We are in the midst of another de facto British invasion. Like the French to, well, just about everyone, American frontiers are buckling to foreign intrusion, not in the form of sissy shoe-gazers, cheeky Brit-pop imitators or even Radiohead. This British invasion comes in the vinyl-laden bleeps of ones and zeros amped through 40,000 watts of dance floor electricity.
Although it’s no mystery that electronic dance music has been around for some time in the corners of murky clubs, aside from the halfhearted “electronica” forays of 1997, EDM has never experienced the degree of mass appeal which it now claims. This fact has recently been elucidated by both record sales of EDM comps and original material, as well as the migration of once “underground” (as the name would suggest) events to the echelons of Ticketmaster presales. The final straw for me, however, was the persistent nagging of the “Dave Matthews” coalition, asking whether or not I was attending either of the past two “Oakie concerts” (i.e. Guinness noted Gatecrasher Paul Oakenfold’s November and April appearances at Buzz) or “ready to roll” to their new-found “Trance-club” novelties of the week.
These final confirmations that Buzz and other EDM Meccas in the D.C. area are adequately culturally diffuse, along with a slew of recent releases on their part, have inspired me to finally record a timely reminder and hypothesis regarding seminal electronic group Underworld. Maybe it’s just an excuse for me to soapbox and promote some jockin’ records, but if you’re sick of Ben Harper and Britney, read on.
The Underworld hypothesis is as follows: If each revolutionary genre of music, which EDM may well be for our generation, has a catalyzing force to make it both timeless and accessible to mass-markets, then Underworld is to EDM what the Beatles are to rock’n’roll. Mop-top haircuts, frequent vocal-filtered acidic mumblings, consistently viable dual front man/songwriting combination and shady limey origins aside, Underworld, like the Beatles, is the trans-genre and live machine that incited the cultural crossover from a long-standing favorite (greasy-haired patchouli-stanking rock music in 1995) to a new multi-faceted and once sub-cultural milieu (full fledged EDM/club culture).
Eight years ago in the Manchester dance underworld, then small-time celebrity Brit beat-jockeys Darren Emerson, Rick Smith and Karl Hyde mobilized a collection of early JBO label releases and club favorites into the watershed album Dubnobasswithmyheadman, which quickly went gold. The event was a veritable first for an electronic act and yielded the singles “Cowgirl” and “Dark and Long.” The former set the stage for the brief electronica insurrection of the ‘95-’97 period with its appearance on the Hackers soundtrack in 1995; its 2000 Bedrock and Futureshock incarnations rocked dance floors and induced little candy-raver tears of joy from the first day of its release last fall. “Dark and Long,” as well as the singles from 1995’s Second Toughest in the Infants (particularly “Juanita” and Trainspotting’s famed “Born Slippy”) both sealed the group’s status as a platinum trans-genre act and were so progressive that even six yers after the fact, the original cuts still get more play than your mom. Successive singles from the 1999 release Beaucoup Fish, as well as last-month’s Futureshock retouch of the classic “Why, Why, Why,” have become instant hits and further anchored Underworld’s fan base and position on DJ play lists across the board. Virtually every track that Emerson and Hyde touch has the staying power of a classic Beatles cut, and I guarantee that they kick harder than “Hey Jude.”
You may argue that as the wellspring of a sub-genre, the listener can esteem any group (contenders in this category could easily include Hardfloor, the Chemical Brothers, Orbital, etc.). But it is undeniable that Underworld offered EDM the unique crossover kick-in-the-ass that has allowed it to swim into the musical mainstream. The virtually instant platinum status of Beaucoup Fish and ubiquity of “Born Slippy” are merely trivial asides to the real power of Underworld: they rock. While most producers can only appeal to an inebriated Friday night crowd, or at least score the occasional catchy hook, Underworld appeals to our American rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities. Edgy, rolling guitar and bass sounds, thunderous drum loops, eerie distorted vocals that make the White Album seem sensical and a classic rock/punk informed production base give Underworld songs a hard-hitting and rock festival ready sonic foundation.
This electro-rock juxtaposition is most notably evident in Underworld’s inspiring live performances. Unlike Moby’s guitar envy-driven live antics, Underworld generates, bar-none, one of the best arena rock shows available. Don’t believe me? Check out last fall’s Everything, Everything CD/DVD bundle, hailed as “one of the most inspiring live performances ever” by 50,000 plus capacity crowds from Tokyo to Reading. Although a more esoteric Deepsky PA might be more appetizing to a club-bound purist, try putting them on the same bill as the Stone Roses.
If you are not yet convinced by the Underworld hypothesis, a final irony might win you over: Darren Emerson parted ways with the group to focus on solo and familial goals. Fortunately, there’s no Yoko to sour the fruits of this split. Emerson’s trademark genre bending remixes have been popping up on dance floors everywhere, and I would strongly urge any of you to ditch the “Oakie” in favor of a more memorable DJ set the next time Mr. Emerson hits the D.C. area. Meanwhile, the above should have served as adequate brand pushing to experience aurally, as some have observed, “what drugs sound like” in the form of Underworld?all of the cultural impact and foot-tapping British fun of the Beatles, and no Ringo.