Pop: Big beat clicks with Monte Carlo
Friday 12 December 1997
The scene: a TV studio. On one side: a stuffy, be-cardiganed, tight- tied 1960s film crew. On the other: two Nineties musicians in baggy clubwear and big trainers. In the middle: a pouting, twirling diva - curiously timeless. This is the latest video from the Propellerheads, the blokes in the big trainers, top ten chart artists, and "big beat" stars in the making. And the diva? Shirley Bassey, encased in something that was once as lithe (and probably as fierce) as this enduring sixty-something legend.
As the video progresses, the crew begin to slacken their stiff postures, to click their fingers and nod their heads like jazz buffs, until by the end they're breakdancing with the best of 'em. The message, of course, is that there's rather more connection here than you might expect. Big beat may be defined as the sound of '97, but writer and head Propeller Alex Gifford is pointing out that like every other "new sound", it's steeped in the past. "They say the next big thing is here, that the revolution's near," sings Bassey, "but to me it seems quite clear - that it's all just a little bit of history repeating." "I hate that obsession with what's freshest, with what's `this week'," says Gifford: "And what better way to show that than to get a timeless icon like Shirley Bassey, who's above all that." Of course, even the "modern" breakdancing that the crew engage in, is a vogue Eighties retroism: a little bit of history repeating.
Where for the Ocean Colour Scenes of this world "retro" means pallid pastiche, for post-dance types like Gifford (a seasoned 33) and partner in rhythm, drummer Will White (a stripling 25), it means using modern technology to remake and remodel the past. "Big beat" is essentially just hip-hop drums and acid house electronics combined with whatever else you have on your record shelves. And the Propellerheads' shelves are heavy on Sixties soundtracks, a Zeitgeist-chiming inclination that has led them from "Spybreak"'s Mission Impossible-esque playfulness, to the remake of the "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" Bond theme, to contributions to the latest Bond soundtrack, and, of course, to Shirley Bassey.
Bond and Bassey go together like champagne and strawberries, like Vegas and Sinatra, like diamonds and pearls, Bassey having lent her considerable tonsils to three of his best themes, defining the genre in the process. Dionne Warwick? Nancy Sinatra? Gladys Knight? Mere shadows of the real thing. Who else could the spy-crazed Propellerheads ask to sing for them? That she accepted came as something of a surprise, however. "I couldn't get over it when we were in the studio with her," recalls Gifford, "that it was Shirley Bassey - singing my song."
And these boys could make her a star yet. Because the Propellerheads are taking off. First "On Her Majesty's" hit the top 10, then came the Bond soundtrack offer, then an invitation to score a remake of Lost in Space, while "History Repeating" is almost assured a top five chart placing. The Propellerheads' lives are in a spin: an endless relay of aeroplanes, dressing rooms, taxis, hotels ("they take the mini bars out when they have bands staying," observes Gifford) and schmoozing which has been Bassey's milieu for more than 40 years.
And if ever two were built for stardom, then Will White has the looks that got him voted "most shaggable DJ" in Mixmag, while Gifford has the verbal panache of a natural raconteur. But both have been fraying under the pressure of late, Gifford cancelling a TFI Friday appearance because "they made too many demands", and ending up in a nose-to-nose with an over-insistent photographer. If Gifford has been taking it on the nose, then White has been taking it on his back: "I was out of action for weeks," he says. "Not stopping and not eating properly just knocked me out totally."
Another sign of the Propellerheads' success is how difficult it's now become to get hold of them. As Shirley could surely tell them, you're only as successful as you are unavailable, so I spend two weeks of chasing and constant rescheduling before finally catching up with them the morning after the Bond premiere, when Gifford has what he calls "the seventh hangover of the Apocalypse", causing the interview to be postponed yet again.
They're cheery and chatty when we finally do speak, full of excitement about the premiere, for which they were, as usual, rushed, having to change into their DJs and dickie bows, Bond-style, in the car. This time, however, Gifford notes, "the cameras were conspicuous by their lack of interest in us." "It put it all into perspective," adds White, "seeing all these stars, just totally harassed. Like when Shirley arrived, she was just hounded straightaway. Whenever we get hassled it's never anything like that." He laughs, admiringly: "She didn't care, though, she was just flicking her hand in the air - like `Just piss off, I'm not here to talk to you.' " He shakes his head at the poise of the seasoned pro: "She knows what she wants and she's gonna get it." Or as Bassey sings herself in the lyric Gifford wrote for her: "I've seen it before: and I'll see it again."
And if the Propellerheads have started to act like famous people, it's again put into perspective by La Bassey. Last week alone she managed to turn down both Top of the Pops and the Royal Command Performance. "She's a star, isn't she," says Gifford, philosophically. And of course, if our grand dames didn't act the part - simultaneously splendid and preposterous, glamorous and monstrous - they wouldn't be very grand in the first place.
All this hob-nobbing and high life is regarded cynically by the notoriously sniffy dance community which spawned the Propellerheads: for them Bond soundtracks and Bassey collaborations are the stuff of sell-out. "That kind of taste fascism is one of the reasons we're enjoying this," says Gifford. "We're trying to provoke people into making their own decision rather than reading the book on `cool' and looking up Shirley Bassey and seeing what the entry says."
The Propellerheads' detractors should divert their energies to listening to their album, Decksanddrumsandrockandroll, which seamlessly draws together the band's poppier, kitschier elements and the harder hip-hop sound that attracted the dance scene's attention in the first place. As such, the band's follow up to "History" will probably feature the fruits of collaborations with hip-hop heroes the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul. "What've the Jungle Brothers and Shirley Bassey got in common?" challenges Gifford: "The Propellerheads, that's what."
And then they're off again, to work on their new tracks, to another round of interviews and schmooze-fests, before they can rest up in front of the radio on Sunday and check their chart placing. Whether Miss Bassey, back at home now in Monte Carlo, will be checking the charts with equal anxiety is not known. She has, after all, seen it before, and she'll doubtless see it again.
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