Mike Atkinson

Under the covers: Why are Hi-NRG dance makeovers so popular?

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on November 26, 2010

(Guardian Film & Music, Friday November 26 2010)

From Wonderwall to Donald, Where’s Your Troosers?, there’s barely a song in existence that hasn’t had a Hi-NRG dance cover. But who records them – and, more importantly, why?

Dancefloor epiphanies can strike in the most unexpected ways. One Saturday in the summer of 1996, I found myself dancing on the stage at Love Muscle, a gay club night that ran weekly at the Fridge in Brixton. Earlier that day, I had spent a dismal few hours at Knebworth Park, where Oasis – then reckoned to be at the peak of their powers – had headlined the first of two allegedly legendary shows. Disillusioned by every aspect of the event – the leaden atmosphere, the inadequate facilities, the invisibility and mediocrity of the performers – I duly sought sanctuary elsewhere.

As the Love Muscle DJ mixed into the bracingly fluffy Hi-NRG cover of Wonderwall by Jackie ‘O’, the residual shackles of dance snobbery slipped from my shoulders, and the epiphany struck. Against all the odds, I appeared to be having more fun dancing to this silly version of Noel Gallagher’s anthem than had been possible during his band’s set.

“That record did phenomenally well,” recalls Martyn Norris of Almighty Records, who was responsible for recording and releasing the Jackie ‘O’ track. “You never knew why some of them were so successful, but that was one of them. It wasn’t just the gay community that took to it. It was a much wider audience.”

Twenty-one years after Almighty’s first release – a dance cover of Limahl’s Never Ending Story – the label is still going strong, its release schedule as packed as ever. Under its auspices, Jackie ‘O’ has gone on to cover many more rock tracks in a dance style (Satisfaction, Get It On, I Believe in a Thing Called Love), even paying a return visit to the Gallagher catalogue with a courageous assault on Whatever. But despite her lengthy association with the label, little is known about Jackie herself. In common with the majority of Almighty recording artists (Obsession, Déjà Vu, Belle Lawrence et al), no photographs adorn her record sleeves and no club PA has ever been staged in support of her releases. Although Jackie has been identified elsewhere as Jill Saward of veteran Brit-funkers Shakatak, that has never been confirmed by Almighty, who remain tight-lipped about the real identities of most of their roster.

“I don’t particularly want to get into who’s who,” says Norris – who, once his initial wariness has subsided (“so you’re not going to crucify the cover version?”), turns out to be warmly forthcoming on Almighty’s history. “When we started, we used singers who possibly didn’t want to be associated with the work we were doing. We’ve always used top-act singers, and some wouldn’t even consider doing what we were doing. Some people just said: ‘Oh, no no no, I’ll do backing vocals for you – but I’m not doing a lead.'”

The stigma attached to the Hi-NRG covers of classic rock is not just misplaced; it’s inconsistent as well. On Radio 1’s Live Lounge sessions, slowed down acoustic versions of zingy pop tracks have become commonplace, and lauded as signifiers of an act’s interpretive dexterity. By the same token, X Factor finalist Matt Cardle repeated the trick that Travis once played on Britney Spears‘s Baby One More Time, drawing praise for his boldness. But while slowing a song down to make it sound sadder has become artistically acceptable – however far the new interpretation might stray from its composer’s intentions – speeding a song up to make it sound happier remains beyond the pale.

“We try and treat songs as well as we possibly can,” Norris says. “And I think we do deliver on what is artistically acceptable.” Be that as it may, Almighty’s standards of quality control are not universally maintained elsewhere. Scratch the surface of YouTube and Spotify, and a whole host of horrors start to emerge. A Spanish compilation called Makina Klassix throws up some particularly challenging examples of the dance-cover merchant’s art. Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shader Of Pale is rendered as boshing gabba-lite, its vocals replaced by the rap from Lock And Load’s 2000 hard house anthem Blow Your Mind. In the hands of DJ Konik, a brutal mangling is meted out to Sting’s Russians. Although its lyrics survive, they are interpreted by guest vocalist Michelle Collins (not the one who played Cindy in EastEnders) in a style best described as “phonetic”.

