FOR YEARS I'VE dreamed of a shelf full of dance music books. I knew that wonderful stories waited in the heart of the music and culture I adored and obsessively followed, that somewhere in disco and house's bacchanalian fervor and techno's artsy futurism were the seeds for a library as diverse and complete as today's jazz bibliography. Now that Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers have turned an underground movement into a sprawling youth culture, the dance bibliography is slowly fleshing out.
I've already driven friends to distraction with endless lectures about the importance of understanding music history, how just a little knowledge can make a big difference in one's ability to tell good dance music from bad. Now I don't have to. Now we have a sheaf of text about dance music, and some of it is actually quite good. Individually, they can't tell the whole story, but a solid week's reading can do wonders for your understanding of this often-maligned and misunderstood music.
Since I'm a bitter old fart, I'll start by telling you what not to read. Spin editor Simon Reynolds' Energy Flash--released in abridged form as Generation Ecstasy--is a prime example of dance music history done wrong. Reynolds covers the breadth of this music from a clinical, distanced perspective; his immense knowledge shows that he was present at the birth of "rave culture," but his ill-formed insights reveal that he was a watcher, not a participant. His assessment of British dance music as a class phenomenon is a bright idea, but it's watered down and ham-handedly applied to a movement that's not so easily defined. In addition, he belittles the American roots music that made British rave culture possible, disregarding the artists' own ideas and perspectives in favor of dry historical analysis. Dance music history isn't told, so much as imposed. It may present itself as a chronicle of the cultural vanguard, but Energy Flash is ultimately a rock book, an attempt to view dance music as something "opposed to" rather than "independent of" rock and roll.
Contrast this with Wire scribe Kodwo Eshun, who actually gives a shit. More Brilliant Than the Sun is Eshun's attempt at placing the genre within the broad, hazy rubric of "black science fiction" in music; although his clever wordsmithery and sweeping turns of phrase can be distracting, More Brilliant is an honest, earnest look at the music from the artist's perspective. While Reynolds discards artistic concepts and liner notes as ill-formed marketing jive, Eshun takes them as seriously as the music itself, examining the project as a whole, from a fan's perspective. The book is ultimately directed at enthusiasts, as his subject matter is often obscure and detailed; his tendency to devote several pages to an unknown classic, like X-102 Discovers the Rings of Saturn, will alienate many a reader. Overall, however, the book's concept perfectly captures the spirit and purpose of house and techno's headier realms.
Another excellent but difficult book comes from erstwhile British music critic David Toop, whose Ocean of Sound places modern ambient music and "intelligent techno" within a secret history of sonic architecture. He treats certain types of electronic music as meditations on our relationship with sound, waving music from the likes of Spacetime Continuum and Aphex Twin into patterns that go as far back as Steve Reich, Claude Debussy, and Javanese gamelan music. If you're looking for the "dance" in dance music, you won't find it here, but Ocean of Sound may help you better understand the genre's intellectual side.
This year will mark the release of three excellent books on the history of dance music. Techno Rebels, released next month by clued-up Detroiter Dan Sicko, will tell a balanced, honest, and fair story about the 20-year history of Detroit electronic music. Similarly, Beverly May's Future Jazz, appearing later this year, promises to be a knowledgeable assessment of techno as the natural successor to the Other American Black Music. Finally, Seattle's own Kurt B. Reighley is hard at work on a book which will isolate and explain the many strands of DJ culture, pointing out the fine distinctions in purpose, aesthetics, and technique within all forms of dance music.