The Internet is without doubt the biggest double-edged sword the music industry has ever faced. On the one hand, music is now freely available (whether this is entirely a good thing is a debate for another day) yet on the other, contemporary music has been diluted to the point that the vast majority is deemed totally redundant to anyone with even a passing interest in decent sounds.
Although it’s easier than ever before to unearth undiscovered gems, it’s rare that you come across a group as passionate, involved and knowledgable as Man Power’s ‘Us & Them <The Outsider Dance> Facebook page. Though it admittedly took me a bit to fully wrap my head around, the general premise behind the group is a fair simple one, as members post brilliant music that’s not bound by genre or – for the most part – been hoovered up by the masses. Barely a month after joining, I’ve already sourced dozens of amazing tracks. Finally a legitimate excuse to login to Facebook each day!
Anyway, when I was presented with the opportunity to put a few of my own favourite ‘outsider’ tracks past Mr Power himself, I was only too delighted to oblige. My only regret here is that I maybe didn’t go more obscure, as the Geordie native is a man who really, really knows his stuff. And whose brilliant, extended rambles i really enjoyed! Here’s hoping you will too…
Bauhaus – Bela Lugosi’s Dead (Small Wonder Records, 1979)
I think everyone must know this and for good reason. It’s just cool as fuck. From the spring reverb (which makes it a ballache to blend in to anything) to the OTT horror references. It could be camp, but it’s not, cos it means it.
This kind of cool has been killed by the Internet and things like instagram. There’s a mental image of Bauhaus in leather and hairspray that just doesn’t work when it’s pulled above ground and becomes an imitative thing done for attention. It’s the sound of protest in the way you look and the way you sound and the way you hold yourself and the things you care about. That outsider thing was what attracted me to being in clubs with the people who became my extended family.
Even being alternative has been commodified to the point of meaning everyone being different in the same lucrative way in the pursuit of love hearts and blue thumbs. The music doesn’t have to sound like this to be a beacon to the people who feel different, it just needs to feel like this. It’s not about sonics. Like people say about house (which is also frequently made from or for outsiders, although less so now it seems) it’s just “a feeling”. I really don’t want to give my life to the Coca Cola version of music. “Other colas are readily available”.
Styloo – Pretty Face (Hole Records, 1983)
First of all, I must go on record as saying I lay no claim to being an Italo Disco expert. I’m just not that guy. That said, and to contradict my whole “genres are meaningless” spiel early, this is about as Italo Disco as you get. It was actually made by the producers who made a bunch of Den Harrow stuff (he picked his name to sound like Denero, but for years I thought it was a reference to Dutch Music which really fucking confused me).
This is the sound of sports cars, feathered hair, discos around lakes and 80s cocaine (which legend tells us is the greatest form of cocaine the world has ever witnessed).
It is genuine too though. Not a cash in (or at least not a cynical one). Hard not to find it infectious.
The Freeman – American Man (Energy Records, 1983)
I don’t know this, but it’s great. That word Italo seems to be getting bandied around a lot at the moment. I think it’s mainly just cos a generation of producers have discovered how much of the heavy lifting arps do when you’re making a track and the fact that everything is available online now so this kind of trend is an easy way to try and out-knowledge someone with a knowledge of softcore rarities.
Not sure if it counts as digging when an algorithm does it for you, but I also kind of hate a lot of the passive aggression in digging culture anyway to be honest. It can all get a bit northern soul at times. So this thing about the term Italo is that it seems quite reductive. I think all genre tags do to a degree. They get you categorising music in a way that sometimes might prevent you making broader associations with other sounds and being a bit more creative. So I guess this would get called Italo, or maybe Hi-NRG. I just think of it as “cheap music” where they’ve opted for one guy with machines instead of five or more with instruments.
The thing I love about this, and the thing I think people often overlook with it, is the level of pathos involved. Again it’s a feeling, not a sonic thing. It’s like the old soul records of the late 50s where the people making the music are trying ring out every last drop of emotion and excitement from what they’re using. Sometimes this type of music verges on sounding silly, but it’s pulled back from the brink because it’s done so earnestly. Yeah. I love this. Totally gonna track it down for myself.
