Burn The Dancefloor: The Raucous History of Dance Punk

Dance-Punk may be a genre you haven’t heard of before. That might well be due to the fact it’s not a genre, and what? That doesn’t even make sense? Dance. Punk? What does the rebellious grime of punk have to do with the glamorous strut of disco, or worse, Diplo? But it is also, undeniably, a thing. Inconcrete and still the subject of much debate, yes: but the music the term is used to define stretches across two of the most iconic eras of popular music. It thrived in the New York punk underground of the late 1970s, and saw an even grimier revival at the start of the 21st century, where bands like The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs became pin-ups for a new generation. Dance-Punk also contains some of the most confident and potent music ever laid to wax, in the form of the Talking Heads, LCD Soundsystem and New Order. 

The fact that most of its finest music was produced in two distinct periods of time, and the specificity of its New York-roots, have left Dance-Punk cocooned as a “scene”: a concept so alien to anyone who started seriously listening to music after the release of the iPhone that it might as well come etched on a scroll. The musicianship is undeniable, but exploring it can feel more like embarking on an archaeological dig. These songs and albums are enduring though: a thrilling melting-pot of ideas which span funk, punk, dance, disco, synth-pop and acid-house, producing some of the finest grooves ever recorded, all with an attitude more capital-P Punk than the so-called ‘political’ bands whose names ended upon on MasterCards. 

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One of the strongest impressions is that, in both its original form and it’s revival, Dance-Punk emerged in times where the zeitgeist was in need of some serious lightening up. One of the genres’ touchstoneLPs was 1979’s Entertainment by Gang Of Four: a record which already embodied much of what would come to define the genre. Dave Allen’s bass lines on ‘Damaged Goods’ strut around its melody in a way that reminds more of the funk of James Brown than the clatter of the Slits, and ‘Return The Gift’ compliments Jon King’s sardonic vocals with a tight, disco rhythm. In 1979, when crates of disco records were being burnt in protest, this was more of a rebellion than any wallet-chain.

In the same year, the sounds which would come to distinguish Dance-Punk from Rock were being built in Stockport, of all places. Mancunian punk outfit Joy Division went into the sessions for their debut album Unknown Pleasures with the intention of making brash, immediate music in the Sex Pistols vein. Factory Records producer Martin Hannett had other ideas. On a stew of various toxic drug habits, Hannett introduced the band to the Synare, one of the first drum synthesizers, which he would emulate by getting their drummer Stephen Morris to play one drum at a time to prevent any bleeding and capture a dry, static drum tone. It was these drums which were almost exclusively deployed when the genre made a comeback in the early 2000s: the motoric rhythm providing a backbone around which to groove. 

Gang Of Four and Joy Division did not make music like Earth Wind & Fire – about a million miles from it – but the fore-fronting of the rhythm section and the bass guitar gave the songs a groove. That’s what made them different from the Ramones and the Clash: you could jump around and catch some spit in your face to that stuff, but it didn’t get you in the hips. ‘She’s Lost Control’, and ‘Grinding Halt’ by The Cure: they got you in the hips. 

After Ian Curtis died, the rest of the band continued to record as New Order, whose debut LP Movement continued the vein of atmospheric post-punk they produced as Joy Division. The men had a handful of iconic albums to their name, but by 1981 were still only a few years into their careers, with developing tastes and a hunger for new sounds. The New York scene would prove to be crucial in their development, with the band visiting dance clubs in the city in 1980 and 1981. There they discovered Italian disco and electro, and it was no surprise when their next singles, ‘Temptation’ and ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ were electrified by a dance-orientated sound. The band dived head-first into this new direction. 

The thrilling, expansive singles New Order began releasing at that time is testament to one of Dance-Punk’s finest features: it’s ability to go to far more places than a standard four-minute rock song could allow. These songs were six or even seventeen minutes long, which proved a trademark feature of the 2000-revivals’ greatest treasures; committing to a groove and digging deeper. The blending of genres in Dance-Punk is what makes the genre so exciting: the heady rush of pop music and disco blended with the grime of punk music kept both feet pinned to the floor, while disco lost its head in clouds of excess just as the US entered recession.

However, while acts like The Pop Group and Suicide did throw sounds together like few punk bands had before, it’s worth mentioning bands like Funkadelic, who five years earlier were already skipping genre-lines like a line of rope. Just listen to ‘Get Off Your Ass and Jam’ or even the very name of the barn-burning ‘Who Said A Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?!’ and see them bring hard-rock guitars under a tight dance rhythm in the way LCD Soundsystem still does today. It may not have been Dance-Punk, but as white bands have often done throughout the history of popular music, when ideas ran dry, they borrowed: and brought life back into the whole enterprise. 

