Andy Stevens examines how house music unconsciously wound its way into youthful UK dance music fans’ enduring affections in the mid and late 1980s.
History is a sucker for its ‘moments’. In fact, history wouldn’t have much to do otherwise, except bang on about nobody paying it any attention anymore, while quietly polishing some priceless urn or other.
In a pop culture context, music history is just as bad. It can be a proper pub bore with bells on, sufficiently buoyed by Australian cooking lager to interrupt your private conversation. Opinions frothing forth with un-fact-checkable embellishments and revisionisms, and no sign of the sweet release of last orders.
A rear-view mirror glance at music history’s choicest moments should at best transform your modern leisure time beyond our age’s stickleback recall of social platforms, and those countless, trailer-skipping boxset stream/binge ordeals, urgently recommended then forgotten in WhatsApp group skips and jumps.
Genres, sub-genres, splinter groups, forgotten and undiscovered tribes, renegade cross-overs, arbitrary intersections of sound and unexpected muso meldings single out the endless fission of dance music’s remake/remodel history. In its broadest and best sense, it retains a steely, unwavering eye on originality (Khruangbin and BadBadNotGood leap to mind in recent times), with pitch-perfect tuning to the miracle birth of the genuinely new, fresh and exciting. A bit of modernism on the back of a matchbox for you there.
Now think back to the buzz engendered by those thousands of seemingly prosaic record-buying epiphanies occurring with quasi-religious zeal on 1980s Saturdays at Woolworths and Boots (yes, Boots, imagine it eh!) from Dover to Dundee, Scarborough to Swansea and all points north, south, east, west and the bits in between.
It’s in this foggy but fond spirit of musical freedom that the needle touches down on the turntable, as we spin the bottle then tamp and snag the foundations of house music’s favourite transatlantic game-changers, and its contingent homegrown house heroics which blitzed Blighty’s benighted ballrooms in the mid and late ’80s.
The signs were all there. Something heard but largely unseen and unquantified was shifting on chrome and neon-encased city club dance floors, and sticky-carpeted nightspots in Anytown UK, where dos, bashes, discos and parties in social clubs and bigger pubs, with a function room and decks out the back and a video jukebox out front, ruled the weekends.
Whether a teenage dabbler or devotee (many of my friends were an extended 12” remix of both), heeding the call of the emerging pre-eminent dance music creed, ’80s teens began to fare better when unfettered by the lingering fashionable fripperies of rigid pop tribalism that still just about ruled the roost.
Disco dollies, flickhead soul boys sporting a splash of lapel diamante and the keys to dad’s old Cortina, wannabe Wag Club Mr Solitaires digging their own scene, and jazz-juiced gangsters of the Brit groove had been silently handed the proto-house runes from 1982-ish onwards, thanks to the intense electro-dance experimentalism of Morgan Khan’s Streetsounds albums; a self-replicating imprint of sparse, spiky, sporadically-inspiring studio gems, pumped out in what to the ’80s teen ear and eye and Our Price lurker seemed to be a frantic release cycle. The TDK C90s-labelled ‘Streetsounds Vol. 687’, ‘Electro Hits’ or just the swaggeringly misspelt ‘Hot Trax’ were homemade cassette catnip currency among the would-be Wood Beez-listening cognoscenti.
Streetsounds had set up their electronic dance theodolites at the bottom of your road. But there were still scant signs of serious Chicago house building work afoot on Britain’s Heartache Avenues.
But it wasn’t long before full planning permission for the house music boom was granted to UK dance floors. As ever, it was the all-powerful (then!) upper reaches of the UK Top 40 which set off the sprinklers, with hardy perennial early doors beauts-to-this-day including Shannon’s Let The Music Play, Trapped by Colonel Abrams, 19 by Paul Hardcastle and Steve Arrington’s Feel So Real moving into the starter homes with shared dance ownership, and showing us the shape of house things to come. That shape being in the case of Steve Arrington’s stage garb of choice, a massive man-sized marquee that seats eight.
