Rewind: Dave Mothersole on “Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit”

Posted: August 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

In discussion with Dave Mothersole on “Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit” (1988).

You wrote in a recent article about the roots of the music played in Goa that you came back to the UK from there and found acid house in full swing. Did that connect with what you heard in India, or was it something else entirely?

It was the very start of acid house. I got back from India in March 1988 – Shoom was still at the fitness centre in Southwark (although I never went) and a month or two later Spectrum opened at Heaven on Monday nights.

It was different from what I’d experienced in India. In some ways it was more tame as people had to go back to work or college or whatever after the weekend or on a Tuesday morning after Spectrum, where as in Goa partying was a full time occupation for most people and therefore more extreme. Goa was like Mad Max with palm trees and techno – almost totally lawless in those days, so nothing compares to it really. I’d been there the previous season (86 / 87) too and I’d come back with all these stories about freaks dancing all night to music that sounded like one long track – like all the best music you’d ever heard with all the crap parts taken out. How it didn’t stop all night and how everyone was freaking out to it on acid and on this new drug called ecstasy. I think my friends back home all thought I was mad, but when acid house came out they were like ‘ok, I get you now’. So I was pleased that they finally knew what I was on about. There were things I didn’t like though, like the MCs. Partying in Goa was like a mystical, very psychedelic experience. Almost a spiritual thing and it was all about getting inside the groove and letting the music take over, so to have some guy shouting ‘hands in the air’ every few minutes as everyone faced in the same direction was a bit distracting. So in that way it was different.

The music was totally different too. The influence of the soul scene (where most of the DJs came from) was very strong so there where a lot of song based tracks with very soulful vocals. The themes were different as well – the famous Martin Luther King speech over Mr Fingers; Ce Ce Rogers ‘Someday’; ‘Promised land’ – these were all Black American themes – songs about the struggle for liberation and freedom. They translated perfectly to multicultural, 80’s England though. Before acid house black and white kids didn’t mix so much on the dance floor, there were exceptions but on the whole the clubs were either separate or divided. Acid house changed all that overnight and these songs, with lyrics about reaching the promised land and living together as one family had a very powerful resonance with the audiences. I think it was a tremendous relief for my generation to finally come together in this way. And this applied not just to the divisions between black and white, but also to class divisions and those that separated the various different youth cults. It was an amazing time – an entire generation taking the same drug at the same time. Listening to the same music, feeling the same emotions. My friends all went from wearing designer clothes and hanging out at the pub to clubbing every weekend in dungarees, purple kickers and long sleeve tops and hoodies with peace signs, smileys and flowers and stuff on them. Some of them even quit their jobs and started throwing parties, selling drugs, DJing – anything they could do that would let them carry on partying. It was a huge change and it happened really fast. By the summer of 88 loads of people were into it and come the summer of 89 it was massive. Huge parties, every club in the country playing house music, office workers out on Friday shouting ‘mental’, mainstream compilation albums full of acid house hits and 10 year old kids dressed like ravers.

Was it like hearing the roots in Goa, and then back in the UK, acid house seemed to be the next step musically?

I wouldn’t say the next step from Goa, as the scene in Goa existed in it’s own little bubble. Culturally, I was very pleased that we were the first country to take the concept of dancing to electronic music on ecstasy, and push it straight into the mainstream. This wasn’t a new concept – people had been doing it throughout the 80’s in Chicago, New York, in Dallas (at the Stark Club), in Ibiza and of course in Goa – but we kind of democratised it. You didn’t have to be a freak in India, a New York club kid or a jet set Ibiza type anymore. You could be an ordinary kid, you know, from pretty much anywhere in the UK. That was really cool.

Musically, house had been popular in England since 85 / 86. ‘Jack Your Body’ was number one in the pop charts in 86 for example, and ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ was top five in the same year. So I was already familiar with house music and indeed it’s roots as I’d been into the soul scene before and had grown up dancing to records like D-Train’s ‘You’re The One For Me’, ‘Beat The Street’ by Sharon Redd and Sinnamon’s ‘Thanks To You’. And then the whole electro thing hit big in England, so yeah, it was the next step musically for sure, but it was ecstasy that made it explode in the way it did. Much as I was familiar with it though, house music could still be shocking. I remember standing in the queue outside Spectrum for the first time and hearing this thunderous acid track booming out of the club and thinking ‘fuck me, this music is dark’.