Life was wrought though, and for a few years those who had declared ‘rock n roll’ dead were making some of the most exciting music in a decade. Much of it, like the instrumental clatter of Liquid Liquid and James Chance & The Contortionists was noisy, based around riffs repeated into a tight groove: a whole genre based on the shaky foundation of loose wrists clattering a drum-stick against a hi-hat. The New York punk scene may have spat out the Ramones, but it also improbably unleashed the Talking Heads, where David Byrne’s guitar played around the Tina Weymouth’s jaunty bass-lines.

On Remain In Light tracks like ‘Born Under Punches’ melded the same flair for ominous dance music with an Afrobeat influence. Much of this was guided by the remarkably omniscient influence of Brian Eno, who showcased the emerging No-Wave scene in New York on the No New York compilation. However, while some of these artists explored the dance-orientated route, others such as Glenn Braca, The Swans and Sonic Youth took things in a darker, more experimental direction – which would soon come to dominate the underground and the mainstream in the coming decade. Dance-Punk went dormant, buried under the thrilling waves of hip-hop, house and grunge. 

Why did the style re-emerge in the late 1990s then? The most obvious answer is that the fans of the Gang Of Four and ESG and New Order… they grew up. The second answer is that, as new musicians tend to be, they were fed up of the status quo. Just as punk had burnt through The Clash and turned into Crass, so too had the likes of Pavement and Nirvana given way to a certain malaise. In Meet Me In The Bathroom James Murphy and Juan Maclean each tell stories of arriving in New York City expecting to find the scene which birthed Liquid Liquid and instead found dead-end House music, and tired indie rock bands. Hence Juan helped form Six Finger Satellite, the first notable band of the 1990s to start using disco rhythm sections and angular guitars once more. James Murphy was their sound engineer, and the man who would almost single-handedly engineer the entire revival.

Looking at the Dance-Punk bands who blew up the 2000s, it’s amazing how incestuous they turn out to be. Hot Chip contains Al Doyle of LCD Soundsystem, Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy of DFA Records engineered the one great The Rapture album Echoes, and the latter also produced the dance-heavy Reflektor by Arcade Fire in 2013. Dance-punk as it exists in 21st century can look like a take-over ploy of a few over-eager record collectors from Brooklyn. Together with Tim Goldsworthy from UK house act UNKLE, Murphy formed DFA, a label based on the premise of being fed up with indie-rock music.

Marcus Lambkin of Shit Robot recalls learning of the Dance-Punk pedigree of much of the house music of the 1990s from them. He recalls trying to convince Murphy about the House music he was rubbishing and James would tell him “no, that’s Liquid Liquid, that’s Suicide, that’s Silver Apples, that’s Can”. If the great music which came at the end of the 70s was predicated upon the notion of forcing together the genres of disco and post-punk then James was ‘that guy’, telling stories of playing The Stooges at techno nights and “Daft Punk to the rock kids”. 

DFA started their revolution, and the whole Dance-Punk revival, by signing The Rapture, an American indie-rock act whose raucous aesthetic was malleable to the clattering sound which DFA-sought. The first single produced by the duo and the band, ‘House Of Jealous Lovers’, is a masterpiece of guitar wail, sulking baseline and more cow-bell than you can shake a stick at. It fit sublimely into a landscape of new New York cool, with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes just taking hold. In the newly written history of the era, The Rapture is talked of as one of the revival’s most exciting opportunities, and it’s biggest failure. In 2004 they signed to Universal for 1.8 million dollars, lost the production team which made them the most thrilling band on the planet, and have made two records since. James Murphy, furious, but able to produce, play almost every instrument he needed and with strong ideas about what rock needed, decided to start his own band. 

LCD Soundsystem is arguably Dance-Punk’s defining act. From their angular guitars to their analogue synths, their acid-house breakdowns to Murphy’s derisive vocals, rarely has a band so completely embodied the many facets of the genre to which is belongs. LCD Soundsystem makes dance music to be sad to, and punk music to get down to, and has done it over the course of four iconic albums. It’s no coincidence that they embody the genre’s aesthetics so well either: Moby described the band as “music as journalism” and indeed their songs shoot through influences like the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music – a little Talking Heads with a Robert Fripp guitar-lick and Alan Vega synths. In fact their first single, ‘Losing My Edge’, contains a section in which it’s maker literally howls out a list of his favourite acts, from Scott Walker to Soft Cell. LCD Soundsystem’s greatest achievement is sounding at times like every one of them, and yet completely themselves. 

