If you took your way-back machine anywhere into the prehistory of dancing, you’d probably find the music wavering between two poles: musical forms with beginnings and ends—such as songs—on the one hand, and nonstop grooves on the other, a key difference being that the groove stuff improvised its tension and release, its excitement and lulls, whereas in the beginning-end stuff such things were mostly predetermined.
Though you probably always got a combination of these two tendencies, by the sixth or seventh decade of the 20th century song form pretty much dominated North American dance music, at least on record. So when melody or the chord progression brought a song to an end, the record (or album cut) ended too. But the dominance of song form wasn’t absolute: Almost any recorded song, no matter what its ostensible purpose (love song, murder ballad), had a dance beat attached, and records would often end in fade-outs, implying that though the song ends, the beat goes on. And Bo Diddley and James Brown were scoring hits with records that were basically rhythm vamps, and Dylan with vamps interrupted by choruses, and the Yardbirds with songs interrupted by vamps. But as the century continued, disco and hip-hop went from the DJ idea of playing separate tracks in an ongoing groove to the idea of tumbling the tracks all over each other, as a single track, and also mixing into the track what had formerly been between-track DJ patter—and this evolved into the idea of putting any sound into the mix. So you got Double Dee & Steinski pasting in old Groucho Marx routines (“I could dance with you until the cows come home—on second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows, and you come home”), and after that, the kitchen sink, anything available from the soundscape. And people dancing in the disco round had already decided that you could resurrect square old music like show tunes and Beethoven simply by pasting a disco beat underneath. So you could use not only any sound but any style as well, and a single dance track could contain multiple sounds, songs, and styles without the songs’ determining the form of the music.
But in the last 15 years or so in electronic dance music, you’ve got some music makers who barely use song elements at all, some who will use elements from songs but basically for groove or trance purposes, and then some who use song-like material for its emotional payoff but are in the process of working out how much to use, and in what way. These last include (among many others) Daft Punk, Arling & Cameron, Basement Jaxx, Morel, Les Rythmes Digitales, Bosco, and Joey Kingpin. Sometimes they’ll go whole hog into beginning-to-end songness, but always with a DJ’s sensibility, so there’s the sense that this is an ongoing track that just happens to start at the beginning of a song and end at its end, as if to say, “We’re ending now because we want to, not because you told us to.” And the sensibility is of an artist who’s not just a songwriter or singer who expresses himself by interpreting a song, but someone who expresses himself by choosing a song or a style and bringing it into his universe.
Bosco, for one, might come across a bit too cutesy in doing so. I mean, what kind of a band calls itself Bosco? One that wants to sound like chocolate syrup? They’re a French duo, Stéphane Bodin and François Marché, and if you fear that they’ll be twice as twee as Daft Punk, you won’t be heartened to learn that their album Action starts with an electronically treated voice singing the word “satellite” in robotic treble, or that there’s a country-blues song narrated by a dotcom guy going on about his startups and his stock options. (Like ha-ha-ha, yuppie entrepreneur sings the blues, aren’t we clever.) Or that there’s a song, “Christian’s Decision,” whose main lyric—a voice intoning “Christian, what is your decision?”—comes across as mockery in this context (though that might not be the intent).
The fact is, though, this is a visceral, powerful album. On the country-blues number, for instance, the guitar actually has bite, the added disco-synth touches intensify it, and the four-on-the-floor disco beat works like a bluesman’s pounding right foot. And despite the apparent detachment in “Christian’s Decision,” its music is intensely beautiful and menacing, with a viola intoning along with the main voice, machines whirring in the background, and drums playing busy beats (almost hip-hoppy in their off-rhythms) that, rather than denting the slow beauty, simply make it more edgy.
And some of the humor on the record is genuinely funny, e.g., “Mr. Fresh,” a guy who sounds like Right Said Fred being too sexy for their shirts, except this guy is too sexy for his whole damn life, which he seems to have misplaced anyway: He’s looking for his shirt, pants, head, bed, house, car, and keys. Might as well stay home from work. (Good advice for sure, when your head is missing.) The title track finds Bosco “on the highway to action,” though the background singer pronounces it “eyeway.” I found love on a two-lane street, and lost it on a lonely eyeway.
Unlike Bosco, Joey Kingpin doesn’t usually hide his passion behind a smirk (though “Transylvania A Go-Go” is a dumb title), and he makes less effort to beat his music into song form. But he shares Bosco’s mix-and-match approach, with the whole gamut of pop music as his source material.
For instance, an old soul bassline reminiscent of “Cool Jerk” runs through “Transylvania A Go-Go,” along with pieces of what sound like Steve Cropper guitar and Booker T organ, which crops up on the next track too, as well as disco-era synth-congas, a “Planet Rock” electro bass, and Stax-Volt horns, though these are mostly reduced to brief rhythm riffs. And on through his album A Beat Down in Hell Town: gentle guitar strums, vague airplane-takeoff sounds, diva vocals, acid-house bass, hard-rock guitars, and so on. For all the energy and variety in the music, there’s beauty and stateliness underlying it, a sense of form that seems more like sound sculpture than song, reminding me of Space’s great 1977 Eurodisco hit “Magic Fly,” or Eno’s Another Green World.
A couple Joey Kingpin songs have crazed master-of-ceremonies vocals à la Fred Schneider of the B-52s, and Schneider himself shows up as a guest vocalist on the Bosco LP (“I’m the future king of France/I’m an empty swimming pool/So get crazy, let’s dance.” Right. Anything you say). This is appropriate, because the B-52s were an earlier band that tried to pull in cultural material they appreciated but felt at odds with—for example, Kate’s and Cindy’s beehive hairdos—and their way of doing so was to more or less put it in quotation marks. Though the strategy often came across as precious, it sometimes gave the material campy energy that hadn’t been there in the first place. (At least, I don’t recall beehive hairdos having much energy in their day, except when they were attended by real bees.)
Electronic dance has to work awfully hard for its eclecticism, doesn’t it? Maybe this is because the genre is so bohemian. Compare it to pop and hip-hop: Ricky Martin can use surf guitar, and Petey Pablo can use Asian strings, and neither has to put it in inverted commas or make a big deal of it. But then again, they’re not bohemians. Being a bohemian means feeling at odds with a lot of what you like, and wondering what to do about it.