No matter how benighted the nineties sometimes felt, and how dismal the music that we were expected to be grooving to... “hey kids, there’s a new Dave Matthews album coming!”... there were corners and alleyways and dingy little dungeon-like dens where it was still possible to have a good time.
For some reason, a lot of them had an Anglo bent, at least to begin with. The whole Britpop thing might well have been just a little too fey for the American mainstream, but hey, you got Oasis out of it, and the Gorillaz as well. And then there was the electro boom that bleeped and burbled so far below the radar that, when the Prodigy suddenly washed up at number one, even their long term fan club went - whaaaa???????
If any one single disc sums up all the promise and palaver of the decade, and the best of the bits that lurked within those aforementioned corners and cabinets, it’s probably the soundtrack to the cult movie Trainspotting. “Cult,” because no matter how huge it was in the UK, no movie whose entire dialog is delivered in dense, impenetrable Glaswegian accents was ever going to make sense in Stateside suburbia. True story - flying to Seattle from London in the day, I was reading the original (and equally Glaswegian) Irving Welsh novel on the plane. “Excuse me, but what language is your book written in?” asked the lady seated next to me.
Pick up the soundtrack and wherever your ear falls, there’s another slice of the nineties that you really should have paid attention to. But if you have to heap the highlights up, and once past Sleeper’s supreme take on Blondie’s “Atomic”...
Underworld own the album. Seriously. And if you haven’t heard “Born Slippy,” then ... you should go away and come back when you have.
We’ll have a history lesson while we wait for you.
Rick Smith and Carl Hyde first worked together as Screen Gems, an early 1980s synth pop band whose career never escaped their south Wales base. In 1983, with an expanded line-up, a pre-Prince-ian flash of misguided inspiration saw them change their name to a simple symbol which they insisted was pronounced Freur.
Signing to CBS in early 1983, the band's first single, "Doot Doot,” reached #59 in the UK, and that was the peak of Freur's achievement. Two albums, an eponymous debut and 1985’s neatly titled Get Us Out Of Here joined sundry follow-up singles in the dumper and Freur dooted off in spring 1985.
Having relocated to the London suburb of Romford, Hyde and Smith were already establishing themselves as composers of TV breaks and commercial themes, for MTV and others; in 1984, they scored the Clive Barker movie Transmutations, and decided to follow the same electronic directions with their next project, a slimmed down Freur that was named Underworld (from the Barker movie’s UK title).
With the band now concentrating on the UK dance club circuit, it would take close to three years before a new label deal arrived - Underworld signed with Sire in late 1987, and in March, 1988, released Underneath The Radar. A US club tour pushed a single of the title track to #74 US in July, and the following month, "Show Some Emotion" made a similar splash on US dance floors. A second US hit, "Stand Up" (#67) in August, 1989, and a new album, Change The Weather, but a tour with the disintegrating
Eurythmics was to be Underworld's last stand. The band broke up in late 1989, and Smith and Hyde returned to TV work. Over the next few years, their Tomato company would become one of the UK's most successful composers of advertising music, scoring commercials for Nike, MTV, Levis, Tampax, and more.
In 1990, the pair recruited Darren Emerson (keyboards) and relaunched Underworld. An entire album was recorded, then scrapped, before they released a single, "Mother Earth," on their own Tomato label, in 1992. Limited to just 5,000 copies, it coincided with their first live show, playing in the DJ booth at the Ministry Of Sound club in London.