Still a couple of years off were the topping out ceremonies in UK house club culture’s now semi-mythical stately ’80s homes such as the Hacienda, Shoom and Clink Street, not forgetting those solid scene footings in Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Glasgow and many more.
For me, there was Dobson’s. A wine bar in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a city around the time bestrode majestically by the Gazza-Beardsley-Waddle football triumvirate of high Geordie reverence.
Dobson’s was easily found in the city’s John Dobson Street, to avoid confusion. The Hacienda can wait. Most popular remix of the time in 1986 Dobson’s would have been generously commercial outpourings of Pernod and Black (live and cheap between 5 and 6pm) which did the job on three-shots-for-a-quid student nights, but would have been much less sickly had Frankie Knuckles been manning the optics.
It was in the unlikely dim-lit date barn of Dobson’s – I know not why – that I first heard Love Can’t Turn Around by Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk, one early wolf-’em-down evening in the dark, distant loving heart of ’86. Featuring the late Darryl Pandy. Big bloke, even bigger voice. That’s him. You’re picturing him now. Well remembered.
In an uncanny parallel with something or other, Love Can’t Turn Around’s impending, blistering dancefloor domination mirrored mine and my friends’ own regular regulation self-waterings at Dobson’s. In what seemed a trice, this brashest of future-proof unimpeachable bangers body-swerved the terrifying bouncers and was suddenly everywhere; filling floorspace at then pre-eminent Newcastle nightspots such as Rockshots and The Studio (ex-Tiffany’s). And in so doing announcing the arrival of Chicago house as the all-new addictive UK club variant.
Why, Love Can’t Turn Around even hit the main nightclub (one of two – three at a push – at the time) in my hometown Dover a few weeks later: the now emphatically flattened Images. It took a while, for sure. But it is a 700-mile round trip to Newcastle, so give the old place a break!
Similarly it took me a while to see the join between Farley’s firebrand house breakthrough and Isaac Hayes’ ’70s disco dish I Can’t Turn Around. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention, despite being an aspiring hot buttered soul boy and keen student of Hayesian economics.
Once Farley became a star to British ears instead of a rusk, and a Jackmaster turned out to be something other than an appliance from Halfords, the UK charts were soon riddled with the house bug, while the underground burst overground like a World War 2 UXB. And each one that we’re homing in on here for your dance delectation is a stone-cold game-changer, like a heyday Gazza galvanising the Gallowgate End.
As widely – and wildly accurately – touted, the charts held house’s late ’80s balance of Brit power, with heavy sales unit-snaffling of the best of the best.
There was Inner City’s day-glo deliciousness, bouncing with unabashed vigour from deep Detroit onto our modest suburban doorsteps on ’88 super-smashes Big Fun and Good Life, whose 30-plus years of dance floor endurance keep them firmly in the firmament of the UK house hits’ early breakthrough worthies.
Inner City’s third hit, Ain’t Nobody Better, also scuffed the edges of the UK top 10 at the time and itself wasn’t half bad either – although the winning formula’s tread was showing signs of wear by then.
If Inner City’s string of tangentially-housey commercial successes singled out the soaring sense of hope and jabs of joy that early house game-changers imparted to UK dancers, listeners and record buyers on the ever-blossoming club scene, so too did CeCe Rogers’ Marshall Jefferson-produced Someday, and Promised Land by Joe Smooth. Each of these joyous gems hits you where it helps, not just with their signal to the cerebral synapses to get up and make a sterling effort to dance, but with invocations of freedoms and brighter times ahead, informed by – but striking a chord beyond – the music.
Joe Smooth’s anthemic hands-in-the-air club classic was also notably covered by The Style Council, at one of those once-frequent moments when Paul Weller was hacked off with having hits and performing to type, thus deciding to swap his peacock suits mid-flight for a pair of white 501s and reluctant dancing on Top of the Pops.
