"We're very interested in rhythms right now. The basic inspiration or philosophy is that we're primitive, but primitive in an urban way -- also primitive in our fascination with the ethnic primitive as well. I'm not saying we're an ethnic group, but we're aware (like in the Jajouka musicians) of that primitive force that goes through all of us."
-Stephen "Mal" Malinder of Cabaret Voltaire, quoted in "RE/SEARCH: Issue #6/7, Industrial Culture Handbook" (RE/SEARCH Publications, San Francisco, 1983), p. 46.
"Paranoia...the only healthy state in which to exist. There is a huge plot, but what is it?"
"We are dying to fit in. We will give up our lives just to belong. Kids get AIDS, not because they don't know what a condom is, but because they are so desperate to be wanted that they sacrifice everything just to have and be held."
-from "Outpunk #3" (San Francisco, CA), one of the many countercultural "Zines" that appeared in the eighties and nineties.
XXV. THE EIGHTIES, PART 5
At the beginning of the eighties dance culture was in great turmoil with the decline of disco and mainstream interest in dancing. One of the most fertile subcultures for the development of new dance music, the gay dance community, was also under great stress with the advent of AIDS.
I had very seriously considered working full-time as a DJ and/or promoter in the late seventies. Publishing was not a terribly well-paid business in those days and nothing would have made me happier than spinning and throwing parties. With disco's demise, however, the associated "business" opportunities pretty much vanished. NYC was full of unemployed DJs.
Further, the big disco record production companies in New York went bankrupt or severely curtailed operations. This meant that the new releases designed for the DJ and dance market declined considerably. There was a lot of talk then that vinyl itself as a medium might disappear.
All this -- declining dance market and product -- caused many to believe at the time that dance music itself might languish in limbo as some small, niche market with little future. Adversity often breeds innovation, however, and as we know now the eighties were one of the most creative and productive periods in the evolution of EDM.
The early eighties was a great period of dramatic experimentation and exploration for EDM. It was a period between genres, if you will. Disco was dead and house, techno and related genres which we have somewhat clearly defined today were about to emerge phoenix-like from the ashes of disco dance culture. But for a period we were genre-less, so to speak.
The sets DJs offered became increasingly eclectic in the late seventies. In the early eighties DJs were looking for danceable music where ever they could find it. The sets at the Paradise Garage, for example, included old reworked disco hits, prototype garage, rock, reggae, punk, New Wave (B-52s, the Go-Go's, Devo, Culture Club) and some of the last of certifiable disco music, with the Weather Girls "It's Raining Men" (1982) perhaps the final disco dance floor anthem.
New Wave in particular had a heavy impact both culturally and musically on dance floors in major cities in the early eighties. A kind of punk/disco hybrid, it combined anti-establishment punk attitude with disco's four-on-the-floor beat. New Wavers sported wildly designed black hair, black eye makeup, white makeup on the face and black clothes. New Wave employed synthesizers and electronics along with some rather high production values, like disco.
To my mind this was pop music. White, middle class and certainly not "underground." Increasingly the music one heard on the dance floor was the music blasting out of the commercial radio stations or stuff "as seen on MTV." Some of it was OK, but I felt like a human pogo stick dancing to this synthpop music and it didn't satisfy my need for driving, ass-moving, primitive beats. This was vanilla sex.
So like others I began my personal quest for more challenging and fulfilling dance music. In those days I traveled about 50% of the time on business both here and abroad and I would scour the local airwaves and record shops for new music and inspiration.
Finding new music was a lot more difficult then than it is now. These days there are differentiated genres of EDM, for better or worse, so that if I'm looking for Afro-tribal house vinyl I can go to a record store that specializes in house and, wow, there is a row of turntables so that one can actually listen to a record before one buys it. This was the exception rather than the rule back then. Even better, one can go to various online record stores and listen to samples of literally thousands of EDM products.
Back then if I were looking for music with heavy tribal drum sounds like 707 or 909 tom toms and a kick drum I would be lost in dark, unchartered waters with very little useful information or store assistance to guide me. If I had a dollar for every record I purchased back then on speculation that turned out to be garbage I would have a decent retirement fund now.
