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Jun 10

S’EXPRESS – “Theme From S’Express”

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#607, 30th April 1988, video

“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.”

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  1. 26
    Rory on 5 Jun 2010 #

    A number 9 hit in Australia on the AMR chart, number 11 on ARIA. I’d never heard this as far as I can remember, but its essence is certainly familiar: the start of a sound that took over Britain for a few years and was only starting to fade when I spent a year here in 1991-92. Can you feel nostalgia for a track you’ve never heard? That’s what I’m getting from this, rather than personal memories of its chart-topping dance-floor impact, so for me it’s a modest 6.

  2. 27
    swanstep on 5 Jun 2010 #

    @taDOW, 25. I’m with you in vastly preferring classic Kaleidoscope/Juju Siouxsie, but from that much more patchy later period, Peekaboo rides high I think. All the backwards rhythm track stuff means that when Peek. comes on at a club even now it *really* pops – nothing else has ever sounded quite like it, and it’s head-snapping. I share your reservations about MC Lyte’s part in Sinead’s track – it feels well-intended more than anything else – but Sinead’s bits more than make up for that mis-step, or so it seems to me. Anyhow, as for your final remarks: tom-score(Eye of the Tiger) = 6. That’s about where s-express belongs in my view, but Popular love for everything Hi-NRG through to Acid House (it feels like there’s a seperate, median=7 scoring curve for that!) won’t allow that.

    @Tom. Good to hear your Pixies alterna-score. I just checked and Surfer Rosa was really a v. big album in the UK in 1988/9 – 60 weeks near the top of the indie charts apparently. Such a shame that they didn’t get that faster UK spin-cycle -> single crossover that has often happened for weirder US acts (from Scott walker to Blondie to the white stripes).

  3. 28
    Chris on 5 Jun 2010 #

    Theme definitely has a much more ‘pop’ sensibility than Pump Up The Volume, leaning away from the hip-hop stylings of earlier sample hits towards acid house and what would be Italian House. This was perhaps one of the first ‘house hits’ that had a much wider appeal. Pop kids and even mums could get into this. Perhaps coming from the gay scene meant Mark Moore had more pop nouse and wanted a bit more melody? It certainly paid off.

    While a lot of tracks from this time have disembodied vocal snippets that make you cringe, nothing about Theme now sounds out of place; ‘Drop that ghettoblaster!’ ‘Oh, that’s bad….no, that’s good’…amazing, and still get howls of recognition around pub tables. Well, they do for me.

    S’Express also seemed to embrace coverage in the likes of Smash Hits, and as mentioned by Lonepilgrim, were fantastic on TOTP and actually gave a PERFORMANCE as opposed to standing by turntables looking uncomfortable. This was House with a capital P. (For Pop, that is. Oh, never mind)

    Anyway, great stuff,and the follow ups were also excellent and varied, but avoid the pointless remixes from 1996, they’re bloody awful. I will also give it 9.

  4. 29
    LondonLee on 5 Jun 2010 #

    Much as I enjoy this and others like it there’s always this little soul snob voice in my head tut-tutting over someone ripping off an old classic for profit, especially when it relies so heavily on the one sample. I had the same problem with Beyonce’s ‘Crazy For Love’

    ‘Is it Love You’re After’ was reissued in the wake of this and I remember Chris Tarrant playing it on Capital one morning and accusing Rose Royce of ripping off S’Express!

  5. 30
    Conrad on 5 Jun 2010 #

    A fabulous pop single – joyous, inventive, danceable, crammed to bursting with interesting ideas.
    The best Number 1 in a long, long while.

    Bought “Original Soundtrack” – it had some very fine moments indeed, Pimps, Pushers and Prostitutes anticipating in feel if not perhaps sonically, Tricky and Portishead.

  6. 31
    koganbot on 6 Jun 2010 #

    The most joyfully, calculatedly vulgar number one for years, laughing at you for laughing when you could be dancing instead.

    I was going to say that only a Brit could find this song vulgar, but then “calculatedly” is your money word (or get-out-of-jail-free card) here; “Theme From S’Express” is vastly more acceptably hip and pomo and studied and safe for the intelligentsia than “I Think We’re Alone Now” is, for instance, or unbunnied American number ones from 1988 such as “Could’ve Been,” “Seasons Change,” “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car,” “The Flame,” “Hold On To The Nights,” “Wild, Wild West,” “Bad Medicine,” and “Baby I Love Your Way/Freebird” (I’d add “Look Away” and “Groovy Kind Of Love” except that I don’t remember what they sound like). As such it is joyous, and made my P&J honorable mention top 30, but a lot of real disco – not to mention 1988 girl twirl and freestyle and Miami Sound – soundly trounces it, as does stuff that ruled Dial MTV all summer, like “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”

    Of course, what is perceived as “safe” or “vulgar” depends greatly on one’s own particular social location, and I’d guess that at the time you didn’t have to endure panel discussions that cited “Pump Up The Volume” and quoted Lautréamont.

