The underground history of UK dance music

I’ve watching another history of dance music in the UK and the same frustrations are rising up. Every single one tells the same story – interesting stuff was happening in the US – in particular DJ Frankie Knuckles in the Warehouse Club in Chicago in 1979 where House Music was born, and then it appeared in the UK – nearly a decade later.

In 1987, four DJs (Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Johnny Walker and Nicky Holloway) went to Ibiza and brought their holiday home – in particular with Rampling’s legendary Shoom club.

This latest show is Sky Arts’ The Agony and the Ecstasy and, when discussing the trip to Ibiza, there’s a tantalising mention of “some band in Basildon”. There’s also a couple of short clips of Mark Moore (probably cut from a longer, more detailed interview) – in one of them he says the underground thing was “bubbling under” and then the “naughty mischievous four going to Ibiza”. And that’s all there is for history.

It’s a pity, because it’s the same story that’s always told and it fails to fill in the really interesting details that link it all to earlier UK and European music.

Let’s start with Nitzer Ebb – who were the band in Basildon. From 1982, they created a British variation on the largely European Electronic Body Music (EBM) scene. They were on Daniel Miller’s Mute Records label alongside that more famous Essex group, Depeche Mode, with whom they shared producer Flood.

Through the 80s, there was quite a bit of back and forth between EBM and the emerging styles in the USA. The clearest is with Chicago, where the legendary Wax Trax! label was based.

Two very early Wax Trax! Releases in the mid 80s were ‘Cold Life’ by Ministry and a licensed release of EBM pioneers Front 242’s ‘Endless Riddance’. Wax Trax! became the leading label for EBM and what came to be known as industrial music (more on that later) – which finally came above ground in the early ’90s with Nine Inch Nails and Ministry.

Some of this stuff was played in Frankie Knuckles’ and other Chicago clubs and it all came to influence some Detroit DJs who would then play a role in developing techno – Jeff Mills, in particular. In fact, before Jeff Mills went on to be so influential as part of The Underground Resistance, he was in an industrial/EBM-influenced Detroit group called Final Cut.

So, in the period between ’79 and ’87, Nitzer Ebb were out there, being played in Chicago, Detroit and Ibiza.

In fact, the person who persuaded Final Cut to add more industrial sounds into their music was a Scottish vocalist, Chris Connelly – who is another link between the UK, Chicago and Detroit. Not only did he add vocals to the Final Cut single ‘I Told You Not to Stop’, but he’d also provided some vocals for Ministry and became the lead singer in the Ministry side project The Revolting Cocks.

He also links to Ibiza, as, when the Ibiza Four were dancing in Amnesia in 1987, along with Nitzer Ebb, they also danced to a Scottish band called Fini Tribe, featuring the same Chris Connelly before he left to find fame in the US.

Back to Mark Moore. He is generally accepted to have been one of the first DJs in the UK – definitely in London – to play house music when he was DJing in Heaven (the Asylum and Pyramid clubs). He also played a wide range of other electronic music – including disco, new wave, synthpop and post-industrial (yeah, I know, I’ll get to this) music like Cabaret Voltaire – in the mid-80s. Another post-industrial band to play Heaven was Psychic TV.

Industrial music was a style of music that was named in 1976 and was primarily associated with Throbbing Gristle’s Industrial Records label. The label released music by Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK and others until 1981, when Throbbing Gristle split and wound up the label. Officially, everything after that is post-industrial music.

However, industrial started to be used again, particularly in the early 90s for rock and metal influenced electronic acts – in particular Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. Since then, industrial has become something of an ill-defined term for a wide range of electronic music, ranging from the original stuff, through EBM and other post-industrial styles.

The reason this is important is that the original industrial music and a range of the post-industrial styles (such as EBM and early Fini Tribe) were a big part of the emerging dance scenes of the ’80s beyond the previously mentioned acts.

Amidst the extreme electronic experimentation and noise-based, tracks Throbbing Gristle recorded some hugely influential tracks like ‘Persuasion’, ‘United’, ‘Discipline’ and, of course, ‘Hot on the Heels of Love’.

TG split first in two and then into three bands. Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti became Chris and Cosey, while Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson linked up with Alternative TV’s Alex Fergusson to create Psychic TV. Christopherson left after the first album to form Coil with John Balance.

All three groups, as well as their labelmates SPK, Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA, pioneered a variety of electronic sounds through the 80s that have been hugely influential, but it’s Psychic TV that are particularly important to the emergence of dance music.

In 1984, Psychic TV moved towards a psychedelic sound, which they called Hyperdelic. Psychedelic imagery and lighting became part of their live show. A few tracks, such as Discopravity from 1985’s Mouth of the Night, give a taster of where they were to go.

But it was when Genesis was touring the US that he picked up some acid house white labels in Detroit. He brought them back, played them for Soft Cell’s Dave Ball and everything changed. Alex Fergusson left the band and was replaced by Fred Giannelli, with Dave Ball (formerly of Soft Cell), Richard Norris, Greedy Beat Syndicate and Richard Schiessl also getting involved.

They released a single called ‘Tune In (Turn On The Acid House)’ in 1988, thought to be the first single to use the term acid house in the UK. They followed it up with two fake acid house compilations, Jack The Tab ‎– Acid Tablets Volume One and Tekno Acid Beat.

They called their concerts raves and advertised them with flyers featuring imagery from the 1960s. One of the fake acts on the compilation, M.E.S.H. (Dave Ball and Richard Norris) became a real act and changed their name to The Grid.

How much PTV influenced the scene and were influenced by the scene is a legitimate question, but they were doubtless part of it and really deserve a bit more recognition than they normally get (which is none).

Culture rarely moves one way and there was a lot of time between 1977 and 1987 for styles to develop that played as much a role in the development of the UK dance scene as those in Chicago, Detroit and Ibiza. A decent history of the music and the culture would do more than mention them, and a lot more, in passing.


Author: Donnacha DeLong

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Donnacha DeLong is an NUJ activist, journalist and online communications consultant with more than 20 years' professional experience.

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