Thursday, 24 October 2013

Issue 15: Are you dancing?

I was standing outside The Clachan on Kingly Street last Friday dinner, gulping a pint of perfectly drinkable 3.9-per-cent ale with my fellow Vauxhall Conference-level DJ, The Butler. A health-books editor by day, The Butler was in high spirits knowing he’d be DJing over the weekend in a small Clerkenwell drinking establishment surrounded by pals, pals of pals, and a pile of his own felt-tip-marked CDs.

As befits a Non-League DJ, The Butler was yet to sort his playlist, but was adamant about one thing: “Just give people music they already know.” I nodded acceptance to this, having learnt the hard way that an empty dancefloor is a lose/lose situation for punter and DJ alike. Now, nobody’s suggesting that you de-ball yourself by playing top-20 guff by the likes of that newly wild Hannah Montana, lorry-driver-in-a-dress Pink! or those 19th-century canal workers Mumfords, but in every right-thinking person’s iTunes library, there should be more than enough five-star (not Five Star) dance bombs to keep most people happy most of the time.

Like many dads in their 40s, I like to get on the dancefloor at the earliest possible juncture from three pints in, but I find that 99.9 per cent of DJs are unable to connect with me on any level. That’s why I decided to give it a go myself just over ten years ago. The only DJs that I truly enjoy these days are the gadgies that I play parties with – the Non-Leaguers, like The Butler. Us that can’t mix have an instinctive understanding of what constitutes a foot-tapper.

The Butler used to host spectacular parties when he resided in a central-London flat. He rented a double-decker des res above five floors of solicitors’ offices, an accommodation curio with a fair-sized living room that masqueraded twice a year as a maple sprung dancefloor. At the weekend in The Butler’s abode, when the solicitors were in their country piles in the Herts hinterland, nobody could hear you scream. It was a stupendous party venue.

In 2006, The Butler roped me in to play a warm-up slot for a World Cup-themed shindig that he was putting on. The timing of the night was impeccable – England had just gone out on penalties to Portugal, and on the Northern Line journey up to The Butler’s flat, there was an overwhelming sense of menace, as browned-off, fat football revellers directed their ill-judged anger at London Underground staff. I’d watched the match, but to be honest, I couldn’t give a bugger – I was past caring. Once a bedraggled England finds itself lifelessly booting penalties in a quarter-final, you know it’s time to switch the telly off and set about some chores. The players would rather be elsewhere anyway, sitting by a pool on the equator, gazing through men’s-earring websites on their iPads. Spending.

I’d stopped mithering about the national side in Euro 2004, when England were 1-0 up against France with a minute to go and still managed to cock it up, losing 2-1. I had little St George’s flags on top of my telly that day, getting into the spirit of it all. I knocked them flying with the side of my hand at the final whistle. I couldn’t have that sort of grief any more – I took England’s defeats way too personally.

At The Butler’s World Cup party, I played 8pm-11.30pm. Round about 10.30pm you could feel the night starting to hot up – half-ten’s a crucial point for a big-night; it’s when the party reveals its hand. By 11pm, we were seriously straying into the crackers zone and it’s a smashing thing to see strangers writhing to your collection. There was a shimmer in the air and as the dancefloor filled, I knew we were riding a wave. I thought: “This is why I came to London.” I quickly realised it was going to be the best party I’d ever attended.

Now, the DJ who was on after me came out of his trap with “Mr Blue Sky” (1978) by Electric Light Orchestra. I don’t like ELO, nor do I particularly appreciate that track, but it fit the occasion and made me want to get in the middle of the room where the action was. “Don’t Stop Me Now” (1979) by Queen was a similar inclusion – I loathe Queen, but it also worked well. It made my big-hitting “World In Motion” by New Order seem a bit obvious. I’d played “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand and “It Takes Two” by Rob Bass & DJ E-Z Rock, so I wasn’t letting the side down too greatly – although the night didn’t really need “My Favourite Dress” by The Wedding Present and could probably have survived without Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”. It’s a learning curve.

It wasn’t like a school disco, or anything sh**e like that – there was no Bon Jovi, “Final Countdown” or “99 Red Balloons”, but you knew every tune that was being played. I left the party at 5.30am and walked through a warm, soft, summer dawn with my mate Chris, a pal from school, thinking: “I’m devastated that the night’s come to an end.” It was that good. I knew I had enough material in my music collection to be able to move forward from that point, and maybe even bring a bit of my own personality into this tight association of secret-party DJs. I started work on my next party playlist that evening. Since World Cup ’06, we’ve been having these parties twice a year, although The Butler’s spectacular flat has long since found new tenants. With nights like that, you only need to go out twice a year anyway. You’d be dead by 50, otherwise.

