Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Another Bleep World

As usual, my interest started with a record, London/ffrr's Only for the Headstrong: The Ultimate Rave Compilation, which received my seven-year-old's pop imprimatur on the Benzi this summer. But "Dominator" and the rest didn't exactly blend into sunny drives along deer-dappled two-lanes, and I lost my handle on the music until dance-club sociologist Sarah Thornton pinned down individual tracks under more poetic circumstances--rushing up the Jersey Turnpike in the cold dark of a November night. When Thornton, who abjures record collecting as a boys' game, crowed about the Utah Saints as "What Can You Do for Me" followed East Side Beat's Christopher Cross copyright "Ride Like the Wind" and Convert's electro-melismatic "Nightbird," I understood that in a genre that fetishizes anonymity, theirs was a name to remember.

Dance music has been mutating away from the pop arena ever since disco fell off the charts, and while DOR and hip hop proved legible to wallflowers, other subgenres didn't. Dancers inhabited their own world, a world with little use for the accoutrements of pop commodification--the artist, the vision; the concert, the album; the lyric, the hook; criticism. And nowhere has this insularity entrenched itself more fiercely than in the music that falls under the rubric techno. Among techno's obvious precursors are the self-fulfilling circuitry of Brian Eno and Gary Numan, the callowly schematic synth-pop of early Human League and Depeche Mode, New Order's heroic rock disco, the metal machine noises Einstürzende Neubaten beat down into industrial, and the interplanetary hip hop strain briefly designated electro. But it was disco's love child, house, that gave techno life. Some kind of computerbeat would have developed even if Detroit producers Kevin Saunderson and Paris Grey had never taken up with spare, synthesized rhythm tracks, but the name and original concept were theirs. Vague variations--acid house, ambient house, new beat, rave, hardcore--breed unchecked on the periphery. But techno subsumes them all.

Everywhere but the radio, techno is major in England, where dance compilations have become a soundtrack-strength chart staple and raves legal and otherwise have attracted teenaged hordes since acid house was the next big thing. And as with hip hop, as with punk, as with fucking Sweetheart of the Rodeo, there are so-called music-lovers who'll swear up and down that this is the last straw--it's faceless, it's soulless, you can't dance to it. Since the last time Brit music fads enjoyed widespread impact here was 1985 or so, and since (as Thornton points out) adolescents have sparser options in the U.K.--with homes cramped, car and mall culture undeveloped, telephone rates prohibitive, and far fewer kids in college, clubs are a social necessity, not just a lifestyle choice--I remain skeptical about excited projections of a U.S. takeover. But as always, it's foolish to hold the hype against the music.

Needless to say, the you-can't-dance-to-it stuff translates as either "I can't dance to it" or "You call that dancing?" And although it's poststructuralist bigotry to dismiss music that's touched with feeling, it's equally antihuman to forswear cheap thrills--if a song is sensational enough, worry about its emotional honesty later. But facelessness is a more serious matter. Techno takes disco's antistar proclivities to extremes unapproached by house or dancehall, which aren't citadels of celebrity themselves. With vocals reduced to samples and melodies to ostinatos, the average techno hit doesn't leave the average listener (or even, I suspect, the average dancer) much to grab onto, and none of the handful of "bands" to have made themselves known--T99, Eon, Quadrophonia, Ultramarine, Orbital, the Movement, the Prodigy, the Orb--has worked up a live or even visual presence cool enough to broadcast its fame. In fact, with producers changing handles from record to record and titles from remix to remix, partly to conceal their biweekly release schedules, the only stars are the DJs, who mix, cut, and sample with an alacrity that renders it fruitless to try and identify their raw material. The best-known stateside is the ecstatic ascetic Moby, who'll bring his one-man road show to the Academy February 13, and who may eventually construct an album worthy of his signature single "Go." Moby, assembled by the indie label Instinct without his go-ahead, ain't it.

Granted, I can't swear I'd recognize a great Moby album if I heard it. It's not so much the sensurround trance-dance he changes pace with--if anybody's going to go somewhere with Another Green World it's probably some techno kid (not Ultramarine, thank you)--as his commitment to the bleep. Forget soulless, faceless, relentless, even sexless. What turns old people off about techno is the bleep: the clean, squiggly, unilinear timbre of the synthesizer's high range. This sound defines the difference between electric and electronic, industrial and postindustrial, baseball and Nintendo. One secret of the Utah Saints, two Leeds lads so hip they can joke about the Utah Jazz, is that they're smart enough, or old-fashioned enough, to broaden their sonic pallette.

