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Belgium's 'Popcorn': the last underground music scene in Europe
Thursday 28 August 2014

Antwerp's answer to northern soul has a drowsy, decadent vibe and its DJs favour eclecticism, jive music and playing records at the wrong speed. Bob Stanley gets into its strange groove

The scene is a ballroom somewhere in Belgium. Couples are dancing, in a rather formal, old-fashioned way. The record they are dancing to is a Bill Haley single called Chick Safari. But this isn't a rock'n'roll revival night, nor is it a scene from a David Lynch movie. The DJ plays Eartha Kitt, the Skatalites, something that sounds like a northern soul record at the wrong speed. The atmosphere is friendly but exclusive, and the musical mood dark and opulent. This is a Belgian Popcorn club.

Popcorn is possibly the last truly underground music scene in Europe, one that has yet to be ransacked and reduced by adverts for Orange or KFC. Its narrative was formed by Belgians in the 1970s, largely from American records made in the 50s and 60s. It took its name from a club named in honour of James Brown's 1968 hit Mother Popcorn, but it has little to do with funk. The rhythm of a Popcorn floorfiller has to suit the unusual "slow swing" dance favoured by the Belgians; it could be Peggy Lee's sensuous Sweetheart, Hank Levine's filmic Image, Billy Storm's tormented teen ballad Easy Chair, or an early Tamla Motown single such as Little Iva's Continental Strut.

House DJ Eddy de Clercq started going to Popcorn clubs as a teenager in the early 70s, where he saw "couples jiving together in the most complicated steps and whirls. A mid-tempo slow jive, not acrobatic like in rock'n'roll, but very stylishly done, with the men leading the girls, or sometimes leading other men. Club Popcorn was also the first big club where gay people could dance together in public without being hassled. It was a very liberated, open and friendly kind of place."

Club Popcorn had started its life in a converted farmhouse 10 miles west of Antwerp, holding dance contests on Sunday afternoons. By 1971, it had extended into the farm's outbuildings and barns, and close to 3,000 people crammed themselves in every Sunday to hear DJ Gibbe Govaert's sets. "The streets were filled with parked cars and well-dressed punters all heading to this farm in the middle of nowhere," remembers De Clercq. "The main dancefloor was located in the old barn, surrounded by bars and elevated dance stages. It was so packed there was hardly any room to move. People were dancing on the bars, behind the bars and even on the cars parke