The way the internet has affected music – the business models, the way we listen, the journalism around it, the places we buy music from, the way we’re exposed to new music – is an endlessly fascinating and frightening paradigm. The record shop my brother worked in, which was in the same place in my hometown for 20+ years, has closed and stands empty. The print publications I hoped to write for when I was a teenager have pretty much all folded. The way I used to play music for my friends, at their houses, has become a new world of status updates and public playlists on streaming systems. It’s unrecognisable.
The economics of this new musical world, the supposed utopian “long tail” of consumption with all niche interests catered for, have ultimately failed pretty spectacularly in the wake of the global economic crisis, major labels haemorrhaging cash, independents struggling to maintain themselves, artists on the breadline more than ever before, and huge marquee TV programs like X Factor using a combination of old techniques (live TV) and new technologies (real-time mobile-based social media chatter) to eat up vast market share and public consciousness. If you thought about it too long, considered the people in the middle and at the bottom, the artists, writers, publicists, record label people, doing something a little different but wanting an audience nonetheless, wanting to pay a mortgage and live a reasonable life off their creative toil, you’d probably despair.
One good thing the internet has done for music, though, is turn up lost classics in an entirely new way. Equally slowly and suddenly, through mailing lists, forums, webzines, blogs and now social media platforms, like-minded people in search of buried musical treasure have been able to become aware and get hold of records long out of print, long forgotten, under-recognised gems that never crossed over for whatever reason when first released. I’ve found myself exposed to and in love with huge reams of vintage postpunk, krautrock, tropicalia, folkrock, and experimental rock and electronic music that I seriously doubt I would ever have come across in a pre-internet age.
This CD I’m ostensibly writing about here, The Five EPs by Disco Inferno, early 90s indie also-rans signed to Rough Trade, is a prime example of how something utterly lost and obscure, but full of worth and vitality, can become found. Thanks to a steady groundswell of voices praising their music, and in particular this run of 15 songs spread across five EPs, from 1991 to 1994, One Little Indian have rereleased their two key albums (1994’s D.I. Go Pop and 1996’s Technicolour), and now compiled the EPs for the first time ever. You need to own this record. I really can’t emphasise that enough.
I first heard these EPs as digital downloads, acquired via a long-since-vanished peer-to-peer network; smitten with them, I had to own them, and tracked down original CD copies via auction sites and specialist second-hand record retailers. I think the cheapest one cost me about £6, the most expensive in excess of £30. It took me over 18 months to acquire all five, but I had to do it. Now I own all the songs on one CD, with full liner notes explaining the mystique, genius, and provenance of this awesome music, the reissue inspired directly by that groundswell of opinion on the web, and by one voice in particular –the inimitable and estimable Ned Raggett, whose tireless championing of this band has brought them to the attention of hundreds if not thousands of people.
So what’s so special about Disco Inferno, and these EPs in particular? The band started out as unremarkable postpunk followers in the late 80s, gauche teenagers with records by Wire and Joy Division, but at some point they acquired a sampler and almost overnight their aesthetic and approach changed radically, and they became one of the most progressive, experimental, and creative bands in the UK.
The full context and methodology of what they did is explained in the extensive liner notes, and without wanting to regurgitate too much of what’s there I’ll précis it: rather than stick the Funky Drummer beat behind everything, or samples of film dialogue at the beginning or end of songs as so many contemporaneous indie bands did, they integrated the sampler fully with their instruments, so each guitar note played, instead of sounding like a string, pick-up, amplifier, and distortion pedal, instead reproduced the sound of breaking glass, or birdsong, or camera shutters, or fireworks, or lapping waves, or squealing brakes, or a thousand other found-sounds.
The genius of this trick is that Disco Inferno didn’t make some kind of unlistenable avant-garde ‘musique concrète’; they made melodies out of the maelstrom, guided the cacophony on tight, taut grooves, and used the samples to construct a sound-world which reproduced, rather than mimicked or alluded to, the world they lived in, but which functioned as- no, which was, at heart, pop music.
Through this melange of urban (and occasionally rural) sounds and shapes, structured into tunes, they weaved lyrics delivered in a heart-achingly laconic and distraught deadpan, telling stories of economic collapse, social decay, unsympathetic Tory governments run through with a sense of entitlement and ennui so strong and undeniable that our rulers see fit to ignore the strictures they placed upon the populace. There is fear of the Middle East, fear of the high-rise ghettos, fear of the moneyed elite, fear of the alienation at the heart of our society. Sound familiar? Lyrics about immigrants being kicked to death, about rising food prices, about specific incidents of modern life that run a sense of woe and panic through your veins, make the unspecific modern melancholy of various current musicians seem hopelessly, ineffectually vague.
But in the midst of this evocative despair, every so often, there would be a passage of music so beautiful and pointillist and delicate (Love Stepping Out), or a guitar solo so star-kissed and inspirational (Second Language), or a squall of noise so thrilling and visceral (D.I. Go Pop), or a beat and sample juxtaposition so joyous (It’s a Kid’s World), that the panic, the fear, the horror, would fade away, if only for a moment, as the power of pop music, the reason we’re here, the reason you’re reading this article, eclipsed everything as only it can do.
15 years since their demise in the face of disinterest and disaster, Disco Inferno’s finest music is now easily available, all together. You owe it to them – you owe it to yourselves – to listen. This record is quietly epochal. Its ripples filter through so much of what you love. Hopefully now its exposure can match its influence.