On the whole though, the music in Goa was far more foreign to me. I lived in Italy as a boy and went on holiday there most summers right up until I went to India, so I was familiar with italo disco, but that was my only reference point. That an a few Front 242, Yello and Nitzer Ebb records my brother had. It might sound strange but until acid house broke, European club music was very rare at parties in England. After acid house that all changed, first with stuff like A Split Second and Code 61, then later with all the R&S and Music Man stuff and after that the Frankfurt stuff and whatever. Pre acid house though, only a few gay clubs played euro beat (as we called it) so hearing it in Goa – particularly in the psychedelic way they played it there – was a complete revelation to me.

The stateside view is often that Chicago provided the soundtrack for acid house, and the UK press provided the hype, and subsequently the cultural phenomenon. Do you think this is an appropriate view?

For sure. In America it was confined to predominantly gay black and latino clubs, in the UK it was in the pop charts and it affected an entire generation on one level or another.

Was the Detroit compilation an attempt to repeat that? After all the seminal liner notes were by Stuart Cosgrove, who wrote a feature on Chicago house in NME as early as 1986, and then a feature about the Detroit scene in The Face two years later. How much marketing was in Detroit techno?

There was a certain amount of marketing involved for sure, but it’s also that in England we love to put things in boxes. I don’t know why, it’s just in our nature, so we were always going to give it a name. I think we were right to do so though. Detroit techno was a genuinely new form of music. A style of music called techno already existed in Germany with people like Talla 2XLC at Techno Club and Sven Väth at Dorian Gray. Some of the Belgium bands were doing proto-techno and people often called the music in Goa ‘techno-pop’ (I think because of the Kraftwerk song ‘Musique Non Stop’ which was a big hit there). Detroit was something completely different though. It had its own sound. I’ve often said that house music came as no surprise to me, but Detroit techno was another absolute revelation. I’d never heard music like it before and could never have predicted it.

I thought it was interesting that a former Northern Soul DJ like Neil Rushton was so instrumental in setting up the compilation, and labels like Kool Kat and Network. All dealing with releasing very forward thinking music, whereas the northern soul circuit wasn’t about that at all. What might have led him into to it?

I really don’t know. It’s from the same part of the world as northern soul and it’s underground black american music, so maybe he drew some parallels there. I don’t know though as I’ve never spoken to him.

In Germany, the first Detroit techno records were played in clubs amongst acid house from Chicago and the UK, and initially it didn’t seem anything else than another phase in the evolution of house. Was it the same in UK clubs?

Kind of. ‘Big Fun’, ‘Nude Photo’, ‘The Chase’, ‘R-Theme’, ‘Rock To The Beat’, ‘The Sound’, ‘Just Want Another Chance’, ‘Sexuality’ and of course ‘Strings Of Life’ were all big hits and played alongside house. No one would have thought of having a separate night for Detroit though – there was no point. Acid house was inclusive and DJs would also play hip hop, stuff like Soul II Soul, early hip house, euro and even some pop hits like Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’. Chicago house was the main ingredient in acid house, but it was joined by lots of other styles. That’s what made it acid house – that wild, colourful mix of styles.

You were DJing yourself around that time, what were your personal experiences and impressions with Detroit techno, also in comparison with other music?

I didn’t start DJing until late 89. My first regular gig was a night called the Hard Club, every Wednesday night at Gossips in Soho. I was playing EBM and New Beat – basically early European techno. It was a great night, full of mad looking goths and cyber punks. The guys from Depeche Mode and the Meat Beat Manifesto guys were regulars, as was Pure Science when he was a 15 year old kid recording as The Scientist with DJ Hype. I’d been into that style since I first heard it in Goa, so I had all the right records for the crowd there. I didn’t know anything about Detroit until I got the ‘Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit’ compilation. I bought it after reading the article you mentioned in The Face. I got it at Mi Price Records in Croydon from Jazzy M (an early UK house DJ and the guy that signed ‘Chime’ by Orbital to his Oh’zone label). I think it was the summer or autumn of 88. Not sure exactly, but either way I wasn’t long back from Goa and I was looking for anything I’d heard there and thought it would be something similar. Of course it wasn’t and at first I didn’t even like it, but I kept listening. Juan’s ‘Techno Music’ was the first track I could relate to as it sounded a bit like Giorgio Moroder. ‘Share This House’ was quite typical house, but it didn’t really move me. I kept going back to the album though and I quickly grew to love it. I was on a big come down after India and I very much related to the pensive, melancholy nature of the music. It didn’t sound anything like what I thought of as techno, it was far more abstract and experimental.

