From a few likely lads holidaying in Ibiza to clubs like Shoom, The Trip and the wild excesses of the rave scene, the story of how acid house took root in the British Isles is a familiar, if still entertaining, tale. Britain’s rave revolution didn’t occur in splendid isolation though and by the time Britain’s youth were dicking about in dungarees and getting right-on-one-matey, a similar scene was already firmly established in Belgium. Only this one, rather than being soundtracked by imported vinyl from Chicago and Detroit, was being driven by a homemade sound, new beat. By the mid '80s Belgium already had a strong electronic music pedigree, having gifted the world the stern sounds of Electronic Body Music.
Powered by the availability of cheap synthesisers, post-punk Belgian bands like Front-242 spliced Throbbing Gristle’s industrial noise with the clean Körpermusik of Kraftwerk to create a muscular, martial sound that would in turn influence many of Detroit’s techno pioneers. Charting the rise and fall of the country’s club culture, new feature-length documentary, The Sound of Belgium, out this month, is at turns both funny and sad as the likes of Telex’s Dan Lacksman, CJ Bolland and Renaat Vandepapeliere from R&S recount how this small self-effacing country found itself to be the epicentre of Europe’s techno scene.
Despite its pivotal role in the evolution of electronic music, Belgium’s contribution rarely gets the attention it deserves, not that The Sound of Belgium director Jozef Devillé blames anyone but Belgians themselves for this oversight. “It's mostly due to our own lack of interest,” he sighs. “Even after 20 years I'm still the first to tackle this subject. If this had happened in Holland there would have been dozens of books and documentaries about it because they are proud of their culture, the French and the Germans are too, and well of course, especially the English, but us Belgians… if we have something worth talking about, we’ll be the last ones to.”
In Antwerp’s Ancienne Belqique DJs like Ronnie Harmsen were creating an eclectic scene mixing the harder sequenced sounds of EBM with leftfield new wave pop by Belgian bands like Allez Allez, and everything from Bauhaus’ gloomy goth-rock to the experimental sounds of Klaus Schulze and Steve Reich. Every weekend queues would stretch around the block as the resident DJs put together sets with the same attention to detail, passion and sense of drama as that of their more famous American peers like David Mancuso or Larry Levan. Then in 1987 Dikke Ronny, then resident DJ at the Café d’Anvers, would take Belgian electro act A Split Second’s ‘Flesh’, slow the vinyl down to 33rpm +8, and in doing so, would create the famous new beat sound. The effect was electric. Slowed down, the music became even more powerful, the bass became more pronounced and other DJs took note. Labels began to re-release records in this new slowed down style and Belgian producers began to adopt this slower groove into their original productions.
Clubs like the soon to be legendary Boccaccio became temples to this new beat, whilst the influential Liaisons Dangereuses radio show broadcast the sound to the whole country. New beat exploded across Belgium. Unlike the acid house parties across the channel though, the atmosphere the new beat DJs looked to create was far from euphoric. At Boccaccio DJs would keep the punishingly loud music pounding at a grinding tempo, selecting the darkest-sounding tracks as lasers strafed the 3000-plus Belgian youths who’d pack out the club every Sunday. The effect was as intimidating as it was exhilarating. Belgium’s youth lapped it up.
New beat burst out of the clubs and onto the streets, its devotees dressed in a mix of new romantic and acid house styles — crucifixes, smiley faces and a Beastie Boys-esque obsession with wearing stolen car decals as jewelery. At this point the mainstream may have been doing its best to ignore it but the kids were buying new beat records like Erotic Dissidents' ‘Move Your Ass and Feel the Beat’ in their tens of thousands. As is often the case success would ultimately lead to saturation and with easy money to be made every producer and has-been singer rushed to release a new beat record. By the end of the '80s Belgium’s pop charts were dominated by new beat tracks, with bands like Confetti’s and Plaza created to provide a recognizable face to the music that could fill arenas with mainstream pop fans dancing to sanitized new beat pop hits. Barely two years from its birth new beat was dead and buried, but whilst the pop charts were full of watered-down imitations, many Belgian producers had already moved on.
HARDER AND DARKER
As the world at large began to tentatively embrace electronic music, Belgian producers like CJ Bolland shifted their focus to producing music that was harder, more aggressive, darker than anyone else had dared till then. “Sequenced music like EBM or techno or new beat, music programmed with computers, you cannot miss a beat, you can set your watch to it, it’s too perfect and for a lot of people it feels unnatural,” explains Devillé, “I remember watching a documentary on the television at the end of the '80s and they went to Holland and France, and this new house music coming in from the States, the people just didn't get it but in Belgium we had already been dancing to it for several years.” Belgian producers’ headstart and seeming affinity for sequenced sounds were paying off. Belgian techno was here and the world couldn’t get enough. Packed full of orchestral stabs, breakbeats and hoover bass, the sounds coming out of studios in Brussels and Antwerp would soon go on to have a massive influence on the UK’s own nascent rave scene. “The UK rave sound was completely inspired by hearing those Belgian riffs,” admits Optimo’s JD Twitch in the film, as what Belgian producers did one week, British producers rushed to copy the next.
It wasn’t just the UK that was falling under the Belgian spell and by now the shockwaves given off by the country’s hardcore attitude were reaching further than just across the channel. From New York to Tokyo producers like Joey Beltram and Ken Ishii were not only being inspired by the Belgian sound, but were also finding a home on the country’s labels like the pioneering R&S, whilst Detroit’s Underground Resistance would acknowledge the country’s scene with 1992’s ‘Belgian Resistance’ EP. The boom time couldn’t last though, and whilst bombastic techno and the easy availability of ecstasy were fuelling wild nights in the clubs, the accelerated tempos were also speeding the scene towards its downfall.
Whilst new beat had been co-opted by the pop mainstream, records like T99’s ‘Anasthasia’ were too savage, too wild to be tamed. For the Belgian authorities, much like the Tory government in the UK, the idea of a generation getting high as kites and dancing to this aggressive anti-music was just too much to countenance. In the early '90s the crackdown began.
Police stepped up their raids, and club closures were commonplace. One by one these temples to techno were targeted and by 1993 even the legendary Boccaccio had closed its doors for the last time. As the credits roll, Devillé’s film ends on a sombre note, as a movement that had united an often divided country was cut off in its prime. The music they made and that features in The Sound of Belgium would continue to influence producers for decades to come but whilst Belgian labels, DJs and producers may have been revered abroad, at home the party was over… for the time being at least.