by Richard Noise
(a.k.a. Richard Norris of The Grid!)
First there were a few more club flyers boldly proposing a shift from Acid, if not nationally, at least amongst that ficklest of fraternities, the London club scene.
Then came the news filtering through from the States of obscure 12"s on independent continental labels cropping up in weekly dance charts. Top House producer Kevin Saunderson started name checking the discs, Red Rhino started importing them, London Records suggested the inevitable compilation and every A&R man in the land jumped aboard a Sabena airline flight to check out the new talent.
A disjointed, subsonic dance pulse is causing the biggest shock waves ever to grace European ears. The sound is New Beat and it's coming outta Belgium. Belgium? C'mon, the country which spawned the legendary 'fat Belgian bastards' jibe in Monty Python's 'Prejudice' sketch? What the hell is going on?
The story, or at least this version, goes approximately like this . . .
In the early '80s, a dedicated Belgian underground frequented a smattering of dancehalls throughout the land dedicated to the dictates of electronic music.
Places like The Happy House in Aarscholt, the Apelier in Leuven and On The Beach in Kortrijk all spun a variety of import material, from The Normal's 'Warm Leatherette' through Throbbing Gristle's 'United', checking A Certain Ratio, DAF, Cabaret Voltaire and Medium Medium along the way.
The scene receded in the smaller Belgian outposts as the decade wore on, but remained consistent in Antwerp, where a shiny new venue named the Ancienne Belgique opened its doors with a capacity of 2,000. Notorious and later jail-bound local DJ Fat Ronnie, who'd worked his way up from smaller Antwerp clubs like Scandals, began to mix favourites from the suburban venues with film music and tracks from the likes of John Foxx and Soft Cell.
"We didn't think it possible to entertain 2,000 people with that kind of music," DJ Marc Grouls reflects some five years later. "We were still playing Top 40 music, but the spark was there. A lot of people from outside town came to Antwerp, they began to call it AB music, after the club."
Fat Ronnie's inspiration snowballed when Marc and a handful of other DJs were listening to 'Flesh', the latest 12" from Belgian electronic band A Split Second in Antwerp's USA Import record store. By slowing the pitch control down to a lurching 33, Marc transformed the track from pleasant Euro-Industrialism to the melodramatic, pomp-laden epic that's been firing London warehouses all summer. "Then," as Marc puts it, "we started to talk of Belgian New Beat."
The pitch-altered Split Second disc reverberated throughout the Belgian DJ community. It came to the attention of Maurice Engelen, a former promoter who had brought the likes of Modern English, Eyeless In Gaza and Josef K to the country, and later set up Antler Records with one Roland Bellucci.
"DJs from all around Belgium were playing 'Flesh' at different speeds," recalls Maurice. "I saw there was a strange atmosphere on the dance floor when they played the record, so I asked Bellucci to produce another record with the same ingredients."
Bellucci teamed up with cohorts Morton and Sherman to produce a 12" under the name Fruit Of Life, entitled 'Not Afraid To Dance'.
"We had been working for maybe a day and a half on the track, and tried to make it as interesting as possible," states Roland. "There were lots of funny breaks and effects, lots of crazy things happening. We went over to USA Import and played them the tape. The guys from the store and a couple of DJs who were there said 'take out this one, that break there - take out that one'.
"So I went back to the studio and spliced the tape - I took out all the bits and pieces. We listened to it; it was just bashing for six and a half minutes, from beginning to end... but alright, we thought, if they want it, they'll have it that way. We put it out and in two or three weeks time we sold five thousand copies. We couIdn't believe it."
'Not Afraid To Dance' was the first in around 50 12" releases that have emerged from premier New Beat label Subway Records, Maurice and Roland's newly formed division of Antler. Maurice smelled success and started looking for new material.
"I asked a few other people that I knew to make a few records for me - Jade 4U, Dirty Harry, Chris Inger and Praga Khan. The sales figures for an obscure Antler band were less than 1,000, but on Subway the first 1,500 always sold out in no time."
