Dancing through the 20th Century – A Q&A with David Mcnamee

Approaching the history of dance music is like looking at a chasm of eternity through the eye of a needle. It’s a complicated immersive endeavour that can shift as a perspective on a single small detail. Even approaching a mere century of this music is difficult and the 20th century, a century synonymous with the most musical innovations ever, is especially challenging under any category, including the very broad banner that covers dance music.

David McNamee, head of X-Ray records and Blue Tapes has taken up the challenge however and after publishing a couple of blog pieces on the subject, he has taken to developing it into a radio show for NTS. The weekly show, which goes live every Monday between 13:00 and 14:00 (GMT+1), will be broadcasting its 4th episode today, and thus far it’s seen the development of rag time as the first shellac records were pressed at the beginning of the 19th century up to the point of the first stages of Jazz and the more obscure Boogie Woogie movement. David goes on to lay some myths to bed while revealing some very wonderful and strange movements during dance music’s 20th century developments in this series, which hopes to bring to life as a book in the near future.

We sent him some questions about this and some of the more intriguing aspects of Dancing through the 20th Century and beyond…

What encouraged you to approach the history of dance music?

It started with receiving a recent Optimo Trax EP, which included a previously-unreleased Muslimgauze track from 1985 that prefigures a lot of the modern trends in techno by some considerable distance, and is notable not only for how early it occurs in techno’s timeline, but also because Bryn Jones was apparently unfamiliar with dance music in general.

It made me wonder what the first actual techno record was; working on the assumption that the ‘firsts’ of any genre are not necessarily identified as part of that canon because they pre-empt it and were often created without the support structure and reference points of genre. To satisfy my own curiosity, I did some research and made a compilation of what I thought the first 60 minutes of techno a-sides were and noted down the timespan between the first and last releases.

Well, that was quite satisfying, so I repeated the task for house, gabber, jungle, acid, etc. By this point, the cataloguing is getting addictive, so I set about mapping the entire first 100 years of dance records. The first shellac discs began to replace wax cylinders as a music format in around 1900, so it was quite convenient that I could use the whole 20th century as a study.

I wanted to examine what the points of innovation throughout the century were and I wanted to unearth these what I call ‘proto-genres’ – eras of innovation that ended up spawning a genre, while not necessarily adhering to that genre’s conventions. I imagined that the ‘firsts’ of certain musics would not sound especially like that music’s most famous work, which turned out to be mostly accurate. Early jazz sounds nothing like Kind of Blue for instance, and the early blues stuff is practically unrecognisable from the music of what we now consider to be the blues masters – people like BB King.

The concept of studying dance music like this appealed to me because I think every music fan likes some form of music made for the purpose of dancing, they just don’t recognise it as ‘dance music’ because since the 1980s and 1990s that term is attached to very specific rhythmic and sub-cultural ideas. But it’s all dance music, music made for dancing. And dance music is a fun thing to think about. Writing on dance music has lent itself to sometimes pretentious or academic discourse (I guess partly because the music itself is not lyrical, so can be endlessly projected onto), but I wanted to be quite light-hearted and fun with this. To make serious, well-researched points – and have a go at tipping over some pervasive historical myths – but to do so in a way that doesn’t alienate and aims always to fascinate.

Because it was consecutive moments of innovation that I wanted to map, I constructed a timeline of when these first hour-long periods of a-sides and key tracks started and finished. This offered an ‘at a glance’ history of 20th century dance music that revealed some clues about how something that started out sounding like ragtime in 1900 could wind up sounding like microhouse in 1999, but it also said just as much – more? – about the biases inherent in such an approach, which in turn exposed some of the technological and societal advantages that certain demographics have enjoyed during the recording industry’s first century and which has skewed history in their favour. Dancing Through The 20th Century isn’t necessarily a corrective to those biases, but it does acknowledge and try to explain them.

How do go on to define dance music in the series?

Good question. I think, for me, if you can dance it, and if it is music that is expressly made for the purpose of dancing, and if the overwhelming majority of music made within the auspices of that genre apply to those principles then it is dance music.

