If you're a law-abiding, pandemic-respecting type – someone who sucked air through their teeth at the thought of the lockdown-breaking raves in Brixton, Manchester, Sheffield and elsewhere – it's been a long, long time since you went clubbing.
Sure, dance culture's always had a deep suspicion of authority. But there's quite a broad line between anti-authority and anti-not-being-able-to-go-out-for-a-bit. And anyway, if you're hankering after a little hit of the nightlife that won't be back for a long time to come, there's a much safer alternative on Kensington High Street.
The Design Museum's new exhibition is 'Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers', and tells the story of how the electrification of the world and the vaulting technological leaps of the 20th century created club culture and so much of the sound and look of today, from fashion to the legal system.
It was due to run from the start of April, before The Weirdness put paid to that. But on this side of lockdown, 'Electronic' has an unexpected resonance. It's about the music, obviously, and the people, and the reminder that there's no advance in technology that humanity won't find a party-centric use for. On top of that, though it's about the promise of a better, brighter tomorrow.
It all starts in the century-spanning gallery of tech innovation, from the Croix Sonore, a kind of five-foot-tall proto-theremin, via Daphne Oram's visionary system to turn images into sound, and onto Jean-Michel Jarre's dream studio, made up of inscrutable patch-cabled behemoths and progressively tinier, more powerful, more egalitarian boxes. Those boxes will be of more interest to the heads, but there's a powerful retro-futurist beauty to the twinkling mahogany and steel cabinets which seemed like sounds from another galaxy in 1965.
It's when the introduction gives way to the thump of four era-spanning mixes from Laurent Garnier (they're all on Soundcloud here, by the way) that things get really interesting. Clubbing is a visceral, physical experience, and Electronic is most effective when it recreates that throbbing sensation in your chest and sensory overload which only clubbing can deliver.
There's a mad dancing metal cube which clanks around, expanding and contracting, to some vibe only it can hear. There's a section of Kraftwerk's 3D show from The Catalogue tour in one ante-room, and another is given over to a small forest of flashing tubes, pulsing and throbbing and changing colour along to Garnier's mixes. Stand close enough and it's like walking into the Stargate from 2001: A Space Odyssey while the KLF's 'What Time is Love?' melts your brain. Yeah, that good.
The big finish is a full-body immersion in a section of the Chemical Brothers' show – video wall, smoke, strobes, everything – set to 'Got To Keep On'. In between feeling like your ribcage might collapse and your retinas might be permanently scorched, you'll get a little bit of that sense of lift-off you've been missing. For five minutes, you get to dance in a dark, smoky room to music so loud you can feel it in your stomach. Take advantage.
The technology, though, is never the sole focus of the show. There's touching ephemera like flyers and tickets which memorialise the subcultures which found expression and communion on the dancefloor, as well as paying tribute to the subversive energy of queer groups who were at the vanguard of dance music and club culture from the off.
More than anything, it'll make you absolutely desperate to go out again, stand just a bit too close to the bass bins than is comfortable, and feel the randomness and serendipity of colliding with so many other lives. Just being close to people full stop would be nice. But 'Electronic' is timely for another reason too.
As much as this is a retrospective, it's a look forward to the near future, and that's why the timing of this rescheduled opening is oddly apt. The idea that this enforced break in proceedings can be an opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reshape normality, locks grooves with electronic music's yearning for a better future, starting from right now.
Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers is at the Design Museum until 14 February 2021
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox
Need some positivity right now? Subscribe to Esquire now for a hit of style, fitness, culture and advice from the experts
You Might Also Like