Meanwhile, the influence of 'Flesh', Boytronic's sublime Euro-smash 'Bryllyant' and German band 16 Bit's local hit 'Where Are You' filtered through to the most technologically advanced musicians in the vicinity. The New Beat hits started rolling in.
Jo Bogaert, a musician with previous experience working on theatre and ballet scores, created Nux Nemo, notching up the first New Beat Number One last summer with 'Hiroshima'. It stayed on top for seven weeks and established the form as a viable chart alternative. Since then the new Beat 12"s have poured in, all on independent labels like Subway, R & S, Ferrari and Indisc. Some are terrible and some merely adequate, but when they work, these tracks scale the heights of the more substantial end of the Belgian scene, the Electronic Body Music hardcore, populated by acts like Front 242, The Weathermen and Neon Judgement. One thing's for sure - New Beat is selling by the bucketload. And it's about to make it's way over here.
So what does it sound like? Well, the records are slowed down to a constant, yielding bass drum thud; New Beat is a sparse, relentless Mogodon groove.
Roland Bellucci explains: "From our point of view the tempo is important - the slow beat, between 90 and 115 beats per minute. In the beginning we did a lot of tracks at 90 bpm, then it became a little faster."
Why so slow? Marc Grouls: "Here in Belgium we can't dance to an Acid record on normal speed - we can't follow it because we don't take drugs or anything! You just need a beat to bring you into a trance, with not too many words. It's not too difficult, it's dance music."
Paul Ward, an SIS radio DJ who runs the Liasons Dangereuses show with Sven Van Hees, finds my listening tastes unusual.
"You play Nitzer Ebb at normal speed? We never do that! Only on one song - 'Alarm'. We said with 'Alarm' that this is the absolute limit - after that there's only pain. Now people accept it ... you can see the borderline always pushing a bit further...."
"We mix very loud," adds Bellucci, "like we're in a club with maximum power. We are aware that most of the tracks are listened to in clubs; you have to give yourself to the sound, let the sound come over you."
Maurice Engelen views New Beat as a combination of other dance styles: "What's good about New Beat is that the best ingredients are taken from the other dance styles. They took the low bass drum and heavy old synthesizer tunes from Electronic Body Music, they also took sounds from Acid.
"It's not like Detroit Techno or the Chicago scene or the London Acid scene - New Beat is a reaction to disco - I don't think Deep House will catch on in Belgium. New Beat is completely soulless - it's sterile music created to dance to and nothing else. We don't have a rap or hip-hop culture here. Belgium is so under attack from France, Germany, England and the United States; you are bombarded with all these different sounds. HI-NRG from Italy, the music of England... we became a meltingpot for all this different music. The DJs got fed up with it - suddenly you could hear Brian Eno and David Byrne's 'Jezebel Spirit' or 'Regiment', Kraftwerk or PiL's 'Death Disco' (a New Beat rare groove that changes hands over here for around 150 British pounds). Everything got mingled up because you hear so much."
Although New Beat looks to an electronic European past rather than black culture, it's not without feeling or humour. Particularly prevalent are erotic, near pornographic samples, many of which border on the offensive.
When I broached this subject most Belgians couldn't see it; they just muttered something about British sexual hang-ups that I didn't quite catch. Maybe there's no translation for 'sexist'.
It all started with Subway 001, an anti-AIDS tune entitled 'I Don't Do A Thing With A Thing On My Thing' a Chris Inger/Praga Khan project. Maurice from Subway struck upon the bright idea of issuing the record as a limited edition with a free condom.
"We made 1,000 with condoms stuck on the cover. From the 1,000 we sent out, we had 700 returns from the shops because people had ripped off the condoms! I said to Inger and Khan, 'We'll do it again, but this time you've got to put the condoms on the covers. From the 700 going back to the shops, once again, another 500 came back!" The sexy sampling debacle really took off with a Morton Sherman Bellucci project entitled 'Move Your Ass And Feel The Beat' by the Erotic Dissidents. With its monotone sub-Village People hook, it's more camp than offensive, but the Belgians were shocked and sales began to soar.