Of course, dancing itself can have different functions in society, so I tried to take that into account. For instance, ragtime evolved out of cakewalk, which had its roots in the plantations, when slaves would dress up in their masters’ clothes and perform heavily exaggerated parodies of white people dancing for the prize of a cake. And the music of the Yoruba people in West Africa, where dancing and drumming was for so long considered so integral to many ritual and everyday aspects of life that people who played music for a career were actually shunned (yet out of that music ultimately emerged game-changing dance styles like afrobeat).

Interestingly, some of the genres I initially intended to cover – like calypso, soca, cumbia, flamenco and samba – I ended up excluding because their early recordings were not consistently dance-orientated, often featuring ballads and folk songs more heavily. On the other hand, the early blues was a kind of pop music, and New Orleans jazz was definitely made for dancing, in contrast to the armchair musics that they are now.

I wanted to look at sufi music, because that is sound composed to facilitate a form of devotional dancing – the whirling dervishes – that most people wouldn’t normally associate with dance music, and in fact the first recordings of that music didn’t appear until the 1980s, which makes it an interesting anomaly. But there is a lot of stuff I had to leave out to keep the narrative tight.

I would have thought dance music’s roots would go much further back to our ancestors dancing around drum circles. So why begin at 1900?

It’s definitely beyond my scope to do an exhaustive account of the evolution of dancing in human history and the music that accompanied it. So instead I limited my area of study to the evolution of recorded music, which is still a new technology, in the scheme of history. It was interesting to me to begin at 1900 because the records from the first part of the 20th century that people are familiar with are more usually recordings of symphonies and operas from previous centuries, and not contemporary music that people could play so they could have a dance.

The history also definitely continues right up to the present. Why did you want to focus on the 19th century solely?

I think it’s too soon to really get to grips with what has happened so far in the 21st century. The Internet has changed the dissemination and creation of music in ways that we still don’t completely understand. In some ways we’re very post-genre now, which is interesting, but that doesn’t stop a million dance music microgenres from sprouting up on a weekly basis. Give it a hundred years and hopefully someone will be able to write an authoritative account of what happened to dance music in the 21st century!

There is a neat parallel in 20th century terms, because as I said previously you have the first shellac discs in 1900 with recordings of ragtime and military marches on them, and then the late 1990s was really vinyl’s last hurrah as being the default medium for dance music. (Again, not counting the recent resurgence in being able to buy Oasis and Status Quo LPs in Tescos again, cos who knows how that one will play out really…)
Also, for me, it’s just too soon – the 00s was when I was going out clubbing and I just really don’t want to write about witch house.

Dance music definitely changed the most in the 19th century. What was the most extreme period of evolution that you’ve encountered for this music?

I was initially resistant to the idea that music moves faster now – I thought that was just a modern conceit at first, because certainly fashions, dance styles and music itself evolved very quickly in the early 20th century and in a way that is often underappreciated. However, I have to admit that it is undeniable that by the 1960s, shit got crazy. By this point all homes have record players and radios, instruments and recording technology are becoming increasingly accessible, the post-war economy is booming and the civil rights movement in America has swept away the last vestiges of the Jim Crow laws that were preventing societal (including musical) ‘miscegenation’. Those factors had to increase the volume at which people were consuming music, the degree to which they were thinking about music, and the speed at which they were producing music.

But really it’s the 1980s and 1990s, when dance music is ‘a thing’, that evolution accelerates to previously unmatched proportions and it becomes hard to keep track of where different styles are coming in. And obviously the actual palette of sounds is suddenly much broader, with the rapid influx of synthesisers, drum machines, samplers, computers and other means of making dance music without a band or traditional musical theory and training.

What was for you one of the more interesting periods in its history?

For a while I’ve just been obsessed with early recorded music and I recently started selling off the record collection I’ve been building since I was 12 so that I can acquire more of this stuff. At the moment, just standard LPs, but I’d love to get a gramophone and some 78s at some point. So, the 1900s, as it’s the earliest point on our timeline! In some ways there’s less to say about it, because it was the very start of the recording industry there’s obviously just a lot less going on in than in later decades. But it’s fascinating to hear this new thing being born and to try and sense its uncertainty – the idea that no one quite knows what this whole ‘records’ thing is yet or where it will go.

