Pop & Jazz: Auntie gets down on the dancefloor

The BBC fully embraces dance music as the new rock `n' roll (at last). By Jennifer Rodger
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The Independent Culture
TO ANY regular clubber, the Radio One Essential Mix at the Brighton Conference Rooms presented a familiar scene: mind-bending visuals, tanned clubbers, glam girls with their knickers exposed and big name DJs spinning the tunes. But hang on a minute - good old Auntie presiding over what amounted to a rave? The recent tabloid outrage over Radio One's coverage of some of Ibiza's wilder club nights is a bit of a red herring too - the real question is: "What's dance music done to pop music?"

It's only been a few years since the BBC extended their definition of "popular music" beyond the likes of Sonia and Jason Donovan. Under the much-criticised revolution instigated by former Radio One Controller, Matthew Bannister, the station has increased its dance music coverage from just a few hours a week in the early Nineties to a staggering 34 hours today. Despite plummeting listening figures, the station ought still to be considered the de facto arbiter of what constitutes pop music. Up until about 1992, Radio One more or less ignored the dance music scene that had not only filled fields and warehouses across the country but also tabloid front pages.

That the Beeb for a long time chose not to acknowledge the biggest underground music development since punk was everyone's loss. After all, the last 10 years have proved that dance music has the traits of virtually every previous youth cult: the anti-authoritarianism of early rock `n' roll; the idealism of flower power; the hedonism of rock and the DIY ethic of punk. According to the station's music policy in the late Eighties and early Nineties, however, the only specialist listening beyond the rump of sugary pop was a smattering of soul, a dollop of heavy metal, the odd bit of reggae and John Peel sifting over the leftovers.

In one respect at least, the hubbub over Radio One's presence in Ibiza illustrates that dance music has usurped, for the time being at least, the hedonism with which pop groups were traditionally associated - the tabloids have fallen on salacious accounts of libidinous goings-on in the Balearics and Sky is even screening an Ibiza Special focusing on Radio One's jaunt on the party island.

Back in the slightly less glamourous surroundings of Brighton last weekend, Auntie appeared to have done its homework with a faultless line-up of DJ talent on offer: Danny Rampling, Judge Jules, Grooverider and LTJ Bukem. In terms of a live pop gig, though, it looked more like a lager-strewn Eighties' disco in a venue which usually plays host to sales conferences and graduation ceremonies. Even on the terms in which clubbers have mythologised the genesis of the dance scene, it was hardly an alcohol-free carnival in a disused warehouse. Not a temporary autonomous zone in sight, in fact.

The evening's eclectic line-up provided other clues as to how pop is trying to absorb the assault of the multi-million pound dance music industry. Alongside crowd pulling DJs were up-and-coming live bands. Your mum would recognise Monkey Mafia and the Lo-Fidelity Allstars as pop groups but they, like other smaller acts here tonight, owe their existence largely to dance music. The DJs took top billing, however, and it's a measure of their power that Pete Tong and Judge Jules (who along with other Radio one DJs made his name at the dance-oriented Kiss FM) are allowed to choose their play list for their Radio One shows - a privilege indeed in the strictly regulated studios of BBC Radio.

Star DJs have been increasingly common in what was once a collective scene priding itself on anonymity and last Saturday's DJs literally found themselves on pedestals. However, various attempts to recreate the excitement of a proper live gig - in particular, the organisers tried to rouse the audience with a placard announcing hit tunes on the decks - fell flat.

A less than successful synthesis, then. Perhaps the Beeb will never fully be able to appropriate what remains a thriving underground phenomenon. Until then, Mohamed, it seems, will continue to demand the presence of the mountain.