It will have occurred to most of you, usually circa 4am on a night out, quite how steeped clubbing is in religious symbolism.
Here we have our Church, or perhaps ‘House’ is a more suitable term; and here, our somewhat crazed and elated congregation, whipped up into an evangelical fervour at the whim of the preacher – the figure guiding the flock from atop his bedecked pulpit.
Before you say that I go too far, that this sounds like the crazed after-party ramblings of one who hath partook verily in too much of the communion wine and wafer, I would remind you that I am far from the first to point these similarities out, and that religious leanings existed from the earliest beginnings of House music. This is never better demonstrated than by the founding ethos of the genre as preached by Chuck Roberts on Rhythm Controll’s 1987 track ‘My House’:
Now if this is not some kind of quasi-religious text, then I’m the Archbishop of York… House offered a place and a feeling for the outcasts of society, for homosexuals and African-Americans – who were its earliest disciples – advocating notions of inclusiveness, love and a feeling for the rhythm. As Roberts says:
“But I am not so selfish because once you enter my house,
it then becomes our house and our House Music. And, you see, no one man owns House,
because House Music is a universal language spoken and understood by all.”
As with Old Testament prophets, there are the constants, figures in dance music who spend years in the wilderness, eating locusts and such forth, occasionally returning to spread the accumulated wisdom gathered from their travels (think your Andrew Weatheralls and Kerri Chandlers); conversely there are your false prophets – producers and DJ’s who turn out to be nothing more than puffs of smoke in the wind, here today – gone tomorrow.
At around the same time, the new Techno movement that began to emerge from Detroit could perhaps be seen as House music’s puritanical cousin. It was stylistically simpler and drew inspiration from the industrial backdrop of the urban environment. Machines were now seen as the instruments with which to best express the spirituality of post-industrial man. This spirituality was in abundance, in tracks such as Rhythim is Rhythim (aka Derrick May)’s ‘Strings of Life’, and Inner City (aka Kevin Saunderson)’s ‘Good Life’, with their euphoric chords and soulful message. A puritanical element of Techno can be seen in an early aversion to narcotic hedonism. Detroit club The Music Institute famously stocked no alcohol, serving juice instead, and Derrick May to this day isn’t an advocate of the use of drugs to enjoy dance music – a real dance floor Presbyterian.
The parallels don’t stop there though. When listening to Techno, the crowd tends to be completely focused on the DJ – they face forward and seem as if in a private contemplatory dance with this ‘preacher’. Disco and House are wholly dissimilar in terms of crowd reaction, the music here tends towards participation and, in a good club, the focus is drawn away from the DJ himself as the congregation dances wildly with each other – in raptures of devotion – not such a far cry from participation in a Gospel church (well, actually quite a far cry).
By and large though, dance culture has celebrated a union of hedonistic types, from the anything-goes attitude of New York’s Paradise Garage to the drug-addled Acid-House raves in the 90s. This is then (in a sense) religion for non-religious people, a church of the alternative, for the outsiders…
Back though to the actual symbolism apparent in clubs and clubbing. Symbolism that’s very hard to ignore at a certain time in the early morning. One breaks the bread. One has a feeling of good will towards one’s brothers, and there are some hymns that will always get everyone to their feet. An uncanny similarity is also evident in the reverent way in which many DJ’s treat rare vinyls to the treatment of religious relics. First press copies of Chicago or Manchester bangers are akin to latter day saints bones, powerful and precious.
Certain DJs hold a cult-like sway over the ‘scene’ of their time. This can be traced back to the almost-holy light which attendees at NYC’s Paradise Garage saw Larry Levan in. Levan is still seen as a symbol of the time – a cult figure and father of the flock – his disco flock. It should be of no surprise that modern DJs might try and emulate the form of Levan by, for example, naming their night at DC-10 ‘Paradise’, but far be it for me to cry ‘False Prophets!’. For better or worse ‘Cult’ DJ’s are an important part of the scene and it is interesting to note how much easier it is now for a focused and savvy producer to gather a huge following with a deft use of social media websites. The Second Coming will probably be really good at Facebook too.
I would be the first to admit that this is a pretty whimsical strain of thought. Obviously clubbing is not actually a religion, and the parallels are (largely) coincidental. I would however ask you to look into why exactly it is that we go to clubs (and I don’t mean Tiger Tiger or Boujis). It is different for everybody to be sure, but the big reasons are as follows: music, company, intoxication and excitement. For many there is another reason and that is the profound sense of “other” which we experience at these events.
When you are at the club, and you are dancing, and you are disorientated by the lights and by the darkness and by the smoke machine (oh, especially the smoke machine), the music is loud and reverberating through your entire body – you are in a completely different world and about as far as it’s possible to get from the norm. It is an experience inherently alternative and one that many find to be bordering on a religious one.If clubbing were a religion then it would be one not just centered around inclusiveness, but this profound feeling of “other.”
“I will take you to the mountain top and there the whole world will see the glorious light of this nation that is House.
You see people, House is more than a nation – House is a feeling, House is a sanctuary, House is a release. House will pick you up when you feel down.
House will make you strong when you feel weak. House will fill you up when you feel hungry.”
So what does the monstrous advent of bland and meaningless EDM mean for all this? Where do Guetta or Deadmau5 fit in? In order to give it mass appeal, the sound has been sterilized and removed of content – shapeless and ill-nourishing Play-Doh in the unfortunate ears of North American youth. This religion of “other” is now faced with the crisis of no longer being other, rather being mainstream and worse – being shit. Perhaps what’s needed is a flood…
We can only hope that there will always be a constant who understand the ‘message’. That there will still be party-goers who ‘get’ the experience, and producers who understand and pander to it. As long as House music stays true to its core good message, there will always be followers. In the words of Chuck Roberts:
“Jack is the one that can bring nations and nations of all Jackers together under one house!
You may be black, you may be white, you may be Jew or Gentile.
It don’t make a difference in our house. And this is fresh!”