Drums and Wires: Read SPIN's 1996 Report on Rock's Dawning Electronic-Music Obsession

From October '96, Charles Aaron sizes up the field, from techno to ambient to jungle to trip-hop

Underworld
Underworld Photo by Jill Greenberg
Charles Aaron WRITTEN BY
Charles Aaron

San Bernardino National Forest, just like I pictured it — no skyscrapers, everything. But most of the 6,300 kids of all ages attending "Organic" June 22, at the Snow Valley Ski Resort in the mountains east of Los Angeles, probably would have waited in the parking lot at the House of Pies diner for this unprecedented lineup: Underworld, the Chemical Brothers, Orbital, an the Orb, full stage shows in tow. For once, an event involving electronic dance music (still referred to as "techno" by some of us nostalgics) actually appeared to be about the music.

Then around 10 P.M., after openers Electric Skychurch, Loop Guru, and Meat Beat Manifesto finished diverse, if not revelatory sets, a startling voice boomed from the stage:

"Hi, I'm Jed the Fish and you are live on 106.7 KROQ!"

Heads jerked, bodies squirmed. The Fish eagerly splashed on.

"I have been waiting so long to introduce these guys, so here they are, Underworld!" Three band members scooted onstage amid dry ice and lasers. Later, a publicist informed me that KROQ, the country's most influential modern-rock station, was broadcasting live all night. Suddenly I longed for the parking lot at the House of Pies.

But that's just silly elitism, of course. When any culture goes from sub to pop, it's half-exhilarating, half-revolting. And industry players are banking on electronic dance music as the next big alternative thing, including Organic's organizer, Gerry Gerard, booking agent for Nine Inch Nails as well as for this event's four British headliners.

"My mission was definitely to take this overground," says Gerard. "This music has a mass audience and quality groups who deserve quality sound and lights. You just don't get that at a rave, I'm sorry."

What you do get at a rave is a sense of playful transgression, the security of being hidden away from authority figures and guys with fishy radio names. "You'll notice that KROQ's logo wasn't on the advertising and they didn't promote it on-air until the week of the show," explains Gerard. "They did it very subtly, so we didn't alienate the core fans. Everybody, from the labels to the bands to the promoters, did this as an investment in the future."

But it's doubtful whether many of those industry folks could explain their investment. For our purposes, "electronic music" — easily the lamest term since "world music" reduced whole continents to a specialty bin — is a rather arty rest stop somewhere past Rock City and just outside the Disco Inferno. You can usually dance to it. It might have vocals, but more often doesn't. It explores rhythm over melody, unless it's ambient, where it explores neither. Its most obvious pop manifestation, hip-hop, typically gets overlooked.

Simply put, this is music that gets funky with technology in the studio, often on computers. And while many artists perpetrate like mystics conjuring secret knowledge, the best, and smartest, demystify the process — learning to "play" a sampler is just like learning to play a bass guitar, except that it's easier and more fun (though it won't make your lame songs cool).

That said, during just the past few years, a number of electronic artists have recorded albums of mystifying creativity — Goldie's Timeless, Moby's Everything Is Wrong, the Chemical Brothers' Exit Planet Dust, Hardkiss' Delusions of Grandeur, Drain's Offspeed and in There, Orbital's In Sides, Spacetime Continuum's Emit Ecaps, the Prodigy's Music for the Jilted Generation, Autechre's Tri Repetae, Funki Porcini's Love, Pussycats & Carwrecks. Rock bands great and small — from U2 and the Smashing Pumpkins to Cornershop and Space Needle — are knee-deep in electronic gadgets. DJs, formerly faceless nomads, are finding prominent homes at influential labels: Quango's Jason Bentley, who also works a midnight-6 A.M. Saturday KROQ shift; db at Sm:)e/Profile; Orion at Astralwerks/Caroline.

Even Porno for Pyros' Perry Farrell, who bailed after creating the Lollapalooza rock monster, is swerving in an electronic direction with his ENIT Festival, featuring the Orb, Meat Beat Manifesto, Rabbit in the Moon, DJs Carl Cox, L.T.J Bukem, Afrika Bambaataa, and others, mostly from the American underground. "There's a beautiful connection going on between man and machine," rhapsodizes Farrell. "Maybe that's what can ultimately connect us all." Well, at least he's interested.