Were there any unexpected surprises that might have cropped up while you were researching it?

Not really a historical surprise but I was taken aback by how much it turns I love P-funk! I’m ashamed to say I never investigated Parliament-Funkadelic that deeply beyond the big tracks but their entire 1970s output is essential, mad, visionary stuff.

Was there anything that stood out during your research as the oddest or weirdest trend or moment in dance music’s history?

I guess this would be western swing! It’s this bizarre musical cul de sac that was a sort of cowboy jazz – old timey boys playing something approximating swing, but with fiddles and down-home country instruments. It first emerged in the early 1930s, when actually, innovation in recorded dance music seemed to stall a little bit – most likely because of the great depression and then the war. America was still the main producer of phonographic records in that time so really everything that we look at up until the middle of the century is American in origin – it took the rest of the world a while to catch up with the technology and also for the American industry to begin to take an interest in foreign music.

I like western swing, though. It’s so quirky you’d imagine it coming from a Coen Brothers film, but it was all very authentic at the time. Also quite progressive, if you consider that we’re in the Jim Crow era and country artists are taking their cues not from Appalachian folk songs but from modern black music. In the show I mention that the late 20th Century equivalent of that would have been Garth Brooks covering Public Enemy, which just seems unthinkable.

Is there any period, decade or even genre that deserved more focus than the others for the series?

Apart from western swing? Well, maybe jump blues, which was a kind of bridge between the big band sound and rhythm & blues. It was probably the first stirrings of rock ‘n’ roll in that it was this very energetic young people’s music driven by big personalities and entertainers. When rock ‘n’ roll arrived, it swapped those cool horn sections for electric guitars, though, and dancing for rocking out. That sort of made it less cool, in a way.

I Imagine there was quite a bit of research in putting this series together. Can you recommend any books for further reading on the subject – something you might have referenced often?

It’s not about dance music per se, but a friend lent me a book called Escaping The Delta by the blues historian and musician Elijah Wald – I reread it just before starting the series and it definitely shaped my thinking a bit. Wald does a lot of primary research into the origins of the blues and is really unafraid of punching the many myths that have accumulated around this music (mostly from other white blues fans, infatuated with the ‘otherness’ of the post-slavery African-American experience) square on the nose. I reference his work in the second episode of the radio show, which looks at the white, vaudeville pop of the 1910s that was the first music to bear the name ‘the blues’ and is obviously very different from what we now think of as blues music.

You mentioned in your email, there might be a book. Will that be more in depth and does that mean your still researching the subject?

The research is definitely ongoing and if the book happens it will be many times more in depth than the show. So far, I’ve produced one radio show and two blogs from the initial research and I really don’t even feel like I’ve scratched the surface. There’s so much more to talk about and I also really want to talk to as many of the people involved as possible who are still alive.

I was expecting more talk actually for the radio show, but so far it’s been a pleasant surprise finding that the music takes care of most of the narrative. What was the reason for letting the music take centre stage and how did you go about picking the music for the series?

It changes throughout the series – the first shows are mostly music rather than talking, as a lot of background information that can be easily summarised for radio is scarce, compared to the actual surviving recordings. From the 1960s episode onward the verbal content is much heavier as there’s just so much more to get through – it’s not meant to be an exhaustive history by any means (it’s highly subjective in terms of what I’ve chosen to include and exclude) but it would feel wrong to me to talk about, say, funk, and not have a go at explaining what made this music rhythmically distinct from the soul and doo-wop that The Famous Flames were known for, or to talk about tropicalia without discussing its political motivations.
Also, I’ve never done a radio show before, always had bad anxiety and been very bad at speaking, so this was a bit of a trial by fire for me. I didn’t want my inadequacies as a presenter to impede the listener from enjoying all these amazing sounds that I found on this journey. That’s the best part, really, finding these things and sharing them; not theorising about them.