By Joshua Klein
Ever since the spurt of popularity enjoyed by English bands like EMF and Jesus Jones in 1991, not a year goes by without another wave of proclamations of the imminent arrival of a new British Invasion. But for every Oasis come ten London Suedes, and the boys who cried wolf retreat to their lookouts, leaving the rest of us to wonder: now, was that one if by land and two if by sea?
What they’ve been scanning for from their perches, of course, is pop–the logical successors to the Beatles and the Stones–and so until recently, the British dance scene might as well have been operating under the sea. In 1993 we got a sort of Loch Ness monster sighting courtesy of the Orb, the drugged-out KLF spin-off that pioneered the ambient techno movement (that is, techno to “chill out” to rather than dance to) and advanced electronic music to the big leagues by landing the epic “Blue Room,” all 40 minutes of it, on the English charts. The song never had a prayer in the U.S., but it did alert the American mainstream music press to the commercial potential of British electronic dance music.
With the meteoric rise of jungle in the UK over the last two years, Anglophiles have finally found something tangible to hitch their wagons to. This highly aggressive and charismatic (as far as electronic music goes) hybrid of dub, hip-hop, and techno, also known as drum ‘n’ bass, has influenced disparate artists on both sides of the pond, from Tortoise to Nine Inch Nails, and from Everything but the Girl to Derek Bailey. And it seems to have thrown open the gates for the broader genre of electronic dance music within the pop arena; popular music magazines cite a short list of prominent artists, including the Future Sound of London, Goldie, Orbital, L.T.J Bukem, Alex Reece, Underworld, the Chemical Brothers, and more dubious outfits like Prodigy as proof of electronic music’s popular arrival.
Many of these artists have garnered press and radio play as a result of some well-timed collisions with rock ‘n’ roll. Underworld’s “Born Slippy [Nuxx]” benefited from its proximity to Iggy Pop on the much touted Trainspotting sound track; the Chemical Brothers’ “Setting Sun” boasts the vocals of Oasis’s Noel Gallagher; Prodigy gets by on its repellent “Firestarter” video, which reveals that electronic acts have no trouble being as obnoxious as traditional rock stars. Goldie–the closest we’ve come to an actual name jungle star–hooked up with Bjork in more ways than one. But even with the tremendous amount of attention generated by his record Timeless (released in 1995 and anything but), the album has sold just under 30,000 copies in the U.S.–a more than respectable figure by some standards but hardly the trumpets of revolution.
Under normal circumstances, this would be no surprise–most underground art forms seep slowly, if at all, into the mainstream. But now it seems the tide may be stemmed well before most of techno’s would-be stars can get both feet in the boat. Rather than wait to be left behind, David Bowie and U2 have wholeheartedly embraced–some would say co-opted–the sounds of the UK underground. Bowie’s new Earthling and U2’s brand-new Pop are heavily indebted to English DJ culture, from the staggering breakbeats of Goldie’s Metalheadz crew to the laid-back abstraction of the Mo’Wax label, respectively. Whether they’ll repay that debt or leave the lenders high and dry is another matter.
Bowie’s never been one to shirk musical borrowing; in fact he’s all but made a career out of it–or maybe in spite of it. At the height of his popularity in the 70s, Bowie shifted his emphasis from rock and soul to Teutonic machine music; ironically he was one of the first performers to draw inspiration from the German experimental scene so many look to today. Beginning with 1976’s Station to Station and continuing through three artistically successful but financially disappointing collaborations with Brian Eno, Bowie all but ignored the expectations of fans and radio programmers in a futile quest to take rock to the proverbial next level. He redeemed himself with both those elements in the early 80s (Let’s Dance), but artistically he’s been running on empty ever since.
Bowie briefly poked around the club scene on Black Tie White Noise (1995), then reunited with Eno last year in another attempt to reinvigorate himself. But the resulting Outside met with mixed fan and critical response, and was in the end ignored within a rapidly changing pop-music climate. Eno’s name might have been on the cover, but Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor emerged as the apparent dominant influence for Bowie’s most uncommercial–and unlistenable–music yet.
This year’s model is the flashy Earthling, a fearless leap into the cliquey world of drum ‘n’ bass. Already it’s being touted as Bowie’s best album in a decade–try 17 years, friends. It’s his strongest offering since 1980’s Scary Monsters; it’s also his most challenging. New tracks like “Battle for Britain (The Letter),” the high-energy “Dead Man Walking,” and “Telling Lies” all show there’s life in the old lizard yet.
For Earthling, Bowie spent just three weeks in the studio, relying heavily on the talents of frequent sideman (and techno neophyte) Reeves Gabrels, who tackled all the programming duties himself. Loops skitter from speaker to speaker, augmented by chaotic blasts of guitar and a barrage of jungle’s trademark hyperactive drums. Perhaps because of Gabrels’s outsider status, Bowie’s jungle is a potent new hybrid. Few previous drum ‘n’ bass tracks have prominent vocals, let alone the relatively identifiable verse-chorus-verse format of the album’s first single, “Little Wonder.” There’s a reason for this–with rapid tempi, odd timing, and unpredictable starts and stops, jungle makes it nearly impossible to incorporate vocals, save the occasional sampled grunt or hired diva. Everything but the Girl slowed jungle down to fit their own smooth vision, and the result was high-tech Muzak; Bowie tackles jungle with all its jagged edges intact. The results may not be immediately palatable, but they’re certainly interesting.
