Turn the Beat Around

The Pre-Millennium Rise of Dance Music

illustration by Roy Tompkins
"For years, I've taken [industrial music] to be the sole province of elevator musicians (Front 242, Front Line Assembly) and vivisection candidates (Skinny Puppy) who pretend to conjure a `grim mood,' primarily by draining all the life and surprise out of post-Kraftwerk umlaut-disco. Too rigid for dancing, too emaciated for catharsis, too metronomically restrained for mere interesting background sound, `industrial' struck me as useless in a very piddly way.... [however], before the Nineties are half over, I fully expect it'll follow house music and hip-hop and art-college metal into the mainstream... horrible music for a gullible world. How can it go wrong?"

-- From Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe by Chuck Eddy

Despite my longtime leanings towards the rank and file of the so-called "industrial/dance revolution" -- something the apocalyptic Eddy (a favorite around the Chron) was just beginning to visualize when he dropped off the Stairway to Hell galleys at Harmony Books' New York offices way, way back in 1990 -- the author of the above had a point, though not much of one, and certainly not in 1990.

Flash forward to the present, and Eddy's casually cruel assessment regarding the state of industro-dance grooves seems gleefully prescient; What was shockingly original and unheard of outside the barbed-wire confines of the underground at the start of this decade (Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Underworld, Orbital) is now nearly, but not quite, run-of-the-mill (Sunscream, Republica, Psychotica, and, um... Nine Inch Nails).

If anything, 1996 will probably be remembered as the year that crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-and-chewy-on-the-inside groups such as Gravity Kills, Stabbing Westward, and Manchester hardbeat warlords the Prodigy beat the living crap out of Eddie Vedder's mewling, vacuous whine fest. They took their own sweet time, but radio listeners across the country finally dug down deep and bought a clue: The emperor has no clothes. And guess what? He's hung like an acorn, to boot. Calling Pearl Jam and their multitudinous bastard offspring "the Bad Company of the Nineties" is a pungent slap in the face to Bad Company fans everywhere. If I were Paul Rodgers, I'd have sued the Doc Martens off the first critic to use that slag and then fed him to a wood-chipper a la Fargo.... But I digress.

It's not hard to see the popularization of previously verboten dance and industrial beats as just another case of commercial radio raping the underground for the purposes of increased cashflow and self-aggrandizement. Nothing new about that. Just ask Green Day. No, what's really interesting about this current situation is the cyclical nature of what used to be called "dance music." Like a bad penny with superglue on one side and tar heroin on the other, disco, or more importantly disco's beat, is making a comeback, rushing headlong back into the mainstream nearly two decades after it first began to twitch.

That 4/4 thud, thud, thud, thud beat has been around forever, of course. You can find it in traditional music dating back centuries without half looking, but back in the mid-Seventies, it made its largest, most grandiose public appearance in the form of disco, and under that moniker it's been reviled ever since. It's also been around ever since, morphing off into a half-dozen different tangents in the early Eighties -- two of the most obvious being the then-fully underground genres of industrial and club music.

Up to then, industrial had meant pretty much anything that fell within the Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV/Cabaret Voltaire banging on trashcan lids and chainsawing pig noggins vein. For want of a better word, the term "Industrial" had been coined. If it sounded like the sound of Flint, Michigan, then by god, it was industrial.

Come the Eighties, industrial groups began applying more or less linear beats to the framework of steel and aluminum noiseworks, adding a touch of buzzsaw guitars cleverly stolen from such New Wave of British Heavy Metal Bands as Tygers of Pan Tang and Saxon. Thus came the early Ameri-Deutsch frontrunners, En Esch's KMFDM, and the formation of Chi-Town's infamous Wax Trax! label, born of a record store and a hangover -- like all good musical revolutions. (At this point, it's interesting to note that Paul Barker and Alain Jourgensen's soon-to-be-huge Ministry began life as a smug, early-Eighties disco-pap experiment not unlike, oh, the Thompson Twins. Luckily for all concerned, Paul and Al soon realized the error of their ways and immediately quit playing my friend's high school proms in favor of taking a more technologically aggro stance. The rest, as they say, is history.)