For prospective connoisseurs of the genre’s outer limits, the Swedish compilation series Replay Dance Mania is an indispensable guide. Head to Replay Dance Rock Mania, and marvel at what can be done to the likes of Smoke on the Water, We Will Rock You, Dancing in the Dark, and yea, even unto Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama. Perhaps most disturbingly of all, Second Run’s all-out attack on Seasons in the Sun (from Replay Dance Mania Volume Two) betrays a lack of sensitivity to Rod McKuen’s lyric that should challenge even the strongest stomach. “Goodbye Michelle, it’s hard to die,” wails the diva-for-hire, speeded to an early grave by a merciless barrage of donks. The coup de grace is wielded by an instrumental reprise of the chorus’s melody line, hammered out on the “bagpipe” setting with all the finesse of a military tattoo. Much the same trick is deployed on a cover of Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow, credited to the Italo Brothers. Meanwhile, fellow Italians Prezioso and Marvin recently opted to render the hook of Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle on electronic pan pipes. In the parallel universe of the Eurodance cover, the only limits are your imagination and your nerve.

Displaying more nerve than most, the Irish producer Micky Modelle has seemingly made it his life’s work to turn every song ever written into an uplifting club banger, regardless of provenance: from Mull of Kintyre to Donald Where’s Your Troosers (Scottish Club Anthems) from Teenage Kicks to The Wild Rover (Irish Clubland), and from Sweet Child o’ Mine to Rocking All Over the World (Rock Anthems in Clubland). You sense this is a man who knows that time is not on his side; during a perfunctory romp through Dr Hook’s Sylvia’s Mother, you can almost hear the ticking of the studio clock. As to what demographic could possibly make practical use of an uplifting club version of a four-decades-old Dr Hook single, perhaps only the voices inside Modelle’s head could provide an answer.

When it comes to establishing what the original artists make of their clubbed-up makeovers, information is frustratingly scant. Very occasionally, an act will actively lend its support: Status Quo collaborated with Scooter on an update of Whatever You Want, and the Cure’s Robert Smith supplied a new vocal for the Blank and Jones cover of A Forest, for example. One other occasions, although these are rare indeed, a publisher might flatly refuse permission: Almighty’s covers of James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful and David Bowie’s Life on Mars were both blocked from full release. But in these instances, you can never be sure whether the order has come directly from the artist, or merely from those employed to protect the artist’s legacy.

As for, say, Keane’s reaction to Almighty’s remakes of Everybody’s Changing and Somewhere Only We Know, we can only speculate – but there’s no reason to assume that they would be necessarily horrified. In common with many recent Almighty covers, which have leant towards arena-friendly mainstream indie – Coldplay, Killers, Snow Patrol – the cheese factor has been dialled down, allowing a certain melancholy to surface above the brightness. Could the comparative elegance of this approach find favour in indie circles, or do charges of sacrilege automatically go with the territory?

For Martyn Norris, such considerations are immaterial. “We’ve wound up the indie snobs for years,” he says – and when it comes to the likes of Belle Lawrence’s I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, you do have to wonder whether Almighty are sometimes laughing up their sleeves. But for the most part, Norris is simply looking for memorable songs, whose intrinsic strengths can withstand the transition. Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, which surfaced as an Almighty cover long before the Pet Shop Boys added it to their touring set list, is a good case in point.

“Because they don’t do Coldplay dance remixes, they are the most perfect things to cover,” he explains. “It’s the same with the Arctic Monkeys. But basically it’s the song, straight away. Is it a very strong melody? Is there a hook line? Is it going to work well on the dance floor? Is it quite simple? And Coldplay songs are very well written. They’re not over-complicated, like songs from previous decades – like some of Elton John’s songs, which are very complicated. We find the ones that work for us are the most contemporary songs. And if there are no dance versions, even better.”

On Sunday evenings at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in south London, the legacy of Love Muscle lives on. 7th Heaven’s remix of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain is packing them in this month, as is Melanie Wilson’s update of Donna Summer’s This Time I Know It’s for Real – and thanks to the recent efforts of Ellie Goulding, Cher Lloyd and Susan Boyle, Almighty’s fine covers of Your Song, Stay and Perfect Day are sure to be back in rotation. As each opening line bursts unexpectedly through the mix, and a hundred pairs of hands fly up in a shared moment of recognition, it becomes ever harder to argue with music like this.

Hear Mike Atkinson’s Spotify playlist of dance cover versions at v.gd/eurorock

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