The band also embody the ethos of genre-bending: just look at song ‘Yeah’, a song Murphy says almost killed him, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s two parts running at 20 minutes in total, starting with the clavinet of 70s R&B, through the groove of ESG and climaxing with the punishing squarks of the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk: it’s a song which takes the listener through an odyssey of influences and 30 years of musical history. If the Talking Heads and The B52s brought dance into their wheelhouse, it was the years of electronic music from the acid house scene which revitalised the rock music of the 90s in the form of brand new Dance-Punk, with bands like Dance Macabre adding fat synths to their angular guitars. 

The very structure of songs within the genre is what adds to the cerebral malaise which helps to distinguish Dance-Punk from the dance music which had its moment when EDM exploded a decade ago, and still reigns today in the drops of tracks like Dua Lipa’s ‘New Rules’. The lyrics and structure of songs by !!! or Death From Above 1979 aren’t a million miles from the kind of ballads produced by The National or Radiohead, but they’re delivered over intensely danceable rhythm and percussion sections – imbuing the music of the entire scene with a worrisome sense of alienation, like a middle-aged raver staring slack jawed amongst a sea of teenagers at a party he has no right to be at. Hell, that’s pretty much the narrative of ‘All My Friends’. In it Murphy cries “and with a face like a dad and a laughable stand/You can sleep on the plane or review what you said When you’re drunk and the kids look impossibly tanned/You think over and over, “Hey, I’m finally dead””. It’s a lineage which stretches through the numbness of Hot Chips’ ‘Over & Over’ and the thick veil of irony which muddied almost every Talking Heads cut. It’s the air of angst and paranoia which keeps the ‘punk’ mentality ever-present, holding on to the original scenes’ outsider status, far from the ecstasy thrust forth when Chic chanted “he’s the greatest dancer”! 

LCD Soundsystem is also a useful band for picking apart the DNA of a Dance-Punk song because, if you listen to one of their cuts, more often than not you hear the very blueprint for the song as it unfolds from your speakers. Murphy introduces the drums, then the percussion, then a synth line and the lead guitar offers some licks – it isn’t until the bass comes in that his vocals begin and the songs blow wide open. The initial rhythm, constructed before our very ears, often stays put for six minutes, or even ten: it’s what forms the core of ‘Dance Yrself Clean’, ‘Home’ and ‘How Do You Sleep’. Murphy has even citied specific tracks as inspiration, saying that with their defining ‘All My Friends’ “I was purposefully trying to chase a feeling I got from Joy Division’s ‘Transmission,’ which starts off so gentle, and becomes so fucking overwhelming. By the time he’s going “dance, dance, dance to the radio!” your head’s exploding”. For a few years from 2001-2007, Dance-Punk was everywhere, defining smash hits even in the UK such as Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Take Me Out’ and Bloc Party’s debut Silent Shout. Like the entire New York scene at the start of the century, it didn’t last forever, but it certainly made itself heard. 

Despite the very brief few years of it’s revival more than a decade ago, and the mere handful of bands who still play it, Dance-Punk should be remembered as one of the defining sounds of the 21st century so far, if only because it’s so 21st century. It plays right into the hands of the dinosaurs who roam the Earth, bemoaning the modern era’s lack of musical identity. Say “1980s” and it evokes synth-pop, gated reverb and shredding guitars. The 90s boats competing sounds of denim-adorned grunge guitars and gangster rap, but eye-rolling rockers bemoan the way musical becomes an indistinct fog in the year 2000. What defined it? Indie-rock, bling-era rap, ‘poptimism’, the short-lived folk-revival? Aside from the increasing proliferation and availability of music since the age of Napster, perhaps it was the scene which emerged in New York City at the start of new millennium – itself a hodgepodge of punk, garage rock, acid house, dance and disco – whose many features only made sense under the umbrella of one paradoxical name: Dance-Punk. It’s one of the reasons there are no rock bands left: the Foals, the 1975… they play dance music as much as they do rock. If Dance-Punk isn’t a style at the front of everyone’s mind’s today, perhaps it’s because its ethos is just about everywhere.

You can find my rough audio-guide to the entire history of Dance-Punk here:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/playlist/burn-the-dancefloor-a-raucous-history-of-dance-punk/pl.u-j9q9FdVkZ5A

Words By Liam Inscoe – Jones

2 thoughts on “Burn The Dancefloor: The Raucous History of Dance Punk

  1. A fun read with some nice writing. Could probably use a bit more editing – “Franz Ferdiand,” “Bloc Party’s Silent Shout,” it’s vs its, the typo in the title itself, etc. The first few lines made me wince, but that might just be because I’m a fan of the genre/wave. Have you heard Franz Ferdinand’s latest album? I quite liked it.

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