“Ohh – that’s bad.” Any claim S’Express might make to pioneer status seems not to stand up – as people on the M/A/R/R/S thread were quick to point out, this kind of sample-dense cut-up was losing its novelty by Autumn ’87, and six months in dance music is a terribly long time. Mark Moore’s group increase the density of sampling, and make their borrowings more obvious, but what they also do is push the social context of this kind of sampladelic club track. Yes, there’s the predictable spaceships and stock footage in the video, and lots of odd shots of S’Express members miming to the samples, but all the shots of Moore himself and its lava-lamp lightshow imagery make the point that this isn’t a novelty record, or an aesthete’s studio project – “Theme From S’Express” is a record for and from a new kind of clubland, and a four-minute advert for it too.
The heart of “Theme” is that whacking great lift from Rose Royce’s “Is It Love You’re After”, a blast of reproof refitted as a simple, glorious call for action. The spine of it is that nagging acid tweak bouncing along in the rhythm, combining with the treated and clipped vocal samples to give the record its pushy urgency, its sense of hustling you. Don’t worry about where we got this stuff from – don’t worry about what it means – just dance! Those things are what make the record work as pop. The rest – all the kitschy little snips of dialogue – is flavour and ornament. So maybe S’Express were a little more innovative than you’d think, taking the thrust of sample-collage pop away from all that surface cleverness, switching-out the head-nodding hip-hop structures M/A/R/R/S and Coldcut worked within for something a lot more disco.
This was certainly how “Theme” felt at the time. A couple of months before my family’s lodger had brought home the February 1988 issue of The Face, with Jon Savage writing about the 70s as “The Decade That Taste Forgot”. The phrase stuck with me, as it was meant to: it’s still attached to articles and exhibitions about the era. I don’t remember the piece itself, but Savage is no simple foe of the 1970s – he was working on England’s Dreaming at the time, as much a celebration of 70s fringe and pop culture as of the whirlwind it produced. So there’s nuance in the phrase – the sense that “taste” might be a bad angel, that “taste” had done for the 80s in the end. At the same time there was enough simple resonance in it to erase that nuance if that’s how you wanted to play it. The renegotiation of the 70s was underway – awful or extraordinary or both – and “Theme From S’Express” fits right in, an early stab at the question “what do we do about disco?” in the way glam had approached rock’n’roll. “Theme” – like “Superfly Guy” and “Hey Music Lover” – is not just a modernisation of the 70s but an amplification of them, draining off the grey and leaving a day-glo collage. Taste didn’t forget this version of the 70s, it was driven off with a neon pitchfork. The most joyfully, calculatedly vulgar number one for years, laughing at you you for laughing when you could be dancing instead. “No – that’s GOOD.”