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The Plight of “Sandstorm”: Why Do Some Records Become Completely Unplayable?

Angus Harrison

Angus Harrison

What kills a classic song dead in its tracks?

This story originally appeared on THUMP UK

I'd like you to take a moment of your day to press play on the above video, and skip ahead to the 28th minute. That, that right there, is actual video footage of Paul Oakenfold dropping Darude's "Sandstorm" in 2014. It's a move so brazen, so openly flying in the face of fashion, that there's something wonderful about it. He believes in the track. Watch him take the mic, yelling into the crowd like a drunk PE teacher at the staff Christmas party: "Who remembers this from the good old days?"

It's a pertinent question, because, whether you were alive for the good old days or not, we all remember "Sandstorm." It is etched so deeply into the brow of our collective consciousness, it has almost ceased to be a track, becoming an audible code for an entire era; bucket hats and 'beefa. "Sandstorm" has long descended into the trenches of parody, even becoming a recurring Youtube joke – users suggest Darude "Sandstorm" whenever anyone requests a track ID under a video — that peaked in 2015 with the website themselves introducing a "Sandstorm" button, which played the track instead of the currently playing video as an April Fool's prank.

Yet "Sandstorm" wasn't always a joke. In fact, as this Gawker article details, it barely dented the charts at all on its release. Initially it was one track in a wave of big-room, European trance records; widely spread by the arrival of the MP3 and the days of the Superstar DJ at the turn of the millennium. Yet, despite not standing out when first released, ten years later it was certified Gold in the United States. "Sandstorm," like the fat kid who caves and does the "truffle shuffle" in the playground, became popular by becoming a punchline. It is hard to imagine how it will ever be taken seriously again. Over time, it has become untouchable.

Of course, much of this is down to the place trance now holds in the zeitgeist, rarely referenced outside of parody. Unlike Chicago house or UK breakbeat, the anthems of Oakenfold's prime are now wrapped up in so much cultural baggage, playing them somehow sounds immediately ironic. Crucially, this isn't to say the music is bad. When we were in Belfast a few weeks back for the first ever AVA festival, we witnessed a set of notably wild Boiler Room sets. One of the largest of the day belonged to Space Dimension Controller who, while not quite playing "Sandstorm," dropped the 1999 DJ Taucher remix of "Ayla" by Ayla. It fucking popped off. The entire crowd, as videos will attest to, lost their shit completely, and not in an ironic way. It might have initially raised a few grins, but before long they turned into impassioned yelps and fist pumps.

For a lot of people "Ayla" is now most closely associated with Kevin and Perry Go Large, a movie that probably has a lot of answering to do when it comes to entrenching Ibizan clichés, yet it clearly still has a power over the dance-floor, in a very basic elemental sense. So, why do we let tracks, that are intrinsically bangers, become unplayable? Tunes of gargantuan proportions, that we would only balk and groan at if the DJ ventured to put them on.

Well, in the case of the heavy trance hitters, it is probably most likely that (similar to our current relationship with EDM), the movement's penchant for magnitude eventually forced it into over-excess and eventual pastiche. Yet this isn't the only reason certain records end up gathering dust. An interesting counter example would be the renewed interest in disco and funk in recent years.

Disco, completely unlike trance, has now found a reverence it was never blessed with the first time around. Documentaries, re-issues, and more chintzy club-nights per square mile than there were in all of 1977 New York. DJing disco is now, essentially, a sure-fire strategy. There is enough musical heritage for heads to get involved, and enough of a party-focus for everybody else. Yet the are of playing disco in clubs is nuanced, with the revival unspoken rules have emerged. For example, play George Benson's "Give Me the Night" and you're probably safe, however, play Sister Sledge's "He's the Greatest Dancer," and you've fucked it. Why? The culture of crate digging has a lot to do with it.

We expect our selectors to do exactly that, put time and energy into unearthing treasures, the rarer the better. Yet constant rejection of anything too bait again leaves us in the peculiar position of turning our noses up at the tracks that sound amazing in clubs, and completely slay on the dance-floor. The tragic figure, caught between the size of his tunes and our disdain for blatant dance-floor fodder, like an only child in passive-aggressive divorce, is Nile Rodgers.

Ironically, Rodgers is sort of the mascot of our new found Studio 54 infatuation. Yet while he has played an instrumental role in getting Cheryl Lynn b-sides on the playlists of provincial clubs, it is hard to imagine many discerning DJs actually dropping "Good Times." In light of popularity, we automatically spurn the obvious choice. It's now a close to natural human reaction; the standard hipsterification of anything that touches on mainstream success. Yet it makes very little logical sense, in rejecting something for having too much appeal, we are also rejecting the quality that made it so desirable in the first place. Deep down, Rodgers has two people to blame for this state of affairs. Two people and one track. Two people in robot helmets, and one track.

Daft Punk then lead us on to another corner of the world of untouchable dance tracks. Where trance is an entire movement coated in cliché, disco a never-ending hunt for obscurity in the face of obviousness, Daft Punk represent the artist as unplayable through predictability. Realistically, no DJ is ever likely to drop "Da Funk," for fear of turning the club into a student union. Yet Homework is a record completely undeserving of this scorn. The same can be said for "Get Lucky," a track that went from gorgeous to gross in a matter of weeks through excessive radio play and your Mum requesting it at a wedding.

Perhaps this is what it comes down to, we are unable to enjoy culture in isolation, especially something as inherently communal as a dance track. They are designed to be played to large groups of people in order to create an experience, so it only follows that the more the experience is repeated and felt, the less attractive it becomes. It is the fate that befell "Can't Do Without You" last year, "Inspector Norse" the year before, and will most likely wreak havoc with another unsuspecting banger this summer.

We are a cruel race, embracing tracks and artists like lovers only to turn on them over-night, banishing them from our clubs like drunk ex-boyfriends. As Darude and Rodgers will tell you, time is not a healer, once a track becomes untouchable, it largely stays that way. Waiting for a DJ like Space Dimension Controller, brave enough to put on their gloves and press play.

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