In an illuminating video history, London-based music journalist Joe Muggs explores the altered states of early British rave’s interzones.
This is about liminal zones, about what’s revealed when categories melt down, about the fractal edges of culture – and about all those other places you find yourself inhabiting when you’ve done too much acid. By my reckoning, 1989 to 1993 or 4 (as well as coinciding with my late teens) are the years when the British rave scene was, if not unified, then at least orbiting the same strange attractor. And during that time, the place where you could find the most overlap, the most blurring between sub-sects and scenes, was in the back rooms where people were so hopped up, blissed out or just plain fucked that they’d listen to anything. This is where tempos dropped and rules relaxed, and producers and DJs went right out on a limb, united across scenes by lysergic curlicues and a constant low-end pulse of dub.
Remember that the maddest experiments of The Orb and The KLF began in the backroom of Paul Oakenfold’s Land Of Oz right at the heart of acid house’s mainstream. You only needed to jump through two degrees of separation to get from the urbane wideboys at Boys Own to the crusty festy faves The Magic Mushroom Band. Even the nascent jungle scene had its trippy elements and connections, with the Bristol side of things in particular inexorably tied up with the traveller/free party scene. (I’ve written more about these links here, and there’s a mixtape of tracks from this era I did here.)
There’s so much else that I could have put in this list – I’ve missed out Depth Charge, Renegade Soundwave, Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia, Underworld, LS Diezel & Digidub, William Orbit, Smith & Mighty and, er, The Purple Fluid Exchange. Indeed, I could easily have filled the list with 15 Andrew Weatherall productions or remixes without compromising on quality. Of course there’s a lot to laugh at here: these tracks are mainly made on rudimentary technology, they’re sometimes rhythmically clunky, and most of them are well over seven minutes long. But they do all represent a period of brilliantly unselfconscious exploration and willingness to take ideas to their logical conclusions and a long way beyond. Whether it was because of genuine social and cultural upheaval, or just because everyone was completely off their tits all the time, I’m not sure, but it was good. So, lie back, plug in your brain machine, and prepare to enter hyperspace.
The Sugarcubes “Birthday (Justin Robertson Dub)” (1992)
The vocal version is glorious too, but minus Björk you can see the workings, and observe in detail how British drug culture tried to adopt the things it admired – in this case dub, house and hip hop – got it wrong, and created something distinctively its own instead. The twangy, possibly synthesised, bass guitar tone is totally wrong for dub, the trumpets sound plastic, the chugging progressive house riff is incredibly dated, the echo effects have none of the sense of rusty, dusty rawness you hear in a King Tubby or Lee Perry production – but somehow, all together, it works. It helps – a lot – that it’s laced with some of the most infectious hooks of the time, but really it’s about sheer bloody-minded creativity transcending limitations and making something that’s more than the sum of its parts.
Original Rockers “Sexy Selector” (1992)
Yes, it actually is sexy. The opening track from the mainly excellent Ambient Dub Vol.1, the album that documented the scene around Birmingham’s Oscillate club, it encapsulates a world of beanbags, 360º lightshows, ‘smart drugs’ and ‘brain machines’ – but it is also shot through with the sensualism that came with lying around very high on ecstasy, acid and weed. It’s all about the pitch-bend: the warm sub-bass glissandos, the soul vocals pitched down into androgynous moans, the Radiophonic analogue swoops all give a sense of being in that state of reduced gravity existence, of things swerving and merging into one another, of lazy, easy physicality. Original Rockers made other great tunes, notably the international dub-house hit “Push Push”, and later did alright with their rather jolly Rockers Hi Fi tunes, but this remains their masterpiece. I actually played it in the small hours in a large festival tent last year in a rave slowdance moment, and the way couples moved closer showed that it still has the same charge it did two decades ago.
Bandulu “Run Run” (1994)
Another sultry slow-motion one, not a million miles from the Original Rockers track – but this, with its “run run run/revolution come” call to arms also captured that moment around the Criminal Justice Act when there were explicitly political stirrings in underground music. Bandulu had always been an interesting act: rooted in hip hop, graffiti and b-boying, full of London rave attitude to their performances, able to mix it in the most uncompromising techno sweat-pits like Club UK and The Orbit, but tied to the indie-Balearic axis around Creation records, and happy playing at the hippiefied likes of Club Dog too. There was more spirit to them than most and a thoroughly rebellious streak to their output – but this captures that never-resolved tension between believing what we were doing was subversive and revolutionary and the hedonistic desire to lie back, space out and lose ourselves. Listened to from one angle it’s about confidence in the inevitability of transformation; from another it’s the sound of the revolution dissipating in clouds of smoke.
