Advertisement

Sophie Ellis-Bextor Reflects on How ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ Became a Dual-Generation Smash: ‘It Just Captures a Feeling’

The magic of her swishy disco romp “Murder on the Dancefloor” getting a second life more than two decades after release isn’t lost on Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Over the past month, the 44-year-old, who came to prominence in her native England after her debut solo album “Read My Lips” arrived in Sept. 2001, has witnessed the hedonistic anthem go from its perennial home across throwback playlists to a bona fide chart rocket, all thanks to a choice to soundtrack actor Barry Keoghan’s nude dance through a mansion at the end of “Saltburn.”

“I’m just so glad I’m still on such good terms with the song,” Ellis-Bextor now says, reflecting on the song’s rejuvenation. “It’s been communal, it’s been owned by other people for so long already. I’m really happy to keep sharing it. It’s given me a real adventure.”

More from Variety

The “Saltburn” effect has slingshotted “Murder” back into pop culture prominence, from its growing presence on TikTok (clocking more than 500,000 video creates) to international charts. Just a few weeks after “Saltburn” became available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 21, Ellis-Bextor made her first-ever Billboard Hot 100 appearance with “Murder” bowing at No. 98 and has been climbing since, most recently peaking at No. 58. To start off the year, it crowned Spotify’s Viral 50 chart in the U.S., and currently sits atop TikTok’s Viral 50. In the United Kingdom, where the song already had success nearly a quarter-century ago, the song hit the top of the Dance Singles Chart summit in mid-January, and it presently stands at No. 2 on the Spotify Top 50 U.K. tally.

Stories like the revival of “Murder” have become increasingly commonplace in popular music, largely due to the rise of TikTok and the democratization of taste across media platforms. It’s what propelled Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” back onto the charts over the past few years, and conveyed that in contemporary music, any song from any era can become a hit, really, with just the right timing and utility.

But what it most suggests is the perhaps overly optimistic belief that good music will find its audience—if not at the time of release, then maybe one day in the future. Or, in the case of “Murder,” which barely made a dent in the U.S. back in 2001 but hit No. 2 in the U.K., viable enough to reach two audiences at two moments in time, cultivating an intergenerational lifespan keeping the heartbeat of the song alive across decades and age divides.

Which is to say, at this point, she’s still counting her blessings, considering that the start of her career didn’t forecast what would come. Growing up, she’d been a Britpop fan — a “big indie kid,” as she puts it — so by the time she was 16, she seized the opportunity to join the band Theaudience as its lead singer. “I was like, oh, you know, that’d be a good story to tell my grandkids,” she recalls. “As soon as we did our first gig, I was like, this is what I’ve been looking for. And there was no plan B from that moment on.”

Two years later, Ellis-Bextor had finished her exams at school, and the band had signed with Mercury Records to release an eponymous album in 1998. But after touring, Theaudience was dropped and disbanded by 2000, leaving a question mark hanging over the potential for a career in music. She then became a solo artist “by default,” she says. Though she hadn’t been a songwriter in Theaudience, she signed a publishing deal by way of being in the group, and someone at the company thought she’d be a good fit as a vocalist for a dance track they had in hand.

“At first, I was very insulted, like why on earth did they send me a dance track?” she says. She was, in her eyes, better suited to be an indie artist. “And then a couple of days later, I listened to it again, I was like, actually, I kind of like this.” That song ended up being DJ Spiller’s “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love),” which topped the U.K. and Australian charts upon release in 2000. The feature, in retrospect, now serves as something of a sonic cornerstone for the nostalgic yet entirely present tone that permeates “Read My Lips.”

The journey to “Read My Lips” began with Lucian Grainge, who then served as deputy chairman of Universal Music Group’s Polydor. Based on the success of “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love),” Grainge saw potential in Ellis-Bextor and extended a signing offer, putting the wheels for the project into motion. “I feel like I really enjoyed making [the album], but I also was quite sober because I’d had the experience of the hype and then it not working out with my first band,” she says. “So I was really engaged in the whole process and making sure that it felt like something I could feel good about.”

During the recording process, the demo for “Murder” made its way to Ellis-Bextor. Gregg Alexander, the reclusive frontman of the short-lived, bright-burning New Radicals, looks back on the early days of writing the song as the intended first single (instead of the canonical “You Get What You Give”) for his band’s sole 1998 album “Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too.” The demo, which Alexander shared over email, features his vocals and a few alternate lyrics, with less of the voluptuous instrumental that hallmarks Ellis-Bextor’s version but the same creative exuberance that juiced his best work as a frontman and songwriter.

