Feature: Is dance music really dead?

They say dance music is dead. What, then, is going on in the thriving venues packed with British clubbers? Alexis Petridis takes his glowstick down from the attic and goes out

Ibiza is in the grip of an unexpected storm. The rain is so sudden and so violent that not even the world's biggest nightclub, Privilege, is immune to its effects. Inside the club, the electricity fuses, bringing Manumission's final party of the summer to a temporary halt. The club is plunged into darkness. Fatboy Slim's DJ set is silenced. More disconcertingly, water starts to trickle through the ceiling on to the heads of the clubbers below.

None of this seems to dim the enthusiasm of the performers up on the large, specially constructed stage at one end of Privilege's main hall. They were midway through one of the choreographed routines that pepper Manumission's nights when the storm stuck. As your eyes become accustomed to the gloom, you can vaguely see a troupe of grimly determined dancing girls and a man dressed as a Keystone Kop ploughing on as if nothing untoward has happened. They are joined by somebody resourceful with a torch who gamely attempts to illuminate the proceedings single-handedly until the lights come back on.

It's the sort of thing that would make most club promoters bury their heads in their hands, but backstage, Andy, one of the two English brothers behind Manumission, is oozing with Dunkirk spirit. "You would have to turn up the week the power goes off," he says, chuckling. He has reason to be in a good mood. Power cut or not, Manumission is full, which is more than can be said of some of its rivals. "Ibiza has had a hard summer," says one club employee. "There are just fewer people here than there were before. It's become more expensive - prices have deliberately gone up to try and counter that Ibiza Uncut image of the place. There also used to be loads of Australians and Americans, but they haven't come, presumably because of the Bali bombing."

If Ibiza is experiencing a downturn, it is simply following the rest of club culture, which seems to have been on the skids for the past three years. The most visible casualties of its ongoing failure are the superclubs, the huge dance nights that became brand names, flogging everything from compilation albums to clothes plastered with their logos. Last year, Cream closed - attendance at its 3,500-capacity Liverpool club was rumoured to have dropped to 400. Sheffield's Gatecrasher switched from a weekly to a monthly operation.

The consensus was that things were bottoming out, but in recent months the picture has got even grimmer. The dance magazine Muzik closed. Its competitor, Mixmag, announced a 30% drop in sales. The original superclub, Ministry of Sound, pulled its latest publishing venture, Trash, from the shelves after only one issue, and launched a radical rethink at its south London venue. In an attempt to lure back thirtysomethings, it introduced a bar where you can book a table with waitress service "on a minimum bar spend basis". "The super DJ and the superclub game is over," announced chief executive Mark Rodol.

Everyone has an idea what the problems are. I spent a vast proportion of my 20s in clubs and at raves, first as a goggle-eyed punter, then as a writer for Mixmag. Like a lot of former indie fans, I was lured away from guitars and gigs in sticky-floored student unions by the promise of a more sophisticated and exciting alternative. Club culture seemed more stylish and fashion-conscious, its music more forward-thinking, its choice of intoxicants more thrilling than the obligatory pint of snakebite and black. But gradually every aspect of its appeal seems to have been eroded.

Clubbing lost its edge. Its fashions stopped turning up in the high street six months later. Who's going to walk down their high street dressed like a cyberkid, the club tribe who wear clothes decorated with the Mitsubishi logo ("mitsubishis" being a particularly potent brand of ecstasy), fluorescent make-up and hair, and have a penchant for sucking babies' dummies?

Dance music stopped progressing, too. Most observers blamed this on the tiny clique of ageing, overpaid "superstar DJs" who dictated clubland's musical content, despite the fact that they were 20 years older than the average clubber. Even ecstasy lost its countercultural allure. Where once it was an illicit secret whose powers were known only to ravers, these days it's everywhere. While numbers in clubs have dwindled, ecstasy use has doubled over the past five years. It's so ingrained inmainstream British culture that last year the columnist Decca Aitkenhead published a book in which she detailed her worldwide quest for the "perfect E".

But if everyone knows what the problems are, nobody seems so sure of the solutions. Which is why I'm back in Ibiza, five years after I decided I was getting a bit old for this sort of thing, hung up my glowstick and announced that the only time I would be taking to the dance floor in future was when wedding discos played Stayin' Alive.

