There was a point when the more mellow side of dance music was bigger, more popular – somehow, louder – than what was going on on the dance floor. B sides and remixes would inevitable be slower, more spaced out affairs than the lead track, and the likes of Groove Armada and Bonobo were getting as much attention from marketing companies and advertising agencies as DJS and clubbers. But now, chillout and it’s many variations (ambient, Balearic, trip hop and downtempo to name a few) are all but consigned to the bargain bins and niche websites, firmly relegated to the margins. How did such a ubiquitous scene fall so far, so fast?
It’s the mid nineties and dance music has firmly made it’s mark in the UK’s culture. Pop music has started taking on elements of breakbeats and cut up vocals into it’s own productions, fashion has appropriated the colourful, laid back look of club goers and the national film industry has started taking notice, with electronic soundtracks proving to be a big hit. Everyone’s becoming familiar with the post pub, late night session and the post club come down. And to soundtrack that last part were of course records like the Orb’s UFOrb, Global Communications’ 76:14 and most appropriately of all, the KLF’s Chill Out. Now, everyone had access to just the right music to gently ease them back into normal everyday life. Often long, instrumental pieces with a certain psychedelic edge to them, they struck a sublime mix of being easy listening while not being too easy listening, too bland. And this is where things start to change.
One of the underlying things linking these albums, and the majority of those other records out at the time, was that they consisted of tracks and not songs. Verses and choruses were not a part of dance music’s DNA, so why should these be any different? The tracks were made for people who would know this, who appreciated it, so that’s what they got. But it was only a matter of time before someone came along and realised how easily this kind of music would appeal to anyone. All it needed was the right spin.
Flash forward ten years later and things have changed dramatically – not just for chillout but for the whole scene. The obligatory chillout room in each club has now gone, replaced by “Room Two”, essentially another main room where venues could sell more drinks as opposed to letting revellers have a brief rest and chat before diving back into the action. Outside of the club and singles, 12”s and EPs no longer feel the need to have a slowed down, more melodic version on the flip side. In their place, of course, is the infamous chillout compilation. What had initially been a very successful, and cool, calling card for the likes of Mixmaster Morris – a chance to turn people on to some fantastic but obscure cuts – was now flooding the market with generic, faceless mixes of anything remotely linked to the quieter end of the dance music spectrum. Lazy slowed down hip hop beat? No drums at all? Keyboards over guitars? Any of that would get you on the next yearly installment of Now That’s What I Call Ibiza Sunset Chillout. No wonder the Orb pushed into more experimental techno territories, or that the KLF went completely into performance art mode.
Soundtracking high profile adverts as much as the Sunday recovering session, great tracks were getting played on every TV, in every shop and at every dinner party around. And now they were songs, not tracks! Suddenly, it seemed as if the chillout movement had made it’s move into the mainstream, and in a big way. This meant that middle aged housewives were more likely to be picking up the latest Basement Jaxx album than a main room DJ was. And to compete with all of this competition, all of those mix CDs and compilations were sticking to the biggest, safest choices in their tracklistings. No longer content with just catering for a relatively niche market, major labels had smoothed out any of those psychedelic rough edges to reach as many people- as many customers -as possible. Which was the start of the end of chillout’s reign.
As chillout moved out of the main room and into the living room, other genres quickly moved in to take it’s place. Techno, breakbeat and electro soon dominated clubs, and promoters realised that another room of high energy, uptempo music would put more money behind the bar than one full of bean bags and idly chatting folk. Which brings us to where we are now in the warehouses, raves and clubs of today. But as for the home? Well, it never really went away did it – chillout has been too successful, too well known to be just left behind. And that’s where it would perhaps be better off now, really. Ready for when we get back in the morning, or for putting something likable on when we’re taking it easy with others. The likes of Burial, the XX and the “night bus” movement, along with the Balearic website Test Pressing and DJ Chris Coco, still offer a modern, remixed version on offer if you’ve just had too much that Kinobe tune off the beer advert.
So thanks for the great nights out chillout, they were great. You might have grown up and stopped doing the big nights, but you’re always welcome back to ours.