The return of dance music

After a period of commercial decline, the original trailblazers of Nineties dance music are back in a big way. The rush of nostalgia is well deserved, argues Fiona Sturges

It was the summer of 1994. The dance pioneers Orbital were headlining an unusually sun-dappled Glastonbury, a show that was later declared by Q magazine to be among the top 50 gigs of all time, the Prodigy's techno masterpiece Music for the Jilted Generation was at the top of the album charts and the former new-wavers Underworld reinvented themselves as a revolutionary dance act with the album Dubnobasswithmyheadman.

At the same time, the Dust Brothers, who became the Chemical Brothers after their American namesakes threatened legal action, took up residence in a sweat-drenched basement in London's Great Portland Street for the Heavenly Social, the hugely influential club night that drew starry party animals including Paul Weller, Tim Burgess and Noel Gallagher, and gave rise to the big-beat sound. Across town in Brixton, Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe, a pair of acid-house obsessives, also started their own club night under the name of Basement Jaxx.

Fifteen years later, and it's as if nothing has changed. Okay, that's not strictly true. The erstwhile ravers are grown-up, mortgaged-up and more likely to spend their evenings helping the kids with their homework than largin' it to the latest techno anthems. But those of you – oh alright, us – who are upwards of 35 and looking to relive their Nineties salad days, the time, it seems, is now.

This month finds the Hartnoll brothers, aka Orbital, on tour for the first time in five years. The Prodigy are back in the album charts with Invaders Must Die, Basement Jaxx are finishing their new album, due out in the autumn, and Underworld are playing festivals. Meanwhile, epochal club nights such as Leeds' Up Yer Ronson and Manchester's Luvdup, have reported a roaring trade largely comprising thirty- and fortysomething ex-clubbers in search of their lost youth. And if that's not enough to get your serotonin pumping, Zöe Ball's back on the radio.

Nostalgia can be a lucrative business, particularly when there's a generation's midlife crises to exploit. Barely a day goes by without another creaky bunch of has-beens papering over old differences and hitting the road. But unlike the Eighties, the decade endlessly relived via outings from the likes of ABC, Duran Duran and the rolling circus of the Here and Now tour, the Nineties is an era ripe for revisiting.

In his Encyclopaedia of Nineties Music, Colin Larkin states that the Nineties were "second only to the '60s as the best-ever decade for popular music". Certainly, it was a time of musical and technological innovation. While grunge looked inwards, rock looked backwards and mainstream pop remained stuck in neutral, dance music forged forward, evolving and spawning myriad sub-genres – happy house, techno, trance, jungle, drum'n'bass. The Criminal Justice act, which sought to put an end to the free parties enjoyed by ravers since the late Eighties, brought dance music out of fields and warehouses, and into clubs. If 1988 heralded the acid-house revolution then 1994 was when dance music was truly democratised, as Orbital, Underworld and the Prodigy were welcomed into the mainstream.

Orbital, two unprepossessing brothers from Kent who named themselves after the M25, the circular London expressway that disgorged club kids into the rave hinterlands, were the real trailblazers. When they first appeared on Top of the Pops in 1990, dance music was a singles club, in so much as artists were not expected to make full-length albums. It was a perception they bucked with a series of critically acclaimed LPs, including Snivilisation and In Sides.

Neither were they meant to play live in the way that their rock contemporaries did. People who made dance music were seen as DJs, as opposed to real musicians, faceless beings with little in the way of musical heritage. But Orbital saw things differently. Reared on acts ranging fromIsaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye to Kraftwerk and New Order, they saw the value in putting on a show. Between them they masterminded a theatrical style of performance with state-of-the-art light shows that made you feel like you were on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Operating parallel to Orbital was Underworld, comprising Karl Hyde, Rick Smith and, latterly, the DJ Darren Emerson. Smith and Hyde had been in and out of bands since 1980 though it wasn't until the early Nineties, with the addition of Emerson, that they alighted on a new direction, one that brought together rock music and the sounds of the rave scene. After Dubnobasswithmyheadman, they quietly released a one-off single named after a greyhound they saw running at the Romford race track. "Born Slippy" sold a respectable 25,000 copies in the first month. The following year, it appeared on the soundtrack to the film Trainspotting and the band began filling arenas.

Underworld understood the importance of keeping audiences engaged. In the late Eighties they helped to form the art-and-design collective Tomato, the instantly recognisable aesthetic of which spilled out into their album sleeves and their live shows. Even before the rise of the internet, their shows were true multimedia events, taking in film, music and visual art.

The importance of the live show was similarly understood by the Chemical Brothers and, a few years later, Basement Jaxx. Both acts' influences were wide-ranging, taking in hip-hop, electro, reggae, punk and psychedelic rock. The Chemicals' gigs comprised light shows, giant video screens and pulverising surround sound, while Basement Jaxx filled the stage with Latin dancers in headdresses and g-strings. Both acts managed to defrost the notion of the dance DJ. Through collaborations with artists including Beth Orton, Noel Gallagher and New Order's Bernard Sumner, the Chemicals were championed by the rock press. Basement Jaxx pulled off the same trick by taking a series of singers, a Spanish guitarist and a mariachi trumpeter on tour with them.

When it came to pure showmanship, few could match the Prodigy. When Liam Howlett's Essex dance outfit first appeared in the early Nineties with "Charly", they had something of the novelty act about them, like Whigfield strung out on acid. But that was before they turned themselves into an all-singing, all-dancing, arena-filling proposition. In Keith Flint, they had a frontman who embodied the spirit of punk, a lunatic cross between Steven Berkoff and Vyvyan from The Young Ones.

While Orbital, on observing dwindling sales and some less-than-generous reviews, threw in the towel in 2004, it's worth noting that the majority of the Nineties dance giants never actually went away. The Chemicals, Basement Jaxx, the Prodigy and Underworld have long been staples of the festival season and have continued to release albums, albeit to varying degrees of interest. You could call the current vogue for all things dance less of a revival than a simple return to form.

Still, to the younger generation, the Prodigy, Orbital et al will doubtless look like heritage acts, relics of a faintly embarrassing age. It's easy to get misty-eyed over certain periods in music, particularly when those periods are bound up with one's own youth.

But listening to Orbital, the Prodigy or Underworld today reminds me of what seems like a lost era. It was a time when music was unpredictable and rich with possibility. Most crucially, it looked to the future. At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, you can't say the same about music today.

Basement Jaxx's new single, 'Raindrops', is out on XL on Monday; Orbital's tour begins at Brighton Dome on 10 June and the retrospective album 'Orbital 20' is out on Rhino on Monday; Underworld headline the Glade Festival at the Matterley Bowl, Winchester, 16-19 July; the Prodigy's 'Invaders Must Die' is out now on Cooking Vinyl

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