I'm startled by how swiftly dance culture has waned. Dance music even seems to have been eradicated from history, like a distant embarrassing relation we no longer discuss. Most accounts of pop in the 90s, when club culture was at its peak and dance acts such as Underworld, Orbital and Leftfield regularly made the top 10, neglect to mention it at all, preferring to concentrate on Britpop and Cool Britannia. Is all this just a temporary blip, an example of the cyclical nature of fashion? Or is it really all over? Has club culture irrevocably gone a bit Pete Tong?

Manumission is the only superclub that appears to have survived into the new decade more or less intact. In the mid-90s it quickly became the most famous club in Ibiza, largely thanks to the fact that its parties ended with a live sex show. These days, the live show is still integral to the club's success, but it is slightly toned down. Nobody actually has sex any more. There's plenty of flesh on display, but it apparently comes with a caring, ecologically minded spin. In the club, Manumission's publicist hands me a small book: "You might want to look at this. It's basically what the show is based on." It's called The Little Earth Book, an earnest work of non-fiction. It features articles about commercial eugenics, the World Trade Organisation and sustainable development. It quotes John Pilger, Jonathan Porritt and George Monbiot. Up on stage, a man in a tuxedo is singing Cole Porter's Anything Goes, while behind him women with spangly hats in the shape of liquorice allsorts take their clothes off.

Indeed, quite what The Little Earth Book has to do with any of what the club calls The Phantasmagorical Manumission Murder Mystery and Nearly Naked Review is a matter of some conjecture: the rest of the evening's entertainments variously include a woman stripping while doing tricks on a trapeze, a troupe of muscular Cuban acrobats performing an unwittingly camp skipping routine, and a man juggling with bottles of mineral water. The grand finale features the dancing girls, the Keystone Kop and the club's promoters chasing each other around the stage to a dance version of the Benny Hill Show theme tune. Midway through, the storm gets worse and there's another power cut. I take advantage of the brief silence to ask the guy standing next to me what he makes of it all. He shrugs: "At most clubs, the grand finale involves watching a middle-aged bloke playing records." You have to admit he's got a point. Whatever you make of the club's theatrical pretensions, you could never accuse Manumission of not trying.

If you were being cynical, you might suggest that Manumission is trying to do virtually anything to distract attention from the music. Promoter Andy is justifiably proud of the club's back room, where hip indie bands including the Rapture and spoof R&B act Har Mar Superstar have played over the summer. In the main hall, however, the DJs play records that sound virtually identical to the music that I remember from six years ago.

In search of something new, I head back to Britain and to a Soho-based night called Nag Nag Nag, famed as the home of a cutting-edge dance music that they have catchily titled "no-wave electroclash disco pogo". They are at pains to distinguish themselves from the 1980s revival artists who proved among 2002's costliest hypes: "We have more in common with Ozzy Osbourne than we do with Fischerspooner."

Nevertheless, it's hard not approach Nag Nag Nag with a degree of trepidation. It has the sort of reputation that would leave the most devoted clubber strongly considering the benefits of a night on the sofa watching Location Location Location. It is, according to one article, "the party the celebs adore", where Kate Moss is apparently a regular. Another suggests it is "the place to be if you're beautiful enough", praises its "self-proclaimed style-fascist doormen" and informs us that its clientele dress "à la Duran Duran". However, when I arrive, legwarmer-wearing fashionistas and self-proclaimed style-fascist doormen are noticeably absent. It turns out that I have mercifully missed the boat. "That fashion crowd used to come here, but after about four months they left," says one of the club's promoters, a 26-year-old Canadian who calls herself Jo Jo De Freq. "That's what the fashion crowd do. I kind of prefer it now."

What they have left behind is a tiny, sweaty club packed with people dancing with something approaching wild abandon. The music is fantastic - an off-kilter, rather sleazy hybrid of techno, punk and early 80s electropop that sounds genuinely different and challenging - not adjectives that have been regularly associated with dance music in recent years. In fact, it's almost too cutting-edge: you can't imagine it ever making the leap from a tiny Soho basement to Top of the Pops.

