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Graham Massey On 808 State's Blueprint
The Quietus , December 4th, 2011 08:17

Graham Massey returns to write us another fantastic piece, this time an overview of tracks from the new 808 State anthology, Blueprint with photos taken from his own archive

The initial suggestion was to do another 808 State Greatest Hits package but, seeing that we had not really done any new music under the name since the last one, 808:88:98, I thought we could use the opportunity to give a more complete overview of 808's catalogue, and to add some exclusive mixes and archive rarities from outside the ZTT years. Blueprint is an attempt to tell a fuller story, though I found it proved difficult even in 80 minutes.

You could never design a band like 808 State. It was a curate's egg formed by disparate, Dickensian characters exploiting a brief window of opportunity and optimism in a broken, post-industrial, no-hope town. We made it up as we went along. There was no need for outside approval for what we saw in 'our' clubs, heard on 'our' radio show and sold in 'our' shop. We ran and ran, waiting to be stopped. Well that's one view...

Another view might be a bunch of innocents left with a gift of technology, some imagination and no boundaries while outside awaits a mob, waiting and willing to dance without question to the results.

One thing's for sure, we were equipped and ready at the right place at the right time. And if we say the word “Manchester” a lot its because we know self-empowerment through new music and technology changed our city, dissolving many social divisions and opening us up to the wider world.

Flow Coma (AFX remix) by Aphex Twin

'Flowcoma' dates back to 1988 and the Newbuild album. State 808 (with A Guy Called Gerald, Martin Price and myself) recorded a two-day acid jam with cheap, outdated electronic equipment. Initially forgotten in the rush of rave culture and originally released on Price’s Creed label, it was later lovingly remastered by Rephlex Records as a triple-vinyl pack in 1998. A series of remixes were commissioned at this time by Gerald, Martin and the current 808 team, none of which saw the light of day apart from the AFX mix released as a simple white label called '2 Remixes by AFX'.

Pacific State — Origin

This is the first version off the Quadrastate album. I have edited off some of the extended ambient outro, i.e. the bit The KLF used on their Chill Out album. Extended beginnings and ends were quite normal in DJ settings. We completely redid the tune for radio and the 808:90 album. I still like some of the versions Tommy Boy commissioned for the New York clubs.

People often ask if I get fed up of having to perform 'Pacific'. Well the deal is I can keep playing it but you're going to have to go with the more extended improvising. It has turned in to a jazz odyssey of late and I’ve lost track of the amount of different mixes we've done, let alone other people. I usually hate the ones that try and play the melody on a keyboard. And its not a clarinet its a soprano sax.

In Yer Face — Revisited

This is the version of 'In Yer Face' that we've been playing live recently. A complete re-recording. I have a precious memory of hearing this track over a roofer's radio (the ones that are always covered in paint) and the workman whistling along in a Bernard Cribbins style, thinking how that it had passed the old grey whistle test via a very indirect route. Because of course we designed it as a daytime radio 7 inch jukebox smash with a singalong chorus. (Not.)

Cubik — Remix By Monkey Mafia

This has become the version of Cubik I keep in my DJ box. It's by Jon Carter and was commissioned around the time of 808:88:98. I know 808 DJs Darren and Andrew go for the Victor Calderone version from '98. I love Monkey Mafia’s soundsystem vibe and the lightness provide by the additional samples. It's true that people used to ask for Cubik in record stores by grunting the riff. Nice that Jon included the myth in this mix.

When I hear the original mix of Cubik the drums strike me as being very odd. I only recently realised that it's the same drum machine pattern that we used on 'The Only Rhyme That Bites' (with MC Tunes). I think that came first. I also spotted that I used it on a Shamen remix – 'Human Energy' – that I did in '89. The three-legged horse beat. Number 89 on my R8 machine.