Bowie’s ongoing quest for neotericity may not have resulted in financial glory–the combined sales of his last eight records probably don’t approach those of Let’s Dance–but it has succeeded in that he has emerged from his past curiously detached from it. Consider “Seven Years in Tibet,” one of his most novel new songs. Latecomers to his work might accuse Bowie of copping the metronomic beat from the Nine Inch Nails hit “Closer,” and they might be right. But Reznor himself borrowed that immediately recognizable throb from Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing,” written and recorded by Bowie 20 years ago. Bowie’s stealing from himself with Reznor as the middleman, displaying a very postmodern sort of chutzpah.
In their last blast as the commercially and artistically troubled Tin Machine, Oy Vey, Baby (1992), Bowie and Gabrels thumbed their noses at U2, possibly out of jealousy: U2 have yet to suffer for their explorations like Bowie has. Somehow their Achtung Baby (1991), a huge stylistic leap and a radical departure from past material, not only solidified their international status but even boosted it. Five years later, it’s hard to believe that this band of stylish stars was once a pretentious coalition of goody-goodies. Achtung Baby was, in retrospect, a risky experiment, and radio the guinea pig. You might recall that the first single off that album was “The Fly,” one of U2’s least U2-ish songs at the time. After challenging both themselves and their listeners, U2 discovered that the die-hard fan and the casual buyer alike were willing to tag along for the ride, however wild it might be.
Rather than rely on their own devices to interpret the latest trend, as Bowie did, U2 brought in a ringer: Howie B. (ne Bernstein), one of the mad geniuses behind Skylab and a bright light on the Mo’Wax roster, has replaced Brian Eno as the band’s stylistic guru. He’s credited with things like “additional production” and “inspirational decks and loops” in the liner notes to Pop, U2’s tenth album, but it’s his presence that ultimately saves this uneven endeavor.
Much of Pop is, well, pop: a full-on embrace of commercial music, with a peck on both cheeks, European style. The album lacks both the cohesiveness of Achtung Baby and the ambition of 1993’s Zooropa (though three new songs, “If You Wear That Velvet Dress,” “Wake Up Dead Man,” and “If God Will Send His Angels,” have been kicking around since the Zooropa sessions). After a strong start comprising the first single, “Discotheque,” the anthemic “Do You Feel Loved,” and the uproarious “Mofo”–all three loose and reckless, full of dance-floor vigor and ingenuity–the record takes a dull detour into conventionality. The bland Oasis tribute “Staring at the Sun,” “Last Night on Earth,” and “Gone” weigh down the album like a pair of lead boots.
Thankfully the remaining tracks, particularly the tricky “Miami,” “If You Wear That Velvet Dress,” and the dark “Please,” breathe some spirit back into Pop. Drummer Larry Mullen, looped into anonymity, bassist Adam Clayton’s increasingly dub-wise riddims, and Flood’s studio treatments all play a large part in the resuscitation, but it’s Howie B.’s presence that gives the best songs their unsettling edge. His style reflects the spare headphone sensibility of the bedroom rather than the cluttered rush of the dance floor. The middle third of the album may in fact be U2’s self-conscious effort to ensure that the ensuing tour isn’t a stone-cold bore–bedroom intimacy doesn’t translate well to the stadium.
Compared to Bowie’s prescient and prominent electrofusion, U2’s newest tango with dance music sounds at first more fizzle than pop, but Bowie’s instant gratification ultimately fades in the light of U2’s stronger, more varied material. Neither record can fairly be compared to the work of underground artists whom Bowie and U2 have exploited–and whether their high profiles will benefit the underground is doubtful. Bowie himself is skeptical, admitting in a recent interview, “I don’t really see much of a future for drum ‘n’ bass in the United States. I don’t think it’ll catch on in a major way here.”
He may be right, but it won’t be for lack of lots of people trying to prove him wrong. Pop stars and other armchair techno theorists like to predict that the line between underground and mainstream will soon be erased by the Internet; that ongoing advances in technology will allow access to any number of styles previously relegated to the underground, all as fast as a modem can transmit them. It sounds wonderful, but in reality, the speed at which we learn about new music even now has resulted in a new and rather depressing ephemerality. Mass coverage of the new U2 and Bowie records had already leached much of the surprise from them before they hit the shelves. Which raises another important, if cynical, question: Do their dalliances with techno indicate that electronic dance music is here to stay? Or merely that it’s already on its way out? o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): U2 photo by Anton Corbin/ David Bowie photo by Nina Shultz, album covers.