The seminal queer documentary Paris is Burning famously captured the underground NYC voguing scene while still keeping an eye on the violence and poverty its subjects endured—a difficult balance to strike. Filmmaker Mollie Mills managed the same delicate storytelling, and captures something really intimate in her little mini-doc, Vogue, Detroit. What’s startling is the similarities between the two documentaries, which have 600 miles and nearly 30 years between them.
It’s encouraging to watch progress like the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage and the mass cultural shift regarding queer people, but the majority of the country is still pretty homophobic, and the voguers Mills found have formed de facto families, just like the NYC voguers of Paris is Burning. Some things have changed, of course—Mills travels to an LGBTQ youth center, who have designated resources specifically for vogueing, but even in a post-Madonna world, vogueing is a thriving scene for a working class queer subculture, an escapist artistic outlet in the midst of urban decline.
I have an uneasy solidarity with the New York City subway dancers. On the one hand, I appreciate most forms of public entertainment, including (but not exclusive to) mariachi bands, accordionists, cellos, operatic sopranos, those Chinese violin thingies and the rare special occasion when some one drags a whole damn marimba down the subway stairs. On the other hand, the Z train goes approximately 4,000 mph, and the presence of a flailing body on a crowded, high-speed car puts me in an anxious frenzy. On the other hand, proto-fascist “broken windows” policing techniques have facilitated a major crackdown on these (mostly black teen male) performers. On the other hand... limbs flying near my skull.
To really enjoy the charisma and artistry of subway dancers, I have to watch something like this little film for boutique clothing line Fair Ends, featuring the moves of three amazing subway dancers in hypnotic slo-mo. Here there is no danger of traumatic brain injury, and I don’t have to experience the vicarious anxiety of some one perpetually bracing themselves to witness a farcically unjust arrest.
As the most recent advancement in push-button warfare, it can be difficult to think of drones as anything more than flying child-murdering combat robots. This Tokyo performance by Japanese dance troupe Eleven Play manages to utilize drone technology for art and beauty, while simultaneously depicting all of its potential insidiousness.
At first the dancers interact cautiously and experimentally with the drones, then the machines become more active and more threatening. With no control over the increasingly volatile technology, the women flee the stage in fear. In the end, the only ones left dancing are the drones themselves. It’s beautiful and dramatic and there’s a trippy light display and flying robots—what more could you want?
Manchester is a city with an incredible musical history, but a somewhat divided and schizophrenic musical present. On the one hand there’s the let’s-have-it late 80s/early 90s “Madchester” party gang (think The Stone Roses/Happy Mondays/Inspiral Carpets/etc) and on the other the “more-serious-than-thou” school of late 70s/early 80s Factory records (Joy Division/New Order/A Certain Ratio/etc). Bestriding both these worlds like a colossus of crap are, of course, Oasis, the band who made partying and getting off-yer-face seem like the most boring activity on earth.
Entire blogs have been set up to both eulogise and criticize Manchester’s musical history and it’s current legacy. So, while it was great to see Richard posting about the Mondays here the other day (and to read the reactions from their US fan base) I can’t help but feel mixed emotions. For as much as I love that band (I vividly remember the first time I heard “Step On”, on my school bus at the age of ten) they are also signifiers of what is wrong with the current Manchester music scene. In a nutshell: a relentless clinging on to the past.
I guess it’s the double-edged sword of having a once world-beating music scene right on your doorstep, but certain elements within the Manchester “culture industry” are all too willing to just lean on that reputation (sensing that it’s a quick way to make an easy buck) without putting effort into discovering new talent. Talent like Silverclub.
Led by frontman Duncan Jones (who formerly made techno and electro as DNCN on the Human Shield label), Silverclub combine all the best bits of pop, rock, dance and electronica, drag it down the local disco and tie it up with a shiny, techno bow tie. They are influenced by the past yet remain firmly focussed on the present, while retaining a very English vibe with the kind of spiky, edgy songs that betray a childhood spent listening to Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
To me, this band represent all that is good about music from the North of England, and Manchester in particular. People here have a dizzying array of tastes, have an appreciation for pretty much every single genre available, and yet somehow manage to meld these disparate influences into something that is their own with a distinct, regional voice and outlook. Silverclub fuse a knowledge of dancefloor dynamics and sharp hook-writing skills, and maintain a singular identity thanks to Jones’ Northern drawl and sweet harmonies from synth-player Henrietta Smith. Hmm, I wonder if there’s room in the band for a dancing maracas player? I want that job!
