Europop: Young, Dumb and Full of Hum

YOUR MUM LOVES the catchy melodies and your little brother fancies the singers. It’s not Britpop, it’s Euro technotechnotechnotechno and it’s in the top ten every week of the year. St Etienne member and Europop champion Bob Stanley says stop being so snooty and come on feel the noise…

“IN 1995, DANCE music continued to be abused by those with mega-bucks and ultra-cheese on their minds. Rednex and Scatman John, we know where you live” — Calvin Bush, Muzik magazine

“Whoomph! There it is” — Clock

You like house music? Techno? The odd bit of Hi-NRG? Naturellement you do. Europop has something for everyone, but scan any music publication and you’d think it meant nothing to anyone. The much-heralded Muzik magazine, launched last April to cater for fans of all kinds of dance music, all sub-genres, has conspicuously avoided a sub-genre that can count on at least one top-five single every week of the year. Corona, Culture-beat, Baby D et al are part of what is effectively the biggest underground scene in the history of pop, and it’s flourishing at your local Mecca.

The roots of Euro stretch back 20 years to early disco. Producers on the Continent — and particularly in Germany — took anonymous session musicians, Philly soul, solid 4/4 beats and insanely catchy hooks to create Eurodisco. And for sure much of it was pretty grim, but with the likes of Silver Convention’s ‘Get Up And Boogie’ (sample lyric: “Get up and boogie/That’s right”) you had a basic blueprint for ‘Ride On Time’ and ‘Dreamer’. It even had a Felix The Cat cartoon video to promote it, fergawdsake. The Frankenstein’s monster of Eurodisco was Boney M, but in the summer of ’77 Giorgio Moroder (an Italian-born producer working in Munich with a background in novelty pop singles) unleashed ‘I Feel Love’ on the world, grafting achingly beautiful chords on to a metallic, minimalist track with a simple, repetitive lyric. Most importantly, ‘I Feel Love’ borrowed almost nothing from British or American music. Seemingly beamed down from another planet, it stands up as one of the dozen most influential pop records of all time.

While the effects filtered through into electro in the States (inspired by Moroder and Kraftwerk, full stop) and synth-pop in Britain, the Italians were learning to mutate early house in the same way the Germans had messed with Philly over a decade earlier. The summer of 1989, which saw Black Box’s ‘Ride On Time’ spend six weeks at number one, is a basic starting point for contemporary pop music. In the last few months of the Eighties, when Black Box, Technotronic and The 49ers were all in the top three, when The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays gatecrashed Top Of The Pops and the Berlin Wall fell, all boundaries seemed to blur beautifully. Musical snobbery was dying, Europe was all set to become one superstate, and the Balearic philosophy was all: if it sounds good, it is good.

The Nineties, borne on such a wave of optimism, have seen an about-turn, with people retreating into ever-smaller musical enclaves. They’ll snort cynically now, but in ten years’ time people who hold LPs by Saint Germain, Elastica, or Tortoise close to their hearts will gladly swap any of them for Baby D’s ‘Let Me Be Your Fantasy’.

Europop doesn’t split hairs. It knows no snobbery. A record is either good or bad. (Some Euro fans refuse to draw even this line, claiming that the success of the Rednex singles automatically renders them significant. But heck, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.) There will always be a fly in the ointment — Ace Of Bass seem to be lacking in all departments and one of the band has a neo-Nazi history to boot, but they still shift millions. Yet records like Snap’s ‘Exterminate’, or ‘Got To Get It’ by Culturebeat, positively ache with their minor-key melodies, just as much as, say, Goldie’s ‘Inner City Life’. Freed from the R&B- and funk-derived structures of US dance music, their sound has a unique melodic fluidity: it is pan-European, distinctly un-American. As for the lyrics, could anyone who spoke English as their first language come up with words that touch on the surreal poetry of “Don’t give me your life/Give me your life” (Alex Party) or “I’m taking my love in my hands/I’m gonna do what’s good for me” from the last 2 Unlimited single?

THE DUTCH duo of Ray Slijngaard and Anita Dels are the most influential Euro act of the Nineties. ‘No Limit’ was about as Zeitgeist as pop gets. While the NME thought they were going out on a limb putting The Prodigy on the cover, Ray just bawled “Techno techno techno techno” and went to number one, no messing. Best of all, 2 Unlimited looked like a Japanese cartoonist’s idea of a pop group — Ray the shaven leather boy with his serious expression and funny arm actions, Anita with her PVC perv gear and feline features. Belgium’s Technotronic had paved the way for 2 Unlimited musically, with what was then termed hip house, but they lacked sufficiently strong identity (blue lipstick — always a no-no) and had such un-pop names as Felly and MC Eric. Ray and Anita swanned in and as a duo with pop sensibilities have been much imitated by the likes of Capella, Culturebeat and Clock. “It’s not techno music any more,” reckons Slijngaard. “Your mum sings it. It’s the pop music of the Nineties.” Slijngaard now has his own label, X Ray, in Holland, and recently scored a number one in the Dutch chart with it. Anita hosts the Dutch equivalent of Club MTV. “It’s quite cool,” she says, “they know that I know a little about dance music, so soon I’ll get to invite the DJs myself.” They both talk about 2 Unlimited in the third person. During our photoshoot Ray sticks on a tape of classic swingbeat, while Anita whistles The Cardigans’ ‘Carnival’ to herself. Do  they never feel like working on other types of music outside Europop? ‘Course they do.

