Sunday, November 12, 2000
Two songs I've gotten a hold of recently via electronic means have been Beats International's "Dub Be Good To Me" and Soho's "Hippie Chick". I loved both these songs when they came out, but I was too young to think that they were anything outside the norm for "pop". Now though, when finding a context for music is apparently my chief joy, I love these songs even more for their wonderful peculiarity, and the way they seem to symbolise a lost golden age in British pop, around the turn of the last decade, when the "pop" in question was not an exercise in cultural cleansing and express Beatlesification, but rather a riotous merging of influences and styles, both white and black, into a polymorphous, unpredictable interzone of excellent music.

Both of course have been derided in their time as being "not real music". "Hippie Chick" anchors its bouncy, polyrhythmic dub groove around a sampled snippet of the unforgettable guitar riff from The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now" - which was a delicious irony at the time considering Morrissey's rather vocal anti-dance stance. "Dub Be Good To Me" goes one better: not only is it a staightforward rendition of the SOS Band track "Just Be Good To Me", but its sole claim to real innovation is the brilliant addition of a dub bassline ripped from The Clash's "Guns Of Brixton" (and so, due to one moment of inspiration, this becomes the best thing that either Norman Cook or The Clash were ever involved in). The truth is that there's little artistic integrity in these tracks; about the best that could be said is that they're ruthlessly clever.

What you do have though is some of the most joyous, gorgeous pop music I can think of, and I reckon it's largely due to the enormous debt to dub within both tracks. I think Gareth discussed at some point how he almost invariably prefers reggae and dub when they're worked into the framework of other musical styles, and I pretty much agree. I'd add though that the incorporation of dub seems to become more and more of an excellent idea the closer the music is to pop. Or perhaps it might be better to say that it seems to work better the less reverent the artists and producers are.

The Simon Reynolds article in The Wire on Dub vs Roots Reggae that I think Gareth talked about discussed how the overwhelming "sound of politics" Marley-reverence angle that punk adopted in its approach to reggae and dub was replaced by a new hegemony of opinion in the nineties which emphasised "the politics of sound" inherent within the creation of dub. If Reynolds is beginning to sound a bit disillusioned with the latter approach, it's not hard to see why: especially in the last half of this decade, the innovations of Lee Perry et. al have been so carefully documented, rarified and faithfully reproduced by a discerning cognoscenti (kickstarted inevitably, if perhaps innocently, by Kevin Martin's excellent Macro Dub Infection compilation) that the technique has begun to seem more like a mathematical formula that one simply applies to a given piece of music to get a precise, predictable and pleasureless result.

In contrast, it's when dub has been irreverently worked into all sorts of unexpected musical pockets in populist ways that the outcomes have been most successful: A.R. Kane's i album, and particularly their revelatory "Catch My Drift"; The Orb at their most accessible - "Perpetual Dawn" or "Tower Of Dub"; the dub basslines and unstable rhythms of early jungle (I'm thinking particularly of the heartrupture bassline and Paris-break mutiny of Back 2 Basics' "Horns For '94), and soon after that a "drum & bass" version of the same on Spring Heel Jack's beautiful first album There Are Strings; the first generation of trip hop - Massive Attack and Tricky particularly; and now of course the dub and reggae influences permeating through UK Garage - check tracks by New Horizons like "Find The Path" and "It's My House (Bashment Mix)", or the excellent Dreem Teem remix of Neneh Cherry's "Buddy X".

The secret to all of these is that it's not the dub itself that makes the music great, but rather the way that it plays off the other aspects of the music - for example the really exhilirating thing about the dub influence in early jungle was that no-one had ever conceived dub as being fast, while at the same time it served to make jungle sound both fast and slow (depending on whether you followed the beats or the bassline). It's also why I think that of all of dub's "infections", I love most its infection of pop, because what higher purpose can a musical style have than to make great pop music?

"Dub Be Good To Me" and "Hippie Chick" are fortunately not alone in this small micro-genre; they join Soul II Soul's "Back To Life" and "Keep On Moving", Smith & Mighty's early covers of Bacharach's "Walk On By" and "Anyone Who Had A Heart" (Smith and Mighty also did a great extra dubby remix of "Dub Be Good To Me") and Fresh Four's "Wishing On A Star", plus heaps of other stuff that I'm sure people who were listening at the time could acquaint me with.

What's great about all these tracks is how they combine pop's instinctive flair for drama (all of them feature excellent, stirring performances from female vocalists) with both the spiritual redemption of dub and the hedonistic vibe of house music - this music is not only multiracial but multipurposed as well, adapting effortlessly to the need of the listener. If you want a different, alternate ancestry for UK Garage, well, here it is: music that was both astoundingly innovative and irresistably commercial. To think that this was part of the "meaningless pop crap" that both grunge and Britpop seeked to eliminate makes me strangely, inarticulately angry.


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