Failing the Acid Test

There's a dance craze sweeping the world--but not in this big valley

In Britain it's shaken up music, fashion and virtually the whole of U.K. youth culture. In Italy, its synthesis of classic funk samples and trippy techno-beats has been mesmerizing discophiles for almost a year. In cities like New York and L.A. it's considered to be the hippest thing to happen to dance music since hip-hop.

This phenomenon, which magazines from Spin to Life have recently dubbed the year's clubland sensation, is called Acid House, and it's making its mark in danceterias nearly everywhere in the country. But not in Phoenix.

Why are we missing out on Acid House? For that matter, why has most of the decade's alternative dance music--hip-hop, house (the Chicago-style sound not to be confused with Britain's Acid House) and go-go--gotten the cold shoulder from Phoenix clubs? For answers, let's take a tour through the Valley's ostensibly progressive niteries.

Phoenix's Out of Water has the distinction of being this area's only bastion of cutting-edge dance music. Oh sure, MAXS 919 in Tempe hosts Six Feet Under on Wednesdays, and the cramped lower level of Tempe's UM Club features a progressive playlist. But Out of Water is the only desert dance hall dedicated exclusively to alternative music. This hip-music haven even devotes one of its two dance floors almost entirely to hip-hop and house. Trouble is, this floor usually boasts only a handful of hard-core house fans, while the club's other boogie space, which sticks to more conventional industrial dance and Eurodisco, is often packed.

On a recent evening, Out of Water deejays fail to fill up either floor, despite spins of sure-bet collegiate crowd pleasers like New Order. A giant fluorescent Joker looms menacingly over the dance floor from a Batman-Gotham City mural that covers one wall. But it's a dead night at this graffiti-covered, black-light dance pad, which usually boasts a rowdy frat-boy/sorority-sister clientele. The stillness is broken momentarily by a couple of skinheads who stomp around the floor to some disco number in their steel-toed Doc Martens.

Despite their mock-skanking, the skins, Thorsten Kampe, 22, and Henning Lucht, 21, aren't exactly grooving on the bill o' fare at the Watering hole. However, the West German-born punks, who are going to school in the Valley, aren't much put out by Phoenix's lack of Acid House venues. "There's too much house music here anyway," groans Kampe in a thick Teutonic accent. "We can't stand it. It's too boring after hearing it for more than half an hour. It's too discolike."

Begging to differ is Randall Goodwin, 23, an inveterate Valley club hound. Goodwin, who deejayed and did promotions for New York niteries before moving to Phoenix, considers Acid House to be the last, great hope of the local club circuit. "Phoenix needs something different," says the mousse-maned Goodwin, who resembles a less-prettified Jon Bon Jovi. "Acid House is kind of changing [the club scene] because it brings in that kind of hard-core sound. Lots of other music is just too generic."

The weekly "alternative" nights of other Valley clubs have had little to offer Acid House addicts like Goodwin. The defunct Premiere nightspot in Tempe stuck to a routine Depeche Mode-Cure-New Order playlist during its progressive Sundays a couple of years back. A more interesting happening was the short-lived Tone Deaf on Monday nights at the Sun Club last summer. The Ohio Players' "Fire" segued into Fuzzbox's "Jackie" during Tone Deaf's way-hip music sets, which usually managed to include a few propulsive house cuts as well.

Six Feet Under at MAXS (formerly Utopia) has enjoyed more longevity than most other underground music nights, even though its format has often been alternative in name only. During the past year, the club's playlist has generally ignored house, hip-hop and go-go in favor of circa-1982 new-wave relics like Romeo Void's "Never Say Never" and the Cure's "Let's Go to Bed." The nightspot has yet to build a faithful following, which could be blamed on Six Feet's tendency to give deejays the boot before they've had a chance to gauge the tastes of clubgoers.

On a recent evening, there aren't any protests about new deejay Chris Flores' mix, which incorporates a few Acid House numbers. Still, clubgoers aren't showing much enthusiasm either, even when Flores tries to shock some life out of them with a campier cut like Donna Summer's "Bad Girls." Some in the crowd seem less interested in shaking their groove thang than in studying themselves on the multiple TV screens, which provide near-continuous coverage of the dance floor.

HOUSE MUSIC BEGAN in Chicago several years back, a deejay's concoction of samples from old soul records blended with repetitive bass and keyboard patterns.

Then, early last year, London deejays began corrupting this formula by increasing the random sampled noise to create a sound that was less hard-edged and more hypnotic. Many claim that the movement derives its name from "Acid Trax" by Phuture, although Acid House could have just as easily been christened by clubbers who found that the music's inherent trippiness was enhanced by hallucinogens.

Oblique references to stimulants are found in many singles, such as the "Let me take you higher" chorus from "Superfly Guy." That track also reflects Acid House's fascination with the sleazy side of Seventies culture. "Superfly Guy" and another of S-Express' tracks, "Pimps, Pushers, and Prostitutes," feature the same kind of heroic portraits of superstud hustlers as Seventies black-exploitation flicks.

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