Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Being as contrary as you possibly can is an excellent ground rule for a pop critic. An example: judging solely by the smug, pot-addled, nervelessly shuffling trip-hop being made mid-decade by Mo’Wax and Ninja Tune and pushed by critics, record shops and London drinkeries, dance music in Britain was completely fucked. This stuff was and is music whose deep-rooted tedious tastefulness was in no way camouflaged by exclusionary marketing and its pathetic surface claim to be the sound of a (quite literally blunted) edge. So it made sense for this listener to hunt out that scene’s direct opposite; artless, euphoric, deeply populist rush-music.

I’m not going to deny that a lot of Happy Hardcore’s appeal lies in its absolutist, anonymous simplicity, and in the appalled looks of tastemakers when you play them the stuff. When I worked in the books section of the Record And Tape Exchange, a banging Force & Styles mixtape was probably the only weapon that would piss off the goateed slackwit boho stereotypes in the ‘cult’ books section as much as it did the old boys browsing in ‘military history’. This may seem like a crass and misanthropic reason to like a music, and, well, it is, but then one definition of the shift from classic rock to alternative rock is that it’s what happened when we started to hate our peers a lot more than our parents. As well as being the best way to prevent the complete ossification of the most vital creative work of our lifetimes, contrarianism is as important to what pop music is as sex, drugs, chords or trousers. Which might mean ‘not important at all’, but that’s half the fun of it.

And anyway, “Like A Dream” is a complete blast. One of the funnier things about happy hardcore was certain of its better-known DJs announcing that they wanted the music to be known as ‘fourbeat’, a spectacularly misguided piece of rebranding because it focussed the mind precisely on the relentless four-four frenzy of the music, which is one of the two things about happy hardcore most guaranteed to put weak-livered beat connoisseurs of the stuff. The other being, of course, hardcore’s addiction to the most direct, obvious melodies imaginable. A really simple two-or-three chord melody – especially repeated – has as much devastating, instant, and physical impact as a heavy bassline or irresistible beat, which is a bitter pill to swallow for those critics who want to claim that ‘rock’ is more real and primal than ‘pop’. “Like A Dream” has a crude, fast-moving breakbeat laced with a Public Enemy sample to get you going, and then builds and bursts into its melody, which is a snatch of Madonna’s peerless “Like A Prayer”.

That’s the other thing that I loved about Happy Hardcore. While the likes of DJ Shadow preened themselves in the reflected black surfaces of ultra-obscure records, piratical one-shot chancers like Bass D and King Matthew were taking the original, beautiful rationale of HipHop – you play the best bits of your records again and again – switching the focus from beats to melodies and turning the most rapturous, blatant, moments in pop into perpetual heavenly climaxes. “It’s like a dream / No end and no beginning” sings a sped-up Madonna (or her clone), again and again, stripping out everything from her song and leaving only an obsessional call to bliss. The best happy hardcore tracks – and this is one of the best – do this as surely as minimalist or drone music does, using repetition and supercharged melodies to break on through into an ecstatic white-out state. The only difference, here, is that your body can join the fun.