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A Step Too Far…

March 29, 2011

Every time an advert latest Ministry of Sound compilation comes on the telly, I marvel at what tenuous new avenue of dance music they’ve decided to homogenise, usually making some flippant comment and wondering what they’ll come up with next.

Well, what they came up with this time signals for me the tipping point between my casual amusement at the erosion of a once respectable clubbing brand, and slack-jawed amazement at the depths Ministry will degrade itself in the search of profits. The new compilation CD in question is entitled Guilty Pleasures, and it’s inclusion within the ad breaks for Glee give you a good indication of the style of music contained within.

It didn’t always used to be this way, and as with all these stories of decline, there are righteous and respectable beginnings for MoS. Inspired by the early house mecca of the Paradise Garage, Justin Berkman, James Palumbo and Humphrey Waterhouse built their homage in a disused bus depot round the back of Elephant & Castle in London; opening in September 1991. “My concept for Ministry was purely this: 100% sound system first, lights second, design third (in that order); the reverse of everyone else’s idea,” Berkman is quoted as saying in  Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton’s ‘The Manual: The who, the where, the why of clubland’. The music policy has always been rooted in the style of early U.S. house, with early guests such as Larry Levan and David Morales gradually making way for the likes of Roger Sanchez, Pete Tong and Boy George. The latter two mixed ‘The Annual’, a compilation CD which gave birth to the record label in 1995. Check out this timeline they’ve put together for the 20th birthday celebrations and if you get a chance, go along to the club during the day and see their 20:20 exhibition until April 1.

I am proud to say I own a copy of the first Annual, bought as a logical progression of my merciful move from happy hardcore to house music during as an early teen, guided by Tongie’s Essential Selection programme on Radio 1. I continued to buy Ministry comps over the next few years, as they branched out with annual ‘Clubbers Guide’ and ‘Sessions’ collections. Ministry was at forefront of the house and trance-led superclub boom of the late nineties, branching out into its own magazine, radio station, and of course ruling London, Ibiza and increasingly the world with spectacular club nights.

My first Ministry CD

But as the bubble burst in the hangover of the new century, Ministry continued its quest for world domination, gradually losing sight of the what it initially stood for, and in the process losing touch with legions of fans like me. In the last decade the brand has been licensed for mobile phones, CD/DVD players, in-car entertainment systems, camping gear, clothing ranges, luggage, vodka and even a fragrance. It bought the Hed Kandi (oddly from Guardian Media Group) and Hard2Beat (now Dance Nation) record labels, further diluting the deep house core and instead releasing compilations ranging from fitness themed ‘Running Trax’ and ‘Pump It Up Body Burn’ to disparate genres like ‘Chilled Acoustic’, ’80s Groove’ and ‘The Sound of Dubstep’.

The nightclub is undoubtedly a London institution, and I happily signed the petition to save it from property developers last year, as I’ve had some great nights in there. The crowd can vary from chavvy to pretentious in-line with the music policy, but the sound system is still amongst the best in the capital and between resident DJs like The Cosmonauts and guest nights from We Love, M-nus and SOS, there’s enough life in the old dog to make it worth the trip to my least favourite part of London.

With the demise of Renaissance and close call for Fabric last year I can completely understand the need to aim for profits – especially given its laudable position as an independent – but sadly Ministry’s credibility has taken such a battering that it’s not really worth investing in mix series’ focussed on more underground dance music; as the limited success of its ‘Undergound’ series demonstrates. It just seems a shame that the label has to degrade itself to the extent of releasing a compilation of guilty pleasures – ie. songs you know are crap – aimed squarely at middle-aged women and idiots. I will genuinely not be surprised if this year sees a Ministry christmas album.

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