 

Current electronic dance music descends from the rituals of the DJ. As Sarah Thornton puts it in her book Club Cultures: "'Liveness' is displaced from the stage to the dance floor… The DJ and dancers share the spotlight as de facto performers." This frustrates most American music fans over 25, who still queue up dutifully and demand, "Here we are now, entertain us," with varying degrees of sincerity, sarcasm, and resignation.

So when Underworld guitarist/frontman Karl Hyde waggled out to the front of the Organic stage, the crowd, older and more racially mixed than at most raves, roared its acknowledgement. Veteran crossover dreamers, Hyde, 39, and keyboardist/programmer Rick Smith, 37, had a No. 1 Italian hit as Freur in 1982 with the synth goof "Doot Doot." Their lite-funk revue (Underworld MK 1) opened the Eurythmics farewell tour, and Hyde did session time at Prince's Paisley Park, before hiring secret-weapon DJ Darren Emerson, 25. Now the trio hopes to remind Americans of all the good things (cool grooves, big hooks), but none of the bad (poor attitude, worse shows), associated with synth-pop and New order, while still honoring techno's expansive rhythmic punch. "We're trying to ease instruments and singing back into this music, without easing the ego back in," says Hyde.

As if in response to Underworld's crowd-pleasing reverie, the Chemical Brothers — Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands — brusquely cranked up their industrial-strength, slap-happy break-beats until the monitors vibrated like dishes in an earthquake. In comedy-club parlance, the Chemicals killed. Grounded I hip-hop, their music struck a fierce rock'n'roll pose, though the musicians did nothing more than wordlessly bob their uncool haircuts behind a bank of samplers. Deploying a film barrage of ghetto uprisings, spinning clocks, warplanes, and exploding periodic tables, these two unassuming joes assumed that they could do something most rock or dance music never even tries — express rage as well as rapture, in the same song. Brother Rowlands remarked later: "The other bands were being so nice to everybody, like children's TV presenters or something. We had other ideas."

As did Orbital and the Orb, compositional masters and elder tricksters of British techno. Orbital's Hartnoll brothers — Phil, 32, Paul, 28 — don't look or sound much like punk rockers. But they diligently apply punk's best lessons to electronic music's often dippy pretensions. Consistently downplaying their machinery (the group's first hit, 1990's "Chime," reportedly cost less than a hundred dollars to make), Orbital sharply critique how that machinery exerts a haunting control over our daily lives. Their bleeping, pinging, childlike cascades of sound don't predict a wondrously awesome future, but mock how easy it is to transfix the masses with grandiose, futuristic bullshit.

Each of Orbital's four albums has discreetly appropriated the trends of the day — hardcore techno, ambient, jungle, trip-hop — to translate the band's increasingly personal agenda. Snivilisation, 1994's almost embittered plea ("Are we here?" a voice asked, as junglist drums skittered fitfully), led to this year's In Sides, a sneakily backhanded homage to the '60s film and TV scores of John "James Bond" Barry and Lalo "Mission: Impossible" Schifrin. Drawing from a musical genre obsessed with beautifully manipulative textures, Orbital sounds re-energized — "the Box," a disorienting pas de deux, twinkles ingenuously, then barges through your front door, teeth bared.

At Organic, with their wacky night-vision headgear hovering surreally in the dark, the Hartnolls marshaled an array of lights and projections (production by Tim Buckley of U2's Zoo TV) into a majestic, winking reprisal. Music pulsed in synch to an image of a life-support machine wriggling like a giant snake, then both flatlined to a sunset of Jonathan Livingston seagulls. Mushy cop-out? Hardly. After blackly comic samples of Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth" and the Butthole Surfers' "Sweatloaf," my rave buddy turned and said, "I don't think those were happy seagulls." Sure enough, the final movement suggested California as a diseased horizon. Don't mess with Mother Nature, kids, or she'll confiscate your drugs, rescind your record deal, and call your parents.

