Genre of the Week: Hi-NRG

Most advances in electronic dance music have been made by either homosexuals or total freak-out technogeeks. Gays have driven dance music on in the clubs and geeks in the backrooms and bedrooms, and while many pioneers have been both the flamboyance and the social ineptitude have tended to tone down each other.

Not in Hi-NRG though. There most of the main players were both flaming homos and introveted knob-fiddling nerds.

Take Ian Levine. A key player in the mainstream popularisation of the genre, he brought Hi-NRG into England a few years into the eighties, produced the genre-cementing "High Energy" by Evelyn Thomas, and has consistently been the main advocate of the genre to this day. On the one hand, he was a complete burning shirtlifter, producing videos like this great one below where the highly masculinised Miquel (pronounced Michael) Brown romps around in a room of heaving torsos singing about one night stands:

But he is also one of the world's most infamous science fiction geeks with an unhealthy and ascerbic obsession with british TV series Dr Who, as well as a major comic book collector who supposedly owns every DC comic ever printed.

The music Levine had brought across to the UK soon became an important factor in the country's clublife and hit the charts big time before being retooled into mainstream pop with the addition of guitars and bubblegum harmonies by HDH wannabies SAW and consequently dissapearing in the underground in favour of new sounds. The once almost completely American genre of Hi-NRG ended up dying in the same continent it had once been born in.

Giorgio Moroder was a highly over-coiffed novelty bubblegum producer who easily fits the "gay and geek" model as this video clearly demonstrates. Somehow, for a few years in the late seventies, he managed to become one of the most innovative producers in the world and his increasingly electronic disco productions were hugely influential. Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" is the obvious starting point for Hi-NRG with its arpeggiated staccato melody, pulsating rhythm and disco sensibility, and Giorgio's solo material goes one step futher to create almost perfect electronic pop songs. (They don't have Hi-NRG's typical wavering bass line yet. Contemporary instrumental hit "Magic Fly" by Space does, though.)

It was another gay geek who brought the increasing flora of electronic disco songs together into a consistent genre, and that happened almost 10 000 km away from Munich. San Francisco's Patrick Cowley was a technological wizard who twiddled the knobs (Giorgio-style) on Sylvester's best records as a studio musician before producing a series of excellent solo singles in the first few years of the eighties, probably the best ones the genre has ever seen. Then in 1982 he started hosting the infamous Menergy night and the EndUp where he brought together all manner of electronic disco and pretty much created Hi-NRG as a concrete genre. In hindsight, 1979 obscurity "The Ultimate Warlord" by The Immortals (how geeky is that title?) was probably the first song to fit perfectly into his format.

Unfortunately, Cowley died (of the new disease, RIP) later that year and couldn't produce many records. The task of popularising the genre fully instead fell on a man who was (exception that proves the rule) very cool indeed - Bobby "O" Orlando, a New York producer who might have been one of history's most prolific. His hits with dozens of throwaway bands like The Flirts have that complete Hi-NRG sound with all the chaff stripped away, perfectly adapted to the charts and the dancefloor. If you feel a Pet Shop Boys vibe in some of his material it's because he was their main inspiration musically and even produced their first single...

On top of that Hi-NRG was obviously a major influence on the more evolved and disco-divorced italo, discofox and latin freestyle, and I kinda doubt Africa Bambaataa was unaware of it when he created "Planet Rock". It's also, at least initially, one of those great wavering uncertain genres that signal there's real creativity going on. But it's left precious little impact in the history books, because the parallel development of equally disco-derived dance and garage music became such a much more significant influence on house, and by extension all electronic dance music since.

It's a pity, because at its best moments the swirling, primitive, polyphonic sounds of the best Hi-NRG is right up there with the best of music. Hopefully the vogue for primitive synths we've seen recently might mean Hi-NRG will also get a little bit of an upswing.

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