"When 'Move Your Ass' started selling, we were supposed to do a television show," recalls Bellucci. "There was no real Erotic Dissidents - it was just an idea in Morton's mind. We tried to find an image in the style of La Cicciolina (the Italian pop star-turned-MP); we looked for a girl to give image to the Erotic part but it was really difficult to find somebody to do it. Two days before the show we found someone; we rehearsed for an hour or two and went on stage. They banned it from television...."
Not surprising, really. With their bondage gear, sex toys and semi-nudity, the Erotic Dissidents are hardly family viewing. Still their notoriety led them to the top of the charts, selling over 40,000 copies. Cheap thrills....
It didn't need the Erotic Dissidents outrage to tarnish New Beat's image. The national media was steadfastly ignoring the most popular musical force ever to darken its doorstep. Bellucci continues:
"The club scene is very big here, with thousands of young people going to clubs every weekend, yet the national radio just plays mainstream rock and pop. The press has only been picking this up for a couple of months because it's such a big scene - they can't just keep on ignoring it. If you can find 50,000 people buying one record without any press or radio pushing it, something definitely must be going on."
Marc Grouls echoes the problem: "At the moment Belgian TV and radio will play anything that comes from abroad, and some Belgian stuff they know - mostly Flemish slagen music. For us it's really frustrating - Confetti's 'Sound of C' has sold over 56,000, it's been in the Top Five for weeks; Amnesia's 'Ibiza' is Number Eight... and they won't play it. We have to fight against the media."
"There's a lot of frustrated musicians playing journalist," says Bellucci. "In Belgium there's only three or four talented journalists that take themselves seriously and are listening to records. It's difficult for them to think that we are successful when in their opinion we are not musicians."
"A lot of these new names are going straight to the top of the chart," adds Engelen. "The radio doesn't know them, so they lose control. That's something they can't stand here. Jade 4 U or Morton Sherman Bellucci are always working on many projects - it's very hard to follow if you're not on the inside.
"The press is the main offender - not only do they ignore most releases, when they discover them, they slag them mercilessly. National rag Humo ran a four page article last week ridiculing the whole scene . . . they made the Erotic Dissidents out to be three old men who wanted to rape little girls. Y'know, tasteful stuff. But because of New Beat's massive popularity, they ran an advert in every Belgian paper stating 'This week in Humo: New Beat'. Hypocrites or what?"
Patrick de Meyer of T-99 isn't put off that his records don't receive rave reviews: "The press is not a big problem. I think it's good for New Beat - if the people into the music read such an article they're going to buy more. They play the records to escape from reality - there's still some darkness and mystery in it. If it was always in the press or on TV the mystery would disappear. There is some tension,some vaultage. It keeps New Beat alive."
Luckily distribution is no problem. Shops like USA Import or Music Man in Ghent service most of the country's DJs.
"Thousands of copies of each record will sell there," explains Bellucci. "They break a record and slowly, very slowly, this crosses over."
In the last two months that crossover has seeped abroad. Major British labels are falling over themselves to grab a slice:
ffrr/London are rush-releasing Subway's "New Beat, Take One" (reviewed in last week's NME) compilation under the title 'Balearic Beats Volume Two', as well as re-issuing 'Flesh' and sides from Dirty Harry, Erotic Dissidents and Taste Of Sugar.
Virgin 10, Jive, MCA, most of the UK's dance labels and a host of others are also getting stuck in. There's even a dodgy British version of 'Flesh' knocking about.This has come as a mighty shock to the fraternity; I mean, since when did Britain look towards Belgium for it's music? Maurice Engelen finds it all a bit much.