Heady shit, particularly at 2:30 A.M., but the Orb's Alex Paterson had no intention of easing up. A '90s skeptic with a fat spliff in his hand, Paterson, 36, has earned a reputation as rave's benign anti-guru, prankishly stretching techno's boundaries — linking '60s psychedelia with '70s art rock and Jamaican dub to create ambience with bite and wit. The Orb live (Paterson and partner Andy Hughes) was another, not-so-fluffy world entirely. Bass ghosts lumbered across the mountainside, as a lonely steel guitar kidnapped from Eno's Apollo album wafted woozily. Two monstrous screens on either side of the stage matched deathly illustrations (Charles Burns-like cartoons of bodies skinned alive, a skeleton leaning over a desk, head in hands) with footage of trained elephants, marionettes, and circus clowns. Ren & Stimpy tapped us on the shoulder and exhorted loudly: "You're not happy enough!" Suddenly, the Orb's chill-out room became a cozy morgue with a laugh track.

Such a display defied the standard line that rock singers spell out stereotypical roles for their fans, while DJs/electronic musicians retreat into sound. Combining aggressive visual images and aggressively mood-swinging music, Organic was less an outdoor concert than a mesmerizing 3-D drive-in with an awesome sound system. The acts insisted on coming down off the screen and getting inside our heads. The giddy coming-out party transmogrified instead of transcended, with songs drifting and twisting into unexpected shapes — rock'n'roll opened up; dance music turned inward.

Despite the lack of lyrics, there certainly wasn't a lack of content. "Music has never been a fast-food thing to me, like, 'Oh this'll be good to dance to for a week,'" Paul Hartnoll said afterwards. "When I've done music, I've always wanted it to last. The meaning is obviously open-ended, it can be pure comedy or pure drama or something in between. But we always want to provoke a feeling that means something to you later on."

Both Orbital and the Orb's baroque, post-rave imprecations sent an explicit message to ravers and rocker alike — there's more urgent business at hand than radio airplay or parties in the wild. The world's a mess, it's in our kiss. Music will not absolve you. Technology will not save the guppies. Or as Belinda Carlisle put it, "Ooh baby, do you know what that's worth?"

Which, despite all the electronic doo-dads obscuring the performers, was very human and very rock'n'roll. This wasn't about rewiring progressive British club culture for a traditional American rock audience. It was about performers who were not content to dance the night away in anonymity. They ached to express real personalities.

 

"To me it's bullshit how you're always hearing that this stuff supposedly comes from Europe, it's just total nonsense," says Scott Hardkiss, one-third of the San Francisco-based Hardkiss DJ collective, which has been releasing its own mischievously funky electronic symphonies since 1992, most conveniently on the 1994 compilation Delusions of Grandeur. "Not that I'm any flag-waving motherfucker, but it's all black American music — funk, disco, house, hip-hop, techno. Sure, techno went through Germany and England, but the modern form traces straight back to Detroit. And it sounds like Detroit, too."

While a student at Washtenaw (Michigan) Community College in the early 1980s, Juan "Magic" Atkins formed Cybotron with classmate Rick Davis and, using little more than a Korg MS-10 synthesizer, hit the black singles chart with "Clear," a minimal rhythm track fit for twitching in a bombed-out warehouse. Once described as Parliament-Funkadelic and Kraftwerk trapped in an elevator, this was techno's genesis. But despite a handful of underground hits for Atkins and high-school bud Derrick May (Rhythm Is Rhythm's "Nude Photo," "Strings of Life"), this was a black American music too abstractly chilly for both black and white American listeners. Hip-hop became the fucked-up sound of choice.

However, Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, a compilation featuring Atkins, May, Kevin Saunderson, et al., seduced Britain, and along with the Chicago "acid" sound of DJ Pierre (a.k.a. Phuture), provided the soundtrack for a European rave craze. The chilly edge got fuzzier and warmer. But when drugs became a factor, the tabloids took notice. Soon, smiley faces grew tight-lipped, and the music perversely turned on itself. Artistic gems like 808 State's Ex:el were trampled by frantic "hardcore" assaults — pounding, Teutonic, sacrilegiously spooky — nicked from Belgium, Rotterdam, and Berlin. More niftily hyped-up beats (hip-hop and ragga 12-inches played at 45) came from Britain's XL label (the Prodigy, et al.).