When I was at Festival No.6 last month, trampling through Gwynedd’s sodden loam, I thought that too many DJs were overly reliant on obscure disco. Fair-dos, it seemed to get a fairly positive response from the audience, like a six-out-of-ten score, but the reaction might have been more raucous with a little more foresight from the DJs. You want to go f***ing nuts at a festival, not sway gently from side to side. If you’re playing disco, harpoon us with it! Give us “Lost In Music (Dmitri In Paris Remix)” by Sister Sledge – don’t pussyfoot about with a 1975 warehouse find that you bought for £15 from Phonica Records in Poland Street, a track that would have been rejected in its day, that Larry Levan would have discus-thrown from the toilet window of the Paradise Garage in disgust.

A few weeks ago, I asked a number of groove-worshipping acquaintances what track would guarantee their rapid passage to the dancefloor. For the results, bypass all this bumf and head directly to the foot of this latest blog, but I think you should stay with me for a bit – you’re on a bit of downtime, after all. What’s interesting is that Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” came out top. I’ve never played this when I’ve been out, but I might do from now on. Back when I was DJing every month at a London soul night, I bought Herbie Hancock’s “Bring Down The Birds”, which “Groove Is In The Heart” borrows from. “Bring Down The Birds” appeared in Blow-Up, a 1966 film about a fashion photographer, played by David Hemmings. The track was re-released in 2008 on MGM with a lively “B-Boy Edit” – it was tight, tight, tight. The thing is, around then, I had an incredible knack of clearing a floor more effectively than a Miele hoover, and to my surprise and abject annoyance, Hancock’s fast-moving, bass-driven brute had the same effect on London’s soul crowd as a well-aimed canister of tear gas. People dispersed rapidly, dashing upstairs to smoke – it was better to have long-term health problems than listen to my dirge! I looked at these Sixties-worshipping empty vessels filing out and thought: “You tw*ts.” I suspect that folk just couldn’t make the connection between “Bring Down The Birds” and “Groove Is In The Heart”. They’d have preferred “Move On Up” on a loop, or just a Take That album played in its entirety.

“Groove Is In The Heart” is undoubtedly a tremendous dance record – better than the Hancock original. I remember watching the video for the first time in the summer of 1990. A few of us were looking after a house for a week – a mate’s mam and dad were on holiday in Switzerland or Austria, somewhere up a mountain anyway, with Heidi passing the window every morning, now aged 40, off to do the cleaning for some rich Germans, no doubt. Back then, The Chart Show, with its Commodore Amiga graphics, was essential viewing on a Saturday morning, a real event. We’d heard the track in the week, probably on the radio when driving to Sheffield to look around the shelves of Warp Records’ own vinyl emporium on Division Street. With cups of tea in hand, we settled in to study the “Groove Is In The Heart” video, and were instantly blown away by a festival of De La Soul-inspired Seventies’ hues. The singer, Lady Miss Kier, age 27, was in a tight catsuit that had a psychedelic print on it, and for the next three minutes and 54 seconds, as she danced like a mad dolly, we remained in situ, glued to the spot, each of us captivated. I was taping it on my music video, so I’d have been sprawled across the floor – I usually was. When it finished, my mate Chris (who was at the World Cup party with me 16 years later) said, “F***in’ ’ell.”

Last week, I asked Deee-Lites Lady Miss Kier why she thought Groove Is In The Heart is such a memorable dance track – as you do. Because it has a relentless groove, which is 50 per cent to making any hit, she replied. And most importantly because its positive, with optimistic lyrics. I really meant every word I sang. And if youre wondering what would make Lady Miss Kier sprint to the dancefloor, theres a Sheffield connection! Its Heaven 17s (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang”.

I was very proud of my E240 music video; by 1990, I was getting up at 3am so I could record bands on through-the-night TV channel Music Box. I returned from college one weekend in 1991, with my well-travelled video, to stay at my nana’s house. I always stayed at Nana’s – it was the only non-smoking house in the whole of South Yorkshire. Still is! On Saturday night, my brother visited prior to us heading out for a Zulu battle down Doncaster’s high street. We clanked on my music video while sharpening our spears, slapping on a bit of the old Calvin Klein Eternity while helping ourselves to a nip or two from the liquor cabinet. When I pressed play, to my dizzy disbelief, MC Tunes and 808 State disappeared in a haze of grey crackle and the opening bars of Coronation Street’s theme music began. I’ll tell you what, I danced to that tune!

