menu during September, when sociologists from around the world gathered for a three day symposium in the Midlands town of Northampton to contemplate the current state of play in the field of subcultural studies. The event, "Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes", tended to conclude that those older means of de-coding mods and punks as gutter battalions for the liberation of the proletariat, had rather lost their potency. Yet the notion of subcultural life retains an enduring appeal. If we've been teenagers, if we've been drawn to the thrills of popular music, it's highly likely that we've had some association, deep or fleeting, with the habits and foibles of the local branch of our subculture of choice. I remember years of carrying the free flag of shoulder-length hair as part-time hippie, only to find my true musical bolt-hole in the pogo pits of punk as the Clash and the Buzzcocks delivered their incandescent racket.

At the conference, organised by a rising star of this academic field, Paul Hodkinson — whose recent volume Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture has provided the first close dissection of a subculture from the inside — there were certainly ageing mods, maturing bikers, retired punks and adherents of all stages of that global tide of clubbing that has become an almost ubiquitous feature of social interaction. The event also reminded us that subcultures are no longer merely the opiates of youth: we stay younger longer and still cling to the tenets, perhaps, that once bound us to our 16-year-old blood brothers and sisters.

One of the evenings we headed for the Race Horse pub in the centre of Northampton, an important catalyst for British goths in the early '80s. Bauhaus, who later re-emerged as Love and Rockets, made their mark there and the affect of that subcultural surge has left a flutter of ripples 20 years on. Black garb, black hair, black eyeliner set against a ghostly pale face, well in evidence in the bar's backroom, has become a look, a statement, from Berlin to Bradford, Birmingham, England to Boulder, Colorado. On stage, Pretty Dead Girls, all charcoal shades, played out their mock gothic postures.

It reminded me, too, that a former student of mine and something of a legend in UK goth circles (he studied popular music at Leeds University during the mid-1990s), has recently broken a long silence. Gary Marx, founder member of the Sisters of Mercy with Andrew Eldritch, has just released his first collection of songs in well over a decade. Pretty Black Dots is hard and harsh, but not without flashes of world-weary wit. More Jacques Brel than Marilyn Manson, its style is expressionistic, its tone jaundiced rather than jaunty, relating shady tales from the underbelly of life.

And I guess that's what, perversely, subcultural experience promised: a chance to taste some of the more bitter flavours, the more exciting possibilities, experience mysterious subterranean impulses, in that curiously thrilling limbo between childhood and adulthood. Yet now, the old British clans are largely dead; the clearly defined boundaries between those youths who wore their hair long or short, wore flares or drainpipes, listened to rock or soul, rode scooters or motorbikes, are long eroded.

In the 2000s, there's more of a mix'n'match approach to adolescence, a less parochial view of the planet, and a tendency to think much more widely than just your street, your neighbourhood, your borough. Just as the sounds on the dance floor borrow from Detroit and Trenchtown, Bombay and Cape Town, so those who groove to them take their sartorial vision, their individual style, from something closer to multiculture than subculture. And that, I think, has to be a good thing.

Notes: Gary Marx's new album Pretty Black Dots is available at
Paul Hodkinson's book Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture was published by Berg in 2002

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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