Electronica Alive And Kickin' At CMJ Opener

The annual CMJ Music Marathon began in 1983 to assemble artists, media and industry types in an effort to promote new music. As founder Robert H. Haber puts it, the original goal was "to put a face to the music we were writing about in CMJ (College Music Journal, a weekly trade publication for college radio stations)." The faces weren't always well-known. The Music Marathon helped fuel the careers of such big-names acts as NIN, R.E.M., Tool, The Fugees, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day and Rage Against the Machine by allowing them to play in front of large numbers of people long before they had become household names. This week, over 900 bands and 8,000 registrants have converged upon the streets of New York for four nights of non-stop music, panels, schmoozing and a possible peek at the next big thing. Addicted To Noise correspondent Sam Cannon is there to gather some of the detail. Here is his first report:

The 1997 CMJ Music Marathon

NEW YORK -- By 9 p.m., a line of badge-wearing Marathoners stretched down 52nd Street and up Broadway. "What are these people waiting for?" asked a curious onlooker.

"A rock 'n' roll party," the security guard sneered.

While he may have thought he was being funny, he wasn't far off. Based on the success of last year's most memorable opening event, London Records' 21st Century Beats party featuring Goldie, Money Mark, The Rabbit and the

Moon and Orbital, CMJ chose a mostly electronic bill for its first night

festivities Wednesday.

If CMJ's track record offers any indication, electronic music may outlive the fad status most detractors have pinned on it. But the issue remains: How will electronica survive public scrutiny? The answer could be found somewhere amid the rock 'n' roll antics that filled the Roseland Ballroom in mid-town Manhattan.

The dance shoes of legends line a glass case as you enter the lobby of

Roseland, people such as Gregory Hines, Betty Grable and Joan Crawford -- a fitting reminder of mankind's timeless obsession with moving feet. Inside, on a wood floor that has seen dance styles come and go, a 3,500-capacity crowd of mostly VIP passes and CMJ laminates shuffled about in anticipation. The locals, the few who actually paid to get in, retreated for the darker corners of the building.

London's Fluke bounced on stage, bass a rumblin'. A life-sized version of the

heroine of their "Atom Bomb" video attempted to engage the dazed audience with desperate stage aerobics and the occasional reverbed shout into

her cordless microphone. Fluke's singles enjoy heavy rotation across the

globe. Their live performance, however, shows they may be little more than

what their name suggests.

Britain's Sneaker Pimps gave a more charismatic showing, thanks to lead singer Kelli Dayton, whose coquettish persona (and tight latex dress) kept the

audience's gaze. However, the typically stark, bare tracks found on the

Pimps' debut album, Becoming X, grew more cumbersome on stage. Under the weight of a live band, Sneaker Pimps sounded more like Siouxsie and the Banshees than their hip-hop savvy selves and the dancefloor seemed to turn to tar by their thickly composed closer, "Spin Spin Sugar."

A thundering DJ set from Luke Slater cleared the air and made way for French

wunderkinds Daft Punk. Donning disguises for their photo shoots and limiting

themselves to only six U.S. tour dates, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De

Homem Christo have managed to enshroud themselves in mystery despite the hype. This would've been America's first chance to catch a glimpse of the young

party starters except the spotlights pointed in the opposite direction for

almost their entire set, drawing the crowd's attention instead to a VIP table

which included Marilyn Manson, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins and Shudder To Think's Craig Wedren (all CMJ alumni).

Daft Punk's Wizard of Oz approach, combined with on-the-fly reworking of their album (Homework) material, worked the crowd into a frenzy. Attendees were no longer concerned with watching, but with dancing. Daft Punk's live, stateside debut proved them to be more spontaneous than most bedroom musicians. They worked filters and drum machines like marionette strings attached to the willing dancers on the floor.

Darren Price, Underworld's tour DJ, kept the madness going with some sizzling

breakbeats which prompted some neo-break/ballet dancers to take over a corner of the floor. Then Richard Fearless's Death In Vegas project brought the room down a bit with some brooding knob-twiddling and dual cascading guitars, only to work the mood back up with a clavinet-infected dancehall stomp. However, the rest of their set evened out into unfortunate sameness.

Ken Ishii's DJ set started a subtle, head-bobbing affair, later evolving into

a wicked array of funk and acid beats. The Crystal Method, America's only

ambassadors last night, obscured themselves with a smokescreen and two towers of strobe backlighting. Their frenetic desert techno blinded the audience as much as the lights, left them exhausted, and, hence, thinned the audience to

about half its original size.

The dedicated few who were willing to wait until 2 a.m. were met by the most

bizarre and beautiful music electronica has to offer in Aphex Twin. The stage

was cleared and furnished with only a giant white cloth backdrop, a couch

and a couple of floor monitors. The unassuming Richard D. James lay on the floor and intently tweaked his homemade machinery, modifying, stretching and

reinventing songs from his latest, self-titled album. Meanwhile, two people

wearing giant, colorful bear costumes and hysterically sinister Richard D.

James masks entered stage left, lumbered about and engaged in cartoonish

mating rituals.

Accompanied by Aphex Twin's original lush symphonies sent

hurtling by runaway beats, the spectacle was hard on the eyes and

ears, but was a worthwhile, if difficult counterpoint to the rest of

the evening.

Those who left early had the refrain from The Crystal Method's "Keep Hope

Alive" ringing in their ears, no doubt. Those who stayed the duration left with their ears simply ringing, but with their hope in electronica, rock 'n' roll for

that matter, even more alive. [Thurs., Sept. 4, 1997, 5 p.m. PST]