Reacting with contempt for the dancefloor's whims, other artists pushed techno in erratic, so-called "intelligent" directions. It was as if a whole segment of the population went home and put up its feet. The imaginative compositions of Richard James (a.k.a. Aphex Twin, AFX, Polygon Window) could have been music designed for the artist Joseph Cornell's miniature boxes — lively, yet naïve musings, strangely confined. Some took James's cues (μ-Ziq, Autechre), but mostly, the genre became pretentious dead air, reaching full snore with studio projects such as E.A.R., an excuse for guitarists Sonic Boom (Spacemen 3) and Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) not to deal with their writers' block.

Most compelling of all the post-rave developments, however, was jungle, also called drum'n'bass (forget "trip-hop," a tired term lumping Tricky and Portishead with lesser versions). Here, the music got darker, literally, reflecting the nervy, soul-starved dilemma of black Brits as well as whites. Reggae and dub, intricately wound up in tight flurries of beats, got remixed with hip-hop's identity conflict at breakneck speed. Artists such as Goldie, Roni Size, L.T.J Bukem, and Alex Reece created dazzling, bewildering jungle tracks that gave listeners a sense of urgent melancholy, like the music was racing in place, waiting for anything to happen.

Jungle also exposes how the patronizing marketing of electronic music since the early '90s — as novelty pop, arty intellectualism, the new alternative rock — has stripped away its multiracial origins. As a matter of course, Kraftwerk is crowned "the first techno band," Brian Eno minister of culture, and P-Funk shunted off into a broom closet. Cabaret Voltaire gets as many shout-outs as Afrika Bambaataa. This may not account for the music's commercial woes, but it doesn't help its credibility.

Gradually the Brits are getting more pluralistically funky. There's the Ninja Tune posse led by Coldcut's Matt Black and Jonathan More (DJ Food, Hedfunk, et al.); the abstract hip-hop of Mo' Wax. And the Chemical Brothers, who sampled Detroit forefather Blake Baxter on their single "Leave Home," look for the perfectly crunchy beat in every break they meet. Exit Planet Dust makes such immediately exciting sense because Rowlands and Simons celebrate hip-hop as the vital link between rock and techno. At New York's Irving Plaza recently, the Chemical Brothers personally made the connection — shocking the house with hip-hop legends Kool Herc, Grand Wizard Theodore, and Grand master Caz. From the front of the stage to the back of the club, they whipped up a joyful thrash that the Beastie Boys would've envied.

 

The U.S. never enjoyed a Summer Rave of Love in aircraft hangars and farmers' fields (see Britain, circa 1988-89). Our hopes of an electronic dance nirvana were never raised to be crushed. We missed the righteous buzz of selfless identity and blissful oblivion. There was no Criminal Justice Bill legislating against "repetitive beats" to mobilize disaffected youth. Instead, we got imports at jacked-up prices and Rick Rubin tagging techno "the new punk." When his label American (then Def American) clumsily tried to exploit a bit of bogus pop-techno bombast called Messiah in 1992, it went flat like an Urge Overkill cocktail.

But a scene persevered, in spite of the country being too damn big. Genuine passion for the music, plus the Internet's interactive zine network, fed the need for a movement unprescribed by the mainstream, echoing hardcore punk and early hip-hop. DJs like Josh Wink and Frankie Bones spun brash, challenging sets, and drew thousands of people to northern Maine, eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Missouri, Wisconsin, New Mexico, to name an unlikely handful. "Things happened in L.A. and New York, then slacked off, like it was a fad," says Tim Haslett, a Boston-area DJ and columnist for the College Music Journal. "So for it to keep going it had to happen where people weren't jaded, where it was less promoter-based and more spontaneous."

Then there was the tireless outreach of believers such as Richard "Moby" Hall, the first legitimate "star" and album-worthy artist to emerge from America's rave backwash. "Every place I've ever been, with the exception of L.A., where there was a rave or techno thing going on in America, Moby's name cropped up," says Jim Tremayne, the editor of DJ Times, a consumer and trade magazine. "If the 11 rave kids in Valdosta, Georgia, or wherever, wanted to know how to start a scene, they'd call Moby and he'd help them out."

