‘With a thrill in my head and a pill on my tongue…’ – Spandau Ballet, True
It’s February 1991 at the Dominion Theatre and Simon Bates has just implored us to put our hands together. The Who’s Roger Daltrey is about to walk onstage. Not to sing (thank goodness), but to present the biggest Brit Award of the night – The Cure are being honoured as Best British Group, and we’ve just seen archive clips of them in action. ‘That was what it was ALL ABOUT – live rock and roll!’ he gushes, gesturing to the huge screens.
‘When I was asked to present this award’ he continues, with a somewhat world-weary air, ‘I had visions that I could be presenting it to a sampler and a drum machine…’
The audience titter into their Taittinger. How ridiculous! This is the Brit Awards, after all, which is of course about Real Music on Real Instruments by Real Men. Preferably white men, ones with a functioning knowledge of Foreigner’s discography. Not your girly synth pap, which is just pressing buttons innit. Good old Rog, telling it like it is. Go on, do the joke about how the word rap has a silent C.
Now of course Roger Daltrey has always been a berk. ‘Mind yer backs!’ he once quipped when introducing the Village People on Top of the Pops. But there are a few things which are interesting about this appearance, and why I think it’s a key moment in British pop history.
Daltrey’s fogeyism was misplaced for several reasons. Firstly, denouncing sampling as late as 1991 is a bit odd, since that particular ship had long sailed (I think The Orb took turns as captain). Secondly, The Cure’s most recent album at that point was Mixed Up, an album of oldies reconfigured into dance tracks. And thirdly, let’s look at the nominations: The Beautiful South, The Stone Roses, Talk Talk, Happy Mondays, Soul II Soul. Presumably only the latter would fail to gain Roger’s ‘That’s what it’s ALL ABOUT!’ seal of approval. Neither rock, nor indeed roll, was an endangered species. For the average rock bore, there was nothing to cry into your Travelling Wilburys pillowcase about.
But there’s a further reason why Daltrey’s attitude is irritating, and it’s based on his fundamental misunderstanding of (a) what sampling is and (b) why it exists. To explain this, I have to go back to my childhood. And for this, we have to travel – not, sadly, to Frankie Knuckles’ studio in downtown Chicago, but to my bedroom in suburban Leicester.
Many people have written about the history of sampling in music, and I’m not going to summarise any of those fine tomes here. Not only because it would be pointless, but because the analysis normally (and, I guess, inevitably) comes from the perspective of chin-stroking adult hindsight. Even if the author was too young to frequent illicit warehouses and scoff MDMA omelettes for breakfast, the narrative is always written from the perspective of those who were. It’s seen through the eyes of the DJs, the performers, the punters. Nobody ever asks the people whose main exposure to Stakker Humanoid or Jack to the Sound of the Underground came c/o whistly medium wave Radio 1.
I was born in 1974, which meant I was slightly too young for many groundbreaking music movements: punk, post-punk, 2 Tone, early hip hop, Joe Dolce. Actually, I think I caught the tail-end of the last one. I tuned in (literally) circa 1983, and one of the first bands I remember being gobsmacked by was Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Frankie were a rude band. I knew this because Radio 1 had banned their single, but I kept scratching my head as to why. I listened to Relax ad nauseam, trying to work out what the dirty bit was – it can’t just be the word ‘suck’ surely? My only conclusion was that the incomprehensible vocal bits at the beginning and end (‘Mur-hur-hieeyah’ and ‘Tibe-a-tibe, a-tibe-a-tibe’ respectively) were the offending sections, and when I grew up I’d understand what they meant. But there was something else which made Relax an exciting and controversial record: it wasn’t a song.
I knew what Proper Songs were, and of course I loved them. They were ditties like Karma Chameleon and Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, with clearly-defined verses and choruses and wacky bits halfway through (which I later learned were called middle eights). They had guitars, keyboards, drums, and – if you were unlucky – Judd Lander on harmonica. They lasted about three minutes and then there was an ‘ad lib to fade’ as Smash Hits always called it.
