Notes on: Harlecore by Danny L Harle

Robert Oliver
8 min readJan 21, 2024

Originally published in Gigwise in July 2021. Then Gigwise went kaput. Not sure why. Anyway, thanks to the Wayback Machine, I unearthed it so now I’ll store it here in the hopes that Medium doesn’t also go kaput one day.

Harlecore, Danny L Harle.

Stockport, 2006. I’m sitting in my friend Nathan’s back garden, under a tarpaulin, hiding from the rain. It rained a lot that autumn. Boredom has set in but Nathan has one of them new Sony Ericsson Walkman phones that play music and videos, so I turn to him for entertainment. His 18-year-old cousin, who’s old enough to go clubbing in Manchester now, sent him a song over Bluetooth last night. He presses play. For a moment, I’m nervous. I’m on the edge of 13 and only really like Orson and Keane; what kind of frightening songs are enjoyed by 18-year-olds who go clubbing?

“It starts off weird, but it gets good,” Nathan promises. A squeamishly pitched-up toddler sings a saccharine nursery rhyme. “You’re my honeybunch, sugar plum, pumpy-umpy-umpkin”. Huh? Then, suddenly: ‘Who the fuck are you?!’, a blast of laser synths, another pitched-up voice, now backed by relentless thumping. I later find out that the expletive-laden vocal sample is a cut from the bar fight scene in Trainspotting. I try to parse out the words. ‘Celebrte the summer, back into the sea / Back into the ocean, you and me’? Is that what the voice is saying?

“Who’s this?”, I ask Nathan. “DJ Cammy”, he answers. That song, ‘Cuppy Cake’ (aka. ‘Celebrate the Summer’), soon lights up every phone at my school. For fresh-faced teenagers who were still half a decade away from stepping into a nightclub, DJ Cammy was our ticket to another world. He was a chance to grow up early, I guess — something bestowed by our older cousins, and brothers and sisters. A quick hypodermic shot of imagined adolescence.

After that day, I only observed DJ Cammy (and his contemporaries, DJ Rankin & DJ Boonie) from a distance. I listened to my classmates gossiping about how they sat on park benches the previous night, drinking cheap cider and making memories to his music. I never really felt the urge to drink so I left myself out of those activities and regretted alienating myself later on. I imagined how popularity felt, and how liberating it must have been to get drunk on a school night and stroll in the next morning. I didn’t join in so I constructed fictions for myself instead, where I said the right words one day and I got invited into their drinking games on the park, singing ‘Cuppy Cake’ with them.

In 2021, Facebook page The Council Estate Bible asks, “If you didn’t have DJ Cammy on your phone, chilling in the park with cider, did you even have a childhood?” I don’t know — did I have a childhood?

I recognise the park bench scenario from the cider reports I eavesdropped on, but the nostalgia is… incomplete. My only intimate experience with DJ Cammy was under that tarpaulin with Nathan. After that day, looking in from the outside was how I ended up experiencing a lot of that kind of happy hardcore music, and dance music as a whole. I later developed odd fears and neuroses about nightclubs and the urge to drink alcohol just never came. If anything, I repelled it. Looking in from the outside is how I’ve always preferred it and it’s how it’s always been for me.

Smartphones soon made those Walkman phones obsolete. Bluetooth came then went away and then came back again. Those of us who lived through DJ Cammy at 13 years old, either on park benches or watching from a distance, sat by as happy hardcore fizzled away and electroclash and EDM took its place. Then, a great recession in 2008, a decade of Tory austerity, Brexit, and a life-altering pandemic. 2006 is another lifetime now, even if the original DJ Cammy videos — lovingly created on Windows Movie Maker back in the day — still exist in some deep-fried low-bitrate form.

In 2021, people return to DJ Cammy for temporary reprieve from Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. Once a snapshot of a hypothetical alcopop-soaked future, ‘Cuppy Cake’ has now become an escape to a simpler alcopop-soaked past. For millennials anyway. This was back when sitting on a park bench and dancing in a group wasn’t a punishable, virus-spreading offence. The years since 2006 have revealed that, if your hopeful destination was once forwards and is now backwards, DJ Cammy always made time-travel music. I thought it was just me, but, sooner or later, everyone at my school turned to him so they could capture the absent feeling of being a popular, drunk teenager, whether they were looking ahead or behind.

After a year of lockdown, “normality” feels close again in the UK. Ever since learning of the ever-elusive ‘Freedom Day’ — when the UK economy would be opened up once again — I’ve started dipping into those imagined observations of dance music again, and I’ve been dreaming up fictions about my old classmates too.