  7. 32
    Kat but logged out innit on 6 Jun 2010 #

    Not for nothing was this included on the original Best Dance Album In The World…Ever! (which I took to be the canonical list of post-1988 dance tracks and was not disappointed). Whenever I think it’s on the verge of becoming boring something different turns up (bassline, cowbell, drop that ghettoblaster, OWWWWWWWWWWW!) and saves the day. S’Express is totally invaluable for me when DJing, it’s not as overplayed as eg SL2, yet as far as I can gather everyone born in the early 80s twigs those opening chords as “HERE ARE THE NEWS HEADLINES: TONIGHT BOSH BREAKS OUT OVER THE UK” and scrambles to the dancefloor to hear what Moira Stuart has to say.

  8. 33
    taDOW on 6 Jun 2010 #

    “hold on to the nights” and “the flame” (a diane warren ballad by powerpop vets – could anything be more calculated?) are way more studied and safe and less vulgar than “s-express”, nevermind the canny ac crossover moves by tiffany or expose, and i can’t imagine some old dumont type sniffing you’d need to take drugs or – heaven forbid – dance to enjoy post-cetera chicago or post-sussudio collins. as something i had to seek out then and encounter only by freak circumstances now i do wonder if its vulgarity would be a lot less charming if i’d been exposed to it as an omnipresent #1 – it’s a precursor to big beat and bloghouse, with heavy tacky hooks but no hips (a club version of a michael bay movie), and i could see myself loving it initially only to have heavy buyer’s remorse w/ repeated exposure. definitely happened w/ “d.a.n.c.e.”.

  9. 34
    Billy Smart on 6 Jun 2010 #

    Re:32 – “HERE ARE THE NEWS HEADLINES: TONIGHT BOSH BREAKS OUT OVER THE UK”

    Ever heard this, Kat?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSJ-ZF6f6hQ

  10. 35
    DietMondrian on 7 Jun 2010 #

    I never quite warmed to this song – it always seemed to me a bit ordinary next to Pump Up the Volume. And I don’t even get a Proustian nostaglic rush on hearing it now. It’s OK, but…meh.

  11. 36
    Steve Mannion on 7 Jun 2010 #

    I’m sure this song’s success provoked a lot of ire among funk, disco and house purists at the time, as pretty much any UK dance #1 would. What surprises me is that I like all of the early Disco/House-based chart-toppers up until a cover version from 1992 which I was old enough to reject then and never reconsidered.

  12. 37
    The leveller on 7 Jun 2010 #

    Reminds me of a review of Reservoir Dogs – ‘an awesome, pumping powerhouse of a movie’ and like the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously either. Nine for me…

  13. 38
    vinylscot on 7 Jun 2010 #

    Surely there’s a bit of rose-tinted retro-fitting going on in this thread.

    Was this not seen as a joke, or at best a poor man’s effort at something PUTV-like?

    I really don’t remember much love for it at the time; it wasn’t really my scene, but I thought then (and still do now) that it’s just a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Not even style over substance, because there isn’t much style there. Often with songs I dislike, I can still appreciate what they’re trying to do, but not with this one, I’m afraid.

  14. 39
    pink champale on 7 Jun 2010 #

    no retro-fitting here – instantly and ever since i’ve thought this was very brilliant indeed. i’d say it’s an extrovert’s take on ‘pump up the volume’, rather than a poor man’s – a party not an exhibition.

  15. 40
    Mike Atkinson on 7 Jun 2010 #

    No retro-fitting here, either: everyone I knew loved this, and I don’t recall reading anything critical. A colourful, campy cartoon which perfectly caught the moment. (See also Deee-Lite, which may or may not be bunny-embargoed; I recently lobbied for its inclusion!)

  16. 41
    thefatgit on 7 Jun 2010 #

    At the risk of coming over all ignint: what is this BOSH I hear people speak of?

  17. 42
    taDOW on 7 Jun 2010 #

    bosh = chris bosh, power forward for the raptors until he signs w/ someone else (chicago? ny?) or maaaaybe does a sign ‘n’ trade somewhere else (word is lakers at the front here); the rumor is wherever he signs, that’s where lebron’s signing.

  18. 43
    johnnyo on 8 Jun 2010 #

    42 – at the risk of completely derailing this thread, and as a cleveland native, i beg you to pretend that lebron is going to re-sign with cleveland…at least while in my presence!

    as far as this tune goes, i can see both sides of this debate. it is irreverent and fun but also a bit of a dog’s breakfast. in this regard, it reminds me of a certain embargo’d #1 from ’94 about a scrooge-like character who has dropped in to tell us that a certain classified substance is “goode”.