Meanwhile, back in the clubs, the deejays were wrestling control of The Beat from the artists and labels who fed them their daily diet of mediocrity, and becoming artists in their own rights, remixing thick vinyl slabs of audiosqualor into brave new constructs. Throughout the mid-to-late Eighties, the rave scene, fueled by the Chicago house explosion, took root (though never as blatantly as it did in the U.K., which is perhaps for the best; The nightmarish implosion of the British club scene in the early Nineties, brought about in equal parts by too much ecstasy/speed/you name it, was an awfully depressing thing to watch). Deejays moved from the sidelines into the limelight. Moments of pure pop transcendency were not uncommon, and by the turn of the decade, former deejay-fronted groups such as Future Sounds of London, the sibling team of Paul and Phil Hartnoll (collectively known as Orbital), the Orb, Aphex Twin, and literally dozens of others had brought the underground to the fore once more, just like disco, lo those many years before.

Which more or less brings us up to date: On the eve of the millennium, industrial music has become radio-friendly, merging with the barely underground dance groove (listen to the recent White Zombie remix album if you don't agree) and popping up locally on everything from KLBJ to KHFI (!). As industrial's trademarked Beat Tyranny and seething hatefests become more widespread, just inches over the horizon the co-opting of the third wave of House/Ambient/Trance can be seen approaching. Give an hour's listen to Georgetown's KNNC-FM and you'll hear the just-added-to-the-playlist-this-week tracks by Orbital and the Chemical Brothers. If that's not a sign worthy of Mulder and Sculley's attention, I don't know what is.

"What has happened with alternative radio is that we've reached a plateau as far as new artists," says KNNC Program Director Melody Lee. "A few years ago, no one was playing Soundgarden or Nirvana and alternative radio immediately embraced them. Before long, the rock radio competitors grabbed them and wanted to make ["alternative bands"] a share of their audience. Which they did. So what has happened is that a lot of our core audience is being shared with the rock stations, which means that we have a very unpure format and very unpure listener base."

And what about the new additions of dance music to alternative radio's programming?

"A lot of programmers who just generally stopped playing dance music because they didn't feel it fit in well next to the Bushes and Nirvanas of the world are looking at it again -- looking at the success of the album sales and clubs and whatnot and eventually testing it. And it's been testing through the roof. There's a big change going on in alternative radio -- it's starting to swing back towards dance.

"It just goes full circle: Dance music was big in the early Eighties, and it's probably going to be big again in the beginning of the millennium. It's definitely very cyclical."

U.K. masterminds Underworld, who released their 1996 opus dei, Second Toughest of the Infants on Wax Trax! to saliva-flecked Huzzahs earlier this year, have proclaimed this "1996: The Year Dance Music Broke," an obvious riff on Dave Markey's Sonic Youth et al tourfilm 1991: The Year Punk Broke. But then look what happened to punk after that.

Mainstream acceptance of a genre, be it punk, industrial, or dance, initially guarantees a wider audience and fanbase, increased revenue both for the artists in question, their labels, and the specialty shops that distribute their CDs. But is name-brand recognition really such a good thing when it comes to musical genres created in the fiery audiokiln of the deep underground? What would Joe Strummer have to say about this? No matter -- he's unavailable for comment. Thankfully, Michael Hernandez of Alien Records, Austin's premiere dance music outlet, is.

"I personally do feel that this kind of exposure is perhaps dangerous to the underground music scene, but then again, it does lend itself to the dance scene, and makes it all a little bit more commercial and therefore accessible. Then, of course, you've got to think about making money. The underground scene is great, right, especially if you're doing it for all the right reasons, integrity and so on, but the bottom line is "who wants to make money?" and everybody does.

"I think that in general, [the commercialization of dance music] is a good thing. Because it does help the whole scene as a whole. It helps it grow."

So maybe it's not such a bad thing after all. There is, after all, precious little that can be done to stem the tide once the floodgates have been opened. The kids will always get what they want, when they want it. My only remaining questions are this: Will I be hearing Orbital's "Snivilisation" tunelessly piped inside a Sears elevator five years hence? Will a muzaked Mad Professor track ease me into the oblivion of the dentist's chair in 1999?

Judging from the mad-to-the-rafters sellout crowd at last Sunday's Orbital/Spring Heel Jack gig at Liberty Lunch (see "Live Shots"), the answer is a resounding "no fucking way." Packed to the gills and sorted for E's and whizz (a new rave Brit drug), a thrumming, blissed-out crowd of hundreds bobbed and swayed, sweat-heavy and tweaked, for the better part of a three-hour, two-band gig. Rampant intellibeams, icy white fog, corkscrew stocking caps and some jaw-droppingly awesome music and audio from two geeks with a common bloodline and THX-1138 laser goggles. That's the future. Let it rip.

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