However much we hear about legendary hedonistic weekends or packaged escapes from the 9-5 grind, the White Isle is no mere clubber’s paradise: it is the cradle of development which influences and, indeed, dominates the world scene. Historically, Ibiza is as crucial to dance music as, say, Vienna has been to opera. For DJs, it is a pioneer’s land of opportunity, the place to forge new genres (as well as careers) by developing new beats and new techniques: playing to a crowd who may be faithful, but who are also hungry, passionate and exacting. As part of the general celebrations of BBC Radio 1’s 20-year association with Ibiza, Pete Tong put together a finely-crafted set which spanned decades of dancefloors, bringing precious memories flooding back to a huge, enthusiastic Proms audience (as well as thousands listening online and on radio).  

The BBC Radio 1 Ibiza Prom © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
The BBC Radio 1 Ibiza Prom
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

From the first whirling chords of Fat Boy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now, Radio 1’s Ibiza Prom was off to a blazing start. Pete Tong’s charismatic voice and quietly commanding presence set the tone for the night: Tong oversaw proceedings with an eagle eye, as well as a delighted grin. Consummate professionalism was everywhere: wherever you looked, and whatever you looked at, someone had made a real effort. This was not just habitually slick delivery: this is music that people care deeply about, with an unparalleled opportunity for reaching new audiences, and therefore, real work had gone into getting it right. [I can only hope someone from the chaotic BBC Asian Network Prom was taking notes.] A superb laser show created the exhilarating superclub atmosphere in which this music sounds best, temporarily turning the Royal Albert Hall into London’s most historic rave venue: within four songs, the entire audience was getting to their feet, and most of us (including myself) spent the whole set in a prolonged standing – and dancing - ovation. 

Pete Tong © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Pete Tong
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Pete Tong’s decks were located in the traditional DJ God-position above and behind the orchestra, just below the bust of Sir Henry Wood, who looked on, calmly unperturbed. Both Tong and conductor Jules Buckley wore headphones, which seemed to allow them to communicate as well as melding electronic and orchestral sounds faultlessly. The Heritage Orchestra, with a significant percussion section and drums brought to the very front, two electric guitars and a keyboard as well as strings and brass, has been created for exactly this kind of work, and sounded wonderful throughout. I became utterly fascinated by watching the Heritage Orchestra and the movements of Tong’s hands simultaneously, listening to the familiar tracks, picking out each line of sound and tracing its source: this method of delivery, for this music, is truly intriguing. I was also transfixed by Buckley’s conducting style: very focused about starting and finishing phrases, he has a generally hands-off approach which leaves him simply nodding happily through prolonged passages, not interfering with his musicians for minutes at a time. The trust, confidence and discipline this implies between Buckley and his orchestra is truly remarkable.

Ella Eyre © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Ella Eyre
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou
As well as a fabulous team of four gifted backing vocalists, who provided fluid and lithe vocals on several tracks, we had two popstar soloists in Ella Eyre and John Newman, who each returned to the stage repeatedly through the set. Her impossibly big hair tossing like a mane above her slim, delicate features, Eyre’s elegantly smoky voice sounded ideal for a faithful cover of Inner City’s Good Life, while a thoughtful and melodic Ibiza Sunset remix of Waiting All Night provided a deliciously chilled moment of respite in the intense, high-octane set. John Newman’s sharp dance moves and expert crowdpleasing proclaimed him a star, although occasionally he seemed more focused on his dancing than his singing, notably straying wildly off key for the encore, The Source’s You Got The Love, the nearest dance music gets to a sacred hymn. Newman’s early-1960s musical delivery reminds us of the circular fashions of pop music: this high-energy falsetto style was brought back into fashion a few years ago by Plan B, who for me remains a more compellingly lyrical performer.    

Dance music has certainly come of age culturally when the superstar DJs have MBEs (Tong was awarded his in 2014), and it moves from the dark nightclub floor to filling the gilded dome of the Royal Albert Hall. There is always an anxiety of dumbing down, on both sides: classical music fears dance music, dance music fears compromising itself to reach new audiences. The Ibiza Prom showed just how much dance music is very much “real” music, each song translating naturally to live performance by the Heritage Orchestra, yet also getting the entire audience dancing and screaming with delight. Tong produced a Prom which was at once accessible and authentic, uncompromising in its commitment to the art of dance, rightly unapologetic and unabashed by its unfamiliar surroundings. Long may we continue.  

****1