When Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles died last week, a novelty number by a Brylcreemed Aussie pop punk group had just reached number one. It displaced Duke Dumont & Jax Jones’s I Got U and ended a three week-run of house singles at the top of the charts. I suspect the following statement may piss off dance nerds, but it’s fair to say that Knuckles had as much claim as anyone to having ‘invented’ house music thirty odd years ago. Essentially, he took the kitsch out of disco and turned it into a synthesiser-heavy global brand. Was it worth the effort, though?
Frankie Knuckles and the other Chicago house pioneers made some genuinely great music. For one thing, they understood that the point of a remix was to turn a song into something you might want to dance to (the threat of the photos cropping up on Instagram was just a sci-fi dream). His early records were stripped back, imaginative and exciting. And although tracks like Baby Wants to Ride sound dated now, the sheen of naffness that comes with age is actually quite charming. In any case, he was producing stuff that avoided the usual clichés of the ageing DJ well into his fifties.
House has never actually been this popular, which is impressive given that I grew up associating it with FCUK adverts – its euphoric piano riffs and insistent beats made it instantly popular with yoof TV producers. But the term itself – which apparently comes from the Warehouse, a club Knuckles ran in the mid-80s – means a lot of things to a lot of people. Think of an adjective and the chances are it will work as a sub-generic prefix (though to my knowledge, no wag has yet thrown a lute into the mix for an instant ‘mock Tudor’ punchline.)
But (if you’ll excuse the pseudo pun) I’d say that most of the house producers he inspired come out with Barrett homes like Tears or Your Love. Investigate those three recent number ones (the other two being Route 94’s My Love and DVBBS & Borgeous’s Tsunami): none of them have much in common, but all fit comfortably under a dictionary definition of ‘mediocre’.
The biggest hits at the minute are coming from acts like Deadmau5, Avicii and Swedish House Mafia. If you’ve never had the pleasure, this stuff – which the Americans call ‘EDM’ – is witless eurocrap that has an odd ability to make any room it’s played in smell like Lynx Africa. It’s a return to the ultra-cheesy stadium dance of the late 1990s. To invert the Modernist mantra, it makes the absolute worst of contemporary possibilities.
On the other hand, the massive success of British duo Disclosure, whose music shares at least some of the adventurousness and odd fragility of what Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers and Jamie Principle were doing in the late 1980s, is genuinely encouraging. Sure, it’ll be ruined by the time it soundtracks the credits to a Gok Wan vehicle in six months, but as mainstream dance music goes, it’s about as un-embarrassing as it gets.
Forget the dross, the anal categorisations, the truly horrendous clothes. Forget, if you can (it’s a stretch), the berks who stand around in clubs shouting ‘tuuuuuune!’ Condemning Frankie Knuckles for all this would be like blaming Socrates for The Jeremy Kyle Show.