Steve Martin – Oh What a Night (Discomagic Records, 1983)
“Of course if it’s not from Italy then it’s just sparkling New Beat”. So I guess this could be more accurately called Italo Disco, but I’m certain if you asked “Steve” at the time he would have told you that he just wanted to make a really successful pop song and hopefully get rich in the process.
This stuff just represents an amazing convergence in time where a bunch of things got copied badly to the degree that they sounded better than most of the stuff they were copying. That’s what makes it compelling. From the perspective of it being outsider stuff like I touched on before, it possibly didn’t feel like that at the time, but then within the following decade a lot of commercially-minded labels really zeroed in on what they thought could be a formula for pop music that appealed to their two markets at the same time (gay men and young girls).
That formula sucked the life blood out of commercially conceived music to the degree that things like this really represent and outsider choice now. Music made for the masses that the masses will now reject. That kind of disconnect makes for really exciting music. As an aside, the music industry has kept on it’s trajectory of consuming its own surplus parts ever since, and has accelerated down that path exponentially since having to compete with the entire internet. This is why there’s such a schism between chart music, which (with some obvious exceptions) represents aural chewing gum at this stage, and everything else. The everything else is all very interesting, it’s just not propped up by a system that pays the people for making it. The chart music used to sound like this, but now it sounds like a mathematical formula for making music for people who don’t like music.
Wet – That’s the Game (S.T.D. Records, 1983)
This is the good shit. Somewhere between Bowie, The Cure, Ryuchi Sakamoto, The Human League and Marshall Jefferson. Conceptually there’s almost no difference between this and the BiS record from over 30 years later. It’s basically a gang of people going “look at all this cool shit we like, let’s make something”.
Just a sonic compendium of lots of cool shit that appeals to other people who like most if not all of the same cool shit that loads of other people don’t seem to get.
That’s the appeal of clubs and discos to me I think. I’m against gatekeepers and tribalism and factionalism, but I do want a space for people who feel a bit different from the majority, (they way I do and always have) can come together and celebrate being different at the same time as having commonality too.
Clubs were the antidote for conformity for so long, but pre covid they’d started to become the agents of conformity instead. A place where people all came to see the latest influencer play an hour of music they already know to a crowd all dressed in the latest fashion trend from instagram. It seemed in many places the music had become samey, the attitude had become samey and the whole thing was turning in to a factory that spat out identical people. I think our thing needs to once again become detached from this kind of globalist approach. There’s a big difference between connecting scenes and overwriting them. In the same way I want to go to a club populated by individuals that celebrate their common ground, I want to be part of a scene that celebrates individualism with shared ideals.
Everybody dressed in the same black uniform is just as exciting as everyone turning up dressed as cheerleaders. It becomes affectation. Affectation isn’t revolutionary when it’s not revolting against anything and is instead done for likes on “the gram”.
We’re sitting in an interesting place now on the eve of clubs re-opening whichever way we look at it. It may come back as a mutated strain of hyper capitalism to rival the inflated fees and mega brand direction dance music was headed, or maybe it will go back to some kind of alternative now that there’s actually been a collective trauma for us all to heal from. Either way I think this time away has taught me that I only want to ally myself with musical things, and play gigs, that tap into that alternative and outsider spirit that attracted me to this in the first place.
I guess if we all stick to what we believe in then things have to get a bit better. It just depends if everybody does actually believe in something though, beyond trying to become the Dance Music equivalent of Coca Cola.
Valerie Dore – Get Closer (Zyx, 1984)
This is just genuinely great. A lot of stuff on Zyx felt more artful than the glut of other club tracks with similar vibes that came out at the same time. It’s low slung and a bit melancholic and bordering on baroque in parts. I just love it. Don’t want to talk too much about it for fear of breaking its spell with my analysis.
