Posts from 4th October 1999

4
Oct 99

61. BASEMENT JAXX – “Red Alert”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Slick, slinky and successful, Basement Jaxx pretty much define dance music good taste, ’99 vintage. But then ‘good taste’ is hardly what dance music is about. The ideas of sample connoisseurship that drive competition in, say, hip-hop – the whole ‘digging in the crates’ ethos – don’t seem to work so well on the club floor. One reason why hip-hop found favour so quickly with the rock-oriented critical establishment is that its overt reverence for old records and old beats chimed well with the critic’s typical affection for the obscure and the lost.

Club music, though it has its set of historical fetish-objects, at its finest doesn’t share that respect for the past. The remix means that club classics are never simply resurrected, always restyled, and the pursuit of new sound is what’s kept the music more or less fresh over ten years. The best dance music is a perfect enactment of pop’s glorious central contradiction – that it’s a music which is immortally ephemeral. A life-changing single like “Surfin’ Bird” sounds like the sheerest disposable trash the first time you hear it, but then crucially keeps that feeling every single other time too, so that in 2200 people will still be marvelling at its awesome, amped, infectious, idiocy when lack of a long-forgotten cultural context has rendered Beggar’s Banquet as well-regarded but fustian as The Beggar’s Opera. So that’s my take on ‘posterity’.

Put simply, a lot of music is just trying too hard. Which brings us back to Basement Jaxx, who came out of exactly the kind of taste-first, influence-checking scene that threatens to ossify dance music; ‘nu house’ producers whose main concern was to replicate the methods and sounds of the New York musicians they idolised, who in turn were concerned to make house’s elementary, universal four-four beat more classy (and less compulsive). Whether Basement Jaxx simply got bored of this sort of thing or whether the sheer kinetics of house music resisted their attempt to gussy it up, I have no idea, but “Red Alert” is the glorious sound of immaculate producers throwing taste to the wind and letting sound run riot and roughshod over their sophisticated tracks. Any one of the ideas on “Red Alert” – the distorted bassoid noise, the P-Funk squeals, the string break, the diva vox, the thousands of chaotic touches – would have on its own made for a delightful, forgettable piece of pastiche. Together, jammed up against one another, they made for a perfect crossover record, the best high-fashion dance track for years.