Britpop dance nights

I met my wife at a Britpop dance night. This was January 2003 at Underground, the monthly Britpop night at the Ottobar in Baltimore, right at closing time. The last song had just played (the Jam’s “Going Underground,” just as it was every month), and I was in the back of the room, looking for some girl I’d been talking to earlier in the night. My future wife walked up to me and asked if I wanted to go to an after-hours party, and I think we ended up to going to three different parties before the sun came up the next morning. Baltimore is a small city, and she was just moving there, so we would’ve probably met each other anyway. But that particular Britpop dance night is where we did meet — both of us slightly drunk, both sweaty from dancing like goobers, both surrounded by our perma-drunk Baltimore service-class peers (the ones who were too scared to go dance to club music at Club Choices), all dressed up like service-class Londoners from eight or so years earlier. On some level, our two kids owe their existence to the one club night where Charlatans UK and James stayed in rotation. And I don’t know how many other kids owe their lives to all the various similar nights that flourished in different cities in the early ’00s, but I’m betting the number is higher than you’d think.

Britpop was over and done by the early ’00s. Pulp were breaking up. Blur were slowly going world-music while breaking up. Oasis were well into a long, protracted decline. The many smaller bands were sliding out of relevance. The British music press was either hyping sleepy MOR bands (Starsailor, Badly Drawn Boy) or American bands that sounded vaguely British (the Strokes, the Brian Jonestown Massacre). Coldplay, basically the Four Horsemen of the Britpop Apocalypse, were maybe the biggest band in the world. And yet in America, a place where Britpop had never become anything more than a cult concern, Britpop dance nights were slowly popping up in major cities all over the place. I danced to old Stone Roses songs at Underground in Baltimore, at Mousetrap in D.C., at Tiswas in New York, at one in Philadelphia that I don’t remember the name of but they had a bunch of rooms and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club played the one time I went. In Syracuse, when I was in college, I DJed at Pop Riot, an extremely short-lived Britpop night that some friends had started. I’d load a backpack full of Pulp and New Order CDs, walk to the generally fratty Planet 505, try really hard not to fuck up on the unreliable CD turntables, hope I could sneak some Destiny’s Child in later in the night without clearing the floor. This was the one time I ever DJed in public, and even though I don’t think we ever drew more than 40 people while I was DJing at it, I still remember the crowd-whoop the first time I played “Blue Monday” as a life highlight.

We called them “Britpop dance nights,” but that really just a catchall term for “stiff white-people music.” For the past few months, for the purposes of Britpop Week, the Stereogum staff has engaged in a heated and ridiculous debate of what, exactly, constitutes Britpop — if pre-Suede stuff like the first Stone Roses album makes the cut, or Underworld’s “Born Slippy,” or Super Furry Animals. This was not a concern for the people who DJed Britpop dance nights. For them (us?), “Britpop” had a fluid definition. They’d play anything that even sort of applied — two-tone ska, Daft Punk, New Order, old Depeche Mode, the Strokes, electroclash, ’70s punk, Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood,” the northern soul records that the people in Britpop bands would’ve danced to when they were young. At Tiswas in New York, I once saw an absolutely euphoric crowd reaction to the intro from the Moldy Peaches’ “Who’s Got The Crack”; that was weird. In Baltimore, Laid Back’s wriggly leftfield-disco jam “White Horse” was a Britpop-night anthem, as was Plastic Bertrand’s dizzy Belgian punk one-off “Ça Plane Pour Moi.” But then, Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” was a floor-filler in Baltimore for a couple of dispiriting months; I don’t know if we’ll collectively live that one down. As the DFA dance-punk tide started to rise, that stuff would infiltrate playlists, and sometimes the bands would play the dance nights in the early part of the evening, before shit really got going. The Rapture’s “House Of Jealous Lovers” got play, though maybe not as much play as Hot Hot Heat’s “Bandages.” If the music could’ve been made by people with floppy hair and too-tight black jeans, that music had a shot at getting played.

There was something regressive about the entire institution of the Britpop dance night, about white people attempting to dance to white music that was only danceable if you squinted hard when you were looking at it. (It’s basically impossible to dance to the Smiths without looking like a doofus, but the Smiths might’ve got more Britpop-night play than any other single artist.) This was a moment when rap and pop and dance-music were cross-pollinating in some fascinating ways, when Timbaland and the Neptunes were changing the way rap radio sounded, and here we were attempting to dress like the Jam so that we could dance to old songs by the Jam. But this was the pre-Diplo era, a time when subcultures were way more stratified, when you could still get funny looks at the wrong parties for saying nice things about Jay-Z. There was a certain comfort-food aspect to these nights, especially since some of the songs that got the biggest reactions (Blur’s “Girls & Boys,” James’s “Laid”) were songs that had been all over the radio when most of the people in the room were in middle school. For underemployed indie dorks, people who had graduated college in a shitty economy and who had steam to blow off, those nights did the trick.

