12 June, 2006

Disco beat

Here are some of the most banal lyrics ever written:

See that girl? She's over there;
I don't need her, she don't care.
I could be one in a million;
It would be so good to start again.

Yet when heard set to music, they become some of the most beautiful. If you ever get a chance to listen to 'Some Distant Memory' by Electronic, you'll hopefully see something of what I mean. The juxtaposition of the acutely mundane and the pointedly melodic sets up what could be called an emotional paradox but one which is strangely, unashamedly appealing. It's also one that underscores some of the greatest pop music ever to come out of this country.

Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys once described this duality in slightly different terms as "a hard lyric, a soft tune" or "disco music with un-disco lyrics". He was referring specifically to the PSB's 'Suburbia', which is an undoubtedly more accomplished song than anything hailing from the musical pens of Electronic, but is still founded upon the same premise (and indeed Electronic wasn't merely just the plaything of New Order's Bernard Sumner and The Smiths' Johnny Marr, but Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe as well).

It's basically the resolving of two different styles - upbeat music, downbeat vocals - into a unique union, one that carries with it such emotional force that it always leaves me, for one, profoundly moved. I'd say it was something specific to the Pet Shop Boys, New Order and the work of their respective members, and it's also something near-specific to Britain. You could never ever get the same combination in America. For one thing there isn't just the same kind of melancholia as in the UK. And for another, there isn't the same kind of irony (or any kind, some might say).

Of course the entangling of electronic and emotion was conceived by Kraftwerk in what was then West Germany, but it's possible to argue it was Anglicised by David Bowie and Brian Eno (albeit in a series of albums recorded in Berlin). 'Sound And Vision' is a good example: jaunty, spiky electronica bubbling away underneath ambiguous, stark statements that end up sounding alternately content and sorrowful.

It was then the 1980s, the best decade for popular music ever (fact!), that elevated the peculiar marriage of English melancholy and German computers, by way of early American house music, to the mainstream and served up such a fantastic outpouring of doleful disco beats.

It's such an elegantly simple combination. Restrained sentiments being voiced to unrestrained sounds. Reserved commentary gracing unreserved music. And deep within its heart, the celebration of the stoical, the praising of the morose, the evocation of the British way of life.

As the PSBs themselves said, "we're The Smiths you can dance to." And, fortunately, still can.


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