Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How It Looked from Over Here: Cool Britannia as Seen from American Shores (Part 3)

In October 1995 I stepped into Atlanta's Masquerade club to see a UK dance music act called The Chemical Brothers perform. As I enjoyed a beer at the bar before the show, I turned and saw Ed Simons, half of that mighty duo, standing beside me. I was surprised a mob hadn't surrounded him, but probably few folks recognized him. The duo had not appeared on the album covers of any of their releases, nor on the covers of American music magazines, and if music videos for their singles had been released back then, we hadn't seen them.

I was a bit intimidated by Ed. He was tall, for one thing, and looked quite serious, and he was half of what I considered at the time to be the most exciting thing going on in dance music. But I mustered the courage to turn to him, extend my hand, and, as we shook, say, "Thank you for making dance music fun again."

A couple of hours later I was one in a mass of hundreds bouncing sweatily along to the pounding sounds of "Chemical Beats."

This was Atlanta, Georgia, the Deep South, a region where Confederate flag T-shirt sales remain brisk. And yet, a dance music group from the UK had found a critical mass of enthusiastic fans to cheer them on that night in the middle of the 1990s.

In 1991 I had many friends who enjoyed various styles of so-called alternative music, but not a single one listened to hardcore techno. The failure of dance music to take off in America disenfranchised an important aspect of U.K. culture, and that in turn contributed to the long-lasting U.S./U.K. pop music divide.

America has never been completely dance-averse; but we were a little dance-shy. Every charting dance track that made it into the top 40 seemed more of a novelty than an accepted member of real U.S. music culture--"Oh, here's that dumb Dee-lite dance song we can jump around to before we slow dance to Vanessa Williams's 'Save the Best for Last'!"

Sure, in 1990 "Groove is the Heart" was a big dance hit, and so was DNA feat. Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner"; in 1991 the KLF's "3 a.m. Eternal" reached number 5 on the U.S. pop chart, EMF's "Unbelievable" topped the charts, and Jesus Jones's "Right Here Right Now" reached number two.

But these songs sound hammy when put up against the surrealistic fury of, say, T99's hardcore anthem "Anasthasia." Jesus Jones was classified as "dance rock," which the music journalist Simon Reynolds noted in a review of one of the band's later albums meant that "you can't dance to it, and it doesn't rock." And while the more aggressive sounds of Eurodance would be heard in the U.S., Culture Beat's "Mr. Vain," while enjoying number 1 hit status in several European countries, had to settle for a peak position of #17 in the U.S.

It seemed America always cut off its flirtation with dance music just before things got hot and heavy, seemingly out of some latent sense of Puritanical guilt. And there may be something to that theory: one factor that held dance music back in the United States was likely its "gayness" factor. Dance music had evolved out of the counter-cultural revolution of disco and, later, house--genres with heavy ties to the gay club underground. Those gay associations were still strong in the minds of many (think Village People). (I babble on about all that here.) By the early 1990s, acid house and hardcore techno had turned the UK dance music scene into a surreal, aggressive, and indeed sometimes testosterone-driven culture that transcended gender, class, and race; but ask an American frat boy in 1992 why he didn't like dance music and he'd likely launch into a crude impression of the fey-voiced singer of "Unbelievable."

If the "dance" element of dance music was such a turn-off to Americans, perhaps there was another way for the electronic sounds dominating the UK to infiltrate these shores.

Electronic music between 1988 and 1992 reminds me of the Cambrian explosion, a period in our earth's history back in the day when all life lived in the seas--you remember--and when all sorts of fantastical creatures popped up. We're still not sure what some of the distinctive anatomical characteristics of these organisms were for--fucking, swimming, eating, all of the above? Electronic music had gone through a similar burst of punctuated equilibrium, to use the fancy evolutionary term, and the great advantage that such diversity conferred was an opportunity for dance rhythms to invade several different American cultures and markets simultaneously.

Consider stoner culture. The Orb had been serving up something referred to as "ambient dub" since 1989. Trippy, spacey, and certainly, as one would expect from the label, very, very dubby, The Orb's sonic collages were further livened up with a sense of humor pleasingly familiar to any American geek who had grown up reading the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or watching reruns of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" on PBS. No floppy-armed dancing here; these tracks demanded only a simple stoned nodding of the head to the chugging beats, and the occasional wry smile at the understanding of an obscure joke floating through the haze (e.g., that "Would you tell him that Marcus Garvey phoned?" bit on "Towers of Dub").

Meanwhile, as Brian Eno had written Music for Airports, the Aphex Twin offered, at least conceptually, Music for an Ambitious IT Start-Up. British artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre effectively wrote the soundtrack for the development of the Internet.

