Monday, September 15, 2014

Inner City, "Big Fun"

I've decided to cut this song from my "40 for 40" list.

My serious dance/club music fandom began in earnest in '89-'90.  At the time (as it is now), my interest in the music was mainly fueled via outlets that didn't involve going out to the actual clubs.  You had to be of drinking age (19+) to get into most of the good club nights anyhow, so at least I had a convenient excuse.  I'd tune into CFNY's live radio simulcasts from RPM, and browse through vinyl and dance club charts at the shops on Yonge Street on the weekends.  RPM closed in the mid-90's and was reopened as part of the expanded Guvernment complex that occupies the same site on Queens Quay East in Toronto.  Unfortunately, it is slated to close its doors for good in January 2015.  With Sunrise Records announcing the closure of their Yonge Street shops this November, the flagship HMV store and Play de Record are now the last music stores on a strip that was packed with them for decades.  The 90's in Toronto already seem like another era.

In many ways it was a golden age for dance music.  I've lost count of the number of times that dance, or EDM, or whatever you want to call it, was about to cross over into the mainstream and blow up all over the world, according to rock critics supposedly in the know.  The top dance producers of the time were too busy counting their money to care about such trivial labels.  Black Box's "Ride on Time" was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1989.  C + C Music Factory's first album went 5x platinum in the US, and "Gonna Make You Sweat" was #1 on the Hot 100.  Dee-Lite went from having a buzz in the underground to being played at your cousin's wedding seemingly overnight.

The most unexpected mainstream crossover was from Kevin Saunderson and his Inner City project.  At the time, it seemed like an organic and natural transition from the clubs to the radio.  They had catchy songs, hedonistic summer-ready lyrics, female vocalists who could belt out a tune with the best of them, so what's not to get?  As the years have passed though, I'm increasingly blown away by what Saunderson managed to accomplish.  Derrick May and Juan Atkins seem to get more respect from the uber-devoted techno heads for laying down the blueprint of what Detroit techno was and what for the most part, it still continues to be.  "Detroit" is an adjective mostly thanks to May and Atkins.  Saunderson, in comparison, was a populist who had his songs briefly played on the radio.  I felt the same way for a long time.  Derrick May's "Innovator" compilation was the Rosetta Stone of techno, no less than required listening for anyone who planned to carry on a serious conversation about the music.  On the other hand, Saunderson's success was something of a fluke.  He was an oppurtunist who happened to be in the right place at the right time and managed to get his album recorded first.

I was wrong, and it wasn't even the "Faces and Phases" compilation that convinced me of how wrong I was (great as it is, it doesn't even contain any of the big Inner City hits).  Twenty five years later, in a genre where records often sound dated before the year is over, Inner City's parade of hits still stand out as some of the finest mainstream techno ever recorded.  The most amazing thing is that Saunderson took a then-regional micro genre and found a way to fast track this music into the charts, creating a market that almost nobody knew existed.  This wasn't like Madonna collaborating with a hot producer with a 5-10 year track record of success, he took his cues from virtually nobody.

My list needed a song that would symbolize that era when dance music streams were crossing over with each other and into the mainstream at a breakneck pace.  I was profoundly influences by the era and the styles of music, which set the stage for all my future forays into techno. So who better to represent it than the iconic "Big Fun" by Inner City, my favourite techno hitmakers of the late 80's?

The problem is that as integral as Inner City might be for contextualizing the music I listened to in '89 and throughout my life, this list is first and foremost a songs list.  Representing eras is important (this is certainly the case with other songs on the list) but I couldn't justify including "Big Fun" instead of other songs that I couldn't live and breathe without hearing.  There are plenty of songs that were representative of my taste in music and defined who I was at the time to the point that my interest in those songs became a calculated obsession.

I couldn't even decide on a standout Inner City song.  I think I've tended to prefer "Good Life" over the years but "Big Fun" sounds more like a classic -- a proper introduction to the band and what they were doing -- mainly thanks to that killer opening riff.  But "Ain't Nobody Better" is great too, and if we're looking at Saunderson's career apart from Inner City, I was (and still am) crazy over Reese's "Rock To the Beat", and the deliriously fine  Detroit mix of New Order's "Round and Round".  Was Saunderson on fire in those days or what?

In short, the "40 for 40" list is about telling stories, but first and foremost it's about standout songs.  Sometimes it will favour the the artist with one song that drove me crazy over the artist with a consistently strong output.  

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