Antwerp, late 80s. A genre emerged on Belgian soil that left a legacy for the contemporary techno scene. Dubbed New Beat, it’s inflicted with an industrial vibe, with hints of acid and a somewhat dark, yet melancholic electro sound.
When it comes to Belgium, a certain strangeness hangs in the air. At first glance, the country seems overly modest and calm. Once you dig a little deeper, however, you’d easily find yourself stumbling upon an overflow of talent. The country is also home to a deeply respected, though relatively unknown sound. Known as New Beat, this much undervalued genre arose in the late 80s at the start of the emerging techno scene in Western Europe. As modest as they come, the Belgians kept the genre underground.
New Beat is what you could call the ancestor of Europe’s modern-day house and techno scene, according to Geert Sermon, co-creator of the documentary The Sound of Belgium. Geert also made the TSOB compilations. Let’s just say he is a New Beat expert we had to have a chat with.
From fairs and candy cane to Popcorn and New Beat
Speaking to Geert Sermon, he recounts the history of the genre with pride, while maintaining a respectful modesty. Just like the genre itself, it’s the most heartwarming paradox. The origins of New Beat could be traced back to the culture of the fairs. It’s a strange, yet beautiful anecdote to think the genre that is now mostly played in the (underground) clubbing circuit, has its origins in a social pastime where candy cane, fairground attractions and jolly lights were the main ingredients. Moreover, it was the first time that music became infused with a mechanical, electronic sound. Geert pinpoints the use of organs and music cards to the rise of mechanical music making. The sound is slow and rhythmically metronomical.
At the fairs, people were dancing, enjoying the fairground attractions and partying till late to tunes that were played by someone through a mechanical cardboard. In a way, this could already be seen as an outdoor dance culture of sorts. And it more or less marked the start of the first DJs in the booth – but then behind an organ.
Nowadays the genre can be seen as an evolution from new wave music to what would eventually be called the eurodance scene. New Beat and clubbing culture flourished in the late eighties, growing into the much talked-about Age of Love. Instead of cotton candy, music became the main ingredient to get high on.
The Belgian music culture is really a blend of genres from all over the world. Inclusiveness and a respect for the world at its finest. It’s remarkable to see that New Beat’s origins weren’t just influenced by the majors. Genres as funk, soul, jazz, disco and even early house and Chicago records from the States were also shipped to the land of modesty, typified by the love for a hearty lifestyle. A paradox once more, but nevertheless proof that all genres were welcome on the Belgian music plate.
This was a cocktail of genres that weren’t labeled as successful internationally. Yet Belgium had enough time, space and interest to welcome them into its nightlife. Geert tells us that it’s a typical Belgian thing to find that special je ne sais quoi aspect in music made outside Belgium, and then introduce it into its culture. Another interesting fact is that back in the days in Belgium, there were no official closing hours. Bars, cafés, discotheques and clubs could stay open till late into the mornings. Wim Van Ouytsel, owner of the legendary club La Rocca, once spoke about people going sunbathing across from the club after the afterparty in summertime. It was a wild, yet beautiful and ecstatic time in the Benelux.
The signature sound of New Beat
An example of that eclectic combination of music styles and elements was embodied in the first Popcorn genre. The Belgians bought cut-outs and blended them in new unexpected combinations and rhythms; usually in a very slow BPM and in wrong revs. Cut-outs were records which had no popular value in the other countries, but were imported to Antwerp. So not just full records were used in eclectic combinations in clubs, but snippets too were mixed into something new. That would later be called New Beat. The Belgians had looked for a specific feature that was common to all the tracks. It’s a very wavy, auratic atmosphere and rhythm that would become the signature style of the New Beat genre. It’s a typical surrealistic Belgian thing – turning a combination of tracks that were actually rejected into a dreamy, dark and collage-like New Beat genre.
The records used were extremely diverse and yet the Belgians were able to find the equalizer that they all had in common. Genres ranged from synth pop and new wave, to avant-garde. Fusing those elements cut from the tracks, they created a new phenomenon and unique combination that was first called AB music, which later developed into New Beat. It’s a complete out-of-the-box music style with unexpected magical combinations from random international imports. The birth of this strangely beautiful genre can be tracked from 1987 to 1989.
The mixture of existing elements and music gave New Beat a very wild and eclectic status. But even singers like Serge Gainsbourg and Max Berlin’s Elle et Moi have elements which could be attributed to the style. The feature in question is the split second where they start spinning on the wrong revs. Bands like Savage Heads, too, have started doing this. If you hear all these records in the right New Beat context (the atmosphere and slow tempo) you could fit them in the box. It’s like taking away their original context and placing it into a new ideology. Geert refers to the Balearic music ideology in Ibiza, where a mixture of different genres at play melded into an accessible genre. Much like an electrical potpourri.
When asked to describe the genre in one sentence, Geert says:
“It’s like an ecstatic night that lasts forever, taking place in a metal box somewhere far away.”
New Beat had become very popular in the mega discotheques and hadn’t yet evolved into a niche style. In Amsterdam, lovers of the new clubbing culture found their temple at places like Roxy, whilst in Belgium places like Boccaccio and Cherrymoon were some of the pioneers. Even people from the Netherlands would travel down south to the Belgian clubs to experience this musical gold.
An addictive, godlike experience
Through its slow rhythm, this sound could put people in a state of a trance, yet still keep you in one steady loop at the same time. As Geert Sermon says, there is something divine about it, like the divine synth loops that are reminiscent of Gregorian chants. The quest for God in the shape of music – that was the atmosphere that formed the basis for the trance genre into which New Beat later evolved. Over time, very different types of New Beat emerged – a very commercial style with a catchy melody, but also a moodier, underground variety. Due to each track being derived from an eclectic mixture of sources, it’s often very difficult to pin them to a specific New Beat genre.
All legendary eras and clubs come with an expiration date, and that also holds true for Flanders’ New Beat temples and techno music of the 80s. The clubs where this sound had reigned were eventually shut down one by one, leaving behind a grieving audience. It’s a musical and cultural heartbreak that befits the darkness of the genre. The techno scene as we know it today would not have existed without the Belgian gold that is New Beat – hence why it’s deserving of this ode.
New Beat lives on
For a contemporary sauce to this elaborate historical context, we asked Belgian DJ Nosedrip aka Ziggy Devriendt of Stroom.tv to share his opinion on the cult status of the genre today. He believes New Beat used to be typified as a very popular, slightly marginal, and commercial genre. Nowadays it holds a more underground cult status, which is new. Only a small percentage of the music produced back in the days survived the years and is still picked up by younger generations.
Ziggy highlights Vladimir Ivkovic as an example of a contemporary DJ with New Beat influences. “The New Beat genre is based on playing records at the wrong speed. From that perspective, Vladimir exerts an influence on contemporary music in a similar way with his tempo variations.”
Today there’s definitely a revival of the genre, amongst the older generation from a nostalgic point of view, but also with the younger ones who have just started discovering it.
Ziggy Devriendt’s selection:
Re-released on STROOM on September 3, 2018
"Talk To Me"(DUB) (1984)
Geert Sermon’s selection, including some fine post-new beat tracks: