in Frieze | 01 JAN 02
Featured in
Issue 64

Crowded House

I won't dance to Pump Up the Volume

in Frieze | 01 JAN 02

When you talk about House, it's never intellectual, always emotional. Dance culture refuses to be aestheticized, as it consistently shifts and develops and escapes being frozen in cultural space by the camera lens. This may be one of the key reasons why House music and the myriad musical genres it spawned continue to evolve - unlike Punk, for example, which was almost style-magged out of existence by the fashionistas. House (somewhat appropriately, given its generic title) is played out, for the most part, in dark spaces: dimly lit clubs, cramped DJ booths, and kids' bedrooms. Its key components - vinyl, decks, pills, bodies moving repetitively in ways that (post-Northern Soul) are hardly a pleasure to watch - are unfriendly to the documentary maker used to the 'sexy' motifs of Rock: the totemic guitar, the kinetic, unpredictable live performance, the clothes and poses.

The makers of Channel 4's history of House, Pump Up the Volume (2001), were faced with real problems when tackling a subject that actively evades the visual, problems similar to those that scuppered terrible club movies such as Human Traffic (1999) and Sorted (2000). Until the interface between the British Rave scene and Madchester there was no visible 'House fashion' (or, at least, it was so fractured as to be unrecognizable), nor was there any kind of 'House art' in the way that graffiti illustrated Hip Hop. When you get down to basics, from Disco to Jungle (UK Garage, with its definite stylistic imprint, being a recent exception, and one that Pump Up the Volume wisely left as something of a coda), it's about being moved by the music. Over and again, from the effect Ron Hardy had on Derrick May to the reaction to Goldie's Terminator (1992), the documentary was all about how the beats hit your feet and your heart. It's an inexpressible emotional terminus connecting drum machine, drugs and adrenaline. How do you illustrate that? Those who make and dance to the music don't even bother, so what can a filmmaker do?

Tellingly, the first episode could have worked just as well on radio: it fell back on a pattern of an interview with a House innovator, followed by snippets from their own pioneering House track, then back to another interview. As the series progressed, you began to realize that this was - as any history of House inevitably will be - an abridged version of the story told much better by Sheryl Garratt in her book Adventures in Wonderland (1998). There was nothing new the filmmakers could add in terms of narrative or comment, and in that sense there was a lot riding on what they could do with the pictures. But there is little or no footage of the Music Box or Shoom, or of Larry Levan rocking the Paradise Garage or Mike Pickering rocking the Hacienda. And even if there were, it still wouldn't be able to communicate what was at the heart of all three episodes, what's at the heart of any story anyone tells you about the glory days of House: what it felt like to be there.