After causing a fuss in Europe with 1991's hit single, "Go," Moby toured and recorded extensively before releasing his 1995 major-label debut album Everything Is Wrong, an ingenious mix of techno, punk, house, jungle, blues, classical, etc. His live show, the first techno ever to grace the stages of many rock dives, was like watching a bead of sweat bounce around a pinball machine. He prayed with gospel divas. He jokingly essayed Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." He put his narrow ass on the line at Lollapalooza. He was the polar opposite of everything electronic music supposedly represented, particularly overseas.

"In England, what happens is DJs and techno artists sort of made a virtue out of their shyness," says Moby. "I've known all these people like Orbital and Tricky — they're so shy. But rather than say, 'Listen, we're shy and we're afraid to perform, and we don't like doing photo shoots because it makes us nervous,' they try and make a virtue out of the fact that they're 'dismantling the cult of personality' — when the truth is they're really scared."

For his efforts, Moby's album sold 69,000 copies, and he became the rave nation's sacrificial lamb. But every movement needs its martyr, and though Moby is far from finished artistically, he'll probably go down as the man who died so America might have techno Krispies for breakfast along with its rock'n'roll Wheaties. And if this ever becomes a land where little Kurts and Courtneys grow up rocking the house on samplers as well as kicking ass on guitars, well, they oughta say grace for their Uncle Moby.

 

Despite the perception that Brits avidly embrace dance culture while Americans resist its charms, electronic music never had much real pop success in Europe until it conquered the summer rock festivals. For a while, techno groups and DJs were shooed off into a "dance" tent, an area similar to Lollapalooza's second stage. Then the dance crowds started to rival those at the main stage and organizers got the message. But even now, only acts with established star status — the Orb, Orbital, the Prodigy, Underworld — rate an audience with the rockers.

In America, no one's come close to achieving that star status. "One of the problems, because of the time and huge expense involved in marketing bands and albums, is that most people don't look at this kind of music and see long-term career artists," says David Massey, senior VP at Epic, who's worked with electronic dance groups the Shamen and M People, as well as Oasis and Silverchair. "There hasn't been a national breakthrough act, and I think to do that you'd really have to zero in on radio, particularly. It's not like in Britain, where you get a son on Radio One [the national radio station] and it's in the charts in a week. And as far as touring goes, you just can't take one of these groups into a small club in Milwaukee."

Fair point, bad example (since Milwaukee, at the moment, has one of the strongest techno scenes in America). But radio has been hesitant, KROQ notwithstanding. Even college radio relegates the music to specialty programming. And most major labels still don't understand a group without a frontman. "With the Chemical Brothers, it's viscerally fabulous stuff, but there are no vocals, so it's a hard sell," says DJ Times' Tremayne. "That's why Leftfield [diva vocals, Johnny Rotten cameo] gets signed [to Columbia]. That big orgasmic breakbeat that the Chemicals have in every song just doesn't make sense to these 40-year-old guys who decide whether to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on these things. It's not a song to them."

And based on sales figures, those 40-year-olds have no reason to doubt their instincts. While the insane genius of the KLF (Tammy Wynette singing about ice-cream vans) went gold and L.A. Style (of "James Brown Is Dead" infamy) moved 325,000 units, according to SoundScan's conservative estimates, few of the music's innovators have fared well in the States. The Prodigy's Experience and the Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld: roughly 60,000 each. Orbital's Orbital 2 and Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2: closer to 30,000. The Prodigy, now featuring a punky frontman and a No. 1 U.K. single, "Firestarter," may be the next test case.

But for now, the Chemical Brothers are the best bet. They've hit 75,000 running, and sales seem to be picking up steam. The group's American record company Caroline, which initially broke the Smashing Pumpkins and Hole to the burgeoning alternative nation, believes that electronic music's day is nearing. "Now that alternative rock is the mainstream, people are looking around for something else," says Matt Voss, VP of Caroline. "The Chemical Brothers offer a chance for rock fans to hear music they've never heard before in a rock context. This is an electronic dance act, but kids can headbang to it if they want."