Relax, produced by Trevor Horn for the glorious ZTT label, seemed to break most of these rules: it was a chant, but not a singalong one – even the ‘When you wanna come’ line (just why did my parents tell me to turn it down when my grandmother visited?) wasn’t delivered the same way every time; scraps of vocal came in and out, seemingly at random; it seemed to have a middle eight but no obvious verse or chorus. It was all about the texture of the sound – an explosion of exciting noise. And yet…it still had a structure. It had a beginning, middle and end – just not necessarily in that order.
Over the next few years there were countless singles which puzzled and thrilled me in the same way – records which seemed to break the fettered notions of what a pop single ought to be. One early oddity was Malcolm McLaren – not his superb Duck Rock (which I only discovered later), but Madam Butterfly, which fused dialogue, pop vocals and opera into a baffling six-minute epic. ZTT created another masterpiece with the Art of Noise’s Close (to the Edit), a ‘song’ made up mainly of car exhausts and creepy people saying ‘dum’ and ‘tra la la’. (I was too young to notice the joke: that this piece of cutting-edge industrial futurism was in fact a trad 12-bar blues.)
I also remember being a big fan of the Conway Brothers’ bonkers single Turn It Up (‘Came here to smoke, but the volume is a joke – turn it up!’), finding something unsettling about its slightly-askew vocals but not being able to put my finger on exactly what. And yes, I thought they were singing about cigarettes.
I adored Doug E Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew’s single The Show, particularly the strange bit where they suddenly broke into a section of The Beatles’ Michelle – I remember Smash Hits adding a disclaimer as to why they were not allowed to transcribe this section of the lyric. Again, this was exciting. My big song of summer 1986 was Bang Zoom (Let’s Go Go) by The Real Roxanne and Hitman Howie Tee, a piece that brilliantly juxtaposed lo-fi Brooklyn hip hop (‘Don’t get in my hair – just dance, Mr Fred Astaire!’) with soothing soul interludes and dialogue from Looney Tunes cartoons. And of course there was Paul Hardcastle’s magnificent 19 – a song which is often mocked now (and indeed then), but I vividly recall the shock when it came out in April 1985, and even today I still scratch my head at how exactly it was made. A pop single with just talking? Were you allowed to do that? (I was too young to remember If by Telly Savalas.)
When house music started troubling the Top 40 in around 1986, it was the minimalism – not that I knew the word – that thrilled me. The starkness and purity of the sound; the petulant refusal to break into a ‘proper tune’ with a guitar solo and a sax break. Listening back, I now realise how avant garde a lot of those records were, and how much they sound like modern classical music, but of course I didn’t have that baggage then. Certainly nothing quite prepared me for the likes of Jack Your Body by Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley: ‘What a strange number one!’ I remember Wincey Willis exclaiming on TV-AM, and I didn’t disagree.
Curiously, one record which didn’t especially impress the 12-year-old me was Love Can’t Turn around by Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk, a track which is often cited as house music’s ‘New Rose’ – the one that kicked everything off in terms of the genre transitioning from the clubs to the charts. I found it rather dull, and it didn’t occur to me until later how important it actually was. But when you’re a child, ‘importance’ is the last thing you care about.
Then there were the mash-ups. Pump Up the Volume by M|A|R|R|S, Beat Dis by Bomb the Bass, Paid In Full by Eric B and Rakim, and of course The Theme from S’Express. It thrilled me the way these records took bits of dialogue and musical snippets from umpteen different sources and weaved them together into singles which felt holistic and self-contained. The Theme from S’Express, in particular, is a beautifully crafted creation, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine how any of its constituent parts could ever have existed independently.
The odd thing about these singles, one that’s never really talked about by adult critics, is that they were ultimately seen as novelty records. Which of course is what they were, in the original sense of the word. As a result, a lot of them topped the chart, or at least got very near to doing so.
