The 20 best bits from the dance music book of the year
Once upon a time, books about electronic dance music didn't come along very often. As a result, when early attempts to document the history of our culture did emerge – the likes of Sheryl Garrett's Adventures In Wonderland, Matthew Collins' Altered State and Jonathan Fleming's What Kind Of House Party Is This? – they were eagerly snapped up by all and sundry, and everybody read them.
These days, that landscape has changed considerably. Thanks in no small part to the emergence of small specialist publishers such as Velocity Press (the brainchild of former Knowledge mag proprietor Colin Stevens) and Music Mondays (headed up by happy hardcore legend Daniel 'Billy' Bunter), bookshop shelves are positively groaning with works that chart the history of dancefloor-oriented music in the period since Jack first got up on his box and declared “let there be house!”.
Entire books are now dedicated purely to the history of particular microgenres, while writing a memoir has become as essential a rite of passage for any time-served DJ/producer as it used to be for movie stars and politicians. This is a good thing, of course – our culture's worth documenting and taking seriously, after all. But it does make it harder for any one work to make the kind of impact that the seminal offerings mentioned above once did. So credit is most definitely due to our very own Harold Heath, whose Long Relationships, in which he recalls the trials and tribulations of 30-plus years at the dance music coalface, has undoubtedly been one of the most talked-about dance music books of recent times.
And why wouldn't it be? Never mind the superstars and their tales of glamour and excess – if you've ever played sparse, stripped-back US dubs to three people in a room above The Rose & Horseshoe, stood out in the rain all night handing out flyers or not slept properly for days because you were so excited about “sharing the bill” with some well-known spinner – even if they were headling the main room at 4am and you were had the 9-10pm warm-up slot in Room 3 – Long Relationships is basically the story of your life.
Only he's got a way with words, has our Harold, which means he probably tells it better than you do. Don't believe us? Then check out our pick of the 20 funniest, bitchiest and most poignant bits from the dance music book of the year…
On first hearing house music: “We thought this new music was cool, it was kind of like fast electro, but we had no idea what it would become, it was just the latest thing from the US. With much head-shaking and a palpable pity for us, my older bro Si and his mates Nigel and Haggerty informed us that it clearly wasn’t music, not proper music, we were idiots. They grinned knowingly to each other, feeling sorry for us because when they were young, music was so much better. They sounded exactly the same as most DJs my age when they listen to grime.”
On DJing: “What other job can compare to when your hands are shaking with sublime anticipation because you know that the next tune you’re about to drop, the one you spent three months tracking down, is going to make an entire room of people throw their hands in the air with a collective shriek of joy? Where else are you going to get that sense of community, transcendence and sheer freedom that you get when a good party truly goes off? It’s irresistible. “
On dancefloor eccentics: “A guy we used to rave with called Goober, probably not his real name now I think about it, he used to get so into the rave, he’d start doing star jumps or drop to the floor to do some push-ups. In the middle of a packed, near pitch-black warehouse, the sounds of fledging hardcore enveloping us, the strobe playing tricks on your eyes anyway, and wait, is there a guy over there doing gymnastics? He’d catch himself and look sheepish, apologise to people who couldn’t hear him and didn’t care and then soon find himself star jumping again.”
On trainwrecking: “I remember once furiously giving a record the finger mid-gig and saying to it in all seriousness, 'Fuck you, you fucking fucker' after it had drifted out of time whilst I was mixing in a club, something I was happy to hear a friend of mine report they had seen DJ Richie Hawtin do a few years later.”
On brushes with gangland: “We once found ourselves in the back room at the end of a night, surrounded by piles of cash and bags of drugs. All the security crew were crowded in this tiny office, and they’re all fucking huge, all doing coke off big shiny knives that they all have just produced from inside the black leather jackets they’re all wearing. At one point one of us, can’t remember who, probably Wolfie, asked them if they’d seen that episode of US sitcom Friends where Ross and Chandler get bullied at Central Perk. They hadn’t.”
On getting offered gigs: “I came away from many early gigs with a clutch of work offers that mostly came to nothing. … It only took a couple of years for me to realise that job offers made at four in the morning from people on drugs should be taken with a pinch of salt.”
On B2B sets: “My DJ partner was reading the crowd perfectly, tune after tune, and had just put on another corker. I’m flipping through my record box looking for the next selection and there it is, the perfect track to mix with this one. … I pitch it up, cue it, ride the crossfade and mix it in. And I’m thinking, 'This sounds brilliant, it fits together with the last track perfectly, I’m on fire tonight'. And then as I complete the mix and hand him back his record, I realise that the reason it sounds so perfect and fits together so well with the other tune is that the record I’ve chosen is, in fact, the exact same record that was already playing.”