That's not a criticism likely to be levelled at my final destination, the Wigan Pier Nitespot. It's Friday night and the queue snakes around the block. Inside, the speakers blare out an unending stream of fast, bouncy, pop-trance. It's dance music purged of its funk, its swing, its black roots. It takes its inspiration from 80s AOR - samples from old U2 records and cover versions of drivetime hits such as Don Henley's The Boys of Summer abound. The crowd are young and dressed down: baseball caps, crops and shellsuits for the boys, high street miniskirts for the girls. They know every record. They cheer and sing along.

The club's owner, Terry Lennon, seems surprised that I'm here at all ("We had a journalist here once before," he remembers, "but he wanted to ask us about George Orwell"), and with good reason. No one has settled on a generic name for the music the Wigan Pier plays, possibly because it attracts a level of criticism that would make your average manufactured pop act wince. It is despised by everyone from Mixmag to Radio 1. "People don't understand it, especially in London," admits Cris Nuttall, whose Bolton-based label All Around the World has cornered the market. "They say it's cheesy, which seems to mean it's got a melody. There are eight different dance shows on Radio 1 and not one of them will play our music. It's populist music. I think people like it because it's really good."

"One radio producer said he wouldn't play it because it sounded too 'council estate'," agrees his partner, Matt Cadman. "Which is pretty disparaging, really."

While you're musing upon Nuttall and Cadman's indignant protestations of cruelly misunderstood artistry, you should perhaps note that the duo have also released Music, My Arse!, an album of pub-singer standards by The Royle Family's Ricky Tomlinson, and the work of DJ Aligator, whose forthcoming single Stomp is a dance remix of Colonel Bogey. Nevertheless, they are at the centre of a real phenomenon. In 2003, theirs is the only genuine club music that regularly makes the charts. The scant handful of other recent dance hits - Room 5's Make Luv and Elton John's obscure 1979 disco track Are You Ready For Love? - have reached the charts not because a club DJ has played them, but because people heard them on adverts for deodorant and digital TV. Whatever you think of Nuttall and Cadman's string of top 10 hits - Ultrabeat's Pretty Green Eyes, Kelly Llorrena's Tell It to My Heart, Flip and Fill's Shooting Star - they achieved their success with little radio play and no television coverage. They were "broken" through a handful of northwestern clubs like Wigan Pier. "The media doesn't want to know, because they're obsessed with being cool," says Nuttall, "but what some 30-year-old in London thinks is cool is irrelevant to a teenager in Barnsley. Wigan Pier is young, it feels relevant, there's coachloads of people turning up from all over the north."

On a balcony by the Wigan Pier's DJ box, I look down at the dance floor. The view reveals something about what went wrong with dance music and why the superclubs failed. They were trapped between populism and elitism, unsure whether they wanted to be vast, money-spinning corporations or snobbish cliques. They tried to be both and succeeded only in alienating everybody. The ultra-hip clientele they craved were put off by the size, the branding, the relentless money-grabbing. And the sort of people who fill Wigan Pier were disenfranchised by the dress codes and the DJs who insisted on "educating the crowd", by the unmistakable sense that the superclubs thought they weren't quite good enough to join in. In his DJ box, resident Ben Trengove says: "People here don't want to be told what to wear or what to dance to. It's a basic, raw club. We put a new carpet in once a year, that's about it for frills."

But if the Wigan Pier's dance floor reminds you what went wrong with club culture, it also proves that reports of clubbing's death have been exaggerated. What's going on at Wigan Pier - and Nag Nag Nag and Manumission - might be wildly different from clubs in their mid-90s heyday, but they're still clubs and they're still packed. Club culture might never exert the influence it once did, but it has become more fragmented and diverse. You could say the same thing about rock music, which has never really had the same grip on the public consciousness as it did in the mid-60s. And nobody ever claims that's dead.

And it still has the power to shock and surprise even a jaded ex-clubber like me. As closing time approaches, Trengove begins playing what he calls "really old-school records". I expect him to start playing 70s disco, or early 80s hip-hop. Instead, he puts on a succession of 90s club anthems.

I can remember when each of them first came out. Feeling as old as the hills, I get my coat and leave.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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