"When I saw the interest at the beginning of the year, I thought I'd call a few companies in London because it was taking off. There wasn't even one percent interest. A year ago if you printed Made In Belgium on a record cover it would be the reason it didn't sell... now Jive Records are asking me if it's alright if they print it on the cover!"
Roland Bellucci is more relaxed. "We were surprised at the beginning, but after a couple of months we were expecting it. It's flattering when record companies calland ask us to remix this one or that one, but we try to keep cool."
In parallel to UK dance releases, all the New Beat hits have stemmed from independent labels.
"The records have to be made very fast," says Engelen. "If a major company does something it always takes weeks to decide. That's the strength of the independents - you have to react directly."
"The majors are scared," Bellucci reckons. "There's a lot of sampling in this scene. We are aware that some of the things we are doing are not very legal. Also, the whole story of this Acid thing going on in England has kept them away". Not only were the majors scared, they were highly suspicious. They rallied round and set the Belgian equivalent of the British Phonographic Industry onto the indies, unable to believe such sales figures and chart positions.
"We had a lot of investigation," Maurice understates, as did Ferrari, USA Import and others.
Some reactions have been not quite so bad. Maurice has received favourable post from DJs like MARK MOORE; JELLYBEAN loved Morton Sherman Bellucci's 'Beat Professor'; even FRANK ZAPPA wrote in praise of Subway records. "His letter was very strange... he said it sounded like James Last plays Zacharias!"
It's in the clubs however that the scene is really kicking. After Fat Ronnie's mysterious departure from the Ancienne Belgique, three new clubs picked up the action - Prestige in Antwerp, Vertigo in Brussels and Ghent's Boccaccio club.
All are high-tech pleasure domes fitted with shockingly expensive hi-fidelity sound systems that grind to the beat.
Sunday night at Boccaccio is the pinnacle of the New Beat week - here even the doorman's made a New Beat record. Porches and BMWs line outside the neon splendour of this 2,000 capacity haven; inside it's like imagining the Tackhead Sound System at the Hippodrome.
The crowd are decked in high fashion by Six of Antwerp or Boy of London, flaunting imported Oxford Street 'Have A Nice Trip' t-shirts or flamenco fashions. Most wear the spanking new design from New Beat Fashion, a sweatshirt Maurice launched the previous week. Retailing at eight pounds, the 600 tops designed by Bart Declerq and Indriz Jossa sold out in a day.
At Saturday's fashion bash at La Rocka, Antwerp's premier venue since the decline of Prestige, the entire audience sported these items, posing for Belgian TV and NME photographer Tim Jarvis' ever-present lenses.
Back in Boccaccio, the drinks are as expensive as the threads. This is no place to have a headache in - even 'Oochy Koochy' can't rattle these speakers. The sound is acid-tinged but the mood stays as solid as that bass drum beat.
So where does it go from here? Morton Sherman Bellucci have experimented with Reggae New Beat (New Beat Sensation's 'Robbin' And Stealin''), opera (Danse Macabre's 'Spirit Of Bulgaria') and global influence with their releases on the World Today label.
The beat is pumping faster than the original 90 bpm to catch up with Acid's trance dance.... Marc Grouls is bringing a soundtrack atmosphere to New Beat with his In-D releases.... and every week more and more New Beat tracks fill the racks.
"Because of the success everybody wants to make New Beat," shrugs Maurice. "All the guys who were coming to us with Flemish folk song cassettes came to us in September with New Beat. There's a lot of bullshit in there."
Unfortunately the more unscrupulous end or the market started printing their own stickers, so a new, foolproof "New Beat: Made In Belgium" logo has just been designed.
It's this kind of attitude that sparked my Belgian visit - a mixture of naivete and corruption pervades, like the Larry Parnes era of the early '60s.
The strongest impression is, however, of great generosity - our party received free records, designer New Beat wear and enthusiastic debate wherever we went. If you're going to discover some New Beat, think of that spirit.