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808 State
Album reissues John Doran , October 2nd, 2008 17:02




Don Solaris

It is tempting to buy into the notion of Mancunian music as being like some kind of slovenly, parka-clad relay race. Sulky team Joy Division put in the groundwork for team Smiths who prance all the way to team Stone Roses who sullenly hand the baton directly to team Oasis who slouch off towards the finish line with a knock-kneed gait that suggests they've just crimped a turd off in their Joe Bloggs jeans. It's tempting, that is, if you've been watching one of those soul sappingly reductive documentaries on Channel 4. Because in reality, away from the self-aggrandizing and gleeful myth building encouraged by the likes of Tony Wilson, this linear model just doesn't bear any scrutiny. Now that these slack jawed rock-docs have become our main source of music information it has become immutable FACt that The Stone Roses came after Joy Division in the stretch of the Manc-graph marked 'Acid House', rather than being a pleasant beat combo with a penchant for early 70s funk who went to a nightclub a few times, and actually had little to do with the city's musical heritage.

Some notions of lineage hold true in Manchester, but these don't include the retro, Liverpudlian-model bands such as Oasis or Stone Roses. It applies more to the undeniable strain of avant garde influenced, futurist bands, at once grappling with the city's industrial heritage and the discofied express desire to get down. This leaves us with a very tangible link between not just Joy Division but many of their peers, such as A Certain Ratio and Madchester's true acid house heroes, 808 State.

It was perhaps inevitable that 808 State would be a contradictory and exciting beast pulling in all different directions, given the rag tag crew that initially made her up. Graham Massey provided the organic link to Factory's post punk funk, given that he came from the label's Biting Tongues collective. He was joined by synth player and producer Gerald Simpson, occasionally by the rambunctious rapper MC Tunes and the manager of Eastern Bloc Records Martin Price. (They would later be augmented by Darren Partington and Andrew Barker aka The Spinmasters, after Simpson left to find success on his own as A Guy Called Gerald.) They provided a much more convincing picture of what was happening in clubs like the Hacienda, Thunderdome and Konspiracy. And much more importantly Price, Massey and Gerald had Balearic tastes that their peers in 'baggy' bands patently lacked. These influences ran as deep as the jazz fusion of Weather Report and Bitches Brew Miles Davis as well as Krautrock. (To be fair we should exclude the Happy Mondays from the list of identikit indie bands here. The spirit of their career pre-1990, raw and unremixed, can be summoned up by listening to acid rock, 'Halleluwah' by Can and a healthy dose of house.) It should be said here that I'm using Balearic in its original DJing sense as in eclectic and refreshing lack of style-based prejudice rather than some spurious island-based sub genre of house.

By 1990 they'd already had two albums out (Newbuild and Quadrastate) and Simpson contributed heavily to 'Pacific State' before leaving to have a hit with 'Voodoo Ray'. But the band's genesis in post punk is still obvious. The woodwind, bird call ambience of 'Pacific State' is only a hop and a skip away from the north face of 'Force', A Certain Ratio's last album, which practically sounds like a half empty Hacienda waiting to explode. The song (included here in its '202' and 'Britmix' guises) was borne out of an attempt to recreate the vibe of 50s exotica or Tiki music and apply it to acid house. This Polynesian vibe turns up a various points in 808 State's career and is more fully explored on 'Sunrise'. Their use of ACR's jazz funk, fusion and a nomadic way with various world forms saw a few compare them to Fourth World funkateers John Hassell or Eno and Byrne on their My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts album and spiritually at least, to Miles Davis. (Perhaps the nod is contained in tracks 'Spanish Marching' and 'Spanish Heart'.)

Price and Massey themselves would have rejected the notion that they were spiritual heirs to Joy Division though. They attacked with equal vehemence the idea that there was any continuity between the punks or hippies and acid house. They saw their cut and paste ethic as a Ballardian reflection of "the end of society". And when you listen to the hectic nature of '808080808' you can still feel the fracture with what had gone before sharply. As they told Simon Reynolds at the time: "Nobody wants to see a load of idiots torturing themselves on stage with guitars any more. This is about machines, punk was about arm power. The muscles and sinews in dance music are when you're sweating your bollocks off on the dance floor."

On _90_ 'Magical Dream' incorporates an icing sugar keyboard riff and heavily processed woodwind over an insistent house beat and 'Anacodia' is all ruffian electro, hip hop scratching, avant funk and techno. Still Manchester was refusing to listen to the diktats emerging from clubland in London; the northern city had the common sense to ignore the rules being laid down about what would and wouldn't wash under the genre tag of house. They wouldn't have made sense in the context of the capital and perhaps this is why they refused to sign to London - the label that eventually bought out Factory, who they also refused to sign with. ZTT, it seemed, were more in line with their vision of a truly eclectic dance music. The literally bonkers sounding 'Donkey Doctor' was leant on by The Shamen for their dreadful 'Ebenezer Goode' but elsewhere 808 have survived the aging process surprisingly intact.