Tracks like ‘Feel Surreal’ and ‘It Is What It Is’, which is still my favourite Detroit song, really took me away and in many ways helped me through what was, at times, quite a dark period in my life. I think coming straight from Goa, where the music was predominantly instrumental, made it easy for me to identify with it too. In common with Goa, if there were any vocals, they were often strange and otherworldly. There was a trippy-ness to the sound I liked too and it was very melodic. But it was different from Goa in that it wasn’t dark and thunderous or glorious and triumphant (two of the main themes there). At its best it seemed very introspective and there was a kind of mournful longing and a certain sadness to it that I really connected with.

Did you become aware that the musicians from Detroit might be on to something else then what was around before when the compilation was released? Something that would stay longer than a clubbing season?

Things were happening so fast it was hard to keep up in those days and I was still learning about the different styles of electronic dance music. Everything seemed so new that I was having trouble keeping up with the present, so to be honest, I wasn’t thinking too much about where things would go in the future. I did recognised it as being it’s own distinctive style of music though.

What was the difference between the sound of Chicago and Detroit at that time? And did Detroit techno feel worth being treated as a new thing?

With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to intellectualise about the differences between the two, but even then I realised that whilst house was primarily interested in making people dance and was all about sounding now and contemporary, techno seemed to want to do more than just that. It was about looking to the future and trying to sound new and different. In general it was far more introspective too – so it wasn’t just the sound that was different, but the feeling of the music too.

Back then I had the feeling that Detroit techno could outlast acid house in Europe, because it was drawing more from European influences, whereas the Chicago originators seemed to be more rooted in US club culture traditions, like the disco heritage. But then DJs like Ron Hardy played a lot of European electronic music, and there were DJs like Ken Collier in Detroit, who started out in the disco era. Are such generalisations pointless, or is there something that led to one city championing techno, and the other house, even though both sounded similar? Was it just a need for distinction?

I don’t think it was about about making distinctions. There was no need to as the differences between the two were already so apparent. Detroit had its own vibe right from the start. I’ve never understood why exactly, it’s just the way it is. I don’t think it’s outlasted house though – in England house has always been more popular than techno. And house has always been big in Europe too, as far as I can tell. Maybe not as big as techno, but still big. I think the two cities ended up with different sounds because they are different places.

Even at the time of the compilation’s release Derrick May was stressing out the urban decay of Detroit, and there were several other quotes in the liner notes and accompanying features that get cited until this day. Was the myth of Detroit techno already established with this one album?

Derrick is a great communicator and he instantly understood that journalist need quotes and love a story behind the music. I think all of his ‘mythologising’ comes from somewhere real though. I truly believe that these guys really were shooting for the stars and dreaming about the future. I certainly bought into the whole concept. I loved all the stuff about robots; the star gazing; the different crews; Mojo’s radio show – the whole story. I bought it hook, line and sinker and I still buy it now.

The compilation was called “Techno! – The New Dance Sound Of Detroit”, thus indirectly referencing music that stood for Detroit before, and simultaneously breaking with such traditions. Is there still some connection to the old dance sound of Detroit nonetheless?

Mike Banks would absolutely say there is and, back then, both Juan and Derrick said there wasn’t. I don’t know. I guess it must have had some impact on their lives and therefore their music. Either way, Detroit techno is most definitely part of a pioneering tradition that has existed in many styles of Black American music since the early days of jazz and the delta blues.

Let’s talk about the music compiled. The majority of tracks are by Atkins, May, Saunderson, plus contributions by Blake Baxter, Eddie Fowlkes, Anthony Shakir and Members Of The House, an early production by Underground Resistances’s Mike Banks, if I remember correctly. Are there ups and downs in the track-list? How would you describe the music on here?

