A Potted History of Dance Music on British Television: Disco Ducks and Acid Explosions

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A Potted History of Dance Music on British Television: Disco Ducks and Acid Explosions

In the first of a three part series investigating how dance music and club culture invaded living rooms round the UK, Josh Baines charts the journey from disco to acid house on the small screen.
September 23, 2015, 11:26am

Last week I was lucky enough to speak to Farley Jackmaster Funk, the man who pretty much singlehandedly brought house music to the UK. House had been played in UK clubs by the time Farley hit our shores in 1986, sure, but when he and vocalist Daryl Pandy turned up at the BBC studios for a taping of Top of the Pops everything changed: house music, this radical import, this minority music, was here in the millions of nondescript suburban dwellings that make up the vast majority of the UK. People ate fish and chips in front of "Love Can't Turn Around" and everything changed forever.

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This, of course, wasn't the first time dance music had featured on British television. Dancing had been a staple of light entertainment programming since the medium was invented. As a nation of repressive fun-deniers who can only begin to entertain the idea of enjoyment after at least six pints, we're hardwired to prefer watching other people dancing to going out and doing it ourselves. If we can do it on the sofa with a cup of tea and a packet of custard creams, all the better. For an illuminating and comprehensive guide to the early days of dancing on UK television, I can't recommend Joe Moran's Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain In Front of the TV highly enough. And if you want to know when dancing became a "thing" over here, Dave Haslam's recently published Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs & Music Venues is an absolutely essential read. I digress. The point is, dancing has always been broadcast in Britain.

Dance music as we know it begins with disco. Given that, just like house, just like techno, just like everything that it begat, disco zipped from the depths of the underground into the beating heart of the mainstream via a journey from the club to the living room, it's unsurprising that YouTube and the like are littered with glorious (and not so glorious) examples of this dance music's gradual infiltration. While "Rock the Boat" by the Hues Corporation might be a truly execrable record it's an important one. Often cited as one of the first disco records — it's got all the generic hallmarks of disco even if it lacks any of the excitement, sexiness, or charm of classics like "Love Has Come Around" or "Dance Dance Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" — "Rock the Boat" is accordingly one of the first times that a home audience were treated to disco's myriad delights. The performance below, first broadcast on Top of the Pops in 1973, is an admittedly stilted affair, but it's significance can't be overstated. Just ignore the grinning visage of Jimmy Saville at the end.

That was it. That was the start of dance music, proper dance music, on television. In many ways, it's the archetypal example of how things would always be. Without the performative element of a 'live' band to act as a visual aid, dance acts — from the Hues Corporation to Axel F and the Crazy Frog gang — look lumpen, bored, uncomfortable. The transcendence of club life doesn't translate easily to the small screen. More of that later.

The early disco acts, who mutated from the ashes of the soul scene, weren't all as godawful as the aforementioned boat rockers. Check out George McCrae's spellbinding rendition of his classic "Rock Your Baby" for proof that it can be done well. It helps that the record's a fucking screamer but the stiltedness that hampered the Hues Corporation has vanished. McCrae is confident, personable, and, crucially, sexy as fuck. A nation of housewives can be heard quivering from here.

For the next few years Top of the Pops was stuffed with disco. Some of it was great — these performances by Chic, Heatwave, and a Legs & Co assisted Earth, Wind and Fire are as good as it gets — and some of it was utter guff of the highest, or lowest, order. This "Disco Duck" performance might be humanity's nadir. Disco rolled on, surviving demolition derbies and dumbing down. Then, somewhere along the line, the drum machine became king and boogie was born.

Boogie — that sweetly synthetic, chunky, chewy, utterly perfect sound — is an essential component of UK television's next taste of dance music. Skip forward to 1983 and a young DJ from Mersyside named Greg Wilson is on Channel 4's The Tube. For those too young to remember The Tube was the nascent youth broadcaster's anarchic take on Top of the Pops. It was like the BBC show's punky older brother. Or something. Anyway, Wilson stepped up to the decks and gave home viewers their first ever taste of actual DJing. With the aid of Jools Holland and a commentator ("It's the same record on both turntables. On the left hand turntable he's got the original version, on the other, he's following it one beat behind') Wilson demonstrates how to play the same record on two turntables and add some really unnecessary echo-effects to it. Luckily the record in question is "You Can't Hide (Your Love From Me)" by David Jospeh, a Larry Levan favourite and absolute Brit-funk boogie classic. Watch Greg do his weirdly clunky thing below.

It doesn't matter that the 'mixing' on show is a million miles away from the super clean, Serato assisted monotone mixing we know and tolerate today because the significance of the clip is that it's the first time such a thing had was viewable by people who didn't go to clubs. As unfathomable as it is to those of us who spend our weekends down there in the dark, most people don't. Most people don't go clubbing. Most people don't really care about it. For those people, Wilson was a link to a world outside of their own.

By the time house music rolled round, everyone knew about mixing. It wasn't until the arrival of Boiler Room that people decided to voluntarily sit at home watching DJs DJ though, so Wilson's set on The Tube was a curate's egg. Back then, and still to this day, the song was king on television. We've already mentioned it but there's genuinely never a bad time to watch the Farley Jackmaster Funk and Daryl Pandy performance on Top of the Pops from 1986, so here it is in all it's glory.

Other house acts appeared on British screens around that time and it wasn't just Top of the Pops or The Tube that supported them. Even dear old ITV got involved. Now, I'll defend ITV's popularist stance and dedication to the old fashioned variety show till the day I die, but not even I tend to think of it as a channel that pushed forward thinking electronic music — aside from Kylie doing "In Your Eyes" on CD:UK. There was, way back when, one exception to that.

The Hit Man and Her starred pop svengali and model train enthusiast Pete Waterman alongside future-Really Wild Show presenter Michaela Strachan. Michaela and Pete visited various clubs in the Granada region — the nebulous chunk of the North of England that received it's ITV signal from Granada — and filmed what they encountered. There were dancers and club hits, party games and more. It was clubland TV for the post-club crowd, often filmed on Saturday night and broadcast a few hours later, as sozzled and buzzing punters limply skinned up in their lounges. Check out this special edition of the show filmed at the Hacienda for a taste of what your mum and dad probably watched after caning the kind of ecstasy us youngsters can only dream of.

There's Nenah Cherry doing "Buffalo Stance" and some very, very fucked blokes singing "Living Doll" by Cliff Richard. There's prime footage of E'd up ravers losing it to the acidic sounds of yore ("I loved acid house and trance. I just absolutely adored it," Waterman told the Guardian a few years back) and a Tone Loc video. It's gloriously trashy, fun, brash, bold television and almost, almost, reflects the sheer joy most of us find, time to time at least, in clubs. Don't you, too, yearn for an era where you could get away with broadcasting a montage of monged out clubbers dragging themselves across the dancefloor to "Promised Land" by Joe Smooth? Of course you do.

The Hitman and Her nudges into the supposed glory days of acid house. Disco is dead. Techno's emerged from Detroit. Oakenfold the the boys have colonized Ibiza. Next week we'll look at how television reacted to the second summer of love and the generic mutations that followed.

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