Masquerading under the name Lemon Interrupt, two singles, "Dirty" and "Bigmouth," emerged before "Mmm... Skyscraper I Love You" finally captured the sound Underworld were searching for. From the outset, the trio wanted to incorporate traditional rock instrumentation into dance; according to Hyde, "we threw away the first album trying to find the right spot [to place guitars and vocals); I think 'Dark and Long' was the first one that we really clicked, that we felt we got something was going there. Then 'Skyscraper,' and then a semi - radical departure for 'Cowgirl.' "We weren't treading on the groove, but at the same time we could still introduce these traditional elements that were fantastic, but still have to be approached in a different way." All three would be included on Underworld's next album in 1994; in the meantime, the absorption of Boys Own into parent label London saw Underworld follow label head Stephen Hall to Junior Boy's Own, and release what swiftly became the club anthem of the year, Rez, in September, 1993. Underworld resurfaced in December with Spikee, their first hit single, and with Dubnobasswithmyheadman, the Dark And Long EP and the US club smashes Cowgirl and "Dirty Guitar [Dirty Epic]" following, Underworld released the original mix of what would subsequently become their anthem, "Born Slippy" in May, 1995.
Which brings us back to where we were, and from whence we will head some place else. To the newly released, and so staggeringly brilliant reissue of that aforementioned album, the mighty Dubnobasswithmyheadman. Which, across no less than five stuffed discs, will tell you everything you need to know about the mid-1990s.
One to round up the album.
One to capture a contemporary live show.
And three to scoop up the remixes, in a belting, breathless sea of beats that leave us historically poised on the edge of “Born Slippy,” without actually getting into it.
The original album is the priceless jewel. Two decades on, Dubnobasswithmyheadman stands unique amongst the dance discs of the day in that it hasn’t dated. Stubborn and steadfast, it sounds as great today as it did back then, and that’s astonishing because you can count on one thumb the number of other period electronica discs that don’t immediately send you spinning back to the days when mini-discs were the sound sensation of the future, cameras still demanded you buy (and develop) rolls of film, and the average household computer measured its memory in kb.
“Dark and Long” (which is) sets the show on the road, and sets the mood that clings to a lot of the music, a downbeat that eschews the band’s peers’ insistence that dance music needed to drill holes in your head, by searching, instead, for the gaps between the notes, and the spaces in the space that you pace when you’re not speeding.
Vibrantly aware of the urges that pushed past electronic pioneers into the music they made, Dubnobasswithmyheadman is, in places, as much Jean Michel Jarre or Tangerine Dream as it is a night of wild strobes in a half-derelict warehouse. This is the music that launched a million raves, but it is not the music of the rave itself, the one-dimensional throb that became the common denominator of so many nights before ultimately collapsing beneath its own redundancy.
Underworld made dance music that made you want to listen - and maybe that’s why it’s survived so well. Because, in avoiding the cliches of the age, they also stepped around all the things that do tie the music to time and space. And allow it to float out of reach of either.
The first disc is the one you will play the most, because it’s the one that packs the coherence of an actual album, conceived with beginning, middle and end all i its maker’s minds. The live disc, too, has an energy of its own, and it doesn’t matter how great the speakers on your computer are. It needs to be played through the best amp you have, and the biggest speakers, too. There are sounds here that you don’t want to simply hear. You need to feel them too.
The remix discs tell the rest of the story and each has its reason to be considered essential. But be warned. Not every remix unleashed in those days was actually worth its weight in memory, and a lot of sounds that worked great on the club floor will fall flat on their faces in your living room. Underworld’s own process of quality control saved them from a lot of that, although the encyclopedic corralling of their entire period discography will test your patience in places. Dip in and out as you would with the original singles.
You will, as always, spend less time with the booklet than you do the music. But the monochrome LP-sized art pages which predominate are precisely what you’d expect from Tomato, while the essay... actually, the essay is probably the only real let-down in the package, beginning with its opening sentence. We all know that time passes a lot faster these days than it used to, but should a piece of writing that is first published in 2014 really refer to a four year old photo book (Gavin and Neville Watson’s Raving ’89) as “recent”?
From there, the root and genesis of Dubnobasswithmyheadman unfold via interviews with its makers, we learn the retitles that remade a few songs, recapture the chronology of those earliest days. But in a package as impressively designed and delineated as this, the words just fall away, already redundant, already out of time. Dubnobasswithmyheadman is twenty years ago, but its box set still feels like a future.
Precisely which one depends on you.