I feverishly fast-forwarded, thinking there must be a colossal mistake, but the realisation that this was now an incontrovertible fact soon descended. It stated clearly on the cover of my cassette, “Lee’s Music Video – DO NOT TAPE OVER”. As I immersed in dismay, my brother rolled onto the floor in paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, unable to breathe with the purity of this sensational comedy situation, knowing that years of work had been atom-bombed with the quasi-sitcom outcomes of Alec and Bet Gilroy’s Rovers Return. When Nana got back from bingo at half-eight, she said, “Well I didn’t bleeding know – I just grabbed the first tape I could find!” We have a general rule that we don’t get angry with Nana – it still exists today. It was severely tested that evening, though.

Apart from the Coronation Street theme, the ultimate dance track is, of course, “Blue Monday” (1983) by New Order. It will never be beaten, although “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk feat Pharrell Williams gave it a bloody good run for its money this year. “Blue Monday” has it all. It begins with a drumbeat that’s so whopping that it sounds like a German 88mm field gun, beckoning you towards the DJ’s decks. Bump-bump b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-bump bump… “Blue Monday” never fails in its primary objective of hijacking the night. Its sound is three-dimensional, while its crispness seems to adjust the colour within the club setting, turning up the reds, greens and, obviously, blues. It’s the sensation of coming to life. In its seven minutes and 29 seconds, there is no dead time, no wasted beat, and even today, it still sounds fresh. I’ve spoken at length to New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Factory’s in-house designer Peter Saville (who designed its die-cut 12” sleeve) about this seminal, scene-changing production. So now, like on Play School, let’s have a look through the Round Window and find out what Bernard and Peter have to say about it, shall we?

Bernard Sumner:
It was on the cusp, working with new equipment. It was done with the little sequencer I’d made, and we got a Moog and a new drum machine we’d bought, a DMX. So we were excited about this new equipment. We didn’t play encores at gigs, and we were getting into a lot of trouble over it. So rather naively, we thought we’d write a song that could be played by machines and all we’d have to do was press the button. They’d get what they wanted and we’d get what we wanted. It was an exploration into electronic music, more kind of pure electronic music, so we took the machines to the limit to see what we could do with them. What we could do with them was very basic at the time, so it was making the most out of what little gear we had.

“Stephen [Morris] whacked the drum machine, as I remember. He spent all day programming a backing track and then he caught a power cable to the DMX drum machine with his bloody foot, ripped the power cable out and lost all the drum programming. So we had to start again on the drums. We managed to get most of it back, but out there somewhere is the original. It was different. It’s funny that it’s become one of our most famous songs.

“It’s not really a song, the way I see it. It’s more of a machine that sounds good on club systems. I was doing some work with 52nd Street, a Manchester group on Factory Records, kind of funk music, and I was just doing some keyboard effects with them and occasionally I would produce them, and I was going to a lot of clubs with them, clubs I wouldn’t normally go to. I was just listening to the sound systems in clubs, the sub-bass frequencies. It never occurred to me to listen to that frequency when I was in Joy Division, because we never used that frequency. We never used bass bass really, cos Hooky’s bass was all middle. We never used bottom end. So we went to a club that had a fantastic sound system with all this sub-bass, and we used that knowledge on ‘Blue Monday’. There was a lot of trickery going on in ‘Blue Monday’ that you don’t realise. It’s not just the bass, there’s quite a lot of subsonics.”

Peter Saville:
“When I was at school in the Seventies, you had a choice. Do you like rock or dance music? Not both. ‘Blue Monday’ is made by post-industrial prog-rock guys from an alternative label bravely bringing together what everyone really wanted: thinking beats. We know that Hooky’s bass is lead percussion. There’s Stephen’s automaton drumming. There’s Bernard’s melodic accent. New Order are fundamental to the chemistry that changes Britain’s music, and culture change comes with it. ‘Blue Monday’ is more than an audio experiment, it’s the beginning of a convergence of sensibility. ‘Blue Monday’ changes the way we dress, and our fashion. Through ‘Blue Monday’, drugs enter our culture. It was coming anyway, but ‘Blue Monday’ brings together that moment. When you hear ‘Blue Monday’, it doesn’t date. It’s 30 years old and it still sounds modern. It doesn’t sound vintage. It’s still music of the modern; a signifier of contemporary.”

