Records. And resonation. Because it’s never just a slab of vinyl you hold in your hands; it’s an integral part of who we are. And who we were, back when the sunlight fell in different patterns, and a fresh face always smiled back from the mirror. Below, Comrade Colin over at And Before the First Kiss runs with this theme and then some, exploring the Underworld aesthetic (vinyl repressing in the stores now, kids) now that we’re all older (and, theoretically, wiser, too). Personally, I think he’s nailed it. Thanks, CC.
“It sounds like a soundtrack that’s been mixed for a particularly competent late-evening E14 stalker and rapist.”
Probably the strangest and most disturbing description of an LP I have ever heard in my puff but these were the words of the owner of a record shop I worked in many years ago. It was located on Byres Road in Glasgow. And it is now a print cartridge shop. That probably tells its own sad story.
The day I started work at Music Mania was the day this particular slab of vinyl was released – on Monday January 24th, 1994. It wasn’t yesterday, that’s for sure, and it does show and tell. But more of that later. Patience.
It had an odd name that demanded your attention – Dubnobasswithmyheadman (Junior Boy’s Own, 1994) – and an interesting multi-visual, black and white cover (designed by Tomato). Now, to be sure, it wasn’t as immediately arresting as the ‘pulses’ of Unknown Pleasures but you couldn’t ignore it either. It asked you to sneak inside, look beneath the fold. In the chaos there was beauty; type and image smudged, layered, beaten. A dirty window to look out of.
The band, Underworld (MK2), were not new but not old. Line-up changes and dalliances abounded. It was a cut and paste time where fluidity, production and oscillators were the name of the game. But that didn’t mean you couldn’t bring an acoustic guitar to the multi-disciplinary party
It was the first LP we put on the shop stereo that cold January morning, back in 1994, and within 17 seconds we knew it was going to sell. And sell. And sell. The volume went up and heads nodded. Treble and bass were adjusted in equal measure. There had been a fair amount of hype around this release and, for a guy who adored Nanci Griffith, even the owner of the shop could see the appeal. True, this was mostly in terms of the attached £££ signs (sales) but, you know, whatever. It was an LP to define the times.
‘What a laugh, you was done up there mate’ – the opening track is one of the few on the LP that doesn’t feel twenty years old. Dark & Long is probably the most established, long-term resident, of E14. It’s still impossible to listen to this introductory 7 minutes and 36 seconds of music without nodding your head and wishing for a lonely autobahn. Or perhaps just better drugs. It skulks and, well, stalks. It sets a path. And you have to follow…
But… as it was or how it is now? To reassess or take it as it used to be? This is the issue you can’t ignore when revisiting previous output in the name of a cumbersome anniversary. Twenty years ago I only ever played this record in the shop or on a tape I’d made (from the vinyl source) on my Sony Walkman. And that was a lifetime ago. I mean, my first child hadn’t even been born at this point. And remembering a time without children is an almost impossible task.
The truth is this: Dubnobasswithmyheadman has dated. And, my point would be, if I actually have one to make here, is this: by definition this is not always a bad thing. Some records need a ‘lock’ on a specific time and place; a geography and space to bed into a culture and movement. Ground Zero. In the same way that describing a record as ‘one-dimensional’ (for example, No One Can Ever Know by The Twilight Sad) can be deemed to be a point of view and a perspective, not a criticism or a well-aimed dig in the ribs. Some of the best LPs I own are ‘one-dimensional’, not least the aforementioned Unknown Pleasures. It works because of the focus, clarity and singular identity.
And so, I’m listening to this imaginary record by Underworld as I type these lost words – and Mmm skyscraper I love you has drifted less than seamlessly into Surfboy – and this is where the past becomes confused with present. The ‘beats and groove’ (I apologise) take me to Edinburgh, not Glasgow. It is miles away from E14 and even the place this music comes from. I’m no longer working in the shop but rather lost in a building I once called home as a student nearly twenty five years ago. Confusingly, a time from before the record was even released. This is what music can do to you. It can fuck with your head. And your heart.