Warp! records termed their brand of music "electronic listening music," emphasizing its more introspective nature, but later, the music would assume the stunningly pretentious label of "Intelligent Dance Music" (IDM), despite the fact that you couldn't really dance to it. In fact, from the IDM perspective, it was time for dance music to shove off. Leave us alone, dance music! We just want to sit in front of our computers, log onto websites via our fancy dial-up modems, tear open a bag of Doritos, and download hentai to the sounds of Aphex Twin, Plone, and Plaid! Yeah, baby!!! This is how I intelligently dance to Danish porn!!!!!

Boom-boom beats, once the music of choice for a music underground in the know, became increasingly marginalized. To survive, the purveyors of 1990 and 1991 techno had to intellectualize their sound, as The Prodigy did in Music for a Jilted Generation, which saw the replacing of their cartoon samples with socio-political statements; and as Orbital did in crafting musically-adventurous journeys that straddled the line between art and dance in breathtaking ways. Other artists reacted to the shifting culture change by creating increasingly obtuse records (e.g., Plastikman's "Spastik"), while on the other extreme Eurodance amplified the sugary melodic elements of the dance sound to a level best appreciated by a furiously masturbating chimp.*

My friends The Chemical Brothers, and I can call them that because I shook Ed Simons's hand, attacked American culture from another front, tapping into the aesthetics of the rock crowd by melding the sound of crunching electric guitars to acid house 303s in a style that eventually was christened Big Beat. In post-grunge America, this hybrid could not have hit at a better time. And it helped that these guys didn't look like dance music producers; they looked like students you'd find hanging out at the local pub--or Atlanta's Masquerade--hovering over a pint.

A year after I saw them, they released "Setting Sun," an annoying cacophony unworthy of mention except that it featured the vocal contributions of Oasis's Noel Gallagher. This was the same year Oasis had toured the United States, riding on the wave of support for "Wonderwall." The dance/rock divide had been bridged, the UK music magazines crowed, thanks to this really shitty song.

But, as more American rock fans found themselves drawn to the likes of DJ dance acts like, say, The Crystal Method, one was tempted to believe them. An all-out assault from multiple fronts--dub, electronic listening/IDM, big beat, Eurodance--had ensured that, even if a group like Underworld wasn't likely to have a number one album in America, the sound of boom-boom-boom had at last become entrenched in American culture.

* Intelligently dancing.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How It Looked from Over Here: Cool Britannia as Seen from American Shores (Part 2)

Def Leppard's Hysteria, one of the rare British albums Americans were tapping their feet to in 1988, featured a song called "Gods of War," also known as "The Song on Hysteria I Usually Skip." This heavy-handed anti-war tune ended with samples of the then-leaders of the English-speaking free world, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, wrapped in the song's unflattering context. I remembered thinking, "That's so cute, how they put dear-old Maggie in there, as if she were an equal in fuck-headedness to our president."*

Thatcher presided over the UK during the entirety of the 1980s. She was a titanic conservative force, but during the last years of her reign a drug-fueled counter-cultural revolution swept the country. Ecstasy and LSD propelled a new dance music scene and a psychedelic rock scene. In 1990, a trippy indie dance group called The Times sang on their rave scene celebration song "Aurore BorĂ©ale" "It's the morning after the 1970s," as if purging the memory of the "Iron Lady's" decade in a burst of ecstasy bliss. The song ended with a voice intoning atop a psychedelic roar of sound, "This…is…LONDON."

John Major succeeded Thatcher in late 1990. Britain entered a recession that year from which it would not recover until 1993. As I traveled around Britain in 1992 I met some of the unemployed youth who complained about the Major government's role in their unhappy predicaments. I was also around for Black Wednesday on 16 September, when the British government suffered the embarrassment of having to pull its currency from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (since I'm no economist, it's better that I link to piece about that here).

Dance, shoegazer, and other British music scenes continued to evolve in relative isolation. Meanwhile, America experienced another internal music revolution that, along with rap and R&B, would guarantee that our attention would remain focused on ourselves for a while longer. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" roared up the charts in late 1991, and in 1992 a year of grunge commenced.

Without the widespread availability of the Internet to join our two nations, America's exposure to UK culture came largely from the nightly news, music, and film. In American cinema, the early 90s saw a parade of crafty villains speaking in sinister British accents (real and fake); titles included Silence of the Lambs, Sneakers, Cliffhanger, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Oh sure, it makes sense that the Sheriff of Nottingham would speak in an English accent, but one must remember that the titular hero of Robin Hood: POT was played by the American Kevin Costner--with an American accent.

