08 December 2005


As hinted in last week's retro post, before I made the connection with Chicago House one of the biggest sounds in my life was EBM (Euro Body Music) and specifically the Belgian group Front 242. Having gotten over the shock that anything good could possibly be produced in Belgium, I was soon immersed in their particular brand of dark, semi-industrial dance music. I remember skipping a free study period in school to make the journey into town to buy their latest album "Official Version" in 1987, then returning to the Sixth Form common room at lunch time triumphantly brandishing this monumental release, slapping it on the stereo expecting my fellow students to be blown away by this record. This is what they heard:

FRONT 242 - W.Y.H.I.W.Y.G.

I was of course transfixed by it's relentless, grinding electronic embrace, in awe of the nameless dread and paranoia as the singer bleated out the line "They're coming down! They're coming down for you!" But, just like previous attempts to get them into groups like Cabaret Voltaire, Mantronix and even early Kraftwerk albums, the music was met with either blind incomprehension or outright hostility by my piers. Yes, it was a lonely road I traveled back then, without the sense of community that can be established with like-minded souls through the internet today. My only guide was the excitable reportage of certain journalists at Melody Maker, NME and Sounds, plus of course John Peel (who definitely played the odd 242 track) and not forgetting Janice Long, who had a good ear. She was the Mary Anne Hobbs of the '80s.

One of the things that I found most intriguing about Front 242 was their militant pro-European stance at a time when most music produced on the continent was generally considered to be worthless pap that slavishly copied British and American trends. In a Melody Maker interview from February '87, The Stud Brothers asked them if England was a major influence on their work, to which they responded:

"No England, in my eyes, at the moment, is just turning around, doing the same old stuff, going back to the old things like hip-hop for example. And anyway we always saw the electronic scene as coming from Germany not England".

This was an outrageous, egotistical slur on my nation's honour, but that made me even more excited about the whole concept. The very fact that they referred to hip-hop as 'old stuff' in 1987 gives some idea of how far ahead these guys were thinking. Undoubtedly it was Front 242 who bestowed an almost fetishistic interest in all things Belgian in me, that would carry me through the late '80s New Beat period into the Hardcore sound of the early '90s.

Ahhh, wait... let's spin back there and talk about New Beat for a while. I mentioned it last year in my first post on Belgian Hardcore (that was supposed to be a regular series, but other forces were at work moving me into new territories). One point I failed to make was that New Beat was a very different animal to EBM. Rather than being a militant anti-everything-else movement, New Beat, in essence, took inspiration from 242's lead, but by assimilating the new dance sounds from England, Chicago and Detroit synthesised a new bastardised Frankenstein hybrid that, if you'd asked me in early 1989, I would've probably said was the most awesomely strange and inventive music on the planet. Bar a few exceptions, the UK dance scene didn't really start getting interesting until about 1990 and although I was by that point very much 'involved' with the Chicago/Detroit thing, Belgian New Beat had, by accident or design, a distinct taste of it's own. It was darker than anything else, yet at the same time side-splittingly funny. It was tasteless, smutty and offensive yet resonated with a brutal, elemental force that simply couldn't be ignored once you got the virus. As a typically uptight Brit, I found the Belgian's unabashed flaunting of sexuality both seedy and appealing, a similar sensation to casting furtive glances at the outrageously rude adult magazines that lined the bookshelves in most european cities I visited on family holidays.

When I think of what the New Beat artists achieved in barely two years it's nothing short of staggering. Here was a nation suddenly finding a sense of purpose and identity through music, compressing the Acid House blueprint into a monotonous, pornographic netherworld, with the tracks sometimes slipping below the 100bpm mark to create a druggy warped alternative that probably comes from the fact that the style was accidentally discovered when dj's started spinning disco records at 33rpm. To give you a classic example of how New Beat mutated the American sounds, check this track by 101 - seemingly a straight cover of Reese's "Rock To The Beat", which manages to crush and spit out every last drop of euphoria, every nuanced element of 'soulful' funk inherent in the original, leaving only a ghoulish, plodding, emotionally numb aberration - music for acid zombies and decaying automatons. It's so fucking wrong, yet somehow I still feel drawn to it, in the same way that it's possible to feel aroused in the presence of a gorgeous yet extremely bored and disinterested female.


This is the opening track on "New Beat Take 3", part of the iconic series of compilation albums released by the Subway label, and invaluable to us Brits who wanted an affordable way to keep up with the prolific output from Belgium at that time. I don't know what possessed me to pull it off the shelf a few weeks ago for a spin, but it hit me like a ton of bricks all over again. As well as early tracks from future Belgian Tekno stars like Spectrum, The Project and T-99, "Take 3" also contains other stone cold classics like "Acid In The House" by Miss Nicky Trax, one of the most fearsome excursions into detached hypno-house of the era. Over a dirge-like 120bpm acid lockdown with off-key synth stabs, Miss Trax mutters the words "There's Acid in the House" sounding more like a dead-eyed junkie prostitute ushering you into some hellish backstreet drug den, rather than an ecstacy-fueled diva of the dancefloor. Then there's another personal favourite in "Something Scary" by Zsa Zsa Laboum which, with it's creepy sampled female voice saying "I was alone in my room...something grabbed me and smothered me" pre-dates hardcore's paranoid horrorshow phase by several years. When a second female voice hisses the word "Acid!" it conjures none of the hedonistic bliss associated with the UK Acid House scene - it's more like a cruel dominatrix taunting, teasing, hinting at dark illicit secrets lying just beyond your reach. Here's one more tune for now - the sort of record that could only have come from Belgium, with it's cheap, slutty samples and a sinister yet slighty silly male voice saying "This is New Beat Generation" (they all loved bigging-up themselves, and the genre, on the records), with snatches of sound hijacked from popular UK/US dance records of the day locked into a sluggish sub-Front 242 4/4 stomper. Damn, they don't make 'em like this anymore....


