Orange Juice, DJ Marlboro and the question of limits 

A lot of the best dance music is made by people who’ve got no idea and less care about how to do things properly. Think Outkast’s hyperspeed snare rushes on “B.O.B.” and then think about the last time a ‘real’ drum and bass track worked you over so hard. It’s nothing – well, not much – to do with genre-bending and hybridisation: it’s plenty to do with enthusiasm and inspired amateurism. Digital virtuosity is great and all, but even in the studio there’s a lot to be said for groups making a wilful mess of things.

Let’s try another angle: I’ve been listening to Orange Juice, trying to pin down why they were great, and part of what makes me giddy is how accidental they sound. The idea of DIY pop is out of fashion right now it seems to me – there’s a broad conception that if you give three or four herberts their first guitars (or samplers or turntables or whatever) then the sound they make won’t be any good. But sometimes it is: you have to take your chances, and Orange Juice sound to me like they’re taking the chances right along with you.

DIY pop lies low for long whiles and then turns up when it’s needed, and this goes for dance music as well as for indie pop. DJ Marlboro comes from somewhere in Brazil (I think) – he’s got cheap equipment and a box full of old bass and rave records, plus some other shit he picked up god knows where. His “Super Popazao” is a hammered-together mixture of rattling 2 Live Crew rhythms, gunshots, Beltram synth-quease playing ramshackle raga vamps, barked and vocodered lyrics and whatever crappy James Brown samples he had to hand. It sounds nasty and fantastic: party attack funk. It is not seamless: like a home-made stuffed toy, seeing the seams is what makes you love it.

Orange Juice – and this is the thing about them I can actually explain – didn’t see much distinction between dance music and indie pop. You couldn’t dance to their records really but that wasn’t the point. The point was that they got together and decided to play the music they liked, and that music was Chic’s second album as much as the Velvets’ third. Like DJ Marlboro, they used whatever they had to hand, not I feel as a tactic but because they had never thought not to.

The fact that they were too rubbish as musicians to sound anything like Chic is beside the point. They picked up a sense of wit and romance from disco, and a sense of aspiration, and that does show through in their music – the piss-elegant swoon of “Intuition Told Me (Part 1)” shares crucial pop genes with both Disco Tex’s uptown fantasies and Stephin Merritt’s ballroom melancholy. Edwyn Collins’ extraordinary, absurd vocals help, of course: like Kevin Rowland, he’d twigged that year-zero thinking could be applied to ‘soul’ stylings as well as rock ones.

DIY pop, be it Orange Juice or DJ Marlboro, or any one of a hundred people who catch the breaking wave of a style and try it out without knowing quite what they’re doing, is endlessly ambitious, which is its thrill when the ideas are good. But I think it’s a different kind of ambition from the ambition which produces a Yo La Tengo or Modest Mouse album, say: those bands know already what they’re capable of. They might work within those limits or push against them, but they know roughly where they are. Orange Juice sounded to me like they didn’t, maybe because just by picking up guitars and trying to write Chic and Velvets records they’d already left those limits way behind them. Which is the essence of DIY. Which is why I still get unfashionably excited by their records and a hundred others.

Of course it can’t last: once you’ve set yourself doing something there’s nothing for it but to get more proficient, and faux-incompetence is a band’s most charmless feature. There are several artists, too, whose early, limitless records are trying squawks and whose later records are sublime. There are even more artists who don’t fit into these notions at all, anyhow: I am not trying to set down rules, just think about why I love some records the way I do.

But still, the feeling that anything could happen is not the same as the knowledge that anything could. Tortoise for example can no doubt put every style they want into their records because they’re consummate musicians and keen studio heads, but where’s the surprise in that? And on the surface I know that Orange Juice didn’t and DJ Marlboro doesn’t have the means to reach beyond their choppy Velvets pop or crude-ass bashed-out booty bootlegs, but that doesn’t quite squash the deep-down notion that they might try anyway, because they don’t know where their edges are. And here’s the weird thing, that notion persists well beyond the first listen: I can hear it in the music every time I start the track off. A Valentine’s analogy: it’s the difference between a restaurant menu and a surprise home-cooked meal.