This would suggest a certain level of Anglophobia in the U.S. But we also had our Anglophiles. A few U.S. bands even had a sort of English manner about them. In 1991, Chicago's Material Issue sported moddish hair cuts, and the fonts on the album cover to their debut International Pop Overthrow seemed to mimic the druggy imagery associated with Britain's drug scene. That same year, The Ocean Blue, a group long fond of covering British tunes, released Cerulean, which sported the sorts of abstract, dreamy song titles indie UK fans associated with Britain's shoegazer scene (e.g., "Marigold," "Mercury").

But to American audiences, these bands' efforts seemed to emphasize the divide rather than bridge the gap. "Oh, they're trying to sound English," many of us said dismissively. The fact that these groups also drew inspiration from such American cult bands as Big Star was lost on us. We were ignorant and mean. Maybe that goes some way toward explaining why Material Issue's frontman committed suicide in 1996.

In 1992, the election of Bill Clinton was met with rapture in the U.K. The American flag was hoisted over Oxford because our president had not inhaled there. Compared to saxophone-playing Clinton, Major must have looked especially stuffy to his own younger subjects--essentially, he embodied the worst stereotypes of staid, conservative Britishness, the sort that had been mocked for decades in films like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Along with news that Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson were splitting in the spring, followed by more bad news of Charles and Diana parting ways in December, recession-era Britain must have felt that, generally speaking, and by all measures, things were going horribly wrong with the old order.

Somehow, from all this mess, came the warning shot of impending Cool Britannia: Blur's 1994 Brit-centric masterpiece Parklife. The album was not a success in the United States, nor was it expected to be (it even featured an uncomfortably bitter anti-American song called "Magic America"), but its explosive impact in the UK was a critical moment in the aligning of elements that would bring Britainization to the United States a few years later.

Parklife was a varied affair musically, a mish-mash of styles and sounds held together by its intensely self-aware Britishness, right down to a tune entitled "Clover Over Dover" and a lyric about the Queen leaping off Land's End (the powerful "This is a Low"). If Suede had been crushed by the disappointment they encountered while touring the U.S., Blur's reaction seemed to be to abandon ideas of American conquest altogether and to seek satisfaction in exploring and celebrating the world that they knew best. It was nationalism, but a peculiar brand of it, at times affectionate, but at others weary and ironic. If there could be such a thing as sad nationalism, Parklife had it.

This examination of Britishness had been anticipated in Blur's previous album, Modern Life is Rubbish, and it also informed the personality of two excellent St. Etienne releases. Parklife felt like the final, triumphant words of a great thesis. But while Britain raved, and students in T-shirts emblazened with RAF bullseyes roared the lyrics to "Girls and Boys," there must have been an awareness that this display of British spirit was not going to break Blur in the U.S.

Parklife was released in April 1994 as Oasis finished up recording their debut album, Definitely Maybe. The Oasis record shot straight to number 1 on the British charts a few months later. Where Parklife had been an eccentric pastiche of musical styles and poetic musings, Definitely Maybe was a rock album, musically unified, confident, and a tad prickish. There was nothing John Major about Oasis. Perhaps, British critics said, Oasis might be the British band to break America.

In fact, right around that time, a British band did break America, but the British media was reluctant to say much about that because most UK music journalists felt that the group's music was crap. The London group Bush had formed during the grunge year of 1992, and they sounded like a perfect clone of the bands in the Seattle scene. Their debut album, Sixteen Stone, sold briskly in the U.S. during 1995. They were, effectively, the Ocean Blue of Britain, and their act of cultural treason earned them a mulitplatinum album and the fetching Gwen Stefani, who married the band's frontman.

With two wildly popular bands (neither of which were Bush) now ruling the UK, one group representing British middle-class values and a certain intellectual cockiness (Blur), the other working-class rock and roll swagger with some appealing meatheadedness (Oasis), a slugfest was inevitable. In 1995, dueling singles from the two groups were released on the same day, with Blur's incredibly irritating "Country House" somehow coming out on top. But it was Oasis's album that triumphed in the album sales competition that followed. And then, in October 1995, came "Wonderwall."

"Wonderwall" did it. The third single from the Oasis album climbed into the top 10 of the United States singles chart. Select, a UK music magazine, breathlessly celebrated. At last, after a multi-year absence, a British rock band had successfully scaled the dizzying heights of the unforgiving, xenophobic U.S. music charts. Oh yes, there had also been Bush. And Jesus Jones--did I forget them? Hey, don't ask me why they don't count; ask a 1990s UK music journalist!

In November, Pierce Brosnan made his first outing as James Bond in GoldenEye. The film opened at number one that weekend, and remained in the top ten for four more weekends, going on to earn over a hundred million dollars at the U.S. box office. Perhaps the villains-with-English-accents trend in American cinema would finally abate.

* In fact, some have argued she was worse.

