Sunday, 25 September 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 4 Part Two Side One - S-Express, Twin-Beat, Gene and Jim, Coco Steel & Lovebomb

Indie Top 20 Volume 4 Part 2 - House
Format: Vinyl and Cassette 

Well, here we are... this is possibly the oddest release in the history of the "Indie Top 20" series, a complete anomaly which makes little sense from a 21st Century perspective.

From an eighties perspective, it's fairly easy to explain, even if the marketing of this release seems a bit questionable. The indie charts were flooded with House music at this point, and Chet and Bee were left with a clear choice - leave that music, often regarded as among the more groundbreaking of the era, off the albums and avoid disrupting guitar-based nirvana. Or alternatively, split Volume Four into two different parts and sell them separately, devoting Part One to "indie" as Melody Maker readers might have begun to understand the term, and volume two to House music. Melody Maker would then only sponsor Part One of volume 4 and everyone would be happy. I have no proof that these discussions were had and these particular plans hatched, by the way, but it seems logical enough.

As a result of the odd arrangement, this LP fell awkwardly between two stools, being a House compilation with a huge "Indie Top 20" logo down the side, possibly appealing to neither House nor stereotypical Indie kids as a result.

It's also early evidence of what would become a very long argument about what Indie meant or was. If Stock Aitken and Waterman and various House DJs were now dominating the Indie chart, was that "fair" or representative? Well, the question was really null and void - fairness didn't come into it, since the only qualifying factor for the chart was whether the music was distributed by a small independent distribution company. A certain hypocrisy often came out to play as well; people were quick to squeal angrily when Kylie Minogue hit number one on the indie chart, but stayed rather quiet when indie "sounding" bands signed to majors and trojan horsed their way into the chart on boutique imprint labels with distribution outsourced to Pinnacle or Rough Trade. By the mid-nineties, Island Records somewhat laughably set up Island Red Records entirely for this purpose. The only difference between Island product and Island Red produce was that the logo was red (logically enough) and the distribution was handled by an indie. Really, it was as if nobody was even trying to disguise the ploy by that point.

Meanwhile, back in 1988, here were eight House tracks which sprawled over the Indie chart happily, and did actually appeal to a lot of people (me included). This was also the first Dance Music compilation Beechwood released, and there would eventually be more - many, many more, in fact. On the other hand, dance music wouldn't feature on Indie Top 20 compilations much after this unless there was a clear crossover case to be made for it.

1. S-Express: "Theme From S-Express" (Rhythm King)

Well, here we are. "Theme From S-Express" was one of the biggest Dance music hits of 1988, an easy national number one which caught the imagination of House kids, older generations who adored classic soul, disco and funk, and even some psychedelic revivalists who enjoyed the vibe (although I think it's safe to say that they were a fairly small demographic, and played a tiny part in the record's overall success).

DJ, producer and remixer Mark Moore was highly acclaimed even before S-Express got off the ground. Beginning his career in the Mud Club (nothing to do with the glam rockers, obviously) and as a regular DJ at Heaven, he adopted a very liberal, devil-may-care playlist. This approach lead quite logically towards S-Express, who adopted elements of House music alongside then-unfashionable disco samples and a highly retro visual image.

Debut single "Theme from S-Express" entered the UK Top 40 rather uncertainly at number 25, before speeding up to number three the following week, then finally hitting number one. Dominated by an unashamed sample of Rose Royce's "Is It Love Your After", as well as samples from less obvious seventies club hits such as "Crystal World" by Crystal Grass (a record I personally am happy to own and still play) it oozed both populist familiarity and a slightly snobbish cool. The resulting cocktail was familiar enough to be loved by the General Public and liked by serious clubbers - though they may deny it now. It also still sounds great today, where many of its fellow travellers from the same era seem somewhat out-of-place. It's such a collision of influences and ideas that it can't be tied to a specific moment in time, with S-Express's kitsch imagery feeling as much a part of a 2016 Hipster Britain as an Acid House influenced 1988. By nodding to the past while they jumped on the wave of sample-heavy House music, S-Express were sly, smooth customers... though I doubt it was planned with quite as much precision as all that.

The group's creation really was largely artifice, though, despite Rhythm King operating on the budget of an indie label. Some of the members really contributed very little to the overall sound and were present mostly to dazzle with their visual image. In that sense, it's tempting to compare the way they presented themselves to a less caricatured, clubland version of ABC circa "How To Be A Millionaire", who in a very similar way had members who did little but inhabit a slightly kitsch, cartoony world.

