How 'Trainspotting' Made America Realize that Electronic Music Matters Just as Much as Rock

Remembering that time when Underworld's "Born Slippy" helped set the stage for the 90s dance music moment.

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Mar 25 2016, 4:05pm

There is a scene about midway through Danny Boyle's classic 1996 film Trainspotting when the Iggy Pop-obsessed junkie protagonist Renton (Ewan McGregor) attends a rave. Sitting uncomfortably against the wall, a blaring progressive trance tune by Bedrock (aka John Digweed) blaring over the strobes and smoke, McGregor narrates, "The world is changing, music is changing, drugs are changing, even men and women are changing." That brief moment in the film—a dark and comic tale of heroin addiction set in 90s Edinburgh, which originally saw release in the UK in February of 1996—sums up the seismic musical and sartorial changes already taking place in the UK after acid house when Irving Welsh published his original novel in 1993.

By the time of its stateside release, a full 20 years ago come July 19, the movie's popularity, and that of its soundtrack, would help light the fuse for the electronica explosion that gave dance music its first mainstream U.S. exposure, launching acts like The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, and chart toppers The Prodigy to headliner status, not to mention sparking a deluge of film soundtracks that would attempt to tap into (and cash in on) the craze Trainspotting kicked off.

Despite Trainspotting's prescience with respect to the cultural shifts of the mid-90s, early reviews of the soundtrack focused on its selection of classic rock, especially 70s glam rock hit "Lust For Life" by proto-punk Iggy Pop. But as anyone (myself included) who witnessed the CD's impact on the then-burgeoning American rave scene will tell you, it was the electronic music, and particularly Underworld's "Born Slippy .NUXX," that would have the most pronounced effects.

Like "Lust For Life," "Born Slippy" was a euphoric ode to the seductive underbelly of addiction, its "Lager! Lager! Lager!" refrain feeling like a clarion call for drunken youths on both sides of the Atlantic, something not so surprising given that Underworld frontman Karl Hyde wrote those lyrics while in the depths of alcoholism. But unlike "Lust For Life," which is built around a swinging rock & roll rhythm by drummer Tony Sales, "Born Slippy" was powered by a mammoth 4/4 kick that defined the futuristic techno that was already ruling the U.S. underground and was about to become exponentially more popular.

Evidence of that increase in popularity could be plainly seen with Underworld themselves, who, after more than a decade on the outskirts of the music industry, now found themselves with a certifiable hit record. "We went from the second stage to starting to headline main stages," Hyde told Spin in a recent interview to promote the band's new album, Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future, out earlier this month on Astralwerks.

So why was "Born Slippy" such a massive success? Hyde thinks that while the initial focus on Trainspotting's music and was tied to the still-massive Britpop scene (Blur, Pulp, Primal Scream and Elastica all appeared on the soundtrack), by the time the film came out, the dance music underground was already primed to explode. "The dance scene was much bigger than Britpop," he's quoted saying in the Spin article. "But what people see is the acceptable face of contemporary music of that time. Which is traditional bands, with traditional frontmen who photograph well, who speak well, and who give good copy. And who write some cracking tunes, in a traditional way. We were part of a scene that was massive, but it was outside, uncontrollable, uncontainable. And often faceless as well. You know, how do you photograph a beat?"

"Born Slippy" forced critics to reconcile with that quandary of dealing with music that didn't offer the usual set of youth culture signifiers. Some groundwork had already been laid. Critics had fawned over The Chemical Brothers 1995 debut album, Exit Planet Dust, though mostly about how the block rocking beats reminded them of traditional rock riffage. Björk's Post—from that same year—updated her art-rock image with a new techno-inspired sleekness, even that as the songs retained the traditional pop structure that most could understand. Underworld used a similar trick for "Born Slippy," wielding a power ballad-worthy intro and singalong hook before the record breaks into a full-on techno stomp that lasts the final eight of the song's nearly ten-minute length (although alt-rock radio stations favored the four-and-a-half-minute radio edit. All it took was that epic intro and Karl Hyde's memorable cry to tie the electronica explosion to rock & roll's past, then it was off to the raving races.

Central to the Trainspotting soundtrack's legacy was its insistence on presenting electronic music on equal footing with rock music in a way that had never really been done before. The fact that the techno tunes were the ones that stood out made a case for the fact that dance music was just as worth taking seriously as its guitar-driven competition, a truth that was far from obvious to most people in 1996. It was the first mainstream stride for a genre that's come to dominate the radio waves 20 years later, but that is still trying to figure out where it fits in within the traditional music industry (see Jack Ü's Grammy performance this year). "Born Slippy" is now as old as "Lust For Life" was when the Trainspotting soundtrack was first released. Listening to it as it soundtracks the film's closing scene, it's just as powerful now as it was then.

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that the film was set in Glasgow. It is actually set in Edinburgh, though much of the film was shot in Glasgow.

Joshua Glazer gets nostalgic as the host of the Rave Curious Podcast.