The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this was a cruelly ignored yet vital genre in the evolution of dance music, one that seems to have been brushed under the carpet; an embarrassing anomaly that bent the structure of dance the wrong way and is now best forgotten. Like Italodisco, I imagine that anyone who wasn't involved with it the time might now assume that it's true relevance (if any) is marginal. But I was there, man. I know how good those records sounded at the time and I'm sure they must've had some influence on the course of music, even if the influencies might not care to admit it now. I seem to recall that jungle/tekstep pioneer Ed Rush had a thing for the Belgians. My intention was to start researching it a bit more, start tracking down more of the key releases, labels and artists and present my findings over a period of time. Shame I sold off most of my original collection for the sake of shelf space years ago. Dammit!! Then, when I mentioned the idea to Simon Reynolds he informed me that, by a bizarre twist of synchronisity, the New Beat revival had already commenced, under the patronage of James Kirby, better known in electronica circles as the mischievous V/VM. Not only has James begun building a website for New Beat info and resources, he's even recorded a 12 inch EP that pays heavy dues to "The Sound Of Belgian New Beat".

On tracks like "Benelux (Ghent Mix)" and "Be-Dash - Must Do", James concocts a near perfect facsimile of the original New Beat blueprint. Although one could question the validity of such a straightforward homage, the fact that he's prepared to imitate such an apparently 'dead' genre is what invests this record with such a fresh sense of excitement. Yet he can't resist pushing things a little too far, as on "Viag.ra" and the outrageous "Anal Acid (butt plug mix)" (perhaps inspired by Edwards & Armani's "Up Your Bum"?!) which revel in new heights of scuzzy porno filth, whilst opening track "I Wanna Fuck Miss Nicky Trax" (boy, can I relate to that concept!) takes New Beat to new extremes of bleak, corrosive dirge-tronica that I never heard on the originals. For reasons too complicated to discuss here, this record is not available in the shops and probably never will be. However, James has already sold a substantial number of copies through the website by word of mouth alone. It seems the New Beat fans are still out there... somewhere. Actually, I know a few of them myself, which is why I made sure to get copies into the hands of some of my local bloggin' colleagues. You can read some early responses from Kid Shirt, Loki and (in his own inimitable style) Psychbloke, with more to come hopefully. My plan is to generate a 'Belgian Wave' of New Beat enthusiasm throughout the blogosphere!

Anyone who still needs convincing should check out the Mixamatosis "New Beat Take 0" mix, which features plenty of classic examples of the genre, including most of the ones I mentioned above. What struck me most about it was the fact that Mixamatosis is actually some young guy who, inspired by what he saw at the site, downloaded all the tracks off P2P and assembled the mix digitally, proving that New Beat can inspire a new generation of fans who's judgement isn't clouded by nostalgia.

Having corresponded with V/VM recently, it's obvious that he's way ahead of me in terms of research and enthusiasm for this sound, so for anyone out there who is intrigued by what I've written, make sure to bookmark his website and keep an eye out for future updates, including the original video for "Acid In The House" and further New Beat mixes for download. For my part, I'll probably do a few more little posts on the subject over time, perhaps focusing on certain key artists or labels.


It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when New Beat transformed into what we now refer to as Belgian Hardcore. For me the transition from affirmed New Beat compilations to stuff like the utterly seminal early volumes in the "Reactivate" series was a natural progression. I was just following the scene's development, same as I am with dubstep now. I guess the key lies in Joey Beltram's "Energy Flash", first released on Derrick May's Detroit label Transmat in 1990 and subsequently licensed to long-standing New Beat label R&S. Although it had many of the ingredients for New Beat, "Energy Flash" took the sound into harder, more intense areas that spawned a subtle yet significant shift in emphasis. By 1991, New Beat was already a distant memory as the Belgian's powered forward with heavier sounds and faster bpms. That year saw Belgium strike it's biggest assault on the UK's consciousness, with a regular flow Top 40 hits, no doubt aided by the brief but fortuitous use of breakbeats. To the casual listener, Belgian acts like T-99 and Quadrophonia probably didn't sound much different from the UK breakbeat-rave of Bizarre Inc., The Scientist, Kicksquad etc. I started writing about that period in my second Belgian post, this time last year. Never got any further, though...maybe next year!

But the breakbeats weren't to last, and if any track could be said to pave the way for Belgium's headlong plunge towards the pure speedfreak machine beats of Gabber, it's probably this one:


After a crushing salvo of sampled choir riffs and brutal hammering four-to-the-floor kick drum , the (fake) newsreader announces "James Brown Is Dead" which, by association, sounds the death-knell for breakbeats in Belgian hardcore. The track's militaristic, almost fascistic elements could be interpreted as an utter refutation of all American, 'black', funky influence. A return to the militant pro-European purist ideology that Front 242 first put forward nearly five years earlier, heralding a whiter-than-white future for euro-techno. Taken on those terms, the track could be seen as unspeakably evil, but there's an almost cartoonish element, an over-the-top, jack-booted caricature that makes me think the whole thing was very tongue-in-cheek. The sentiment seems to have been lost on the UK crowd though, as this was one of the few true Belgian anthems that failed to chart in this country. Whatever, I still think it's a brilliantly produced piece of music that always makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Interestingly, Dutch hardcore group Holy Noise recorded a splendid answer-back tune:


An impassioned plea to the Benelux crew to keep their shit funky? - or a cynical cash-in? The jury's out on that one...