October 26, 2006

Around the World (Well, Just England and France)

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When last we left our ‘90’s nostalgia, America was slow-dancing away its few remaining scraps of truly moveable music left over from the previous decade. Although things looked grim for our brave little nation, we needed only look across the Atlantic to find our saviors.
Alright, so at this point I could technically go off on a long tirade, citing the discographies of various acts and their foray into Top of the Pops. For the purposes of this column I’m content to just tell you that, unlike America, Europe didn’t drop the ball in the early ’90s; they saw the success of New Wave and simply kept on running, allowing electronica to evolve gracefully. After four or five years of debut hits from the genre’s big guns, we here in the colonies saw the first albums that were truly forces to be reckoned with; for example, in France we had Daft Punk’s Homework, one of the first albums to break the international barrier with four singles in the US – “Da Funk,” “Burnin’” “Revolution 909”, and the legendary “Around the World”. Now, I dare you to tell me that a robot repeating “around the world” 144 times doesn’t just make you want to throw it down, 1997-style. After watching Michel Gondry’s brilliantly choreographed mummies, skeletons, and synchronized swimmers (oh my!) dancing on a giant record, my 12-year-old mind was ready to commit to the dark side.
Now, the Chemical Brothers released a pretty amazing album in 1995, but we were too concerned with Hootie & the Blowfish to really pay much attention. Enter Dig Your Own Hole, again in that magical year of 1997, which opens with what is perhaps the Brothers’ most recognizable track, “Block Rockin’ Beats.” But whereas Daft Punk brought a more melodic, almost soothing aspect to their beats, this English duo provided a harsher sound to cater to America’s burgeoning rave scene, even bringing Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher onto many of their tracks to ease the transition from pop to house.
Another of the most influential (and overplayed) heroes in British dance music was Fatboy Slim, whose sophomore album You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby was just crammed into my ears at every teen movie I went to that year (it was 1999; there were a lot of them). In fact, I vaguely recall first hearing “The Rockafeller Skank” while watching She’s All That; it was that scene at the prom where Usher comes out of nowhere and says something like, “Hey, ya’ll remember that dance I taught you?,” and suddenly there’s 30 people dancing jazz hands for ten straight minutes like some bizarre reincarnation of Grease. But I digress. Truthfully, Fatboy Slim’s almost overbearing commercial success in the States was redeemed by Spike Jonze’s infamous video for “Praise You, which stars the director himself shouting “but I think we got some b-boy moves!” when someone tries to interrupt his dance concert. And then he actually breakdances.
These three artists, along with sub-genre groups like Blur and St. Etienne, essentially constituted the revival of dance music in turn-of-the-century America. But why couldn’t we produce anything remotely of the same caliber? Like, okay, we had Moby — bald, Christina Ricci-obsessed Moby. Other than “South Side” Moby kind of sucks, even if he gets points for being the great-great grandnephew of Herman Melville. But honestly, Europe’s great beats probably have more to do with drugs than any sort of inherent talent that comes with a sexy accent. Madchester and Acid House introduced the concept of the rave to the U.K. populace, and raves — held legally at licensed venues — became the setting for DJs and electronica to mature into a force to be reckoned with. And with raves came good ole’ Ecstasy.
…and thus this week’s column comes to a screeching halt. So before I get put on probation for unintentionally promoting drug use, let me bring this two-week exploration around to a tangible conclusion. Basically, I was right all along; barring any nostalgic purposes,’90s dance music in America is an abomination against God and man and in no way can constitute a valid party playlist. Secondly, Ecstasy makes your spinal fluid run backwards — just say no. Finally, and most importantly, if you don’t own any — or all — of the albums discussed above, I implore you from the depths of my soul to obtain these milestones in any way possible, but preferably in a manner of which the RIAA would wholeheartedly approve.