The day I arrived in London this February, they were holding a huge protest march in Hyde Park -- the largest such political gathering in over a decade. Were the English outraged by the Irish peace process, the possible bombing of Iraq or the government's recently proposed welfare cuts? No. The issue at hand was fox hunting. The protesters, it seemed, were FOR it.
This, then, is the new Britain under Tony Blair: rich, mobile, conservative and seemingly trivial at heart. And a country that is politically trivial-minded is bound to be culturally trivial-minded as well. True, veneration of the Spice Girls and Oasis in the media has waned considerably of late -- Kate Winslet is the Girl of the Period now -- but they've left some slightly sinister legacies: a massive xenophobia (propagated by the success of Britpop and the "Cool Britannia" movement), a bunch of lame imitators and an inflated sense of importance about so-called "djay culture," aka "electronica," as it's called in America, by those who can't (or won't) differentiate between things like house, ambient and drum 'n' bass.
Not that there's anything wrong with djay culture -- but it has its limitations. And if you take away the Verve, Pulp and Propellerheads, today's British music scene is all about rap, techno and sampling, i.e., record production rather than songwriting. Stereophonics, Goldie, Aphex Twin, Alabama Three, Chemical Brothers, Roni Size, Fatboy Slim -- all are leaders of their own little packs. The latest genre is titled "decks and drums" -- or, as Propellerheads' new LP is called, "Decksanddrumsandrockandroll."
Propellerheads are the most ambitious of this type of project currently on the market, and also the most well-received. At last month's South by Southwest music and media gathering in Austin, Texas -- always a bellwether of journalistic cabal-making -- the Propellerheads show was almost as anticipated and well-attended as that of (Saint) Sonic Youth. This is particularly impressive in Texas, where old-fashioned things like guitar playing and narrative structure and heartfelt lyrics are still highly prized by critics, and songwriters like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Lucinda Williams, Iris Dement and Mark Eitzel are still rulers of the roost.
A collaboration between Alex Gifford and Will White, Propellerhead is the exact opposite of that type of artistry. But the reason the record is so popular is fairly evident in its grooves. "Decksanddrums" contains a wonderful single called "History Repeating" that is thus far the most mainstream-sounding techno recording on the market. Featuring a vocal by Shirley Bassey (who sang the theme to "Goldfinger"), it may well become the "Walk This Way" of electronica.
That said, Propellerheads may not be the breakthrough the British say they are. After all, their main inspiration is James Bond theme music, as heard on the Bassey number and the tracks "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and "Spybreak." But besides being a rather limited wellspring of possible samples, that's hardly a unique source to draw on. Portishead have been lifting James Bond theme music for years. So, too, did the Sneaker Pimps on their wonderful 1997 single "Six Underground." And Moby just did a medley of James Bond theme remixes on his record "I Love To Score."
Propellerheads also borrow heavily from loungy "bachelor pad" music (Esquivel, Herb Alpert), which recently has made heavy inroads in the indie world, and this has proved a fruitful foundation on which they add guitar and bass-heavy, Chemical Brothers-style beats. The band is much more upbeat than most trip-hop bands (particularly the doom and gloomy Portishead) and the tracks sometimes even have lyrical content. The track "Velvet Pants," for example, is a clever comment on club culture on which a girl intones, "He's got a nice body/he's wearing velvet pants," while a beefy club owner intones, "Send the kids down."
In short, Propellerheads are not as ambient as DJ Shadow, nor as disco sounding as Moby or the Crystal Method -- and the result is much more appealing. Moreover, their guest stars -- De La Soul, the Artist blah blah blah Prince, the Jungle Brothers and Bassey -- are far more original and than those used on the Prodigy's "Fat of the Land." The result is a deeper and livelier record that may even assimilate itself with fans of more mainstream genres.
According to various English pundits, the current underground dance club/rave scene is as meaningful to its participants as punk or grunge was to its adherents, and will be just as influential in the long run, but I find this hard to believe. English djay culture is absolutely steeped in drugs (mostly E and its derivatives). With few exceptions, the music truly needs that all-night drug boost to be understandable and enjoyable. And no matter what the media says, it's dance music, pure and simple -- and dance music has never had a long shelf life. When it comes to longevity, my bet's on Austin, where narrative, melody and good old-fashioned heart still count.