Or the less hormone-addled can sway to the remote-control rhythms of Underworld, a major priority for TVT, Trent Reznor's label when Nine Inch Nails broke out with Pretty Hate Machine. Underworld's latest, Second Toughest in the Infants, meanders a bit, but a version of 1992's heart-pounding "Born Slippy," from the Trainspotting soundtrack (edited, with vocals front and center), entered the British charts at No. 2 a couple of months back.

"I think it's inevitable that this music will become a part of the American alternative scene," says the band's Hyde. "Part" being the operative word. Techno, to its detriment, has often boasted that it's rendering all other music, particularly rock, prehistorically useless. The Chemical Brothers, who have recorded with Oasis and the Charlatans U.K.'s Tim Burgess, demur. "All these questions about dance music competing with rock music are based on the assumption that there's something inherently evil about standing in a field and watching the Presidents of the United States of America," says Ed Simons. "I mean, who cares? If someone wants to say this is a revolution, blah blah blah, that's their problem."

Besides, it's just plain wrong to assume that music fans, no matter what age, have an interest in only one genre of music. "When we put out our records we include a questionnaire and ask people what the last three records they bought were," says Gary Pini, veteran A&R man at Sm:)e/Profile. "And invariably, they come back saying, 'Well, I bought this techno compilation, I bought the Cranberries and I bought, like, Dishwalla. When we started doing this, I thought they'd all say they were buying techno records, but that's just not the case. They're much more open-minded than I thought."

It's hard to build a genre on a British Invasion. So for electronic music — be it techno, jungle, or Primitive Radio Gods — to make a serious impact, American acts will probably have to find a broader audience. Enter, hopefully, groups such as Hardkiss and their ENIT-bound friends Rabbit in the Moon (Dave Christopher and Bunny of Tampa, Florida), whose records are every bit as eerie and cleverly beautiful as the Orb or Orbital's. Or the Crystal Method, a Las Vegas duo whose two infectiously whomping 12-inch singles, "Keep Hope Alive" and "Now Is the Time," almost give the Chemical Brothers a run for their dead presidents.

Hardkiss are the most primed for greater exposure. Three DJs who've adopted a family name and work on one another's projects, Scott (a.k.a. God Within), Gavin (a.k.a. Hawke) and Robbie (a.k.a. Little Wing) all released full-length DJ-mix CDs in the past year. Scott was born in the Bronx, but met fellow Prince fan Robbie in high school in Maryland. Scott then met Gavin, a South African, at the University of Pennsylvania. The three later hooked up in San Francisco. Now they have an office in the city's Tenderloin district and triple the usual electronic dance group's ambition.

"With us in the future there will definitely be a fusion of live performances by musicians as well as electronics going, as well as more of a spectacle, something along the lines of large group jam like P-Funk, with singers and rappers and whatnot," says Scott at a breathless pace. "Accessibility and communicating the music is a priority for us, we want everybody to hear it. It's not about hiding anything."

But accessibility means crafting images, a complicated proposition for electronic musicians. "The stars in this music don't look like rock stars," says Gavin evenly. "It's going to be extremely difficult, for instance, for the Chemical Brothers to show up on the cover of SPIN magazine without hiring some singers or tarting themselves up. They're simple guys, they're Hootie & the Blowfish, basically, who just happen to make wicked breakbeat music."

Obviously, there are many reasons, aside from appearances, why techno or electronic music won't blow up in the States. First, it's instrumental by design, and we still, understandably, crave the signifying of a human voice. But even with vocals, there's a fundamental stumbling block. As long as the equipment, and the precious fidelity of the sounds produced by that equipment, are valued over the artists' personal expression, the music will stay impenetrable to most.

"I mean, these machines are cool tools, they have lots of bells and whistles and lights on them, and it's pretty exciting," testifies Scott Hardkiss. "But Marvin Gaye was making crazy synthesizer music on Motown. I don't think this something brand new or futuristic. It's a developing thing. It's not one place or one race of people. It's not rock versus techno. When you get right down to it, it's like, I know people want a story, to put it all into perspective. But if people would just open their ears, I think they'd get the entire story."  

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