To understand their impact, you need to remember what Radio 1 was like in the late 80s. This was a station which didn’t let women broadcast in daylight hours until 1990. It was a dusty, beige place, and its DJs were mostly awful people whose Radio Times billings boasted that they’d be playing music ‘mainly on compact disc’. Its dreary Classic Albums documentary ran for five long series and only two of its editions didn’t feature a white male rock band. Even the good eggs on the station had a touch of the woodwork teacher about them: I remember Peter Powell playing a dull Ultravox single one morning in 1986 and saying, as if by way of apology, ‘I should stress that we’ve just played the dance version.’
The likes of Pump Up the Volume not only stood out but blew away the cobwebs, the same way Love Me Do must have done in 1962. This isn’t a story you’ll necessarily get from people who, at the time, were 23 and off their face at the Haçienda – it’s a perspective that can only come from those who were ten years younger and doing their homework to Bruno Brookes. And what gets forgotten is that this is how most people experienced the music. House was, in fact, very well-named: most people didn’t leave their houses to hear it.
As the 80s ended, my love affair with all this music faded slightly. I enjoyed the squelchy sounds of acid house in the autumn of 1988, but as a ‘movement’ it felt less fun – there was a seriousness to the acid era that felt, despite the ubiquitous smiley yellow faces, slightly snooty. The music was also getting more anthemic, and I’ve always loathed anthems – few things make me feel more exhausted than someone shouting 400 times that they’re going to take me ‘hiiiigh-er!’. By the rave era in the early 90s, when I was actually old enough to go out of an evening, I’d lost interest completely.
Part of this, of course, was due to changes in copyright law. The magpie mischief which fuelled masterpieces like De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising (an album which, due to the rights headaches involved, is still only available on physical formats) suddenly became impossible. Instead, artists might be allowed to use one Stevie Wonder loop if they wrote a nice letter and paid the appropriate fee. Which took the excitement out of it, no matter how much ‘hiiiigh-er!’ they promised to take us.
I’ve tried to present these records roughly chronologically, but of course the timeline (as with all pop timelines) is messy, and I gradually started to discover the antecedents. It’s incredible, for example, to hear Kraftwerk doing what essentially sounds like house music on The Man Machine in 1978 – a record I did in fact know at the time, because I took part in a junior school dance routine which involved wrapping ourselves in black bin-liners and marching about to The Robots. I’m not sure how I managed to wipe that from my memory.
But you can obviously antedate it far further than that, and I enjoyed doing this as I got older: records like Sophisticated Boom Boom by the Shangri-Las (1966) or Here Comes the Judge by Pigmeat Markham(1968) sound so much like late 80s/early 90s hip hop it’s actually slightly unnerving. (Seriously, look them up on YouTube.) As for sampling, I remember when I learnt that the ‘flute’ at the start of Strawberry Fields Forever was actually a mellotron, an instrument which played recordings of flutes on tiny bits of tape – a sampler in all but name. You hate that song as well do you, Roger?
I also became interested in classical and electronic composers, people like Delia Derbyshire and Steve Reich, who would manipulate found sounds, household objects and tape loops to create music from other planets. I discovered Stockhausen and Berio and Cage, and realised that what I thought was original had all been done at least 30 years beforehand.
Except the 80s stuff was original. Because the context was original. The Beatles didn’t invent the use of tape loops, but they perfected a way of using them within pop songs; similarly, the hip hop and house pioneers took the techniques of the past, and used it create an artform which was, as mainstream entertainment, subversively original and often alienating. To this day, house music and hip hop remains divisive – it hasn’t quite been invited into the Music Snobs’ Hall of Fame, the way punk unquestionably has. Eric B and Rakim are always skipped on Pick of the Pops.
This is essentially what Roger Daltrey didn’t get. He made the category error of thinking that ‘a sampler and a drum machine’ are things that exist outside of music, when in fact they were the tools which were keeping it alive.
‘But it’s cheating! They’re using music which isn’t theirs!’ the rock bores often say, ignoring the countless riffs that their favourite millionaire bands have nicked from blues musicians who died penniless. But that’s obviously OK, because those people were using guitars rather than turntables. And it was white musicians fucking over black musicians – we can’t, of course, have it the other way around.
That, Roger, is what it’s ALL ABOUT. Now, what are you going to sing for us?