“Our producer, he has a really different way of thinking than us, y’know,” sighs Anita. “We are living in the club scene, but as long as he isn’t it’s really hard for us.”

Does he ever go to clubs?

“Yeah,” laughs Roy, “for, uh, inspiration.”

“We’re both gonna have solo projects,” adds Anita. “It’s something that we both want, something that we have to do.”

Rumour has it that the name 2 Unlimited belongs to the production team and not to Ray and Anita. With their contract up, the current Hits Unlimited compilation could prove to be their last album. Big shame. The singles hang together extremely well, from accidental sports theme ‘Get Ready For This’ to the, erm, insightful ‘Faces’. You want innovative? Try ‘No One’, which singlehandedly invents “soft handbag”. You reckon it all sounds the same? Try playing it alongside a compilation of Masters At Work remixes.

Artistic dissatisfaction has led to many Euro producers using session singers and getting models to front the whole shebang. More than anything else, it’s this practice that turns purists off. And, of course, it’s also the making of great pop. When Phil Spector wanted to rush-record ‘He’s A Rebel’, he used session queen Darlene Love, then sent The Crystals out on the road to promote “their” hit. Who cares how much Whigfield had to do with ‘Saturday Night’? Whigfield is a good pop star, end of story.

Of the British acts dabbling in Euro, two set the pace in 1995. N Trance started the year with a singer called Kelly and a quite beautiful happy hardcore hit, ‘Set You Free’, that reached number two. Several months later, minus Kelly, they followed it with a tepid cover of ‘Staying Alive’, another number two, featuring a rap from Ricardo Da Force (fomerly with The KLF). In November they released an album, Electronic Pleasure, that used such a bewildering number of singers and models that On A Dance Tip Vol 5 has more cohesion. Kevin O’Toole and Dale Longworth, who formed N Trance four years ago, care not a jot. “At least nobody can pigeonhole us. Anyway, we keep having problems with singers — they get a bit prima donna and we have to fuck them off.” Bizarrely, they are obsessed with garnering critical acclaim from magazine. If they get round to releasing the slo-mo, ocean-powered ‘Softly Dragging Me Down’ as a single they might even get it. A gorgeous mish-mash of Snap and The Chemical Brothers (powerchords ahoy), it has a springtime top-three placing guaranteed.

Clock racked up three top-ten hits in 1995 with minimal media coverage. Instead, they played a mind-numbing 240 PAs. On stage they are the rather lippy ODC MC and the rather saucy Tinka, the classic boy/girl Euro set-up. While the weedier Eurogroove (‘Dive To Paradise’, ‘It’s On You’) seem British because they haven’t really got the hang of Europop, Clock succeeded by emphasising their roots. The brains behind Clock are Stu Allan, the Pete Tong of the North (on Piccadilly Radio in Manchester), and Peter Pritchard, a former jazz/soul musician who now runs the UK branch of Media Records, the Italian label responsible for Capella, Anitcapella, The 49ers and Clubhouse. “We take the Euro sound and give it a British twist by making it more, ummm… oik-ish,” says Pritchard. As such, Clock walk a fine line. ‘Axel F’ was an iffy idea (“Well, you should hear some of the demos Media gets sent. A dance version of ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?’ That was very, very bad”) but ‘Whoomph! There It Is’ hit the spot. A reworking of The Tag Team’s American hit ‘Whoomp! There It Is’, presumably the extra “h” was the oikish element. No question, Clock are the Glitter Band of new Euro. Pritchard and his Media partner Ian Dee also remix under the name Primax and produce a magazine, Eurotech, which claims to be “the European commercial dance magazine”. It has no competitors. “Major labels don’t understand,” says Dee, bizarrely echoing the cry of every indie group in the Eighties. “They try to copy a label like Eternal [home to Corona and Outhere Brothers] but they get it wrong by releasing crap records. Out of every 15 records made in Germany, 14 will be crap. The majors don’t understand why. It’s not something you can define, you just know.

The main problem for the growth of Europop in Britain is this country’s obsession with credibility. While name DJs were happy to play the likes of Cola Boy or Raul Orellana’s ‘The Real Wild House’ a few years ago, only the commercial clubs would dare play Euro now. Venturing further leftfield in the Nineties, the British have simply lost the knack of writing honest-to-goodness pop records. Ian Dee: “Britain has tons of talented people — JX, Paul Masterton, Matt Dairy — but none of them can write songs. It’s all window dressing.” Something has to give. Whether it comes from handbag, Nu-NRG, or a revitalised happy hardcore, a British response to Euro, complete with melodies, has got to be huge in ’96. Motiv 8’s mixes of ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’ for Pulp are pointing the way. We are powerless to resist. Like the lady says, “Paris, Ibiza, Barcelona, you’re a-dancing to Corona”.

© Bob StanleyThe Face, February 1996

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