The second of the ZTT albums ex:el is one of the best dance albums recorded; in the context of house music sitting alongside Frequencies by LFO and Leftism by Lefftfield. This isn't to say it didn't set up a few tropes we could have done without such as the indie/rave crossover single. Even though 'Spanish Heart', featuring Bernard Sumner, sounds better now than it did at the time it certainly also sounds like the blueprint for The Chemical Brothers' less inspired but commercially successful duets with Noel Gallagher or Kele Okereke. This said, the debt that the duo obviously owe 808 State can't be stated enough. Tracks such as 'Leo Leo' featuring huge breakbeats, hectic techno bass pulses and ecstasy rush-triggering walls of noise, would have been big on the club circuit when they were history students in the city. The one collaboration that worked well was with Bjork who adds her otherworldly warble to 'Ooops' and 'Qmart', making a necessary and pleasant counterbalance to the dark technofied strata of 'Nephatiti'. Despite it's name this track isn't so much an exercise in Egyptology as Ancoatsology, with its moody 3am sub bass and terrifyingly urban cyber acid breaks. This habit of peppering the 'intelligent' world fusion with slabs of heavy down home acid worked extremely well and the lounge futurism of 'Lift' made a surprisingly good bedfellow for tracks like 'Cubik', a remorseless reaction to the Belgian techno of Rhythm Device's 'Acid Rock'.

After ex:el Price left this most unusual of groups for the most usual of reasons: musical differences. The band came close to calling it a day but a tour of the far east revitalized them and they recorded Gorgeous as a three piece. The album reflects house culture's magpie tendencies and raw proto-mash up state. 'Contrique' reflects rave's tendency to eat itself by featuring a big bass lift from Joy Division's 'She's Lost Control'. But it seemed like the band had settled into a formulaic approach to structuring albums. It opens with the bridging track that acted as a link to the album before ('Plan 9') and then breaks out the big indie guest - this time Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch ('Moses') but at this stage Mac was washed up and his inclusion is incongruous, to put it politely. And this is before we get to the oddity of 'One In Ten' featuring UB40. This again is a proto-mash up, which had been an unlikely hit hence securing it a place on the album. To be fair, this slice of proto-jungle is hardly as bad as it could have been but also still a far cry from what A Guy Called Gerald was achieving elsewhere. Better is their happy clappy bootleg of The Beatles vs The Jam which had all of the samples removed to leave a seratonin pumping slice of gospel house in its place. Thankfully they hadn't entirely turned their backs on the hardcore assault, and tracks like 'In Yer Face' and 'Timebomb' spoke of a band occasionally still catering for those wishing to have it large.

If the quality control had slackened somewhat then the productivity had grown exponentially. The second disc of Gorgeous is perhaps the most interesting, with plenty of proto-jungle and tribal house stompers. The pan global 'Bombardin' and the evil analogue burble of 'Insane Lover' proved that when they didn't over think everything they were still on fire.

They took a break of about three years before releasing Don Solaris and given that the hyper-accelerated world of dance ages in dog years, this was perhaps too long. Commercially they saw a host of bands that they inspired (The Chemical Brothers, Underworld) overtake them while they regrouped and rethought their game plan. A whole album's worth of material was scrapped and it's a fair guess (given the 12" material they had been working on in the intervening years) that the abandoned tracks had more than a nodding acquaintance with drum and bass. Now this would have been seen as a bold move if they had come up with something forward looking in its place but very few would claim that Don Solaris is satisfying in the way that ex:el is. Too much of this album (i.e. some rather than absolutely none) if full of execrable second wave trip hop, polite and soulless jazzy blunted vibes and tracks like 'Azura' featuring Louise Rhodes from Lamb did little to distance the band away from the bilge being pumped out by Olive, Sneaker Pimps and the like.

Worse tracks such as 'Joyrider' are abysmally over accomplished world jazz with meandering live sax solos and kalimba. In short, it has little to do with the adrenalizing experience suggested by the title and is just more Cafe Del Mar coffee table trance guff. To be fair James Dean Bradfield's appearance on 'Lopez' is of a much higher calibre. Perhaps it being released amongst the pressure and the expectation of Everything Must Go, it's not amazingly well remembered but it was a top 20 hit and showcases one of the most consistently underrated rock vocalists of the last 20 years breaking free of the constraints and associations of the day job. (Well, partially; Nicky Wire wrote the lyrics for him.) The song calls to mind one of the sublime moments from Brian Eno's Another Green World, so perhaps it's not surprising that the ambient music pioneer remixed the track to great effect.

But we get as far as the eighth track before we hit the problematic shift in the fundamentals of dance that had occurred since the last album: jungle. 'Balboa' is a satisfying enough effort, all Korg Prophecy acid farts and chopped up Lalo Schifren chase breaks but they can't help but gild the lily and it ends up being one of those 16:9 ratio widescreen tracks like 'Bang On' by Propellorheads rather than something Pascal and Hype would have dreamt up. The name itself should give you an idea of the well oiled, Hollywood, overwrought musculature on offer.

Perhaps it's better to stick to the bonus disc of 12" tracks which show that even in their mature phase, 808 State could still be a band not to fuck with.

Read our review of A Guy Called Gerald's 'Black Secret Technology' here.