Olivia had a smiley face on her pencil case. ‘It’s the acid house sign’, she said proudly. Thank God she was out of Miss Hennigan’s earshot.
None of us really knew what it meant. We knew it had something to do with drugs, but we weren’t even sure what they were. Naturally, as children of the eighties we’d been warned about the dangers of glue-sniffing (well, not the specifics, but enough to know that ambulance sirens ensued). But all the other stuff was just words. We associated drugs with sex and horror movies – something our parents routinely sidestepped or censured, something made glamorous by being outside of conversational limits. Understandably, then, Olivia’s pencil case was a talking point. It was on the fringe of something dangerous – Alice peeping into the garden; Lucy clambering through the wardrobe. Soon enough, Olivia taught us the acid dance. This involved singing D Mob’s ‘We Call it Acieed’ while getting changed for P.E. That’s my abiding memory of what came to be known as the second summer of love – prancing around in my underpants yodelling something unspeakable. I don’t imagine your average late eighties warehouse party was very different, actually. Just more sweat and wider pupils. And hopefully less D Mob.
My early experiments with druggy dancing were soon cut short by a nagging guilt and fear of what I had done. One day we were all getting changed for games as usual, and Olivia initiated the acid dancing, but I didn’t join in. I said rather sheepishly that I didn’t want to do acid house anymore. The incantatory wail started to make me feel odd. A year or two later, my London cousin was up north for Christmas, and the feeling resurfaced. Life in the big smoke always seemed so decadent and glamorous, and my cousin always talked about foods and fashion lines I’d never heard of. This time around, she had her hardcore house tapes with her, and they sounded frighteningly full-on blaring out of the ghettoblaster speakers. It was lawless music, pumped out in illegal spaces, or in legal spaces which turned a blind eye to illicit activities. I rushed back to my Mozart cassettes for refuge.
By the time I was installed at secondary school, though, it was impossible to avoid what had come to be known as ‘dance music’. It thumped from every Nissan Micra; quieter radio stations carried a ghost of bassline as pirate broadcasters trespassed on their frequencies. In my first term at Park View, everyone was obsessed with The Shamen. It turned out that ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ was actually about little happy tablets. Imagine my shock on being disabused of my own mishearing (‘laser gun, laser gun – he’s got a laser gun!’) Nineties chart dance music now invokes Proustian responses; one bar of anything by Cappella or Snap and I’m instantly eating porridge in front of The Big Breakfast or dodging the dolly-beads at break-time.* I also feel affectionate towards it. I found myself singing ‘Rhythm is a dancer’ in a room full of likemindeds last New Year’s Eve, wondering whether I’d come to the nineties twenty years too late. Of course, it seems much safer among sozzled thirtysomethings in the comfort of an owner-occupied house, than sweating it out with a load of wired teenagers clutching Evian bottles.
But what did I dance to in my bedroom as a teenager? Everyone has the hairbrush song, the vanity track that prompts a bit of mirror boogie. For some, it may well have been Corona or The Original. But for me, it was Donna Summer. Always Donna Summer. And my love for ‘I feel love‘ (which is, naturally, a little sexual) comes, rather surprisingly, from the same root as my anxiety over D Mob. Something in those juddery sequencers sets the heart into overdrive (a kind of amyl nitrate-aided frisson, apparently, which made the track the queen of late-seventies gay clubbing). It feels wrong; creepy and sinister, pregnant with danger. It feels so wrong, in fact, that it makes me want to run behind the sofa. And ingest things.
I’ve always been utterly, unhealthily obsessed with synthesizers, particularly those big, burly, wiry boxes that crept into pop culture in the late seventies and took up permanent residence in the early eighties. You don’t really need me to tell you that ‘I feel love’ was the first entirely synthesized UK number one, or that it pretty much invented ‘dance music’ singlehandedly, during that fateful summer of ’77, when Elvis died and punk reached its peak. But it’s worth reminding yourself that while Johnny Rotten wore bondage trousers and declared there to be ‘no future’, Giorgio Moroder ushered in the future, and it wasn’t wearing any trousers at all. 1977 was alive with these isolated sightings and soundings. Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene was on many a turntable, and Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express was leaving the bahnhof, ready for the long ride towards electro and hip-hop. Bowie and Eno filled their first sides with pips and blips and ice-cool synth-strings, and saved up a load of doomy Europeana for their flips. But Donna Summer spent a magical three weeks as the nation’s favourite, a nation poised at the point of no return. And yes, I am talking about orgasms.
Sex in popular music had previously been something to do with guitars and pouting. Mick Jagger begging for brown sugar, that sort of thing. But then a little Italian chap with a very porn moustache flicked the wrong switch in his Munich studio; the atom was split, and pop-sex could never be the same again. From now on, it was going to be all about computers and quantizing. It was going to be about the rigid logic of the male blending with the otherworldly abandonment of the female, or else the falsetto male discovering naughty things he never knew existed. That way lies….ooh, Sylvester, Bronski Beat, Madonna, The Source featuring Candi Staton, Kylie, Rihanna. ‘I feel love’ seems to boomerang back into our lives at regular intervals, its unmistakeable sequencers percolating like the molten core of the earth, firing up the loins and stupefying the speakers into a trance. The fact is, nobody has ever bettered it. As with any drug, the first hit is always the most powerful.
By contrast, sex, unlike drugs, generally gets better the more you do it. On one level, this appears to be what ‘I feel love’ is about. This is no virginal epiphany, but the sound of a woman who knows. But she’s also a woman at a distance. Donna Summer’s voice, usually a rich alto, scales previously unknown heights. The air up there is thinner, her breath shorter and shallower. You wonder whether there is anything bodily going on at all; perhaps this is all going on in the ionosphere, at a far remove from the bedroom. But the Moogs give the game away. If anything, ‘I feel love’ pays shivering tribute to the auto-erotic. This marriage between woman and machine suggests she doesn’t need a man to get high. She is well aware of her own rhythms – more aware than anyone. The ‘you’ addressed in the lyrics is therefore ambiguous. Call me kinky, but is the addressee really a gadget of some sort?
Before this gets any dirtier, and your imagination runs away with you, I’d suggest that it’s also a love song to dancing, a paean to the power of this new, exciting genre of music. As Donna’s voice piles up on top of itself in the third ‘verse’, the triads lend her a magisterial aura; of course, triple-tracking had featured on plenty of records before, but here it’s used to launch a new manifesto, based on the discovery of the electronic manipulability of the human larynx. It’s disco narcissism: the dancer discovering endless repetitions of herself in the glass of the mirrorball. Again, it’s anticipating something. The relentless motor-chug of electro-bass is leading inexorably to a new sort of nightclub, all poise and pose and look-but-don’t-touch. That’s the eighties knocking on the door, trying to smuggle its tassels past the bouncers.
But more than anything, ‘I feel love’ is just so good it scares me. Hypnotic, narcotic, psychotic, it eludes description, being of the body rather than the mind. I like to dance to it in my head, with eyes closed and headphones clamped to my ears. It brings me out in a smiley face; though these days, I keep me kecks on.
* For those unfamiliar with 1990s confectionery, dolly-beads were little hard sweets sold as necklaces. Most young people used them as catapults.