The birth of an Australian dance classic

20 years ago, Australian dance music came of age. The Big Day Out added dance acts for the first time in 1994, while the following year the ARIAs debuted its dance music category, and Sydney duo Andy Rantzen and Paul Mac (aka Itch-E and Scratch-E) released their ambient trance classic Sweetness and Light.

Despite peaking at number 64 on the Australian charts, triple j threw support behind the earworm track, with its progressive trance build, memorable piano riff, rolling breakbeat and angelic female vocal, custom-made to give you goose bumps. It ended up coming in at number 21 in the second-ever Hottest 100 in early 1995, and was awarded the inaugural ARIA for Best Dance Release that year.

The track’s success marked the beginning of a new age for Australian dance music: rave culture was taking off in the midst of grunge, and the next five years would see the rise of acts like Pendulum, Pnau, Endorphin, Friendly, Sonic Animation and The Avalanches. We got hold of Paul Mac and Andy Rantzen to talk about how Sweetness and Light came together, the effect it’s had upon the Australian dance scene, and how it’s paid some “unexpected electricity bills”.

What do you remember about the process of making ‘Sweetness and Light’? Did you know you had a hit on your hands?

AR: “I remember that song floating around in unfinished form on a floppy disc I had called Girly for almost a year. It was called Girly because we must have already known it was going to be a kind of girl-friendly tune. I also remember people wandering in and out of the studio, adding bits. Lots of people had a go, not everything made it on to the final version.

“The vocal snippet itself, from Miriam Williamson, was from a previous track in a previous band I was in called Wrong Kind Of Stone Age, and had appeared on several tracks (including an Itch-E & Scratch-E track called ‘Transit’). Then there were tiny snippets of samples from an old dub vinyl I had, and an old German Jewish/Gypsy torch song record I’d found in a second hand store.

“There was considerable mucking around with the bassline for a while: Justin Brandis from another band I was in at the time, Pelican Daughters, wrote the intro bassline, something for which he never gets enough credit, so thanks Justin! I abandoned it for several months at one point – it was during a very bleak year when I wasn’t really writing anything, just screwing around with this one track. At some point I ran out of memory on the sampler, and that was when I handed it over to Paul: ‘Here, you finish it!’ So he added the drums and the immortal piano part, and that lovely gated effect on the vocal. Finally, I remember that he mixed it down, I came over, and we listened to it. We looked at each other and said, ‘It’s shit’. And the rest is history.”

PM: It was early on in Andy and my musical partnership. I really liked his synthesisers and he really liked my mixing desk. Although I thought he was too weird and he thought I was too commercial, it was that combo that made our music work (when it was good). Sweetness & Light is a good example of this. When we were out of whack, it got pretty awful. (Erggh, that whole happy-hard period, fuck!)

Around this time 20 years ago people would have been voting for the 1994 triple j Hottest 100, where ‘Sweetness and Light’ charted at 21 – did you have any idea that it had had such an impact on the national consciousness?

PM: “That’s when it became a bit more obvious to me that it had connected with more people than I would have thought. Up until then we had sold nothing, so it felt a bit like, ‘ah, even the rock kids like it’, which was an eye opener. We could play in the Boiler Room and the rock kids would go off. I liked being that conduit point.”

AR: “It was a total surprise. I doubt Paul and I could have done it alone, and I doubt that it would’ve happened without Miriam’s magic vocal either. It was a one-off, created by an unstable beast of several personalities that had somehow combined to say something meaningful. People still rave to me about it, all these years later. Clearly it has had some kind of subterranean cultural impact. It wasn’t a big hit – it wasn’t even a small hit.”

Severed Heads’ ‘Dead Eyes Opened’ was re-released and also charted at 10 in the Hottest 100 that year, the highest that a dance track had yet charted in the Hottest 100. Tell me a little about the relationship you guys had with Severed Heads, as pioneers of electronic music in Australia…

PM: “Despite being a grumpy old bastard, Tom Ellard was my total hero. Severed Heads to me were a revolution to my whole way of musical thinking. I’d patiently wait for each new release to come out and go to every live show he did. I became friends with Tom and would race around to his place to play him my new demos, to which he was encouraging and depressing in equal parts. Later on he invited me to be in the live show (mainly to make it plural on stage I think). Full respect to him. Total trailblazer.”

AR: “Everyone who cared about electronic music in the ‘80s in Sydney was a total Severed Heads freak, especially their album Since The Accident. Gary Bradbury, Paul Von Deering, Tom Ellard and a bunch of other Australian/New Zealand acts like SPK were the kings of the underground to all of us back then. We were all trying to do that sound. Tape loops and MS-20 Synth treatments were the magic window into the new world.”

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