While they may have arrived with a bang, S-Express faded quite fast. Their LP "Original Soundtrack" only reached number five in early 1989 when an absolute smash was anticipated, and 1991's follow-up "Intercourse" failed to chart at all. There are numerous explanations for that, not least the slight change of style to something more subdued between the LPs. In 1988, though, "Theme" was inescapable, and felt like the beginning of something huge. Given the sheer quantity of records since which have sampled seventies funk and disco classics, it probably was.

2. Twin-Beat: "Let's Pick Up The Pieces (And Make Some Music)" (Big One)

"Lady Penelope Speaking..." 
"We've got a hot one for you... can you take care of it?"

Ah yes. The earliest days of House music were rammed to the hilt with samples, and for whatever reason, no matter what else surrounded them, they were sometimes unapologetically daft, referencing things from the 60s and 70s because... well, I doubt anyone quite knew why they were doing it, but presumably when you're lost in the middle of a nightclub crowd, dancing with glee, references to your childhood pile on the pleasure. What better than to be reminded of those moments when you last felt at your most playful and carefree?

Some DJs and producers did it well, others crowbarred it in, and in 1988 you did feel that some people needed someone in the studio with them to scream "Enough with the fucking samples already! Lose at least ONE THIRD of them!"

Still, Twin-Beat aren't as guilty of overdoing it as some people on this LP (we'll come on to those in a minute) and clearly weren't courting credibility anyway. Those over-enthusiastic shouts and cries throughout and the sodding great sample of those hairy Scottish boogie boys The Average White Band ensure that they're begging for a crossover hit, not to be taken seriously by Face readers.

It was a crossover hit which wasn't forthcoming, obviously, and while I'm generally loathe to use the expression "This hasn't aged well", I do think it applies in this instance. That Whitney Houston inspired rhythm pattern in particular plonks it firmly in the late eighties, and it would be a brave DJ who attempted this as a retro-spin these days - the most obvious, sensible thing to do would be to play the original Average White Band track and leave this to one side.

3. Gene and Jim Are Into Shakes: "Shake! (How About A Sampling Gene?)" (Lovemuscle/ Rough Trade)

Here we go again with possibly one of the most egregious examples of samplemania, even boasting about its overload in the title. This was a big Ibiza spin at the time, but its tomfoolery feels incredibly tired now. The initial vinyl samples are charming and wouldn't be out of place on an Avalanches record, but the "Batcave" elements are yet another silly nod to Saturday children's television and make little sense in 2016.

The guitar noises and cries of "Shake!" also feel jarring and out of place, as if a local rock band have wandered in from next door to interrupt rather than contribute. You can see what the track is trying to do, and why it might even have worked at the time, but our expectations of records like this have sky-rocketed since - The Avalanches would have chopped all this together into something that formed a peculiar narrative, melding it into a coherent concept. Gene and Jim just drop the needle over some charity shop records they've found and expect us to be entertained. If it felt new and exciting at the time, it's arguably because it was (though only just) and there are moments where the track truly starts to feel propulsive rather than confusing and "random", but they happen fleetingly.

The video, meanwhile, has shades of Shoreditch hipsterism about it, which gives me pause for thought about how many of those elements were actually birthed in the late eighties. Sartorially at least, and with their vinyl buying habits, the pair were clearly ahead of the pack.

4. Coco, Steel & Lovebomb "The Sound of Europe Part One"  (Instant)

Now we're back in business. With a backbeat that almost (though not quite) resembles John Hawkins "Freestyle" (later sampled by Primal Scream for "Loaded") and a less busy, more freeflowing style, "The Sound of Europe" seems like the future of Dance music as it would become - and indeed, Coco Steel & Lovebomb would probably play more of a part in that than any of the other artists on this side of the LP.

Still, the sampling on display here is really risky, with instrumental segments of Imagination's "Body Talk" taking front and centre at various moments. These were the days when records were often released with heavy samples which failed to credit the original songwriters, and if they were hits, litigation was usually almost immediate. "The Sound of Europe Part One" obviously wasn't a hit, but it's near total disappearance since (I just had to upload the version below to YouTube) makes me wonder if it did come to someone's attention eventually.


  1. A really unusual move at the time. I like it though - love the Gene and Jim Are Into Shakes track. Off the wall Ibiza monster with crazy samples remixed by Pete Hammond who gives it a pounding groove, a jazzy break and just the right amount of percussive balance (the version called Shake How About A Sampling Gene?)

  2. Yeah, I'm not quite so sure about Gene and Jim as I'm sure you can gather, but I can't ignore the fact that it was a huge dancefloor hit at the time. Had I been there, and had it formed part of my life, perhaps I'd have different feelings about it.