At the very start of this year I featured the Silverclub b-side “The Goldener Reiter” on my Best of 2011 Mixtape, which you can still download, here. The single it’s taken from, “No Application”, is available as a free download (below) while Silverclub’s self-titled debut album will be coming this May on the Canadian label Hidden Pony. There’s more info on the band’s website, and in the meantime, here’s the “No Application” video:
The Tube was an early-to-mid 80s British “yoof” TV program covering music and fashion, hosted by Jools Holland and Paula Yates. This special report comes from sometime around 1983 (the date is unspecified but we know that Klaus Nomi has already died) when Holland and guest presenter Leslie Ash take a trip around New York’s most happening night spots. That includes the Paradise Garage, Danceteria, The Roxy and even a brief, passing glimpse of CBGBs.
If you can ignore the cheesy presenting style (“Wow! Clubs in New York stay open until FOUR o’clock!”, “I hear this club has a “happening” sound system.” etc) there are some great interviews here, as well as some priceless footage inside the clubs mentioned. So we get the likes of Arthur Baker talking about producing New Order, Nona Hendryx and Quando Quango performing live, Afrika Bambaataa on the turntables at The Roxy, The Peech Boys backstage at the Paradise Garage, and Ruth Polsky and Rudolph of Danceteria talking about their good friend, the recently deceased Klaus Nomi:
From the beginning “rave” was supposed to be a faceless musical form rebelling against the cock-and-coke excesses of 80s hair metal, and the drab “woe is me” insularity of indie rock. The emphasis was to be taken off the performer, and turned back onto the all-important audience who, in this new era of dancing and drug taking, were the true stars. For the most part this anonymity was the norm, to the point where acts became almost interchangeable, and the distinct whiff of novelty began to creep in. The name of the act with the rave version of “Hong Kong Phooey” may be lost to history now, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Despite face masks and aversion to Smash Hits interviews, there were a few acts of the rave era who managed to become recognisable brands in their own right. 808 State were arguably the first and definitely one of the best, building up a devoted fan base through relentless touring and a series of great albums and singles released at the tail end of the 80s and throughout the Nineties. You might not recognise any of these guys if they passed you in the street, but their music has become iconic in its own right.
The band formed in mid-80s Manchester around a nucleus of Factory stalwart Graham Massey, Eastern Bloc-owner Martin Price and Gerald Simpson, who would later leave to peruse his own successful career under the name A Guy Called Gerald. 808 State were one of the first acts to take rave out of the clubs and fields and into the British charts, and by extension the nation’s living rooms, with influential hits like “Pacific State” (a chill out classic and the birth of ambient house) and “Cubik” (whose riff is to dance music what “Louie Louie” is to rock’n'roll). Back in school in the early Nineties, a few of us would pass round a cassette of the 808 State album ex:el, its rock hard beats and swooshing synths fuelling our imaginations to what raving might actually be like, long before we ever could. Twenty years later and I know that we weren’t the only kids listening.
Now the Manchester pioneers have released a sort of-best of compilation that pulls together some of their career’s highlights alongside a bunch of unreleased bit-and-pieces, remixes and previously unreleased out-takes. 808 State were a huge influence on the second wave of UK dance pioneers from the mid-Nineties, like Autechre, Orbital, Future Sound Of London and Aphex Twin and even a quick scan through their list of non-dance collaborators proves the kind of respect the band command. Blueprint kicks off with a remix of 1988 “Flow Coma” by Aphex Twin, it features liner notes by Orbital’s Phil Hartnoll and elsewhere on the album you’ll find spots from Brain Eno, Bjork, Trevor Horn, Ian McCulloch, Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Manic Street Preacher’s James Dean Bradfield.
Blueprint is a good album, and one recommended for long term fans and newcomers alike, though I’m still waiting for a straight-up greatest hits comp with the original extended 12” mixes of these classic tracks. Alternatively, I might just go and pick up the remastered, double CD packages of four of their original albums (90, ex:el, Gorgeous and Don Solaris), which have all been re-issued with bonus material and are available from the official 808 State website. The band are also currently giving away a free “21st Anniversary” remix of “Cubik”, which you can get right here:
808 State’s music still sounds great after all these years, whether you simply want to travel back to a different, more innocent, era or even if you want pumping-up, ready for action in the right now. The intro to “In Yer Face” (an all-time, hands down dance classic) is still chillingly prescient to this very day, a reminder that maybe the past wasn’t so innocent after all, that we’re still facing some of the very same problems today:
There are new forces in the world
A conflict between the generations
A powerful feeling that the American system
is failing to deal with the real threats to life…
As if it wasn’t weird enough that Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” got to number 2 on the British charts in 1981, here’s a really strange dance routine by Zoo from Top Of The Pops to accompany the vocodered, beatless wonder. YouTube uploader Sambda says:
“A spectacularly bad dance routine. An extreme example of “Top Of The Pops” choreographer Flick Colby’s habit of taking all lyrics (including obvious allegories) at face value. So we have to have a judge, a mom-and-dad etc. I suspect the only reason Superman himself didn’t appear was down to a rights issue.”