If 2013 has taught me anything, it’s that a track doesn’t need a fast tempo to fill a room. Daft Punk’s “Lose Yourself To Dance” comes in at a pedestrian 100bpm but has been the starting point to all two of my sets over summer, and even made people squeal with delight at Festival No.6… although maybe somebody had just slipped in the mud. When you’re behind the mixer, your ego is enhanced – the sight of eight people dancing will always be 30 in your mind. At 101bpm, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” also has a lagubrious groove, but still stands as a rollicking dance anthem. The Brighton crowd tell me that “The Path (Sofrito Edit)” by Concept Neuf was Ibiza’s standout track over the summer – and that’s another slow mover, a re-edit from 1979/80, I believe, featuring that oft-overlooked instrument, the steel drum. Maybe I should play “The Path” at the witching hour – 10.30pm! I’ve come across the Sofrito mob before – they’re an east London collective of DJs and producers. I’ve got a few 12”s by them, back from a time when I was taking an interest in Central African rhythms – I must have thought I was Damon All Bran at the time. I stand by “Manzara” by Soseme Makonde (1977), mind – that’ll ruffle your plumage.

Alas, The Funk Pursuivant won’t be leaving his musical depot until 2014 now – he’s in for a fresh coat of paint – but that gives plenty of time to put together a new set. I’ll tell you what, though, I’ll definitely be playing “I Want Your Love (Wideboys Miami Mix)” by Jody Watley and “Shine On” by Degrees Of Motion & Mark Wilkinson at next year’s Festival No.6. Why? Because the wife has put in a request for them. It’s an insurance policy: include the tracks that Mrs Pursuivant loves and I’ll never face another soul-destroying Miele moment again.

And so, without further ado, here are the ultimate dance tracks that my small poll of groovy (and some not so groovy) pals has thus decided on, with choices from NME, ex-NME and Mixmag (the latter's Sean Griffiths is responsible for Armand Van Helden) among them! I’ve bundled it, to save internet space.