Along with more invigorating dance music, I was also looking for more subversive subcultures that reflected my eighties' "let's tear it down and start all over" frame of mind -- subcultures that provided a platform for musical and artistic experimentation as well something a bit more philosophically challenging than punk. I found Industrial Culture.
A. MODERN PRIMITIVES
I have an extensive library of modern music that include rock, punk, blues, hip-hop, EDM and lots of world music. But the three genres that overwhelm the rest are house, techno and industrial music. I still like to mix industrial music with house.
In the late Seventies I came across an issue of the UK-based "Sounds" written by three people I respected in the punk scene, Jon Savage, Jane Suck and Sandy Robertson. This issue focused on "New Musick." These people spoke to my own unformed beliefs about the punk scene and new directions. Punk rock's apocalyptic rhetoric had failed. It had become good old rock and roll. It had been co-opted. But punk had opened the way for an even more detailed investigation of capitalism's decay. This article was one of the first industrial culture manifestos.
Vale of RE/SEARCH defined "Industrial Culture" in 1983. "By 'industrial' we mean the grim side of post-Industrial Revolution society -- the repressed mythology, history, science, technology and psychopathology. By 'culture' we mean the books, films, magazines, records, etc. which have been plucked out of the available information overload as relevant and important."
The industrial folks were really wild, crazy, and inventive heirs to the authentic punk energy, to my mind. To them, nothing was sacred. No values were to be left unchallenged. They were crusaders for, amongst other things, the individual imagination. And in imagination as in art nothing is forbidden and everything is permitted.
This underground was a wonderful experimental playground. I genuinely felt much kinship with the industrial culturists. They were modern primitives. They were challenging all sorts of things I thought needed challenging, including music.
Lots of people characterize early industrial musicians as a bunch of guys hanging around junkyards banging on various cultural refuse and recording samples of these excursions that, when produced and released, sounded like an unintelligible tour of the machine age.
But these people were doing amazing things with synthesizers, electronics and rhythmical experimentation. Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Cabaret Voltaire. I had a particular affection for the latter, especially their use of primitive beats, and am still energized playing some of that old vinyl.
Piercings, scarification, tribal tattoos, recycled military and industrial gear and boots pretty much defined the hard core industrial look. Interestingly, most of the really subversive activists I knew in early ACT-UP and other queer orgs were industrial culturists.
"Pure" industrial culture musik, much to the dismay of many of the early pioneers, eventually evolved into the industrial dance music we experienced in the late eighties and nineties. This was certainly EDM, and many of the industrial groups, like Psychic TV, became involved in the UK rave culture.
Another development in the eighties and nineties that helped facilitate the dissemination of new ideas, musically and otherwise, was the "zine." "Zine" was short for "fanzine." These were small, self-published pamphlets and newsletters covering an amazing variety of subjects including politics, sex, music, film -- lord knows, anything one could thing of was covered in these little manifestoes. I discovered much new music in the music-oriented zines.
Zines began, I believe, with the punk movement fanzines, the most famous being "Factsheet Five."
The zine became an anecdote to the commercial, money-influenced mainstream press and everyone from high schoolers to radical seniors stapled these wonderful attacks on co modified culture and hand-delivered them to alternative bookstores. A Situationist slogan goes: "In a society that abolishes adventure, the only adventure is in abolishing that society." A lot of very good zines were involved in just that activity.
Most of the zines have moved to the internet, but one can still find a few at places like the Anarchist Bookstore in the Haight in San Francisco.
C. MUSICAL EPIPHANY
One day I was driving into Chicago on one of my regular extended business trips to work with a software firm and, as usual, I was focused on finding new dance music on the radio. At one point I hit some small, non-commercial station that was playing the most amazing music. Chicago House.
In the early eighties innovation in EDM moved from New York to Chicago and Detroit. In the next issue we will begin our exploration of the music that has moved my body and soul for so many years. Chicago House.
NEXT: CHICAGO HOUSE, THE BEGINNINGS.