The Brit Pack
England is just a weird place geographically," says Paul Ortiz, aka DJ David Watts, attempting to pinpoint why the U.K. is so alluring to music-hungry Americans. "It's an island that's not really a part of Europe. And it's a really small place, but they have all this wealth and power." Like those of New York, San Francisco or Tokyo, London's cramped quarters and transient population are conducive to recurrent cultural explosions. "London has many times been the greatest city in the world. Second to America's, the British music charts are the only ones that matter."
Along with Tim "Shady" Garvey and founding member Matthew Servan (DJ Matthew Smyth), Ortiz is a part of a record-spinning collective that harvests the cream from the full spectrum of British sounds during Shag, a weekly club night that has returned Brit pop, northern soul and similar U.K.-flavored favorites to the Snake Pit after a two-year absence. All three of the DJs are young, handsome and chatty, with no bad teeth in sight. And all share a passion for the music of our English cousins -- a passion that is apparently shared by a sizable clan of Denver club kids.
"For me, it's not so much about Anglophile culture," Ortiz says. "It's just that, traditionally, British music is better than American music, especially pop music. That's been evident throughout the history of rock and pop. The Beatles, the Stones -- all of the really great bands have been British. It's working-class music more so than American music."
While Ortiz's stage handle of David Watts is borrowed from arch-British pop act the Kinks, "Shag" comes from the English slang for getting down; judging by the festive atmosphere at the 13th Avenue venue every week, the name is an appropriate one. Every Wednesday, Anglophile club kids break out their best mod gear to dance and drink beneath the Snake Pit's pulsing lights. Record-label representatives mingle with Who fans while Blur devotees argue with Oasis heads. And despite claims that there is no dress code, Shag's Euro-rock concept finds men and women donning finely cropped hairstyles and fashionable threads cribbed from British magazines of every era. The sartorial diversity can be pretty intense on Wednesdays. "You'll see kids in their mod gear," says Ortiz, "their paper pants and highwaters; you'll see suits and ties and everything else."
"You don't have to be wearing the latest clothes to have a good time," claims Garvey, who is clothed in form-fitting hipster gear that he picked up during a three-month student residency in London last year.
Shag continues the spirit of Quid, a series that began at the Snake Pit in 1996 and ran for two years. Curated by local scenester James Sharpe, Quid set attendance records at the Capitol Hill club in August 1996, aided by a tie-in to the then-hit film Trainspotting and DJ assists from John Reidy and the Hooligan crew. When the event later moved to the Streets of London Pub on East Colfax, with its teeny dance floor, many rug-cutters became wallflowers because of a lack of space. Though still a popular weekly event, Quid's focus is on DJs -- not dancing.
"We think of Shag as another Quid," Servan said. "The Streets' night has so many cool people coming who end up with nowhere to dance. That's when J.R. Spiegel came up with this night."
Last March, Spiegel, a Snake Pit and Wax Trax employee (and frontman of the combustible local garage band the Volts) conceptualized the event with DJ Jason Heller, who had collaborated with Sharpe on the original Quid night in 1996. Heller and Servan supplied the vinyl for Shag's debut; when Heller exited the lineup last October, Ortiz and Garvey stepped in to mind the gap. Garvey eagerly grabbed the opportunity after he and retro DJ Garth Geisler spent much of 1999 lobbying for a Brit-pop night at numerous venues around town, including the Snake Pit.
"I think it's a very unique night," he says, "because most nights around town focus on dance music. But we like guitars. We like to play bands that have a nice, steady dance beat but also have some guitars and some vocals in the mix."
"We'll play any British pop music from 1965 to whatever came out last week," Ortiz says.
"Although no one dances to what came out last week," Garvey jokes, alluding to every DJ's ongoing struggle to get clubbers on their feet for brand new material as well as for old favorites. Judging by audience reactions, '60s-era northern soul, '70s-era punk, '80s-era new wave and mid-'90s-era Brit pop are preferred listening among Shag spectators. The quiet Servan makes the point more clear by listing some of his most common spins: David Bowie, Stone Roses and T-Rex. "'Rebel Rebel' is a staple every week," he says. "We can't get away without playing that."
Still, a few surprises typically lurk in the sonic corners of a Shag set. Rarely does the event end without a couple of speaker-rattling rap tracks hitting the decks, for example, a nod to British music's debt to the sounds of the American -- particularly African-American -- working class. From the blues-rock of the Stones to the soul of Dusty Springfield to the tweaked Detroit techno of the Prodigy, British musicians have made a fine living recycling black club music to fit their own peculiar pale-skinned worldview.
"British music borrows more heavily from American black music," Ortiz says. "I think that's something that British music has always been good at: taking American music and making it better."
"Taking it to the next step," Servan says.
"It's pop music with an intelligence behind it. It has something to say, but it's done with subtlety; it's not overt and in your face, like Creed," says Garvey, who cites the mid-'90s releases The Bends, by Radiohead, and The Great Escape, by Blur, as seminal influences on his own Anglophilia. "I identify with the humor and the storytelling the bands often work into their music."
That intelligence and personality has wide-ranging stateside appeal, especially at a time when commercial, domestic pop has reached new levels of creative vapidity. The Top 40 success of Brit auteurs like Radiohead, Coldplay and Robbie Williams -- as well as the enduring underground chic of Suede and Pulp -- continue to lead corn-fed youngsters to discover the tea-and-crumpets joy of the British experience. According to Servan, the recent through-the-roof sales of the Beatles' 1 collection illustrates the contrast between hollow-centered contemporary American pop and the more enduring qualities of British sounds. "I think it's about maturity," he says. "Most contemporary American music is targeted at the teen market. They recycle the same songs every time."
"British people are crazy about their music industry, in the same way that Americans are crazy about their soap-opera or television industries," says Ortiz. "And there is also a certain fanaticism surrounding British music in a city like Denver. It's a small number, but those few are really, really into it."
Servan agrees. "There's something comfortable about it," he says. "People come religiously each week, and it's like hanging out with every single one of my friends, one night of the week."
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