I think he may be onto something. It’s also worth watching for Peter Powell’s bizarre chain-mail sweater at the start:
Laurie Anderson - “O Superman” Top Of The Pops 1981
House music has gotten a bit of a bad rep over the last ten to fifteen years, and it’s not difficult to hear why. Between the overbearing repetitiveness of trance, the none-more-overdriven sound homogenisation of French “electro” and the simply boring minimalism of, yes, minimal, it’s very easy to forget that house was once a marginal art form that dripped pure funk.
The new album by Azari & III looks set to dress that balance, taking the sound back to its underground roots in the black, gay dance scenes of Chicago. Back in the mid 80s the original house-heads would congregate and wig out at Frankie Knuckles’ Warehouse club and Ron Hardy’s Music Box, to a soundtrack of European disco and proto-techno mixed up with American funk and electro and augmented by drum machine loops. Some of those kids went on to release seminal records on the legendary Trax imprint, among them Marshall Jefferson, Larry Heard, Jamie Principle and even Knuckles himself.
Azari & III are the next logical progression of House music, as it inevitably gives up the gloss and returns to its rawer starting points. The synths and drum machines are raw and dirty, the vocals are ambiguous and androgynous but full to the brim with soul, and the songs are druggy, sleazy, and catchy as hell. The Toronto based four piece have just released their self-titled debut album, and the buzz built by their earlier singles is beginning to pay off with glowing critical reviews and a growing cult status. If you’re a fan of Hercules & Love Affair, then I can’t recommend this band and album highly enough. This is music designed to make you sweat, to jack your body, to vogue.
This is the video for Azari & III’s debut single, the highly catchy “Hungry For The Power”, featuring coke snorting yuppies, S&M vixens, murder and cannibal voguing zombies (NSFW):
I have a secret I need to get off my chest - I love dance films. They’re just so extraordinarily bad yet good at the same time. For all the terrible acting and clunky dialog, you can just zone out and focus on some incredible acrobatic moves or the pretty costumes. Hell, some of them even have decent soundtracks that sound great on a big booming Dolby cinema system (Timbaland’s minimal opus “Bounce” as used in Step Up 2 is one particular example).
So this is where The FP comes in. I know very little about this film other than the fact that the trailer looks amazing - like a cross between Step Up, Mortal Kombat and Zoolander. In true grind house style, I would go so far as to say the trailer is so good that the film itself feels a bit irrelevant Still, I would definitely watch this if it came up on late night cable TV.
What I can work out, gleamed with a little help from IMDB, is that the film was directed by Brandon and Jason Trost (brothers I presume) and is the second incarnation of the film after a 2007 short, also directed by the brothers. Its about rival gangs doing battle with a Dance Dance Revolution-style video game for control of their local trailer park (Frazier Park, the “FP” of the title). It was definitely made on the cheap and I don’t think it’s supposed to be taken very seriously:
“If it goes any further it might as well be rock and roll”
Kevin Saunderson on the the mutation of house and techno into “rave”.
Here’s an interesting little adjunct to the rave documentaries I have been posting recently - this is not a full length doc like the others, but a much shorter news-type item for what was presumably a youth culture show. It is interesting for a number of reasons - it’s cataloging the emergence of “rave” as a defined type of music as represented by acts such as SL2 and The Prodigy, and that kind of music’s growing popularity. In fact, the clip features an interview with a 19 year old (!) Liam Howlett, bemoaning the lack of radio play of rave music, despite it regularly reaching the upper reaches of the British charts. Ironically, it was The Prodigy who were charged with killing rave music by turning it into novelty records of the likes of “Charly Says”. In this clip rave-based dance music is referred to as “techno”, even as a Detroit-based techno pioneer such as Inner City’s Kevin Saunderson criticise the new music for lack of “soul”. At a time when dance culture in the UK was moving from the overground to the underground it is interesting to see the schisms opening up that would split it into many different categories:
Fans of forward thinking pop music and alternative/electonica, here’s something that’s definitely worth checking out - it’s the new video (and album Shangri-La) from DFA’s Yacht.
A little bit arty, a little bit metrosexual, Yacht have been round in some form or other for nearly a decade, so while their aesthetic might seem achingly hip and oh-so-now, it helps to remember that they’ve been doing it longer than most. Centred around the core duo of Jona Bechtolot and Claire Evans (Evans joining Brechtolot in what was previously a solo act in 2008), their live show expands the ranks to become a fuller five piece band.
Although having released albums on smaller independent labels in the past, Yacht are now part of the DFA stable, and fit very neatly into that label’s bracket of electronic rock, wearing those particular disco-meets-punk and electronica influences on their sleeve. Their recent live shows have seen them cover both the B-52’s “Mesopotamia” and Judas Priest’s “Breaking The Law” both of which make sense for different reasons. I gotta admit that I was not much of a fan of Yacht in the past, but this new album has taken me by surprise. It’s pretty damn good, and contains a few really cracking tunes, such as “Love In The Dark”, “Beam Me Up” and “Tripped And Fell In Love”.
