Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for all the trees. This is especially true with underground music where, increasingly, people seem to judge a record’s worth on a host of factors beyond the only one that should actually matter – is the tune any good or not. We seem to put stock in many weird factors now. How far is the sound design being pushed; does it fall into the correct speed bracket; are the samples too obvious/not obvious enough; is it too difficult to play in a deep house set; does it go out of its way to be as non-commercial as possible; will too many people have heard it; will too many people have even heard of it…
This cultural quirk has been present for a long, long time. In all honesty it isn’t something that is particular to house and techno and, in fact, it’s possible that it is worse in other genres. Even so, it seems to be on the increase. I remember having a conversations a long time ago with someone who was adamant that should Ned’s Atomic Dustbin ever got a top ten hit, they would stop buying the records. There wasn’t any danger of that – Ned’s Atomic Dustbin were the sort of awful early nineties indie rock band much-loved by Melody Maker who made a career out of skirting with major success without ever actually finding it, but I still found it strange someone could stop loving a band because other people wanted to love them too. Slowly, though, I did come to appreciate that the feeling of being part of something special, something that masses of other people weren’t into, had an importance all of its own. It’s like being part of a gang, and there isn’t really a whole lot wrong with it.
If the nineties are to be regarded as a golden age for electronic music, part of the reasoning must surely be because of the way that the divisions between the electronic underground and the mainstream were less rigidly defined than now. More specifically, there were a number of fairly major acts – regulars to a greater or lesser extent on Top Of The Pops, and frequently covered in the non specialist press – who enjoyed not only commercial and critical success, but were often well-regarded by the sort of people who would only have picked up a copy of the NME if they had run out of toilet paper.
Orbital, 808 State, The Prodigy and others may not have enjoyed top ten hit after top ten hit, but they reached a level of commercial success that has probably only been eclipsed by modern EDM leviathans. The difference is the EDM mob lack any form of artistic credibility. Bands like 808 State were full of it.
Away from the commercial side of things, though, it was the music that really sealed their places. Although it was unlikely you would hear any of these acts played back by some deep underground DJ, it wasn’t impossible. The important thing to keep in mind, I think, is that these guys were probably all listening to the same tunes you were, they cared and loved about the music as much as any hardcore house or techno fan, and that loved filtered its way back into the sounds they made. It was a remarkably rich period of musical crossover, and more subversive than anything that came along afterwards. And that’s even without factoring the KLF’s fecund art-terrorism into the equation.
Underworld were another one of these acts. Propelled into the mainstream via an appearance on the Trainspotting soundtrack, they had a knack of combining elements of authentic underground music together into a poppy whole that seemed to capture the moment. Although possibly never as loved as the above bands, they still had their fair share of fans on the other side of the lines.
A major reason for this was Rez. Even now, having not really listened to it for many, many years, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A great tune from a relatively mainstream act, yes, but it is a tune that could never have existed if Underworld had been a typical pop group put together by committee, or a rock band pushed into fresh pastures in order to boost sales. The slow swirl of sound, twisting around its centre and building onwards and upwards as the drums began their growing assault before the whole thing rushed, off its tits, to its euphoric rapture was a distillation of much of what house and acid and techno meant at the time. It felt like a snapshot of wild nights, of a sense of community with people you didn’t know before, of – yes, being part of a gang because the rest of the world didn’t get it. It remains a majestic piece of music and one that is still at home in the depths of a club as it would have been on radio.
Yes, the irony is that many other people who weren’t part of the gang really did get it too. But that sort of just makes it better. And it answers that one important question resoundingly: Is the music any good? Yes, yes it is. For a long moment it felt as if the music we loved and cared about was going to win, to trump all the bollocks than filled the airwaves. Listening to this again, it still does.