‘It Is What It Is’ is the perfect opener. Not only is it one of the greatest techno tracks ever, it also a kind of mission statement – it seems to say ‘this is what we’re about, take it or leave it’. ‘Forever And A Day’ is a great, very dark love song, filled with yearning, angst and obsession. ‘Time To Express’ has a slightly housey flavour and ‘Electronic Dance’ is one of those big, heavy riffing saunderson tracks that he’s specialised in throughout his career. It has fantastic conga break in it too (Roland 727, I think). Side two opens with ‘Share This House’, for me one of the albums weaker tracks, but that’s followed by ‘Feel Surreal’, which is a fantastic piece of futuristic, star gazing techno. Classic Detroit. ‘Spark’ is very Chicago influenced – I still like it a lot – very deep and spooky. ‘Techno Music’ is Juan trying to sound like Giorgio Moroder – very cool track. Side 3’s best moments are ‘Big Fun’ and Shakir’s excellent ‘Sequence 10′, which I’ve long felt is an underrated classic.

It is peculiar that this album also includes a megamix of the tracks by Juan Atkins and Derrick May. It was common practice to provide such mixes with compilations at that time, but I thought it sounded very differently to other comparable megamixes. Do you think given the opportunity they wanted to draw attention to a Detroit style of DJing as well?

Perhaps yeah, although I’ve always felt that they threw away side 4 with the megamix. ‘Techno! The New Dance Sound’ is my favourite ever compilation. I’ve played it hundreds of times, but I don’t think I’ve ever played the megamix more than once or twice. Still, there are so many other life changing moments on the album, it hardly matters.

However thought-out the concept of the compilation was designed, there were differences in the sound of the tracks. “Big Fun” was of course the club hit, other tracks were a lot more experimental. Does the music by these producers still achieve a coherent overview of the Detroit scene?

No, because so many more people have joined them in making Detroit techno – some from the city, many from elsewhere. It does set out a clear mandate for what Juan, Derrick and Kevin would do in future though and it also introduced us to Shakir, Baxter and Fowlkes. It’s an overview of Detroit in the late 80’s and crucially, it also set the parameters for much of what was to come.

Were there already differences between the approaches of the producers, which in the following years became more significant?

They each had, and still do have, their own styles – but there has always been a certain vibe that binds them together. Kevin has always been very versatile and he showed that even back then. Juan has tried many different styles and yet somehow has always managed to sound completely unmistakable. Derrick has made some of the greatest ever techno records – just not enough of them. I think they’ve all pushed things forward – I like some of Shakir’s stuff a lot too and Baxter’s always been great at doing his prince of techno thing.

There was another effort to document the first wave of Detroit techno, the compilation “Techno-1” on Kevin Saunderson’s KMS label, with a similar personnel. Did you like that album as well?

Yeah it’s great. I love ‘Techno! The New Dance Sound’ more though because it’s the one I had first and therefore my introduction to this wonderful style of music.

There was also a sequel to the compilation in 1990, on whose liner notes writer John McReady claimed that “The Techno sound now controls”. Was he right? And was it actually techno from Detroit at the controls?

I’ve not heard the sequel or read McReady’s sleeve notes so I can’t comment – although I will say that I like his writing. Personally though, I’m not interested in any battles between Europe and America over who owns techno. They both do. The whole history of techno has been one long ping pong match between the two – and they both sound much better because of this push and pull. . . this exchange of ideas.

As the compilation was so important to you, were you satisfied with the way Detroit Techno evolved ever since?

Yeah. It became a style and that happened almost instantly. And I like the way UK and European producers took the formula and made their own interpretations of it. And now of course it’s worldwide. The Detroit guys won’t thank me for saying it, but I don’t think you even have to be from the city to make great Detroit techno. Some of my favourite ‘Detroit techno’ records were made elsewhere in the world.

Was there another sound surfacing later on, with an accompanying compilation, that struck you as much?

One or two DJs for sure and different club nights – the entire 90’s was a fantastic time for me club wise. But compilations, no – probably not. I was very young, you know, and it’s hard for things to make as big an impression on you the older you get and the more immersed in the culture you become. ‘Virtual Sex’ on Buzz came close though – that was kind of the next phase of the Detroit sound for me. Fantastic album.

Sounds like me 08/10

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