This is thanks to Harlecore, the debut album from DJ, producer, and PC Music associate Danny L Harle. Since its release in February, Harlecore has had me thinking of DJ Cammy. Quite a lot, actually. For some reason, it’s always playing whenever I imagine my former classmates (or the teenagers who came after me) dancing or drinking in a post-Covid world. Its whomping percussion, furious tempos, and futuristic production styles; its nostalgic, sugary melodies and beaming synths that evoke the vocal trance explosion from the turn of the millennium — it all sounds so fresh and yet so dated and familiar. Harlecore is time-travel music, too.

From reading Harle’s own words about Harlecore, it’s clear that it’s an album borne out of experiencing dance music through non-traditional contexts and trying to capture other peoples’ feelings by eavesdropping on reports. Just like me. “My love of rave music was between me and some headphones”, he told Mixmag. He was “too young” to attend ’90s free parties, so he crafted Harlecore as a love letter to — and an imagined evocation of — the nights he never lived. In other words, Harlecore is about dance music. Not in the way LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Tonite’ wryly chuckles about the genre’s penchant for heightened drama; nor in the way Jamie xx’s subdued, introverted In Colour is about a dance party not attended; nor in the way Burial’s Untrue and The Streets’ Original Pirate Material are about the scene’s systematic destruction by the British government.

No, Harle loves the heightened drama, searches for euphoria, and soaks in the glory. Where DJ Cammy once celebrated the summer, Danny L Harle now celebrates dance music as a whole, year-round live experience. Where DJ Cammy transported local kids from the classroom to the big city dance floor, Harlecore can too release and transport us from our lockdown conditions if we close our eyes and reach out. Under present circumstances, its pinpoint evocation of dance music as an agent of intense emotion feels urgent.

Its aesthetic and spiritual fusion of PC Music’s bubblegum basslines and spaceage polish, and trance’s relentless speed and layered synthesizers, allow it to inhabit worlds we’re yet to see and a world we left behind. It is, simulatenously, something utterly brand new, and something beamed back from an unknown future, and something deeply rooted in my days of imagining the point where dance music, friendship, and cheap cider intersected.

Back when I used to eavesdrop on those park bench reports, I used to imagine them singing ‘Cuppy Cake’s direct description of elation: “Celebrate the summer, back into the scene / Celebrate the feeling, you and me” (ah, those are the correct lyrics). Ever since Harlecore, though, my mind has run away with itself and concocted a recurring vision where they sing Harlecore’s Take My Heart Away’ instead, over a decade before its eventual release. “If you want it, you can take my heart away”… I can hear it coming out of Nathan’s phone too. With its saccharine, broad lyrics, sickly, pitched-up vocals, laser synths and thumping bass kicks, it could have blown up my school’s Bluetooth economy back in ’06 just as easily as Messrs Cammy, Rankin, Boonie.

Add in a couple of iconic mashup signifiers — a random voice sample, a sudden tone and beat shift — and compress the audio so the percussion feels watery and distorted (which does happen in the last 10 seconds of ‘Shining Stars’), and it could be a Stockport smash.

Elsewhere, MC Boing — Harle & Lil Data’s homage to Scouse House — pops up to fire short, sharp lyrical shocks, voice clipping all the while. YouTube Scouse House compilations feature slideshows of MCs wearing England shirts from the 2006 World Cup, and crowds with arms raised. These compilations and slideshows are evidence that these nights happened, but to catch the emotion you’d have to ask those who were in attendance, even if their stories aren’t completely true. Human memory is the only thing powerful enough to preserve the feeling of a classic night, even if the details are sloppy. But who cares if they are? It’s what drives dance music’s heightened drama, it’s what drives ‘Cuppy Cake’, and it’s what drives Harlecore. Tomorrow may never come, and we might have forgotten this moment by then, so let’s savour every inch.

Pictures put the facts in our brains, but memories and stories are what make our hearts flutter. We experience live music first through feeling it, then by trying our best to freeze it in time, then embellishing the details of our memories later on. Harlecore gives you the materials to do this. ‘On a Mountain’ flies to a fantastical location and offers to let you stay there: “We can lie here on a mountain, me and you / Can you feel it?” I can. ‘Do You Remember?’ conjures dreamy images of a dance floor in heaven. ‘Car Song’ depicts people “going mental in a room together”. ‘Interlocked’ hopes a night can last forever: “Looking at you / We cannot stop, don’t wanna stop.” ‘Shining Stars’ gestures towards the emotional peak of an evening: “Close your eyes and meet me there”. But, crucially, Harlecore withholds the specifics; whatever shape that dance floor takes in your mind’s eye, it’s yours — even if you’re an outsider.

Sometimes I wonder if Nathan ever actually played me ‘Cuppy Cake’ on that specific rainy day, or if my classmates ever associated cheap cider and DJ Cammy with teenage euphoria as much as I thought they did. But whenever ‘Cuppy Cake’ or Harlecore have been in earshot during lockdown, I’ve stopped doubting the validity of my recollections and have simply chosen to drift where my mind has taken me. I print the legend. If the memory is crystal clear, enjoy the beautiful lie.