Spiral Tribe “Track 13 (Criminal Drug)” (1992)
And talking of the contradiction between energised rebellion and druggy solipsism, here’s the motherlode. Spiral Tribe represented all that was best and worst about the sense of rave as counterculture: naïve idealism colliding with rampant aggression, egalitarianism with cult-like hierarchies, flabby mysticism with fearsome focus and drive – and their music embodied all the contradictions. Their collective producers made a lot of terrible, zombified, ket-head techno; the dreamy Orb-sampling “U Make Me Feel So Good” (actually by Charlie Hall & Lol Hammond of The Drum Club); and some pretty fearsome gabba, but they were at their best when they plugged into the emergence of jungle (don’t forget it was a Spiral Tribe producer – Earth Leakage Trip – who made the first ever release on Moving Shadow). This track captures the edge-of-the-world feeling of their raves: the vague anti-authoritarian slant of its samples are there as much to add to the nerviness of the atmosphere as to send any direct message, the dub pulse constantly threatens to erupt into double-time hardcore mania but always remains in a state of thrilling tension.
Friends, Lovers & Family “Hyperspatial Confusion” (1993)
Another of those crossing points between porous scenes, Rising High Records released untold classic hardcore rave tunes, but also ambient (Mixmaster Morris’s Irresistible Force), experimental electronica (The Black Dog), German techno and the beginnings of British trance. Friends, Lovers & Family would sadly later gravitate to the latter, but for their first three EPs on the label they epitomised the under-determined nature of British rave, blending awe-inspiring breakbeat science with an intensely psychedelic approach creating a mutant hardcore/proto-jungle comparable in weirdness and wonder to A Guy Called Gerald’s Juicebox experiments. This run culminated in the Being EP featuring “Razors Pain You” – as good a Dorothy Parker-sampling acid jungle tune as you’ll ever hear – and this nine minute ambient-dub-breakbeat excursion which wears its pyschonautical space suit with pride. “We are now entering hyperspace,” it announces. “The laws of physics do not apply.” And who were we to argue?
Maurizio “Ploy (Battersea Was An Island Of Mud Mix)” (1993)
So, so many Orb tracks we could throw in here (the intense “A Floating Leaf Always Reaches The Sea Dub Mix” of Killing Joke’s “Requiem” was a very close second), but this one makes the cut as a demonstration of how close their wacky and way-out ways always were to what was perceived as much more ‘serious’ techno. With Thomas Fehlmann as one unusually steady part of the loose and constantly shifting lineup around Alex Patterson, they were wired right into the heart of the German scene, so the hook up with Basic Channel’s Maurizio alias of Moritz von Oswald here was not surprising. And Patterson always had a taste for the Teutonic anyway, citing one of the earliest influences on The Orb as an experience with Killing Joke in Neuss, North Rhine-Westphalia, listening to Brian Eno’s Music For Films on LSD and watching “the Ruhr steel works explode in the distance.” This track has all the usual Radiophonic squiggles, kooky voiceover samples and dub throb of classic Orb, but also Basic Channel’s absolutely exquisite synthesis and techno drum machine patterns rising in and out of its fabric.
Full Moon Scientist “Old Man River’s Crying” (1993)
The hinterland between scenes was a natural home for music industry chancers and cheeky chappies, and a history of the UK’s downtempo dance music would be packed with some truly sparkling and occasionally diabolical characters. Full Moon Scientist were a duo of an ex-Marc Almond collaborator (Steve Rowlands) and the founder of the mid-80s skiffle-bluegrass-rockabilly band The Boothill Foot-Tappers (the late Kevin Walsh), and they appeared to be having massive fun as they threw everything and the kitchen sink at their gloriously cluttered dub on Leftfield’s Hard Hands label. Much like The Orb, they compulsively blurred, or even rubbed out, the fine line between pisstake and passion – as if to acknowledge this, a later album was called Do We Look Like Comedians? – but it was abundantly clear that they knew their dub, and that they knew what it was to be very, very, very stoned for great lengths of time. This percussion laden dub waltz lament is, it goes without saying, pretty weird – but it’s also pretty beautiful.
Bang The Party “Rubbadubb” (1990)
I had no idea what the Back To Prison album was, what a classic the sultry “Bang Bang You’re Mine” on it would become, who Kid Bachelor was, or their connections to the pre-acid evolution of black British house music when I stumbled over the record in 1990 – but I instinctively fell for the weirdness of it all. This track, made entirely of drumrolls and echoes, still sounds great. It’s minimal in the truest sense: just variations and intensifications of the simplest of rhythm patterns and basslines, definitely of a part with the Sheffield bleep of Unique 3, LFO, etc that was emerging at the same time, but woodier, more organic sounding, definitely closer to dub as I understood it. Just as with Smith & Mighty tracks of the time, it’s very easy to listen to now and hear both the rolling rhythms of jungle latent in its hypnotic echoes and a direct connection to the industrial continuum of Adrian Sherwood, Meat Beat Manifesto and co.