On boat parties: “A DJ’s experience of boat parties is related precisely to their position in the DJ pyramid. For those near the top, a boat party might mean gently cruising the Adriatic coast, DJing on a pair of solid gold decks to lots of beautiful people in expensive sunglasses. When I hear 'boat party', I think of a fat, greasy barge, moored near Embankment tube station in London, split level, each with its own unique variant on the damp-smell template.”
On the pitfalls of psychedelic drugs: “Fannah and Crofty once convinced themselves on an LSD-flavoured walk home that they were about to be the victims of what Fannah later described as a 'high-level organised mugging'. Their response to the threat was to simply lie on the pavement, place their wallets on their chests and fearfully chant 'We mean you no harm'.”
On record shopping: "I used to watch with genuine envy when someone could just swan into Black Market in Soho and be handed a bag of pristine new releases, imports, promos, white labels and rarities that had been saved for them. Along with being sent promos, having a record shop assistant keep a bag of new tunes behind the counter for you was the dream we all aspired to. Eventually, I would achieve bag-held-behind-the-counter-for-me level, but only at Cruisin’ Records in Welling, not in any of the Soho shops. This was a clear reflection of my place in the DJ hierarchy."
On US house music: “Someone once told me that the difference in voltages in the electricity supplies of the UK and the US contributed something to the variation in sound between UK and US house records. Whatever the explanation, there was something in those American records, some bit of sonic magic nestling in the gaps between the heavily swung hi-hats, claps and kicks that dance floors just couldn’t seem to resist.”
On nobody we recognise, honest… “Johnno was a true house obsessive. He would play you a record, tell you why it was great, then stare at you intently, waiting for the part that made it great to happen so that he could nod in affirmation, yep, that was still the bit that made it great.”
On audio formats: “Format was utterly irrelevant, never mattered. Still doesn’t really, it’s the music that possesses the magic, not the delivery system. Hasn’t stopped DJs arguing about formats ALL THE TIME FOREVER INTO AN ENDLESS ETERNITY though.”
On mobile DJs: “Mobile DJs had to play the hits and the classics. Never a B-side, never an album track, just what people knew. They got on the mic to make announcements, if someone’s car was blocked in, or to wish Natalie a happy birthday. They played Oops Upside Your Head by The Gap Band and got everyone to sit down and row an imaginary disco boat.”
On pearls and swine: “A DJ friend of mine once got himself a gig at legendary New York club… He was playing his tunes and a girl came up to the booth. 'What kind of music do you call this?' she politely asked. He smiled a wry smile and said, 'Deep house,' to which she responded, 'Right, because I call it shit'.”
On the move into production: “Sometime in the mid-90s, I’d made some rudimentary tracks round Slim Jim’s house. In fact, I had even made a tune ‘for’ my then-girlfriend for her birthday. Yes, I actually did that, I spent a bunch of evenings around Jim’s house where he lived with his mum and dad, telling him what I wanted him to do on Logic, then gave a cassette of the recording to my poor girlfriend as though that were a decent present. I think I got her something else too, an actual present rather than just a fuzzy recording of some conga loops and an acid bassline. I hope I did.”
On playing your own music out for the first time: “Why was that synth noise so loud? And what was it doing there anyway? What had I been thinking? And that hi-hat pattern is literally stupid, it might be the stupidest hi-hat pattern that was ever programmed. … I decided that I was an awful producer and that this, my best work to date, which had been signed to a respectable techno label as part of a five-track deal, was actually really poor and I was just an imposter. It was probably for the best if I just retired to join a monastery and spend my days self-flagellating in lifelong remorse and recrimination at my abject failure. Fannah suggested that I might be over-thinking it and that I should get the drinks in.”
On the rise of EDM: “It’s easy to rail against EDM, and forget that countless kids actually really loved PLUR and the synced pyrotechnic EDM shows. For some of them, it was a route into more underground scenes, the kind of scenes that could pass my music-snob test. But it’s easy to rail against it because it was a cultural bed-shitting of epic proportions. Having invented house, techno and hip-hop, the US seemingly decided to take a massive turd on their beautiful, life-changing, epoch-defining cultural creations and create EDM. Parts of Europe really ran with it too – don’t think we didn’t notice, Sweden and Holland.”
On the dawn of social media: “People began to refer to the corner of their bedroom that contained a rickety desk, pair of monitors and a laptop as their ‘studio’, and then simply as ‘the lab’. Most of all, every Sunday there was a stream of 'Thanks to everyone who came down last night' posts from DJs who had warmed up from eight till nine at their local wine bar. This became the new normal.”
On life post-DJing: “I still listen fanatically to new music and to old music, still put together playlists, create DJ mixes at home, and listen to tunes in terms of where they might work in a DJ set. … I forget that most people didn’t spend hours, days and weeks of their lives in record shops looking for tunes or spend their weekends in clubs and raves. This isn’t most people’s lives, it was ours.”
Words: Russell Deeks, Harold Heath
Long Relationships is out now, published by Velocity Press. Buy it from their online store.