Complaining that the techno label pigeonholes the band, frontman Jez Willis (on bass and keybs--all vocals are sampled or hired out) stresses the five years of electrorock that preceded his collaboration with dance DJ Tim Garbutt. And if he's willing to be called rock at this late date, he deserves it. The Something Good EP, which London rushed out in August to capitalize on heavy dance/alternative action for the Kate Bush-enhanced single of the same name, did sometimes evoke a mind-set where switched-on Bach was a golden oldie, and on one cut the Utah Saints album twitters to a standstill. But it's long on legibility moves. Grounded in Garbutt's fabricated funk and the low-register, high-energy synth blare of Belgian new beat, it marshalls varied aural images of mass excitement--football match, soul concert, symphonic crescendo--into a bold-faced synthesis of two kinds of phony grandeur: disco and arena-rock. Its trance-dance strategy is to transform Philip Glass into a raver, the perfect pomo extension of techno's sometimes irritating, often hilarious fondness for the classical tradition. It's the most exciting thing to happen to Annie Lennox since childbirth. It's more fun than a batch file of monkeys.

The Utah Saints seem too inspired and too demented to end up a one-album wonder. As with any singles music, though, techno's natural longform is the compilation, which is why I regret to report that most of those I've checked out are lucky to be patchy. However much one may prefer new-beat blare to high-techno bleep, collections that come down hard on the hard stuff get soul-wearying fast, and however much one treasures the human voice, the songful ones are too housey for nondisco folk. The two I've enjoyed most advertise "rave" in their titles, leading me to wonder whether ravers are closet rockers: the original Only for the Headstrong (volume two less so) and SBK's on-again off-again Rave 'Til Dawn, especially its opening sequence of Apotheosis's Carmina Burana rip "O Fortuna," Ottorongo's "Fuck You" (Major Domo: "So what do you say to the DJ?"; Mob: "FUCK YOU!"; Major Domo: "And what do you say to the army?"; Mob: "FUCK YOU!"), and the Mutha Mix of the Movement's "Jump" (available in four other variations on the Movement's own album, which also features a techno version of "B.I.N.G.O.").

The most educational, though, are the three Best of Techno collections on Profile, which has also made a specialty of house and dancehall comps. Not only do all offer tracks that seem plainly definitive--Zone's cartoon-contemplative "Eternal #2"; Tecno-Flight 1's non-Ottorongo "Fuck You"; Smart E's "Sesame's Treet," charged with sellout by young ideologues eager to deny their roots in public television--but all hew closely to the center of the sensibility that emerges after you spend a couple of weeks immersed in all the things anybody calls techno. Not that the Profile selections are purist--the sensibility is far from purist, and there's variety aplenty on these records. But for better and worse, they're never compromised, never crass; in their own way they often seem visionary. As you might fear, though, they're also pretty squiggly. The only one I enjoy start to finish is the brand new Volume Three, because it suggests the feeling of a live rave--or of one live rave, anyway.

For about half a year now, Best of Techno coproducer DB, a 30-year-old English DJ based in New York, has been copresenting a Friday-night dance marathon called NASA (Nocturnal Audio + Sensory Awakening) in Tribeca's not quite warehouselike Shelter. NASA goes till eight or nine in the morning; the $9-before-midnight ($14 after) admission includes not only ice water and munchies but breakfast. I'm not going to generalize after two visits. But I must report that this rave is young indeed; college seniors would be ancient if there were any. ("Are you her father?" one boy asked after a girl he was with boldly looked my way. "No," I riposted, "I'm her grandfather.") And for a dance scene, NASA is very male, reinforcing my suspicion that the rave concept conceals some rockist recidivism. But though it didn't give me much to grab onto, I want to try and describe the music.

The truism that dance music only happens on the dance floor takes on new meaning at NASA. This isn't just communal energy, astute segues, and a few revelatory jump cuts--it's full-scale turntable improvisation. Great shuddering waves of beat were punctuated by low synth splats, mitigated by trancey interludes and brief moments of diva lyricism, and not just amplified but transfigured by a humongous, ear-ringing sound system. I danced alone for awhile the first night, and when my wife came along two weeks later I danced a lot, though after 15 minutes or so a cardiovascular alert would generally sit me down again. Mostly, however, I just listened, which especially when I stationed myself atop a woofer was plenty physical enough. Soon it occurred to me that since on a purely musical level this stuff was more engrossing than, for instance, recent Chills and PJ Harvey shows, to accuse ravers of drug-addled antimusicality was stupid in the extreme. Then my mind wandered and failed to refocus. I looked up and saw that the DJ with the dreads had been bleeping replaced.

That wasn't dreads, actually. It was a wool hat with fingers on it, and it was worn by DB. He's given me a tape he calls Ballistic Breakbeats. I play it a lot. I play it loud. But it's not like being there.

Village Voice, Feb. 16, 1993