Pulse 8 “Radio Morocco” (Adrian Sherwood Mix) (1989)
Pulse 8 was David Harrow, journeyman keyboardist, producer and tattoo nut who would crop up all over the place in the uncertain zones of club music, notably with Andrew Weatherall in Bloodsugar; here he was joined by Jah Wobble and Justin Adams. The single was the first on Nation Records which would for better or worse be the home of ethno-dub fusion through the 90s (throwing up the occasional cracker by the likes of Loop Guru, Tribal Drift and Asian Dub Foundation), though it would also get a release on 4th & Broadway via Virgin, thanks to the Youth mix on the A-side being a spanking early British house floorfiller. But it’s Adrian Sherwood’s mix that sounds like the real killer now – his dub studio craft and the industrial edge he honed with Tackhead, Mark Stewart and Keith LeBlanc are all brought to bear on an acid house track that swerves all over the shop. It’s the epitome of the smash-and-grab approach to source material of the time, but its Maghreb melodies are deployed artfully, and Sherwood’s production just sounds bigger and badder than most of what was around at the time.
The Shamen “Hyperreal Selector” (1991)
There’s not much Shamen in this – really it’s about Meat Beat Manifesto who did the remix. Of course MBM were one of the vital pollinators, adding industrial weight and dub to breakbeats, with the genes of “Radio Babylon” echoing through hardcore and jungle right through to the present day. This remix was one of those great disorientation points in music, a real ‘wot do u call it’ moment. I can’t remember whether this came before or after “We Are IE”, but it was certainly one of the very first tracks to cut the breakbeat so it was completely free from the regular two-and-four snare pattern – and I THINK it was sampled and sped up by Hackney Hardcore for “Dancehall Dangerous”, making it a direct influence on the birth of jungle as such. Regardless of where it fits historically, though, it still sounds bananas: rough, ragged and from a place light years left of centre.
Meat Beat Manifesto “Psyche Out (Sex Skank Stripdown)” (1991)
…whereas this flips MBM upside down and inside out, smooths off their rough edges and shows just how slick it’s possible to be in this territory. This is perhaps the most perfect club groove of Andrew Weatherall’s glorious early period, providing a link forward into the trance-induction of his early Sabres Of Paradise tracks. Every element here is incredibly simple: like so much of the ‘dubby’ stuff of the time, the bassline is shockingly mechanical and amelodic compared to real reggae – just a see-saw between two notes and a rhythm right on the grid – but it doesn’t matter. This is brilliant minimalism, with that bassline, the rhythm programming, the snippets of harmonica and orgasmic female voice all intermeshing, making interference patterns that ebb and flow with no sense of climax or destination over eight mesmeric minutes.
The Moody Boys “Pumpin’ Dumpin” (1990)
Tony Thorpe was one of the lynchpins of all this; he provided the studio skills for much of The KLF’s biggest work. His remixes for them – especially the Misty In Roots-sampling version of “What Time Is Love” – were masterpieces, and his own Moody Boys tracks were ubiquitous in certain quarters. This is from the Journeys Into Dubland EP he made with The KLF’s Jimi Cauty; the lead track “Free” was the one played everywhere, its repeated opera singer refrain burrowing into the collective subconscious, but this was the one to dive deep into. There’s almost nothing to it – just a Stone Roses loop, a snippet of Jungle Brothers, a detuned bleep melody that pre-empted Royksopp’s “Eple” by a decade – but the insistence of the bass, the subtlety of the dub treatment, the Nu Groove sense of house hypnosis and a real don’t-give-a-fuck refusal to be anything other than itself make it a sublime groove.
Coil “Windowpane (Astral Paddington Mix)” (1990)
This one I first heard on a fistful of the most gigantic liberty caps I’ve ever seen, still dew fresh off the Yorkshire Moors, and more than any other track from the time, unpicking the actual sounds on the record from the experience is almost impossible. But then Coil were always designed to be heard in that way anyway, so it’s all good. In their Love’s Secret Domain (GEDDIT?) phase, they tried to turn their daemonic industrial hands to the dance music of the acid house era, and never quite hit it – but they did make some spectacular sounds. And in this track in particular, they really highlighted how close the tone generation and signal processing of the industrial-psychedelic lineage came to real dub. Even if none of the rhythm or tonality here has anything to do with reggae, the final construction and the obstreperous spirit of the thing are closer to King Tubby and Scientist than the vast majority of more ‘authentic’ reggae/dub tracks of the 90s.
Greater Than One “Dub Killer” (1991)
Digging around to find the provenance of some of these tracks, one great pleasure was looking at old ravers’ forums and seeing how many hated this track for “spoiling their buzz”. “We try to find it in drugs and in sex and we get all mixed up and get all fouled up and before we know it we’re destroyed,” goes the sample, and I guess that could bother the more naïve or humourless raver – as could the loping breakbeat that’s far too slow for the hardcore of the time. But as with “Mr Kirk’s Nightmare”, most people I knew just found it hilarious, and “before we know it we’re destroyed” became a late night catchphrase for many. It was an odd departure for GTO, who were in transition from rather clunky goth-industrialism via brilliantly euphoric rave classics like “Bullfrog” and “Listen To The Rhythm Flow” to the ridiculous gabba excess of their Technohead alias, but a welcome one for anyone who liked it slow and low. I know people who insist on starting DJ sets with “Dub Killer” to this day, and as a statements of intent go it’s a pretty unequivocal one.