Fascism was made for dancing. The goose step — perfect. Popular dance has always tugged between bacchanalia and drill, it seems. Crazy-legs Isadora Duncan died in 1927, and by 1933 Hitler had been voted chancellor. Coincidence? Dance-studio magnate Arthur Murray, whose parents hailed from the Führer’s own Austria, enslaved the spirit of the jitterbug with his twinkle-toes totalitarianism. (Merely ironic that he was Jewish.) The Depression’s marathon dance contests turned mass revels into death marches.
Chain the ass, the logic goes, and the mind will follow.
The ’70s disco revolution intensified the Battle of the Dance Floor, and we’re still grappling with the implications. Fascism persisted. Most historians align electro-disco’s nativity with producer Giorgio Moroder, born in Italy in 1940 — a month before Mussolini entered World War II. Consolidating his Axis connection, Moroder set up Musicland Studios in Munich, site of Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, and in 1975 hit big with Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby,” a landmark of computer-generated music (a form considered a prototype for human behavior — program the machine, and it will perform repeated tasks till it burns out). In the same year, Kraftwerk, a platoon of slicked-back Germans in suits, lacking only the under-nose tufts, released the road-trance electronic classic Autobahn. Driving, driving, driving . . .
Thus the poles had been established: The music’s dominating, repetitive synthesized tracks were topped by Summer’s orgiastic moans on der left, and by Kraftwerk’s frigid melodies and analgesic chants on der right. Dance music was talking back to a mechanized, depersonalized age. Will we dance to the machine? Ja. Will we stay human? Yeah, und nein.
Disco’s popularity took serious hits from racism (most of the artists were black) and homophobia (much of the early audience was gay); early electronica (Devo, Gary Numan) lacked primal stick. But neither would stay down. By the early ’80s, new technoids were poking hard heads through the cement of Detroit and Deutschland. Just-released retrospectives on Wax Trax!/TVT map two divergent highways from then to now.
Listen to KMFDM's Retro:
Real Audio Format
KMFDM (Kein Mitleid Für Die Mehrheit, i.e., “No Pity for the Majority” — the group denies the acronym stands for “Kill Mother Fucking Depeche Mode”) began, appropriately, in 1984 as a conceptual noise duo, soon restructuring with a core consisting of Germans Sascha Konietzko and En Esch and Englishman Raymond Watts, abetted by collaborators such as guitarist Günter Schulz and singer Cheryl Wilson. The collective’s goals — as the new sampler Retro and the rarities compilation Agogo demonstrate — include deprogramming and dancing; their methods include confusion and noise.
From the start, KMFDM parodied everything. “Zip” (1985) set the tone; it trashed the era’s unavoidable Moroder-influenced Eurodisco, running the form’s repetition and soullessness into the ground and lyrically prefiguring a special scene from There’s Something About Mary (“Don’t get your [harsh sound effect] into the zip of your pants”). “Virus-Dub” (1990) and the reggae version of “Rip the System” (1989) froze Jah’s music stiff and silly. There has been arty exploration. There has been speed metal.
Listen to KMFDM's Agogo:
Real Audio Format
Ooh La La
But KMFDM achieved its greatest conceptual coup by dragging heavy metal and disco screaming into each other’s arms. Metal had long been revered for the horns-on-yer-helmet Aryan myth mongering that so attracted young Adolf. Why not pair its crunching chords and squealing trills with the four-on-the-floor plod of a black dance classic? Adding the hugest, nastiest, unfriendliest beats you can yank from a fully equipped studio’s digital guts, of course. The result was the menacing thud of “Virus-Pestilence” (1994), the thundering, pouting hip-shake of “Juke-Joint Jezebel” (1995) and the monolithic crush of “Brute” (1995). Music to pull you apart.
While assaulting and dominating listeners with instrumental aggro and commie typefaces, the group has compounded contradictory messages: We Kontrol you/We free you. There was German Expressionist woodcut–derived art; there were rap-influenced brags like “KMFDM, the drug against war” and “the final solution, KMFDM.” “Light” was balanced by “Money,” “Godlike” by “Doglike.” Strangely, the nonstop jokiness has been dark enough not to dilute the sheer power of the experience. Once every preconceived positive and negative has been neutralized, there’s nothing left to do but redefine values from the ground up. And dance. Hard.
KMFDM are clearly humanists. They’re just careful not to define what a human is. Good thing, too, because it’s changing all the time.
Listen to Wax Trax!MasterMix Volume 1:
Real Audio Format
Rhythm is Rhythm
Unlike KMFDM, Detroit’s Juan Atkins came to techno — a term he nabbed from sociologist Alvin Toffler — as a musician, not a conceptualist. Which may be why his sounds offer such an accurate picture of the human entity as it is, not as it should or shouldn’t be. Wax Trax! MasterMix Volume 1 is an unbroken 19-track suite incorporating his own material, along with other artists’ selections from Detroit, Berlin and elsewhere that reflect his personal aesthetic.
After a stint as a funk bassist, Atkins switched to synth when he clicked on what Moroder and Kraftwerk were into. As half of the duo Cybotron, he hit the Top 40 in 1983 with “Clear” — a chart level he hasn’t reached since (unless you count a twice-removed sample by Sir Mix-a-Lot), having spent most of his time on the international DJ circuit.
The emotional turntable journey on MasterMix Volume 1 is an eye-opening trip from fresh, almost naive innocence to sophisticated numbness. It kicks off with Atkins’ own alter ego Model 500 bubbling “No UFOs” (1985), as fine an attempt to inject a sliver of funk into Kraftwerk as you could ask for. A judicious sampling of Eurodisco-influenced ya-ya ensues — and the ghost of home-and-abroad dance bump never hangs far from the proceedings throughout.
But the mood changes. The first sign of malaise creeps in a third of the way through, with a brilliant transition from hand-waving New Jersey house to Detroiter Rick Wade’s “Prime Time,” a dense, superminimal loop that sounds like a flat tire ignored: Just like that, the focus has shifted from the body to a mantralike state of consciousness.
Atkins enhances that consciousness with a new focus every couple of tracks. With Convextion’s “Convextion (AA),” he introduces a paranoia that seeps into you through a counterrhythmic scratch — an effect carried even further by Pacou (from Berlin) on “Their Voices.” Atkins’ own cuts range from cloudy sensuality to cold cut-up to synaptic shock, exhibiting dead-on mastery of his craft; more recordings from him are absolutely necessary.
The chilliest offering, and the greatest piece of journalism, is DJ Assault’s. “Let’s have sex on the beach/Layin’ in the sand/Just you and me/Hand in hand,” he monotones 20 times over an unvarying beat and an insipid synth melody. There’s no hint of seduction; he doesn’t care if they do it or not, and neither does she. Flip a coin.
And that’s how we feel — kind of indifferent, plugged into our electrodes. We know it, and that’s the way (uh-huh uh-huh) we like it. Changed, but not Kontrolled.