The Politics of Dance Music (February 2007)


‘The Politics of Dance Music’ was orginally written exclusively for in Feb 2007. The site no longer exists so it’s archived here instead.

I like to say ‘yes’ to stuff, and so when a radio researcher called Kate phoned me from BBC Radio 4 to ask if I would agree to be interviewed for a radio documentary about the politics of dance music, I agreed.

These occasions are weird though. 99.9% of all BBC radio and TV shows seem to originate in London, so sometimes I trek down to London – a day out of my life – and sometimes a TV crew comes up North, but sometimes the logistics of me being two hundred miles away from the centre of media power and political power are just too damn complicated and so the TV programme goes ahead without me, and the viewers aren’t bothered either way I don’t suppose.

With radio it’s a little easier; we end up doing a down-the-line interview. I go to BBC North on Oxford Road and sit in a little room while the interviewer sits in a studio in London and someone finds an ISDN line, and we record it as if I’m sitting there in London but really it’s just a hi-tech phone call. This is what I agreed to do after discussions with Kate.

The other weird thing about this world of radio and TV soundbites is that I’ll do thirty minutes of interview and then the only bit that gets broadcast is me saying something pretty ordinary. They’ll edit out some intriguing analysis of the links between Manchester and Seattle that’s taken me two years to work out, or my thought-provoking flights of fancy involving Karl Marx, ecstasy, and the early days of Massive Attack, and when the programme is broadcast all I’ll end up saying is “Everyone danced at the Hacienda, and not just on the dancefloor, everywhere; there were probably people dancing in the queue outside.” Occasionally I have been given overnight accommodation in a 5 star London hotel just to say that.

To prepare for this latest Radio 4 appearance, I went to a cafe bar just before I got to the BBC and made a few notes about the politics of dance music. My whatever-it-is years of DJing, and writing books and so on, have convinced me that there’s a lot to say on the subject; for example…

Back in 19th Century Manchester, after a week of being worked to a cinder by factory bosses and mill owners, the fact that that population went out on the town and got hammered on beer and gin and danced to people banging on the piano or playing the fiddle wasn’t just escapism; it was like sticking two fingers up at the bosses. That sense of personal freedom you can feel on the dancefloor still motivates nightlife, that sense of being lost in music, and living for the weekend. I wrote down a quote the Easybeats from their song ‘Friday On My Mind’ from 1967; “I know of nothing else that bugs me / More than working for the rich man / Hey, I’ll change that scene one day / Today I might be mad / Tomorrow I’ll be glad / Cos I’ll have Friday on my mind.”

In the 1960s, those kids meeting in basement clubs dancing to soul music – you could call them ‘mods’, you could say they were the first generation into ‘northern soul’, or whatever – they were worshipping black American soul artists in an era in Britain when the black community were routinely discriminated against by racist landlords and employers, abused in the street, and, effectively treated like second class citizens. Dance music fans in that era were in the vanguard of the enlightenment; Otis Redding, you could say, was hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King in raising consciousness. And Britain was much more advanced than the USA in this cultural openness; Motown sometimes released records here first because the young whites of Britain embrace black artists in a way that the white majority in the USA have never done.

Into the 1970s, sections of British society that had been marginalised in previous decades celebrated and enhanced their identity in the disco era; I’m talking about young blacks, liberated gays, and single women empowered by the advance of feminism. Dance music gave people a sense of freedom and togetherness in the 1970s – a decade that was full of conflict and social fragmentation – which is why ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ was the best single of 1976.

One of the elements that make up the Hacienda story also provides more evidence that dance music can demonstrate a progressive political and cultural influence; in the 1980s – along with other industrial towns and cities, and the North of England generally – Manchester was devastated by the Tory’s economic policy and written-off by Thatcher and her followers. Notoriously, she declared there “no such thing as society”; but against a backdrop of a high unemployment and economic recession, the birth of rave culture was fuelled by a sense of celebration. On a grand scale, we did what all the best clubs do; we created a community.

Furthermore dance music has often accepted technology and treasured experimentation in the way that rock or acoustic music hasn’t. In strictly musical terms, dance music has always been more revolutionary than rock music. This is the case now; while rock musicians stay stuck in the a sonic world bookended by the guitar riff on ‘You Really Got Me’ (1964) and the flailing dissonance of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ (1969), dance music still pushes at the boundaries of digital bleeps and sampling and minimalism and sub-sonic basslines. And, over the years, when we’ve not been rockin’ to a load of other-worldly melodies and bang-bang-bangin’ rhythms, we’ve been listening to some of the most enlightened lyrics ever written; especially James Brown’s ‘I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open the Door I’ll Get it Myself’), or Joe Smooth’s ‘Promised Land’.

Like everything else – novels, newspapers, films, food – there’s good and bad, there’s lowest common denominator stuff, but other stuff genuinely interesting, original, and good for the soul. At its best, dance music is inventive, and forward-looking, and dancefloors are an expression of our connections with each other; the creation and celebration of what it is to live in a community.

With these thoughts scribbled onto a piece of paper, I sat in a tiny room in the BBC North and waited for somebody on the other end of the ISDN line to say “Hello Manchester, can you hear me?” and then I got introduced to the programme’s presenter; Oona King. She’s an ex-MP who Lily Allen describes as her ‘role model’. You might have seen her on ‘Question Time’ and elsewhere trying to get a word in edgeways sitting next to George Galloway. It turned out Oona used to come and hear me DJing in 1987 and 1988, which was bizarre; one of those ‘who’d have thought it?’ moments.

And it also turned out that the documentary was only about dance music in the rave and post-rave era which was a shame because there’s a much bigger history and it would be nice to banish the idea that one day there was nothing and then someone played ‘Voodoo Ray’ at the Hacienda and Britain began dancing; and also because I’d spent half an hour in Cafe Nero coming up with some points about Victorian Manchester, mods, and young hearts running free which weren’t going to be relevant to my down-the-line interview with Oona King.

Nevertheless, the interview seemed like a success and we talked for about forty minutes. I mentioned Joe Smooth, and also Truman Capote (who once enthused about disco dancefloors being “very democratic”), and I went on a rant about how, instead of demonising young people, society should be harnessing their creativity, and I explained that Manchester’s recent regeneration wouldn’t have happened without the optimism and self-belief engendered by the club scene and music in the city in the late 1980s. “Dave; you’re definitely right,” said Oona. She got so excited, bless her, it was like she believed that with me alongside her we’d skewer Mr Galloway every time, no probs.

I don’t know when it will be broadcast, usually no-one tells me. What usually happens is that I bump into someone who says they heard me on Radio 4 a few days before. There’s a chance this will be the same; I’ll find out late and have to ask them what they heard me saying. “Something about the Hacienda,” I’ll be told, “Something about people dancing in the queue.”