“I never went to the Roxy or Danceteria, but I went to the British equivalent of those clubs,” producer Trevor Jackson has said, discussing his Playgroup project. Essentially, it’s an English kid’s grown-up homage to his teenage fantasy of early-’80s New York dance culture, a vision—filtered entirely through records and the music press, but not inaccurate—of downtown Manhattan as a polyrhythmically perverse utopia of sexual/racial border-crossing, rootless cosmopolitanism, and all-night parties tinged with noir sleaze.
But unless you lived in London, like Trev did, or Manchester (where the Hacienda was created in Paradise Garage’s image), it was hard back then for Britkids to get even a surrogate taste of the NYC vibe. You could stay at home, crank your Mutant Disco compilation, and dream on. Or you could start your own club night, like my mate David. Named the Meltdown after an obscure NYC import 12-inch by Shirley Lites, David’s party was heralded by a Futurist manifesto that climaxed with the rash promise: “The Meltdown will be greater and more beautiful than sex.” Among David’s friends, the standing joke was that in reality it was on par with a hand stroking your knee. On a typical night in 1983, Meltdown’s crowd consisted of his most loyal chums, a few goths, and two businessmen standing as near to the door as possible and quaffing furiously, this being the only place within 25 miles you could get a drink after 11 p.m. Thinking he was being really cunning, David would pump out tons of dry ice and wack on Sisters of Mercy’s “Temple of Love” to lure the goths onto the floor. Then, rather clumsily, he’d segue into Vicky D’s “This Beat Is Mine” or something by France Joli. As the smoke cleared, you could see the goths hastily retreating to their booth lair, like a flock of discophobic crows.
Playgroup flashes me back to those Meltdown nights—the pathos and vainglory of trying to recreate Hurrah’s in a gay disco on the outskirts of Oxford. (Come to think of it, David’s great rivals for the student crowd actually called themselves the Mudd Club.) This was a time when New York and the U.K. were absurdly in sync, musically. In the CD booklet, Jackson’s list of inspirational producers is evenly divided between Yanks and Limeys: Martin Rushent, Martin Hannett, Arthur Baker, Trevor Horn, Bill Laswell, Aldo Marin, and more. If he’d done one for labels, it’d include the doyens of punk-funk and post-disco: West End, 99, Prelude, Factory, Ze, Fetish, Celluloid, Cutting, Sleeping Bag . . .
Playgroup is one of those floating-pool-of-participants-surrounding-a-producer deals. Strangely, but somehow appropriately, nearly all of Jackson’s collaborators and sample-sources are Anglo aspirants rather than the genuine New York article. So instead of, say, Joe Bowie from Defunkt, Ted Milton from Blurt contributes low-key horns; samples come from the Slits, ex-Josef K frontman Paul Haig, and the ultra-obscure Bristol post-punk outfit Shoes for Industry. “Too Much” is a sliver of filter-disco based on “Sex,” an anemic funk effort from Scritti Politti’s Songs to Remember. And Jackson’s right-hand man is Edwyn Collins, formerly of Orange Juice, the Scottish band who blended Chic and Velvets into a winsome quasi-funk jangle. Collins provides glittering chitters of Nile Rodgers-like rhythm guitar throughout, while his compatriot and contemporary Roddy Frame from Aztec Camera guests on “Number One,” transporting you back to the days when disco records featured ungainly squawking guitar solos.
Jackson says he’s trying to restore liveness to dance music: the music’s played in the studio, rather than looped or sequenced, and only a handful of samples show up. He also wants to bring back songs with intros, bridges, the whole package. Yet Playgroup is inevitably shaped by ’90s preoccupations with rhythm and timbre, informed by Jackson’s track record as a highly regarded remixer and hip-hop producer. This is an album where the magic is all in the details: the exquisite interplay of different drum sounds, the textural alternation of succulent and crisp. The songs are merely serviceable. Indeed, there’s a rather stark contrast between Jackson’s pro forma melodies and get-this-party-started/get-it-on lyrics, and Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” which reggae toaster Shinehead covers here as lover’s rock. And the best original track is an instrumental, “Surface to Air,” which sounds like the Specials with Scientist at the controls, the ghost-town atmosphere dubbed up and rendered even more woozily lugubrious.
The fatal flaw with records based on homage is that they make you want to dig out their inspirational sources. When I hear the juicy-fruit synth-licks of “Pressure,” I feel like I’d rather be riding D-Train, eating a Peech, or Walking on Sunshine. Like the Strokes, Playgroup make you doubt your own pleasure.
Tangent 2002: Disco Nouveau is also based in early ’80s currents of Trans-Atlantic fantasy and projection, but going the other direction: Released on an Ann Arbor label, it’s all about that urban Michigan/Illinois fascination for all things Euro. As with other nu-wave/neo-electro, “disco nouveau” involves going back to the stuff that originally inspired the inventors of house and techno—Moroder, synthpop, Italo-disco—and imagining an alternate historical path that could have developed: a parallel universe where rave never happened and John Digweed works in a bank. So the E gets taken out of house, and what’s restored is songs, playfulness, and charismatic vocalists (rather than the depersonalized diva-as-raw-material approach in most modern dance).
As with Playgroup, though, it’s not so easy to erase the advances and approaches of the last 15 years—for much of Tangent 2002, the artists’s roots in techno are clearly visible. Revealingly, two of the best three tunes here are instrumentals: Daniel Wang’s mechanodisco ditty “Pistol Oderso” and Legowelt’s impossibly stirring and portentous “Disco Rout.” The third killer tune, Solvent’s “My Radio,” manages the overdone vocoder thing without sounding kitschy, by pushing the effect to the brink of distortion, turning the vocal into a gaseous swirl that accentuates the melody’s mystic devotional feel. Of the other vocal tracks, Adult’s “Nite Life” delightfully blends perky and stiff á la Human League’s “Sound of the Crowd,” while DMX Crew feat. Tracy’s “Make Me” has the bouncy-yet-listless charm of a young Bananarama. But Perspects’ sonorous male voice on “They Keep Dancing” is unpleasantly redolent of Erasure, reminding you of just how much of the ’80s doesn’t warrant excavation.
Tangent 2002 is the best electro-nuevo comp so far (with Tiga’s American Gigolo mix CD close behind). But it’s less a preview of what’s to come than a handy catch-up for the last few years of ’80s-revisionist electronica. It still feels like there’s some indefinable line that’s yet to be crossed before this genre transcends period pastiche and tackles the challenge of somehow being more about now than then. Because if it is still about then, the old records remain unbeatable.