’80s Without a Face


A whole side of dance music has been carefully airbrushed from the History of Rave proper like Trotsky from a Soviet textbook. Hipsters write music history, and hipsters abhor this music because it enacts (unintended?: yeah, only ’cause there’s no explicit manifesto) kulturkampf on everything they hold dear. “Deep House? Detroit Techno? Drum’n’bass? Whuzzat??”

This stuff is trance, I suppose. Or a form of it anyway. It’s got the requisite great whooshy bits that sound good on hallucinogens. But it also thrives on cover versions of dentist-waiting-room pop: old new wave, monster ballads, the narco-dreck of the depths of the mid ’80s. It’s Bridge and Tunnel, but also huge with frat boys in New England college towns. A veritable Benetton rainbow of white middleclassness.

“Chart Trance” or “Pop Trance,” as some people derisively call it, has been a staple on the European mainland for the last decade. Which is ironic, since trance was originally posited as the mature alternative to raving, but also unsurprising because the combination of regiment, rigor, and cheap melodrama here touches on deep recesses of the Euro-soul. And the Euro-American soul, too: When it’s 5 a.m. and you don’t know where your children are, they’re probably dancing to this.

So here’s what I know about DJ Sammy: He’s been producing since the mid ’90s. He’s from Spain. He looks how you’d expect: spiky bleached hair, skinny, Eurotrashy, the suitably deadened eyes and slack grin of a professional hedonist. He’s also really popular in all the places you’d expect (i.e., Germany.) He’s featured on compilations with titles like Club Nation America and Dance Explosion 2003 (the future is now!!). And he’s a fucking genius.

What else could you call the man who instigated the beautiful bizarritude of Bryan Adams being the biggest thing in the ass end of Clubland 2002? Besides, only a genius could wring even fatter, shinier globules of anthemic pathos from Adams’s 1985 ballad “Heaven.” And in possibly the greatest example yet of dance music just not getting it, Sammy strip-mines Don Henley’s morose yuppie lament “Boys of Summer,” flipping and reversing it, pumping it full of bliss like a Botox treatment for the soul.

Sammy released an album this year, also called Heaven. Aside from Bryan and Don, it features an awful cover of the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.” But he is best enjoyed in the mix (either live in a club or on pop radio after midnight on a Saturday) or on a compilation surrounded by trancebag remixes of Mary J and J.Lo. (Or, if you’re a Bryan Adams fan, you can find Sammy remixing the first single from his upcoming album. They’ve even gotten to be great pals!)

There’s a reason Sammy and his undercarriage retrofits are so ruthlessly effective. If indignant rock critics were really industrious, they’d invent a time machine to travel back and assassinate Giorgio Moroder with extreme prejudice. Insidious rhythm in place, Sammy can easily cherry-pick melodies (and cultural memories) proven by time and popularity to stick to the brainpan like glittery peanut butter. It’s functionalist drug music, if that wasn’t readily apparent. And if it works as pop music too, well, that’s just a happy side effect.

Dance has done a lot over the last 10 years to shove its way into the history books as something “more than just disco.” Of course, misguided attempts at self-preservation are sometimes not considerably better than consignment to the dustbin of fads past. And legitimacy can be just another marketing tool. The most recent Madonna single came with at least seven Big Name reproductions, a long way from the days when Maddy 12-inches featured quasi-anonymous “dance mixes.” Where does fashionability end and functionality begin?

Wholesale piracy of popular songs aside, DJ Sammy and his brethren (DJ 8-On, DJ@Work, et al.) are actually throwbacks to a more invisible time in club culture. Nobody really knows who these guys are, and frankly no one cares. I suspect Sammy realizes, and gracefully and graciously accepts, that this is his brief moment in the sun, soon to recede. His world doesn’t function, nor can it thrive, on star power, at least as commonly practiced.

And I suppose that’s the other reason his music cuts like a knife (and feels so right). It conforms to every clichéd worry of the ghosts of rock critics past. There’s no real way to get across to most Serious Music Fans why this stuff, gliding friction-free across the face of good taste, is worth their time. A factory somewhere could be cranking it out as easily as ICBMs or lawn gnomes or hamburgers. Look closer, and sometimes in place of the face, you’ll find the heart.