  19. 44
    Erithian on 8 Jun 2010 #

    Footage from NASA – check. Hot chick pretending to sing the sampled bit – check. Jackdaw-like tendencies towards various other works – check. I don’t object too much to sampling if you’re going to do something original with it, but building a track around a pile of samples is where I departed from the project. That hook is fine in itself, and indeed in moments of weakness I enjoy this track, but think less of it once I hear the original. It’s an argument we’ll no doubt return to, but for me this just doesn’t have the richness of imagination or creativity of M/A/R/R/S.

  20. 45
    swanstep on 9 Jun 2010 #

    @erithian, you say “in moments of weakness I enjoy this track, but think less of it once I hear the original”. But why do you say that this is weakness on your part? Daft Punk’s Harder Stronger… was one thing if all you knew was that it vaguely contains samples(for which DP paid royalties and gave writing credits – they weren’t hiding anything, they are princes among samplers), but quite another if you knew Cola Bottle Baby as well as most people know Every breath you take, say.

  21. 46
    intothefireuk on 9 Jun 2010 #

    Infinitely more enjoyable than Pump Up The Volume – this glides across the dancefloor whereas PUTV stomps. Massively uplifting and enjoyable making great use of the Rose Royce sample at the heart of it. I bought this along with Beat Dis and it heralded a phase where I reconnected with dance music having been lost in the void of 80s alt. rock for a few years as I suspect it did for quite a few people.

  22. 47
    koganbot on 9 Jun 2010 #

    taDOW, I think you and I are using different definitions of “vulgar” – e.g., no way are Warren and Tiff et al. catering to the cultivated classes or intelligentsia, whereas the dance hipsters are busy creating a cultivated class. (Though for all I know, Diane Warren thinks she’s the cultivated class. But she’s wrong. Freaky Trigger is far closer than she is, for better or for worse. So were Groucho and Perelman back in the day in comparison to the type that Dumont was sending up.)

    That said, I think your writing and analyses are terrific, and I wish that you and a lot of the others would link to wherever else you’re posting and blogging.

    Btw, I prefer “Theme From S’Express” to any of those Ameri-ones I named except “Could’ve Been” and maybe the Billy Ocean.

    Kat’s the boshmeister here, but I’d say bosh is Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” and Mandaryna’s “You Give Love A Bad Name” and anything we can rationalize as being like them in some respect or another. I recently claimed that Ke$ha’s “Blah Blah Blah” was America finally creating a bosh of its own.

  23. 48
    Jimmy the Swede on 24 Jul 2010 #

    I’ve only just noticed (having been something of an absentee for a while) that this is a landmark record for me. It’s the very first number one in my lifetime which I have no memory/knowledge of at all. If it’s anything like “Pump Up The Volume”, though, I’m glad I missed it and I can only concur with what Rosie says at #22.

  24. 49

    re koganbot’s point about “the vulgar”: it’s a real mistake to confuse a US-based “dance hipster” crowd, who think in terms of discussion panels, with the larger body of the UK dance constituency, which was always pretty vast and grassroots, based round countless dancehalls and discos and clubs up and down the entire UK, and always at something of a distance from the Written*, as Andypandy’s interventions demonstrate. Not quite the absolute distance AP insists on — one of the curious after-effects of punk had been to allow a space for this danceworld to try their hand at writing about themselves discursively within the mainstream body of rockwrite platforms, out of which a certain amount of crossflow and agitational rhetoric emerged. As witness: NOTHING is more punk (or more rock) than the insistence that what I do, untainted by the SO-CALLED mainstream, is a challenge to and takedown of this SO-CALLED mainstream; that secretly the NUMBERS ARE WITH US, and if we organise merely to do what we’re already doing we will prevail.

    *Obviously it generated its own extensive Written: release information (“this record out now, in this label hence in this microgenre) and listings material (“this club taking place on this night playing this microgenre”). The long dance of its insulation and outreach — as contreasted with Rockwrite’s ditto — is yet to be fully documented: obviously Simon Reynolds’s “Energy Flash” picks up key threads of it in some depth, the analysis, by a fascinated and approving outsider, of a particularly enthusiastic period. But Simon is never especially good on history back past his own personal engagement.

  25. 50

    Possibly I should stop using the word “obviously” in every sentence — it makes me look like a twit.

  26. 51
    Jimmy the Swede on 24 Jul 2010 #

    You’ve just done it again!!

  27. 52
    weej on 9 Sep 2012 #

    RIP Terry Nutkins – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBYvCreVtcY

  28. 53
    hectorthebat on 19 Feb 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Blender (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Songs to Download Right Now! (2003)
    Swellsville, Chuck Eddy (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 80s (1990) 34
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 80
    Q (UK) – The 50 Most Exciting Tunes Ever (2002) 40
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Spex (Germany) – The Best Singles of the Century (1999)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The Top 100 Songs from 1984-1993 (1993) 89
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year 19
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 32
    Record Mirror (UK) – Singles of the Year 18
    Spex (Germany) – Singles of the Year 19

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