No such English reserve in the house when Marshall Jefferson suggested – no, insisted – that you jolly well go and Move Your Body.
Who could refuse? If you could, then best check your pulse, we reckon.
If any track defines the nascent mid ’80s house sound, should it ever need to be bottled, stuffed and mounted for the edification of future students of the form, then this unmistakeable beat-addled ballyhoo from 1986 by the oft-cited father of house does its bidding to perfection.
Move Your Body, Marshall said. It’s a means to an end, you know.
Marshall Jefferson also shaped up on a joint knob-twiddling shift for 1987’s It’s Alright, which unearthed the burnished talents of Sterling Void and Paris Brightledge.
It is indeed very much all right: tacked right on track with a rumbling, grumbling bassline, pert piano plinks and a top-line masterclass all pleasingly piled onto the same 12”.
The irreplaceable Frankie Knuckles’ Tears also takes a prized place on the ’80s house game-changers’ team-sheet.
We’ve plucked out for your house culture illumination the rightly favoured 1989 classic vocal version presenting Satoshi Tomiie. An all-round masterful expose of the house craft, and authentically timeless.
Meanwhile Trax Records tapped right into the house party spirit that so encapsulated the esprit de corps and communal vibe that came to define the UK house nation, in its evolving transformations through the ensuing years. We give you Mr Fingers’ Can You Feel It. A great unifier. Count ’em first, and then feel it.
Phuture’s pivotal Acid Tracks is the day house’s head spun off into the furthest possible stratosphere, after barricading the studio doors and making merry hell in a relentless free-forming electronically-induced frenzy. Its experimental feel retains a hard-wired freshness to the present day, with a distinct sense that something amazingly monstrous and possibly sentient is being supercharged with the life force, etherised on the turntable but gaining power as every second passes.
Maurice meanwhile might be encumbered with the moniker of someone who could easily pass for a French wine waiter from Worthing. But he isn’t any of those things.
When Maurice helpfully told you This Is Acid, he was merely sharing a few independent observations about the new dance craze to assuage the terminally confused, or anyone else who hadn’t been listening properly. San Antonio boomed seconds later.
No relation to Inner City, Ten City mined a soulful seam with a mainstream-pleasing summation of the foibles of the heart in a house setting on That’s The Way Love Is. A proper grin-on-your-gob dancefloor pootle. And you kind of hope the love protagonists still get along, of a fashion, 32 years on.
Brit dance innovators had all the while been twirling their moustaches in the wings in an inscrutable David Niven manner, priming themselves to pump and fire their own brand of heavily oxidised four-star all over the sceptred isle’s US house insurgency.
Leading the line with boffin-ish studio japes and Manc madcappery were of course 808 State. Pacific State remains pound per pounding pound their pinnacle; their transcendent house apotheosis. It’s befittingly a busy bee of a beast, with cinematic peaks, crags and tors, squawks and flights of fancy, plus that extraordinary instrumentation giving it its particular, peculiar hallmark.
I lived in France in 1989-90 at the height of Pacific State’s airplay ubiquity, and French commercial radio couldn’t get enough of the bugger, I recall.
Manchester: so much to answer for, as someone else once wittered.
Another Manchester kingpin of the Hacienda early house heady 808 heydaze was the fully-formed cross-cultural acid blast encapsulated in Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald. A track that first gave a generation of indie kids the essential vitamins and minerals to cross the tracks and sup deep on Fac 51’s clubbing premier cru, and submerge themselves in the acid and rave scenes soon smiling beguilingly on the rainy city and beyond.
Head south to that-there London, and languid DJ Mark Moore’s S’Express project heralded house domination in 1988. Their Theme From S-Express showed how the prevailing acid house tip could help you catalyse an unstoppable stonker of a chart-topper, pouring sample upon steamy sample – from Rose Royce to Gil Scott-Heron via Yazoo and more – to create an unrepentant psych-house soundscape of sheer dance delirium.
And a mighty fine record it still is too. Enjoy this trip…