“Uptown Top Ranking” – Althea & Donna; “Sweet Love (M Beat Jungle Remix)” – Anita Baker (Nesha Fleischer, who calls herself a New Order fan, huh!: “Did the trick on Sunday night.”); “Knights Of The Jaguar – Aztec Mystic (Mike Shallcross, Detroit techno editor, Men’s Health: “Roland Rocha and friends on the best label in the world, Underground Resistance. Has a very distinctive intro, a useful pause until the strings tear out – so you have time to put your drink and fight your way to the middle of the dancefloor – and if you love anything from War to Masters At Work to Robert Hood, it will make you dance.”); “Love Shack” – The B52’s; “Stayin’ Alive” – Bee Gees; “Crazy In Love” – Beyonce feat Jay-Z; “Remember Me” – Blueboy; “Rhythm On The Loose” – Break Of Dawn (Mike Gough, former raver of international repute): “Definitely early Nineties. Has all the old-school classic elements. Opening piano breaks… just check it.”); “Cannonball” – The Breeders; “Holiday Road” – Lindsey Buckingham (Mark Service, Indiana Jones-type archaeologist: “Not that it ever has been or ever will be played by any DJ anywhere.”); “Rudy Can’t Fail” – The Clash (Keith Laidlaw, ex-NME subber: “He really can’t.”); “She Sells Sanctuary” – The Cult; “Groove Is In The Heart” – Deee-Lite (Michael Booth, dour designer: It reminds me of when I was young, free and single with my whole life ahead of me, rather than the spent, bitter middle-aged husk I have become.” Cath Goss, Manchester-based kids’ clothes designer: “Danced to this in many a hole! Always had to find any raised bit of stage, chair or, at house parties, hearth. I thought I was Lady Miss Kier. Sadly disillusioned!”); “Build Me Up Buttercup” – The Foundations; “Rock Steady (Danny Krivit Re-edit)” – Aretha Franklin (Keith Laidlaw: “A pounding floor-filler and one of the few reworkings of old classics I would rate high enough to play out.”); “Oops Upside Your Head” – The Gap Band (Doug Harman, tech wizard and one-time DJ at violent gypsy weddings: “You canny beat a bit of rowing with 30 other drunken strangers after a few pints, and it's always fun to see just who can get up again afterwards – or not!”); “Bounce” – Calvin Harris feat Kelis; “(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove ThangHeaven 17; “Jump Around” – House Of Pain (Dwayne Lewis, lawyer representing criminal tykes and miscreants: “After a few pints, mind.”); “Million Dollar Bill” – Whitney Houston (Kiran Moodley, Fjallraven backpack-wearing GQ contributor: “I'm just going to have to say it because I feel I should be honest with myself and the internet.”); “I Believe In Miracles” – Jackson Sisters; “Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson (Justin McCrae, Asda manager in Barnsley and former nightclub DJ from Doncaster: “It's in the bass, man.”); “Don't Stop ’Til You Get Enough" – Michael Jackson; “Tainted Love” – Gloria Jones; “Tears” – Frankie Knuckles (Dave Dowding, designer and League Two DJ: “Mix it with the ‘I have a dream’ speech by Martin Luther King.”); “Time Will Pass You By” – Tobi Legend; “Expansions” – Lonny Liston Smith; “Got To Be Real” – Cheryl Lynn (Jaye Thompson, world-travelling fashion sort and League One DJ: “That horn opener and disco syncopation is like a spiritual shout out, saying, ‘Dance now sista!'”); “Perfect (Exceeder)” – Mason vs Princess Superstar (Emma Gale, DJ consultant: “Does the job for me.”); “Basement Blues/The Story Of The Blues (Peel Session)” – The Mighty Wah! (Rich Morgan, New York-based designer and all-round Wylie ambassador: “It starts with a rousing call to arms from their bass player, Washington, before launching into a reworking of their 1982 hit which is completely transformed into a driving, urgent Motown-esque stomp. It doesn't get better than this...”); “Tiger Feet” – Mud (Dave Dowding: “A classic. You could mix this in with ‘My Ever Changing Moods’ easily.”); “Blue Monday” – New Order; “Sin” – Nine Inch Nails; “Band Of Gold” – Freda Payne; “Common People” – Pulp (Kevin EG Perry, NME writer and booze associate of Mark E Smith, by all accounts: “Maybe it's something about Jarvis making it OK for awkward men to dance, maybe it's because it's the perfect pop song.”); “Long After Tonight Is All Over” – Jimmy Radcliffe; “You’ve Gotta Show Me Love” – Robin S; “Get Off Of My Cloud” – The Rolling Stones; “Chain Reaction” – Diana Ross; “I’m Coming Out” – Diana Ross (Pandora George, wife of former GQ and NME writer Iestyn George, and a Brighton-based party stalwart): “As played at Festival No.6 by Gilles P.”); “Upside Down” – Diana Ross; “The Bottle” – Gil Scott-Heron; anything by Shakin’ Stevens; “California Soul” by Marlena Shaw (Keith Laidlaw: “Something about it is just irresistible. I can't stay still when it's playing. Plus, it's all about how irresistible the aforementioned Californian soul is, which makes a neat circle. Of course, living in California helps.”); “Thinking Of You” – Sister Sledge (Pandora George: “For the reason that Niles is God.”); “This Corrosion” – Sisters Of Mercy (Chris Harris, Brian Glover-type teacher from Doncaster: “My spine still tingles and foot begins to tap when I hear the opening to ‘This Corrosion’. An interesting time in my first year at uni. Never wore eyeliner though... Honestly.”); “You Got The Love” – Candi Staton; “I Am The Resurrection” – The Stone Roses; “Promised Land” – The Style Council (Ben Chappell, Colin Welland-type teacher from Doncaster: “Or the Joe Smooth version.”); “Solid Bond In Your Heart” – The Style Council; “Walls Come Tumbling Down” – The Style Council. (Liz Horsfield, wife of Guardian subber and rather decent maker of cakes: “I'm there by the end of the third chord of the intro.”); “I Feel Love” – Donna Summer (Che Storey, The Funk Pursuivant's cartoon co-pilot from Argentina '78: Been a classic hit since I was a kid spitting on the waltzers. “The Night” – Frankie Valli (Rob Crane, Che Storey’s valet: “Bassline.”); “You Don't Know Me”Armand Van Helden; “Needle In A Haystack” – The Velvelettes (Gill Mullins, former lads mag sergeant major: “Back to my Wigan roots – although, by the time I was old enough to go to the Casino it was only for indie nights.” Ben Chappell: “I'm on my way, northern-soul classic!”); “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher” – Jackie Wilson (Tim Harris, banker, partly responsible for the bloody economic mess we’re in now: “Amazing intro, uplifting chorus and it's probably the greatest song ever recorded.”); “Higher States” – Josh Wink (Scott Bentley, coffee-magazine magnate: “Just reminds me of being at college and always brings back great memories. Unfortunately it's not attractive dancing.”); “Are You Ready To Rock” – Wizzard (Rich Morgan: “Fun fact: Mr Wilks from Emmerdale Farm was played by Arthur Pentelow, whose son was the saxophonist in Wizzard. Speaking of which, you should play this guaranteed floor filler. It even has a bagpipe solo!”). Th-th-th-that’s all folks!

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