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As the name implies, Hi-NRG is a higher-BPM style of dance music that was very popular in the 1980s, especially in gay nightclubs. It evolved from disco, preserving the four-on-the-floor kick drum and emphasizing strong melodies and simple octave bass lines, but also having a harder, more rock-like sound, with pop vocals and snare hits on the 2s and 4s. In addition to the main beat, there was usually an accompanying second, a syncopated "shuffle" rhythm, often made with a tambourine or similar high-pitched snare sound (or, more often, an electronic variant thereof).

The early Hi-NRG repertoire was dominated by the dense, synth bass-driven sound of American producers Patrick Cowley and Bobby Orlando, and then the tighter, rapid-fire syncopated percussion of UK producers Ian Anthony Stephens and Ian Levine. The later Hi-NRG sound was defined largely by the PWL Hit Factory—producer/songwriters Stock/Aitken/Waterman and engineers Phil Harding & Ian Curnow—starting with Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" in 1984 and continuing through a string of dance-pop hits in the late '80s.

In the first half of the '80s, Hi-NRG enjoyed mainstream success as aerobics/workout music. The style's peak in 1986–1988 led to wider acceptance, with songs like "Boom Boom (Let's Go Back to My Room)" by Paul Lekakis and "Never Gonna Give You Up" by Rick Astley enjoying long chart runs and much radio play. This coincided with an increasing influence of house music, like the use of longer, more repetitive bass lines and open hi-hat sounds on the off beat. The peak was followed by a very rapid decline as house music and Eurodance overtook the club scene in 1989.

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