Great pop music is really not meant to last not much longer than a good fuck. In the early 90s, while the egg-headed folks at Rhino were putting together their curated boxed sets of CDs featuring Stax, Captain Beefheart, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, most folks were trying to find room to store more music in where .45s, LPs, 8-Tracks and cassettes were piling up already.
Yet there was always a vein of snobbery in pop. Curating Elvis, the Beatles and Rockabilly was one thing, but not dance music. Tamla Motown and Stax may have been both ‘Race’ and ‘Dance’ music, but, even today, when radio still obeys a strict sense of Jim Crow in America, certain music simply transcended racial, cultural and generational divisions. Disco or dance pop was never made, or meant, to be taken ‘seriously’ it seemed. So much so that there was even a Disco Demolition party at Chicago Comiskey Park in July 12, 1979, which turned into a riot.
Dance music became its own ghetto within a ghetto. The movie Saturday Night Fever! (1977) made for a quick white disco craze but the media tended to associate dance music with gayness and a kind of war within working class Americans over attitude toward the establishment and other races. Within those blue-collar lines you might challenge all authority by being punk, or not at all by being a metal head. Yet somehow, deeply hidden, while hip-hop was already gestating, was a secret-secret world. Down in the Ghetto or Barrio, often gay but never always just-so, there was a new dance thing that eschewed any notion of permanence, perhaps because so many of its participants were affected by the HIV/AIDS wave.
One thing is certain: the music on Acid Rain was not made to last by its creators. Most of these tracks had to be re-mastered from vinyl because the record label owners in Chicago didn’t bother to keep the master tapes of even their best local producers’ work, because simply nobody was buying dance music. Acid House‘s relentless, grinding, galvanized form of repetition began throbbing first at the Muzic Box on Michigan Avenue. The first acid house single, Phuture’s ‘Acid Track’ became so associated with the club and its legendary DJ Ron Hardy that I had already heard their names across the ocean in Manchester. Acid Rain contains Hardy’s 1985 single, ‘Sensation’, which is all brutal dance muscle. Sweaty, bay-ha!
This was the birth of the scores of space-travel-oriented, 303-driven tracks that followed. I can still smell the Ecstasy and speed, sweat-making chemical-tear puddles of perspiration. At any rate, the groove had it so that Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles were like a pair of gay groovy wizards. The record’s curator and producer Terry Farley makes all kinds of hyperbolic claims about these five CDs, putting the music up there in importance with James Brown, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The man is delusional! I would just insist that acid house and the rave culture it helped establish meant much more than just pure joy in that, at least in pubs in the UK, it led the greed-befuddled breweries who own all of the country’s pubs to lobby every member of parliament until they allowed drinking establishments to stay open until late, and with special licenses, to stay open all weekend for tens of thousands of kids to party like never before, turning the whole island into one giant Madchester hosted by the King of Trendies, Tony Wilson.
Meanwhile, back at home, in da house, Ron Hardy’s rival Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles—whose club, The Warehouse, gave house music its name—has his handprints all over the collection. There’s a superb, previously unreleased 1984 version of Bad Boy, a very fetishistic kinky, flamingly black take on Eurosynth boogie. If Hardy was a strung-out junkie, Knuckles was a sex-crazy toreador. Like a gay James Brown, talking all kinds of dirt about his dick for eight & a half funky minutes on my favorite, Baby Wants to Ride. Yes, Knuckles was a trip and a half as is evidenced on the churchy, ever-Jesus-lovin’ gospel-funk of Your Love, and Tears.
It was supposed to be parochial, intended to evoke something local and unique. As it turned out, the makers of acid house had hit on something universal and timeless. No music before or since has better captured the sweaty, blank-eyed intensity of being lost on a dance floor in the small hours: you didn’t have to be in the Muzic Box, surrounded by people so maddened by drugs and the sheer volume at which Hardy played that they would cry or faint or start having it off with each other, to know that weird, simultaneously elated and faintly troubling otherworldly feeling. It’s one of the reasons why the music on Acid Rain doesn’t really feel dated, despite being packed with sounds that were the cutting edge 25 or 30 years ago: stuttering n-n-n-n-nineteen vocals; harsh sampled orchestral stabs; drum machines that sound like machines, technology having not yet worked out how to make them sound like drums. There’s something shocking about the fact that Laurent X’s Machines dates from the same year as Bros’s When Will I Be Famous? and Hue and Cry’s Looking For Linda: it sounds like it could have been released yesterday.
Acid house, at least as defined by this box set, could communicate more than the feeling of temporarily losing your mind in front of the big speakers at 3am. At the end of Acid Rain comes another Jefferson production, Jungle Wonz’s Time Marches On. It seems wistful and heartbreaking today, a kind of eulogy for a moment in time long past. But that wasn’t how it would have sounded 25 years ago. Then, its lyrics – “Nothing stays the same, there’s always change” – must have seemed a defiant statement of belief that the future belonged to house music, an equivalent of one of those ancient singles that bullishly predict rock’n’roll’s longevity. And like those records, its predictions proved to be exactly right.
Demon Music Group: $65.00 retail and 16.49 for download.