It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
By the late 90s, the culture that had built around the acid house boom had begun disappearing up its own nose in earnest, and superstar DJ culture had become truly gruesome to behold. Of course great music was still being made, and UK garage flew the flag high for proper innovative party music, but elsewhere the mainstream was dominated by the creative vacuums of prog house, trance and big beat and the scene was dominated by egos, helicopters, coke and pomposity. Something had to give.
When it did, it was gross and spectacular; it’s all documented in the brilliant Superstar DJs Here We Go! by Dom Phillips – a book that should be on the national curriculum – and looking back it seems obvious how necessary electroclash was. Just as punk had provided a cheap, transgressive, exciting and accessible route to the heart of rock’n'roll as an antidote to a rock establishment that had become remote from its roots and its constituency, so electroclash gave the finger to the established values and egos of time and burst in a riotous flash of colour and polysexual sauciness into the middle of the dance scene.
It was firstly a slap in the face with a dayglo kipper to the complacent, and then later the perfect soundtrack to the decline and fall of the Roman empire as that it became clear just how erroneous that complacency really was. It was the sound of the barbarians at the gates, a gloriously queer (in all senses) cavalcade of punks young and old, ravers, fashion folk, DiY kids and nutters, none of whom gave a two thirds of a tinker’s toss what about Judge Jules or Danny Rampling. At its worst it was pretty shoddy, a bunch of 80s retreads with zero production values for people to ponce about showing off their silly outfits – though even that shoddiness was part of the provocation of the whole thing – but at best the energy was incredible, the anything-goes DJ sets a blessed relief from genre-specific plod, and the parties welcoming to anyone as long as you were willing to get righteously trashed and make a display of yourself.
While not exactly deep into the scene, I reaped the benefits at the time: I was DJing regularly at Sean McLuskey’s Sonic Mook Experiment and Disastronaut’s Slack Sabbath nights, which attracted a diverse and frequently electroclash-y crowd – and the sense that you could play raw punky noise, shameless pop and weird techno together was hugely liberating and on a good night unbelievably fun. Getting people flinging each other round a dancefloor and copping off in a corner to Soft Cell immediately followed by LFO then Atari Teenage Riot is definitely one of life’s great pleasures. But the best party by far that I experienced was Nag Nag Nag, a place where you could see Boy George falling over on the dancefloor, next to a bunch of 17 year olds from Hastings who’d made all their own outfits and made a religious pilgrimate to the club, next to a brace of supermodels. It was ridiculous, raucous and very refreshing.
Like all good parties it had to come to an end, and its crowds dissipated, into more formularised Ed Banger electro, into the more indie kid-centric nu rave, back to more specifically gay clubs and so forth. But its legacy was strong, and remains with us now. There’s a strong case to be made that some of our more off-centre pop acts, from La Roux to Lady Gaga to Little Dragon to FKA Twigs have the electroclash gene – indeed, Gaga’s explosion-in-a-pervert’s-dressing-up-box schtick and glowering deadpan is ‘clash through and through.
Some of those odd turn-of-the-decade internet cults like witch house and (oh god I hate typing this) #seapunk – which essentially did to 90s rave / electronica what electroclash did to 80s electropop / new wave – ran with its pisstakey drugginess and home-made qualities, and you can even see some of its unique combination of archness and industrial-edged rawness in a lot of Blackest Ever Black and PAN releases. DJs like Ivan Smagghe, Optimo, Dave Clarke, Trevor Jackson and more carried its darker, more industrial-edged DNA forward. Dammit, even Nina Kraviz, with her deadpan intonations over chilly electro beats, isn’t a million miles from Miss Kittin. And less tangentially, the man who invented the word “electroclash” itself, Larry Tee is back! Back! BACK!!, featuring on last year’s basically pretty brilliant Super Electric Party Machine album, which with its combination of ballroom house, rowdy 808s and filthy trash-talking vocals was pretty much neo-electroclash incarnate.
Whether any of this amounts to the seeds of a revival in any way is highly dubious, although of course what goes around does pretty inevitably tend to come around in club music. What’s much more important is that all of these elements – the irreverence, the trashiness, the perviness, the ridicule-is-nothing-to-be-scared-of DiY showiness, the utter lack of respect for up-itself DJ culture – are still bubbling under in all kinds of unlikely places. And as DJ culture, thanks to our American cousins, moves ever closer to a whole new last-days-of-Rome scenario, let’s remember why we needed electroclash so much, and why it’s still a huge dirty heap of fun.
Nostalgic? Turn over to hear the tracks that defined electroclash.
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