“There are two ‘Murder on the Dancefloors’: New Radicals’ unheard record I gave Sophie an early cassette of, and Sophie’s combining my rough lyrics with her lyrical genius,” Alexander writes in an email. “I wrote the music in my old Mustang in the ’90s, pissed my car broke down. It was gonna be New Radicals’ bawdy first single until I came up with ‘You Get What You Give.’ I dug both equally but spent so much producing this ‘music in you’ idea I worried I’d go broke finishing ‘Murder,’ too. Once Sophie got on mic, her magic owned it. I’m an artist at heart, but moonlighting, I’ve produced Tina Turner to the Strokes and trust me — Sophie’s that uniquely talented.”

Ellis-Bextor recalls hearing the demo for the first time at Mayfair Studios, played for her on the cassette. Her reaction was immediate. “I knew [Gregg] was a great writer, I loved the way he sings. And I think when we met each other, we always got on, you know, we found it really easy to work together,” she says. “I just always liked the attitude of the track, even from that demo. I just liked the way that it wasn’t trying too hard. But I also just thought it was really catchy and fun. And I love pop music for that.”

Alongside producer/songwriter Matt Rowe, best known at the time for his work with Spice Girls, they stripped back the tinkering, programmed drums on the demo; piped in the jangling guitar hits and disco ball strings; and confected the Studio 54-adjacent thump that constitutes the finished version. Ellis-Bextor played an integral role in the song’s architecture, writing lyrics and sorting through various mixes, and “Murder” tumbled out as the freewheeling number the world has come to repeatedly embrace.

“It’s rock masquerading as disco,” adds Alexander. “It was 2002’s biggest global radio hit outside the U.S., likely down to us pouring our souls into this weird record we hoped might hold its own played next to AC/DC or Chic.” But it was also Ellis-Bextor’s cool delivery that gave the song its intangible luster. “Soulful vocals, yet dry delivery subversively singing ‘dance!’ as ‘daunce!’… Brits would ask if Sophie’s posh and I’d say ‘No, just cool!'”

All rights reserved.
Courtesy of Patrick Sasso/Society of Composers and Lyricists

For Ellis-Bextor, “Murder” had to pass the litmus test she applied to all of her demos: getting approval from her girlfriends. “They picked out that song,” she says. “And so when the first time I ever sang it live anywhere, I dedicated it to my friends who were there that night, and I’ve always thought of it like that. Maybe that’s part of what resonates with people: It’s a friend song as well, like with your pals somewhere.”

Although “Murder” invariably ended up as the strongest-performing single from “Read My Lips” — of her career, really — Ellis-Bextor led with a sequin-adorned cover of Cher’s “Take Me Home.” In the U.K., it was a commercial success following its release in Aug. 2001, peaking at No. 2. And yet, in the wake of the collectively sullen global mood following the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, “Murder” managed to break through as her most momentous song three months later.

At the time, it dominated outside of the U.S., peaking in the top five in territories including the U.K., Australia, France, Ireland and Italy. She performed on “Top of the Pops,” the premiere music chart TV show in the U.K., and released the dazzling Sophie Muller-directed video inspired by the 1965 film “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” starring Jane Fonda. But really, it’s the enduring sparkle of “Murder” that’s made it Ellis-Bextor’s signature song to date. On Spotify, for instance, the song has nearly 300 million plays, while the video just ticked past 100 million views on YouTube.

And over the years, Ellis-Bextor has leaned into its enduring appeal — whether it be live-streamed performances during the pandemic, or reworked orchestral versions — while building a discography that’s extended to now, including her seventh album “Hana” that independently released last year. “Murder” has culled a legion of dedicated fans over the past few decades, too, with Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and Dave Grohl professing their love for the track.

As the years ticked by, she’s often thought about its legacy. With its recent success, and organic second act, she’s been coaxed into once again reconciling with its broad adoration. “Maybe there’s that desire to lose yourself in that hedonism, but also there’s that connection with people, like a feeling where you just kind of go, ‘I’m just gonna let rip for three minutes,'” she says. It’s crossed Alexander’s mind, too, the notion of why “Murder” keeps connecting. He credits it to Ellis-Bextor’s allure and charisma, and how it’s given her a stature in culture that goes beyond the music. “Indie stars Confidence Man took me to the Mighty Hoopla LGBTQ+ fest they did with her and said, ‘Take us to Sophie!’ [with] 10,000 screaming fans,” he says. “Everyone from Andrew Garfield to Simon Amstell were side stage enthralled by Sophie’s Debbie Harry cool — she’s a British national treasure.”

With that, Ellis-Bextor is content with riding the rollercoaster of “Murder” yet again. She’s signed to Polydor in the U.K. and Casablanca in the States, and “Murder” is being issued on CD and vinyl (for the latter, it’ll be the first time in the format). Interest in Ellis-Bextor has come around full circle, and for her, it’s all poetic, in a small way. “People who worked on ‘Murder on the Dancefloor,’ so many of them I still work with, I’m still in touch with. There are lots of proud uncles and aunties out there of this song. It’s not just about me and the track,” she says. “It’s only with the benefit of time that you can really understand quite how special things are and how unique and what an adventure it is.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.