Listen to this track by London pop musical era cross-polinator duo Groove Armada. It’s “At The River”, a single from 1997 that was re-released two years later as a part of their Vertigo album.
The album was released during a period when chillout and downtempo beats were becoming equally celebrated in clubs and on the radio as pop songs in Britain. As such, both contexts and audiences are served here, with pop hooks and beats intertwining to make one of the most appealing confections of a genre that marked the times before the 20th century became the early 21st.
The central hook here comes from tin pan alley pop singer Patti Page’s “Old Cape Cod”, a single from 1957 that came in turn out of a poem as written by one Claire Rothrock who’d fallen in love with the titular destination. The song was a hit, salty air and quaint little villages and all, and Patti Page would be celebrated by the region of Cape Cod for many years after for being a cultural ambassador because of her hit with this earlier pop single.
But, what’s it doing being referenced on a late-20th century dance record made in rainy London?
Well, for one thing, nostalgia and pop cultural references of the past played a big part in the dance music of the late ’90s. This is one high-profile example. But, with Big Beat and Downtempo scenes in particular, easy listening and light jazz records had been in the record collections of many parents who’d unknowingly reared DJ children, and kids who would become their audiences. The works of Lemon Jelly, Fatboy Slim, Orbital, Air, Zero 7, DJ Shadow, and other contemporaries of this song all pull from comparable forgotten LPs from pop music and pop culture of the past to create a nostalgic vibe, either by sampling it or by using similar instrumentation and arrangement, to go along with beats and pads of that then-modern musical idiom. So, when it came to rifling through bins in used vinyl shops for the purposes of creating new jams, records like Patti Page’s were like gold, I’m sure.
I think too that those lyrics that are repeated from the original source material hook into a theme that a lot of electronica is concerned with; achieving in a different state of being. Some of this is associated with drug culture, maybe. Perhaps this is too when applied in a certain way. But, I think there is a broader theme here, which is envisioning an idealized world, well away from the troubled one we’re forced to deal with in everyday life. Generally speaking, that’s what a dance floor is for, so that makes for a great thematic fit here. Yet, this song adds another level to that dynamic; an evocation of a landscape to provoke our imaginations of what we hope the future could be. That was a particularly resonant theme in 1999.
This whole piece is an expression of that headspace when a new century loomed, full of uncertainty, leaving us wondering what life would be like in it. By then, that future had been the promise of a new era prosperity since we were children, and it was looking like it wasn’t going to be all it was cracked up to be in the “jet packs for everyone” sense. So, I think that’s why vintage sounds from a more innocent age resonated so well with Generation X audiences who had grown up when that technologically Utopian vision of the 21st century still applied, still far enough away for us to believe in it.
I think “At The River” was the sound of that idealized vision of a new century that was just around the corner at the time, as well as reminding us of the sounds of our childhood; the future as a place of serenity, safety, and peace. If only reality had cooperated! In the meantime, this song hinted that if we could imagine a place like that, maybe we could create it somehow, too. And in the 1990s, it really did seem possible for a while.
Groove Armada is an active unit today. Visit them at their official site for news and new releases.