Surfboy rather loses me until the last two minutes and a finale coda that, ironically, rises and falls away. And then it rises again with show-off electronic handclaps and blind stabs at a keyboard being played in near darkness. A forgotten time, a place with no name; it’s a tent in the Malvern Hills… and you say…
‘World… Tuesday….’ And then you jump slightly at the ghostly, metallic shrill that opens Spoonman. Who is this person? A commuter scribbling maddening notes documenting fast-moving scenery. A Shinkansen soul; a detached observer, distanced by memory with any sense of compassion or understanding. Watched you cry / Watched you fly / Watched you die… And the notes make little sense to anyone else but the author; a collection of words detailing nothing about everything. From a ‘peeled onion sheep’ to ‘gold diggers in kissboots’. It works on different levels; situationism and surrealism in a goodwill battle to hold their promise of fulfilment and enlightenment. You make still-pictures in your mobile mind and proceed. That’s the point. That’s always the point, I suppose.
And then… that sound hits you. The whirly pipes; a sound emanating from a child’s disposable seaside or fairground toy, once owned by Steve Lillywhite it seems. You remember it from Monkeyland by The Chameleons. They came from Middleton you know. Tongue is a Byrdsesque chords-by-numbers, early-morning comedown. A gate in need of an oil-fix opens and closes, footsteps are heard through the undergrowth. The spirit of Martin Hannett looms large. ‘Cut me to open’ is a plea for release, escape… and it fades as smoothly as it began. For me, this is the track of the LP. I come back for more and am never disappointed.
Atmospheric keys over an up-tempo riff. It’s a short, sharp dive into a sea of urban confusion. Moving on; it’s a hop, skip and jump from E14 to EC4. Turning left into Farringdon Street, down the A201, to a Dirty Epic entanglement that promises a ‘new religion’ and ‘phone sex’ – and all with ‘whiplash Willy’ as your accompanying ‘motor psycho’. It’s a forgettable journey that makes you truly realise the drugs don’t work. Not now, at least. Switch to ‘Channel 6’ and…
‘Everything…’ and by track 7 you realise this LP really does have a couple of decades on you. You can almost smell the body odour of an illicit rave; touch the lurid yellow glowsticks that were abandoned by the emptying car park at dawn. The taste of weak warehouse drugs haunt your overtime nostrils and (nil by) mouth and you know, for certain, tomorrow will be your last. ‘Everything…’ this track is almost unlistenable now, in 2014. It’s an example of what happens when history goes bad. ‘I scream, I scream, I scream so much…’ It’s a re-enactment that lacks any sense of taste, authenticity or politeness; overstaying a beleaguered welcome at a party (people) by at least 24 hours. ‘Cowgirl’, quite frankly, is appalling. You really need to skip this track (unless you are keen to relive a past that needs to be desperately buried). ‘An eraser of love…’
Another journey; another passenger (in time)… a staggered movement ‘from Chelsea to Essex’ in search of a needle… ‘release’. The metaphors are growing stale and tired and any symbolism is just a soaked beer mat at closing time waiting for recycling day. Pulp and mush, mate, pulp and mush. ‘River of Bass’ ebbs without any flow and patterns are staggering like a long-lost Uncle at his own poorly-attended funeral. Just lie down and be done with it. Relax and inhale. We have quality bean bags, you know. There’s a light show with a 60’s feel; all vibration but without shape. Shadows form and hover but ultimately lead nowhere; no Sunday garden path to follow.
And so… it’s the last stop, we’re back in E14 – a ‘beautiful destination’. And, ironically, you don’t want to get off. We end on a (healing) high that condones all previous deaths and entrances. The ‘hit’; 89 seconds in, bass and drums collide, a mixture of languages you don’t understand that surely, hopefully, mean something quite profound. M.E. plots a course to an ideology of embracement. It’s a one big ‘green’ love, for a dying planet Earth, searching for ‘the spirit of the world’. Alongside Tongue and Dark & Long, this closing track still means something to me. It reminds me of the person I once was; the life I used to live some twenty years ago.
Ah yes, the odious ‘joys’ of nostalgia and anniversaries. We need a lot less of them. Don’t you think? Twenty years to E14. Time to get off.
Underworld / Dark & Long