Comments (17)
  1. My older sister went to many britpop dance nights and underage me was always very jealous. I keep meaning to find one in Chicago but have never managed to stumble on one. As much as I love old Motown and Soul, I always feel like an idiot dancing to it. Britpop is definitely white people dancing music and looking like an idiot is the only way to dance to it.

  2. I can’t tell you how much this article meant to me. I would echo basically every single thing you said. I was living in Boston for all those years and there was, in my mind, the best of all britpop nights happening there forever called The Pill. They recently retired the night after, 16-17 years. I could really go on and on about it and it’s history, which I myself know only a sliver of. I’ve written extensively about it, fiction that is, but I won’t purport to be an authority. Anyway, I could go on and on here but just wanted to thank you for this and throw this out to you, it’s really, really worth looking into.

    let’s all meet up in the year 2000

  3. Umm, I run a very successful Britpop Dance night in Portland, Or and have for the last 3 years and it’s vinyl only. Mine is the largest, but there are 2 others in Portland. What are you talking about?

  4. Thanks for sharing this article. It’s weirdly refreshing to read an article about music circa 2003 that doesn’t reference the OC. I learned a lot here.

  5. San Francisco still has 2 nights – Popscene, which has been around since 1996 I think, and Leisure. And Sacramento has a montly called “The Lipstick Weekender”, which is the successor of their weekly party, where I cut my b-pop teeth back in like 2000. Just typing this makes me feel hella old.

  6. Why is “white” used pejoratively in this article?

  7. The one in Philly was called Making Time and it was held in various places — so many good times. The main floor was Britpop, the bottom was Mod and I think the top floor was metal or something of that ilk. The place you’re talking about is Transit and I too was at that BRMC show.

  8. Some buddies and I would have genre specific dance nights for our college radio station and one of the frats would host a dance party that matched the theme and Britpop/Strokes-pop (a genre term I invented just now that seems pretty self-explanatory) was probably the most happening night. Not many people were really familiar with any of the deep cuts from the Britpop era, but everyone danced their asses off anyways. Something about Britpop must just appeal to the dancer hiding in every white guy and gal.

    Anyways, I always wanted to experience something like it on a larger scale but I never knew these nights existed and I’m pretty bummed that I likely won’t get a chance to experience it.

  9. Mondo Indie Dance Party in NYC.

  10. We have at least 5 Britpop-related events in San Francisco:

    1) Club Leisure, the first Saturday of the month, 21+
    2) Popscene, every Thursday, 18+
    3) Queen is Dead, 2nd or 3rd Saturday of the month, I can’t remember
    4) Love and Poison, the last Saturday of the month, I think
    5) Cool As F*&k, a Britpop Happy Hour, the 1st Friday of the month from 6 to 9pm

    There’s one more in the Mission District but I don’t remember what night it’s on or the name and parking in the neighborhood is a complete nightmare so I don’t go to that one.

    We’re the Portlandia of Britpop, where the that *particular* dream of the 90′s still lives on. There are also a LOT of Mods here, so we have at least 2-4 running Mod-themed club nights going on somewhere in SF, every month.

  11. We play Indie Rock at the Dance To The Underground parties, hosted at Sidecar (Barcelona) Here you can listen a mixtape

  12. In Atlanta, it was the Britpop night at MJQ Concourse. I discovered the night by accident, staying late after the Momus concert there one Wednesday in 1998, and attended religiously for the next few years. It was the best!

  13. Feeling Gloomy does a Britpop dance party at Grand Victory in Brooklyn every third Saturday.

    Mondo does an indie dance party which plays a ton of Britpop and other danceable “stiff white people music” at Cameo in Brooklyn every first Saturday.

    DJ Ceremony regularly spins around New York City all Britpop stuff (is doing a show May 1).

    All of these are excellent.

  14. Great piece! I am proud to say I was one of those faces you saw at Tiswas every Saturday night from 2000-2002. I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t one of the best times of my life. Those were some great nights, and NYC still had a “feel” until 9/11 kinda killed the vibe for awhile. Hilarious that you mention Carlos D! His sweaters were something else eh?

    Surprise, there are still britpop clubs around.. Leisure in San Francisco seems to actually do really well for a monthly. Then you have the various Smith’s nights. I seemed to go to the one in NYC religiously. SF not so much.

    I was pretending.. pretending to be someone else, from a different time. Those were the days of non-stop Backstreet Boys and Britney. Listening to Northern Soul, and pretending you were a mod was kind of a rebellion of sorts for us. I would do it all over again if I could!

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