Worthy of particular mention though are the album’s two opening tracks, “Utopia” and “Dystopia (The Earth Is On Fire)”, which lay out Shangri-La‘s themes of dualism from the get go. Although they are two separate tracks, they have been both comped into one video, which is quite the novel idea and makes me wonder if it has been done before? Either way the video is great and definitely worth a watch - it may be cheap but it is very well done. However, if you are not a fan of triangles, you might want to look away…
Yacht - “Utopia” / “Dystopia (The Earth Is On Fire)”
Skip along four years since “A Trip Around Acid House (which I posted yesterday) and you can see the changes which had occurred within the UK’s dance scene. By 1992 raves had become massive outdoor events attracting thousands of punters, they had been cracked down on heavily by the police, and promoters had begun to put on licensed raves with professional security, a police presence and mandatory drug searches to minimise trouble and maximise profit.
BBC North’s Rave follows the set up, running and aftermath of one of these very large (but legal) outdoor raves, and highlights how attitudes had changed between 1992 and 1988. The moral panic surrounding acid house and ecstasy culture had peaked by this point. The police were aware that this new outdoor dancing movement was not something that was going to go away any time soon, so rather than trying to stamp it out they instead focussed on regulating it. It’s interesting to see the individual police officers interviewed in ‘Rave’ and their opinions on the culture - unnerved by the “spaced out” demeanour of the participants, but also very aware that they are not violent and cause very little trouble. There were still the supposedly “moral” campaigners who saw the trend as entirely negative, of course, and campaigned to have any event of this nature shut down due to the supposed dangers of drug “pushers”. The inability to compute that people were taking drugs of their own free will, combined with the relatively harmless effects of those particular drugs, give these campaigners distinct shades Mary Whitehouse. It’s all about looking good rather than engaging with reality.
By 1992 the music had now morphed too - four years on from the happy-go-lucky spirit of acid house (with its sampling of different genres and its embracing of the Balearic scene) the music is more streamlined, and beginning to form more regimented genres like techno and rave itself. DJ Smokey Joe does a pretty good job of describing the difference between the German and Belgian strands of techno in this show:
Acid house - the sound of a Roland TB 303 getting turned up too far that can send the most loved up dancer wild with convulsions of ecstasy . A unique sound accidentally discovered by DJ Pierre and friends in Chicago 25 years ago and that can still wreck dancefloors to this very day. A type of music which for a period of time in the late 80s infested the upper reaches of the UK’s charts and spawned a youth culture all of its own. Let me hear you say ACIEEED!
I was way too young to have any first hand experience of clubbing during the acid house years, but the music and imagery still had a huge effect on my childhood brain . Who couldn’t resist the acid-washed day-glo colours, the oversized clothes, the nods back to hippie culture and the first summer of love, and chart topping tracks from the likes of D-Mob, S’Express, M/A/R/R/S, Yazz, Farley Jackmaster Funk, 808 State, Bomb The Bass and Stakker Humanoid? When I had a chance to buy my own clothes it would be Joe Bloggs, and I had quite the collection of smiley face badges for a kid not yet a teenager. My own pet theory is that disco never had the impact in the UK that it had in the States, but house music and raving had the same effect of democratising the dancefloor ten years later. A large piece of the puzzle was of course the arrival of a new drug called “ecstasy” (actually only made illegal in the UK in 1985), which when combined with the powerful filter sweeps of a TB303 can give the user incredible head rushes. It was this new drug and its implications that seemed to worry the authorities the most.
This great documentary from the BBC’s World in Action strand is like a full blown acid house flashback. Broadcast in 1988 at height of acid house fever, it follows the typical weekend rituals of a group of very young fans, tracks the working life of an illegal party promoter, speaks to some of the producers of the music and charts the the then-growing moral panic which surrounded the scene and its copious drug taking. Raving, and acid house, had a huge (if subtle) effect on British culture, bringing people together in new, democratised contexts free of class and social boundaries, opening people’s ears up to a new world of music and opening their minds to new ideas.
A Trip Round Acid House makes for very interesting viewing at a time when Murdoch Inc and News International stand accused of distorting facts to suit their own means. The program gives a fairly detailed description of how The Sun newspaper did an about face on acid house, going from being supporters of this new youth culture (even selling their own acid house branded t-shirts to decrying it as an outrage that needed to be banned (and as such sold more papers). Some of the other footage here is priceless too, and has popped up on the internet in other forms, such as the classic reaction of two old cockney dears to the description of a typical “rave”. Blimey!