Scotch – Disco Band (ZYX, 1984)
When I was a kid my dad lived in Mallorca. He was there pre the Ibiza summer of love, and leading up to that point it was very much neck and neck for Discos between the two Islands, with Mallorca potentially being the more popular choice for party people. This record is what it sounded like to me as a kid.
It’s got a lot in common with New Beat, but it’s not. It’s cheap pop (not an admonishment). It’s quite a working class sound too. The sound of the first holiday makers from the UK and West Germany taking part in the package holiday boom.
I like this, but more as an artifact. It feels too cynically conceived to have that certain X factor I want. It lacks that outsider quality I look for. If you compare this to something like Nacht and Nabel – Steps of Love, which has a similar synthetic palette, you can feel that this doesn’t have the earnest artful quality.
There’s a place for stuff like this, and I’m sure it’s great fun when employed at the right moment, but it’s just lacking all the ingredients to hold a place in my heart.
Suzy Q – Harmony (JC Records, 1985)
Canadians copying Italians copying Americans. It’s like when you hold a mirror up to a mirror. Suzy Q represents the whole club record thing being pulled into the pop realm. Session Vocalists, higher production values and better recordings.
It’s really adept which in a way kind of makes it a little less compelling, but then they also wholesale steal a Moroder riff, which makes it kind of cheekily exciting instead.
Ultimately this track tries way too hard to please too many people, but things like the key change etc mean that used sparingly this is a real “moment” making track.
A whole night of stuff this will wear the fuck out of a dancefloor and send them home early, but it’s a good weapon to have in your bag for the right time.
From a production point of view this lacks the “shitness” of what often makes me love a track, but at the same time it has some really dodgy and cynical commercial things built into it that weirdly lend it some kudos. I realise that this type of thing is exactly what I said i didn’t like about another track, but first of all i think this commits to that so much that it comes full circle and makes it cool again, and second of all I’ve never ever read any law that says I need to be consistent in my opinions at all times.
Corporation of One – The Real Life (Oppy Mix) (Desire Records, 1989)
I was 8 when this came out, so I’m familiar with it more as an adult. The sound it represents I’m incredibly familiar with though. That proto rave UK house sound was just everywhere when I was growing up. I have a young mother and she was bang in the local rave scene when I was that age.
I remember her boyfriend at the time (who was a nutcase when I think back) sitting me down and playing me Pacific State “707” and telling me that it was house music and it was gonna change the world (I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was already an expert in House Music due to watching an interview with Krush talking about their single “House Arrest” with Sarah Green on Going Live). I miss really, really stupid sampling. That kind of got stamped out post Jive Bunny I think, which pushed it to its sickening conclusion. Ultimately if somebody told you they knew a house record that sampled “Theme From Great Cities”, two Queen songs and Scarface you’d want to hear it, right?
The Working Elite – Rockman (Beats in Space, 2018)
Tim Sweeney really gets it and BiS is one of the best labels out there. He’s curated it really well by not repeating himself. There’s a common thread of good taste that runs through his label, but it’s just the thread that you can trace through all the great musical movements of the last 50 years. Elements of punk / techno / disco / hip hop and more coming together in mutated ways. You listen to this and you KNOW what kind of shit the people who make it dig, even though it doesn’t sound exactly like any of it.
That’s the joy of making music in this kind of post archival, mass communication age. We’re all infected by so many music scenes, like all the “Italo” you’ve given me to listen to, so the real challenge is to be able to discern what gives it value in comparison to other similar music. It’s always that “outsider” thing for me that I keep bringing up. The term outsider is totally the wrong thing for it. It’s basically do I think things are “cool” (but cool is a bit less pithy to use) and can I say why i think they’re cool. We can’t listen without context now. It’s not a luxury afforded to us. So making sense of that context becomes the important thing. Or even choosing whether you just decide to think “fuck my context”. It still needs to be a force of will where you choose to reject it. You can’t not acknowledge that it at least exists.