Donnacha DeLong questions the originality of the recent developments in dance music.
"There's nothing that's new under heaven,
There's nothing unique over hell,
Pour me another double cliche,
You can't write a song that's never been sung."
"Nothing That's New" - Chumbawamba.
In a world where Oasis sell millions, where Brit Pop still reigns and success
seems to be based on how well you can play the riffs of the Beatles, the
Stones, et al., it seem that Chumbawamba hit the nail on the head. There is
nothing that's new anywhere.
Then again, perhaps not. According to the music press, we are actually
hearing a revolution in modern music. The latest bandwagon that has been
jumped on by magazines across the musical divide is that of the dance bands
who have pushed back the boundaries of dance and are changing the face of
music forever. And the bands at the fore-front of this revolution are ...
the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers.
Allegedly, the idea of fusing punk rock and techno is a new one and that
bands who have just started mixing guitars and loud vocals with dance are
progressing beyond all of their contemporaries. The Prodigy and the
Chemical Brothers are not the alone in this so-called revolution, Orbital's
Butthole Surfers sample heavy "Satan" and Primal Scream's electric
sound-track "Kowalski" and their cover of Motorhead's eponymous anthem are
supposedly new departures from a dance scene that was growing stale.
In truth, all of the above named have come up with something about as
original as Brit-pop. This so-called "new" techno is fresh enough to the
dance scene, but only as fresh as Oasis are to people who have never heard
the Beatles. These bands are re-treading tracks that have been well tread
for over 20 years.
There is a string of different terms for this kind of music, of which
industrial, electronic body music (EBM), dance core and heavy techno are
just four. These terms refer to a variety of bands who play a type of music
somewhere between dance/electronic and punk/metal. The different names form
an irrelevant set of lines between bands with similar ideas, most of whom
are divided more by geography than by style. For the last number of years,
these different terms have been abandoned in favour of a more general
definition of "industrial" or "industrial techno". It is a style of music
that originally developed alongside punk, and far from being a progression
in dance, it actually formed the basis for European dance music of the 80s
The band most often credited with starting the ball rolling are arch
noise-niks Throbbing Gristle. In 1976, when the Sex Pistols were shouting
about anarchy and popular music was being redefined, Throbbing Gristle were
way out there, challenging the very definition of music. Over the next few
years Genesis P. Orridge screamed his lungs out over a bizarre selection of
factory sounds and twisted synthesizer noises. They coined the term
"industrial" for their music, based on the simple fact that they used
industrial sounds instead of instruments. While much of their recordings
are almost completely unlistenable, they did leave behind a handful of some
of the best heavy electronic songs ever, like "Hamburger Lady", "Adrenalin"
When punk rock suffered a quick demise, a number of bands, who had decided
that three chords were not the whole truth, emerged to prominence. The
depressed synth punk sounds of Joy Division and the electronic
experimentation of Wire, Devo and Killing Joke - who all added the synth
sounds of Kraftwerk to the guitar based sounds of punk - added to the impact
of Throbbing Gristle to spawn a whole new genre of music.
The experimental nature of the music and its underground nature meant that it
didn't receive much media attention. It was, in general, too heavy to be
covered by those interested in pop music and because they used drum machines
and synthesizers they were largely ridiculed by hard rock/heavy metal
magazines of the time. In general, the only coverage these bands got was
confined to small columns in magazines like Kerrang. The fact that
indie/alternative music as we know it now didn't exist meant they just
didn't fit in.
However, the music continued to exist and, at times, fed off the popularity
of both gothic and electro in the eighties. At times, there was little
difference between them and some bands, like Killing Joke and Nitzer Ebb,
achieved marginal chart success.
Nitzer Ebb were part of the European EBM scene along with bands like Front
242 and Die Krupps. In comparison to most of the bad hard rock or Eurovision
style pop emerging from countries like France and Germany, the continental
heavy techno scene was one of the most experimental and interesting of the
80s. The EBM scene followed the popularity of Kraftwerk and David Bowie's
electronic period (Heroes, Low and Lodger). The music combined elements of
these with punk and heavy metal and found some success on the dance-floors
After a few years, however, European dance fans lost interest in bands and
turned to DJs, who played a less heavy version of EBM - all dance beats and
synths. This was the beginnings of European house music, which in turn led to rave
music. Therein lies the irony of the claims of originality by current techno
bands, Euro house and rave were an attempt to tone down EBM, which is contained
the same elements as the so-called "new techno".
While current dance fans may know nothing about the old EBM scene, the same
is not true of the bands themselves. Both the Prodigy and the Orb did
remixes for Front 242 a few years ago.
More important is the involvement of the producer Youth in the dance scene.
Youth has made a name for himself as one of the top dance producers, working
on everything from the most forgettable dance-floor fodder to collaborations
with the Orb. The relevant fact about Youth is that he is also the original
and current bassist with Killing Joke. In other words, one of the
originators of the industrial genre is also one of the most influential
individuals in dance music.
Basically, the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers have allowed the music
press over here describe them as original, while knowing themselves that
they are nothing of the sort. Being described as innovative and original
are the sort of thing any band wants to hear about themselves, so why
contradict those who want to say it?
The question remains why these bands, who have been doing well within the
dance scene would want to start releasing stuff that is derivative and of
marginal appeal over here? The answer could be very simple, like all
European bands, they want to crack America.
While over here, industrial is of limited popularity, the same is not true
of the US. Over the last few years, industrial bands like Ministry, Nine
Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson have sold millions of records. Could it be
possible that the bands who are supposed to be progressing dance music to a
new level are just selling out to conquer the US and cash in on the success
of industrial? I wouldn't want to attribute such base motives to the bands,
but it does seem very likely.
by Donnacha DeLong