Examining the anatomy of classic dance anthems with Pete Tong
Electronic music’s explosion over the decades paired with increasing access to computers and production software have translated to an unprecedented amount of new genres and subsequent releases saturating the market. Despite there being millions of songs in existence, however, there are always a select few whose sound design is so well-crafted that they strike a chord in the public psyche that stands the test of time years beyond their initial circulation. Such prolific compositions are thus given the title of “classic.”
What makes for a “classic” in dance music, exactly? One glaring aspect that might come to mind first — memorable lyrics that are easy to sing along to — is immediately taken away, as a large portion of the most iconic songs in EDM history are lacking in vocal parts. In fact, the answer to what makes a song a classic hit is far more complex, with multiple factors playing a role in songs that resonate with fans in such a profound and long-lasting manner.
As Pete Tong’s legendary Ibiza Classics tour stop in Los Angeles draws closer to its November 9 arrival, where the personality will be re-creating the party island’s most beloved staples over the years via live orchestra, Dancing Astronaut feels as though there’s never a more opportune time to dissect other primary aspects of productions that make people tick when it comes to dance music consumption. Tong has provided some insight and favorite classics of his as well to help guide this exploration.
“Strings Of Life,” featured above, remains a house anthem three decades after Derrick May released in in 1987 under his Rhythim Is Rhythim moniker. It was fashioned by the techno pioneer through chopping up a ballad his friend had written, and combining it with strings and a danceable underlay. Shortly after surfacing, the single’s distinctive hook could be heard in clubs from its origin in Detroit all the way to Britain and throughout continental Europe.
Indeed, it was these very chord progressions that drew people to “Strings Of Life” like moths to a flame, and thus, we arrive at melody as a key component of a classic. Arrangement is a powerful tool that can elicit a deeply emotional response from the listener when done so artfully; this effect is emulated in pieces across the EDM spectrium. Derrick May used his knowledge of this phenomenon and a keen ear to their maximum potential when forging melodies around the piano parts, making for a finished product that Pete Tong hails as “the pure inspiration for Symphonic performance of dance and electronic songs” as well one of his favorites to play alongside an orchestra.
Another song whose rich melodic arrangement enamored global audiences is “Cafe Del Mar” by Energy 52 — a single that is known for helping trance reach the mainstream during its golden years. Pete Tong additionally considers the gem as “one of the emotional high points in the [Classics] show.” Casting the ubiquitous bVI-bVII-I chord progression in his own light, Energy 52 forged a warm, inviting piece of music whose ear-grabbing melodic centerpiece is as recognized by music aficionados today as it was when it dominated Ibiza dancefloors during its prime.
“‘Cafe Del Mar’ was inspired by long ibiza nights, starting with the iconic sunset. This tune has been one of the emotional high points in the show.”
“Cafe Del Mar” and “Strings Of Life” bring another cornerstone element of a classic to the surface: repetition. Psychological studies have proven the human tendency to seek out patterns and their repetition in life, and these two elements are both rife in the world of electronica. More often that not, a record becomes hypnotic by dressing its central melodic progression in various ways. Or, sometimes the repetition of a hook that is gripping enough is all a production needs to ring in peoples’ ears for extended periods of time.
Faithless‘ iconic single “Insomnia” embodies this notion, with a recurring hook that when catalyzed by the line “I can’t get no sleep,” destroys the dancefloor while searing itself permanently into listeners’ brains. Its infectious, repetitive grooves also satisfy the deeply-rooted craving to consume music as a “participant” — in other words, getting to know a piece so well that listening to music becomes something more akin to “becoming one” with it. “Insomnia” has become “one of the biggest dance tunes of all time” in its years of existence according to Tong, “with the ultimate orchestral string riff that is electrifying to perform.” Meanwhile, chances are more than likely that the crowd will be singing along the entire way through.
Pete Tong also describes a classic as “a song that defines an artist or a moment in time or era or genre.” He certainly included a number of classics that do just this in his Ibiza Classics show. One such example is Moby‘s ambient and legendary record “Porcelain.” Despite lacking in the traditional 4/4 tempo, this creation showed off the depths in which electronic could go musically whilst its poignant and relatable motifs shot it to the top of charts when it first came out. Note that repetition and a moving chord progression still play prominent roles in this seemingly abstract piece, showing off just how common these factors are in hitmaking regardless of the genre they were composed in.
“‘Porcelain’ — when electronic music and Hollywood combine in perfect harmony. Taken from Moby’s iconic ( ) album, this is one of the all time great movie cues in Danny Boyle’s ‘The Beach.’ It’s poignant to be performing with him at The Hollywood Bowl.”
Fatboy Slim‘s “Right Here Right Now” will be playing a cameo as the show’s opener — a fitting role, considering the track has been sampled time and time again in other productions. It’s eclectic as ever, yet comforting and familiar at the same time.
Ultimately, each piece recreated in grandiose form on November 9 will represent not just dance music’s development as a whole, but also a tribute to those throwback pieces that have gone on to “become the soundtrack to our lives,” states Tong. With each containing a powerful anchor melody, repetition, and overall powerful sound design, these classics have been able to shine brighter with each passing year and are recognized by older and more contemporary dance fans alike.