(To be continued)

How It Looked from Over Here: Cool Britannia as Seen from American Shores (Part 1)

In 1993, my sister, a friend, and I had the pleasure of seeing the UK rock group Suede play at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. It was the band's first U.S. performance. While Suede were not as big in the United States as they were in their native Britain, the crowd's enthusiasm was certainly palpable. I remembered thinking how lucky we were to be Suede fans in the United States, since we could see this much-hyped group in a smaller, more intimate setting than their British fans likely were able to. Everyone in the crowd was stretching their arms out toward pretty-boy singer Brett Anderson, my 21 year-old self's arm included, and Anderson reached back, clutching hands with each and every one of us. We were worshipful. We were blessed. How lucky we were to be seeing the beginning of a new era in British pop here on American shores!

The tour would go on to become a disaster for the group. By its end, guitarist Bernard Butler and Anderson were barely on speaking terms. The second part of their travels through America saw The Cranberries as their opening act; that Irish group had achieved massive U.S. success with "Linger," "Dreams," and "Zombie," whereas Suede remained virtual unknowns. Thus, Suede suffered the humiliation of being upstaged by their opening act; they watched as venues emptied just as they took the stage. Nothing was ever quite so good for Suede again.

This was the era when British music magazines moaned about how the UK had "lost" America. In the early 1980s, we Americans sang along to Dexy's Midnight Runners, Thompson Twins, the Human League, and at least a dozen Duran Duran songs. In the mid-1980s, Britain's 70s rock dinosaurs successfully reinvented themselves: a Roger Water-less Pink Floyd enjoyed enormous U.S. success with A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Genesis's Invisible Touch lobbed five songs into the U.S. top five, and Robert Plant's solo album Now and Zen sold well.

The late 80s became less kind to "outsiders." America's music scene became more insular; we started to focus on rap, R&B, and metal. Although Def Leppard rode the U.S. metal wave with their massive album Hysteria, Britain's chart dominance had begun to fade.

The two countries' paths diverged further when Britain's 1988 acid house dance revolution made little to no impact in the United States (ironic considering that so much of the sound of that scene had been developed by underground dance music producers in the states). While teenagers on ecstasy danced all night in warehouse raves in the UK, the top albums during the summer of 1988 in the United States came by way of Van Halen (OU812), Def Leppard (Hysteria), Guns N' Roses (Appetite for Destruction), and Steve Winwood (Roll With It). Clearly, we had become a rock-obsessed nation. In the UK, by contrast, Now That's What I Call Music 12 spent five weeks roosting at number one, featuring a variety of tunes, including The Timelords' "Doctorin' the Tardis" (which also topped the UK singles charts in June), S-Express's acid house anthem "Theme from S-Express" (a number one UK single in April) and Morrissey's "Everyday is Like Sunday."

As the 1980s became the 1990s, Britain's best rock bands frequently were marketed as "alternative bands" in the United States. With America spending so much time listening to its own music scenes, to listen to any outside voices at all was a rebellious act. (Long gone were the days when Nena's German-language "99 Luftballoons" was a U.S. hit.) Happy Mondays, Charlatans, Blur, Ride; these groups wore the "alternative" label around their necks, which immediately offset them as something "weird" to the American record-buying public. (As for the still burgeoning UK dance scene, nobody in America seemed to know what to do with breakbeat techno groups like The Prodigy; I don't remember seeing the massive UK rave anthem "Charly" charting anywhere at all, though perhaps it sneaked onto a little-publicized U.S. dance chart somewhere.)

I spent a few months in the U.K. in the fall of 1992, and was dazzled by the energy of their pop music scene. Felix's "Don't You Want Me (Hooj Mix)" was blasted in the clubs (my right ear was a little dinged by that experience), the somewhat ridiculous Shamen tune "Ebeneezer Goode" was huge, and the Eurodance anthem "Rhythm is a Dancer" by Snap! ruled the dancefloor. On the other extreme, the indie UK sound was still alive and well, featuring introspective groups like Earwig and Moonshake. Of course, Nirvana was also popular. And the fall of 1992 saw the rebirth of ABBA's "Dancing Queen," which had been re-released as a single in anticipation of the ABBA Gold compilation. A good variety of ideas were battling it out in the U.K., and the U.S. scene seemed depressingly dull by comparison.

Suede were the new darlings of British music while I was over there. They had released two strong EPs ("The Drowners" and "Metal Mickey"). And that was the first time I heard firsthand British people whispering, "Can they break America?"

By 1994, America had broken Suede. An American lounge singer using the same name sued them, and so they reluctantly became "The London Suede" in the U.S. markets. Guitarist Bernard Butler left the group. The band would spend the next several years struggling to re-establish their identity while simultaneously competing with a rising flood of other British rock bands.

(To be continued)