Can't believe we got all that shredding on the radio - it's demented. And I cant believe it's not on Guitar Hero – it's a classic A/B riff combo that came about through use of a MIDI guitar controller playing a stack of synthesizers. I'm very proud of that riff, they don’t come along everyday... So eu- eu- eu eu eugh!

Timebomb — 808 Tape Mix

You have to bake the old 24-track 2-inch master tapes in a low oven for 24 hours, otherwise the oxide coating comes off. Then you can transfer the separate instrumental tracks to your computer. This version of 'Timebomb' is new and a reconstruction from baked tape.

Released as a single during the first Gulf War, it was banned by the BBC for having the word Bomb in it. Remember when Massive Attack became just “Massive” for the same reason?

It has become a lot easier to revitalise drum breaks with modern software and I would say that the main difference is in the drum clarity. All the analogue synthesis, tape compression and expensive circuitry warmth of the AMEK recording desk remains. The one thing that strikes me about revisiting old two inch tapes is that they sound as expensive as the cash we burned back then. Each track would come in at least £1500 in studio time even if you didn't ponder or waver, and on top of that we often went into the studio with nothing pre-written. You had to focus. I'm not sure I could do that sustained intensity now. I can't even listen to some tracks – too much baggage from crippling all-nighters. Synth fans should check out the Oberheim 4 voice in what I call the “Ron Goodwin” riff. You could knock your head off with that thing. We got a modification built on our Oberheim 4 whereby you can lock all eight oscillators into a big mono synth. The death ray.

Cobra Bora — Revisited

This is a version we've been performing live but has never previously been released. The first version of 'Cobra Bora' was a 30-second postage stamp of a track on the end of the 'Pacific' 12”. I'm never sure why we did things like, that its part of album culture I guess - "don't waste any running time". Cassette culture too - "blank tape – never!" After that 'trailer', we extended it into an epic for the 808:90 album.

It has one drum machine playing 6/8 against another keeping the 4/4 rhythm, plus some ridiculously extended bar lines in odd meters running on the SH-101 synths that are not random but just too long to remember. I remember thinking someone should stop me doing all this Jan Hammer pitch bending stuff at the end but often old skills were egged on rather than curtailed by the younger 808ers. Jon Da Silva used to drop this at the Hacienda and people would fall over. Though I believe Adamski has made some headway with waltz raves recently - I have one of his comps in the car.

Olympic — Word Production Mix

'Olympic' had a strange life. Commissioned by the Manchester Olympic 2000 bid team as a theme for their campaign, it was released as a double A-side single in the UK along with 'Cubik' (7”, 12”, cassette and CD) back in 1990. 'Olympic' was then used as the theme music to the weekly shock TV magazine/music program The Word on Channel 4. We recorded this version for the second series based on the original 2-inch tapes but using a digital editing system known as Audio File, a precursor of ProTools that cost as much as a house back then in the dawn of digital. The DAT for this one contained many stings and versions and I have done an edit here to make it work as a piece. You can download various free Olympic ringtones from our site. Darren was often our voice-over man and it's him that provided the “The Word” sting. Actually MC Tunes used to do some voice-over jobs for Granada TV with his special Benson and Hedges throat when they needed a bit of rough.

Nimbus — Revisited

This is a tape bake version, again to brighten up the breaks with out loosing the warmth of the wall of analogue desk and synths. We had purchased a piece of equipment by this stage called a 'Cyclone Arpeggiator'. I think we only used it once for this track so we had a stack of synths swirling in unison in a Ron Goodwin vein.

Ron Goodwin composed many famous war movie themes. I guess you could say he was one of our influences and it was noticeable how much of our music was picked up for usage during the first Gulf War, not only by CNN to soundtrack Scud drama but also by British tank crews who use Apocalypse Now - style sound systems, 'The Only Rhyme That Bytes' being one of their favorites.

It occurs to me we've left of a number of hits off this, our Greatest Hits package, mainly because they are covered by the previous compilation, 808:88:98.


From the album Ex:El, its one of my personal favorites. It's a good example of our working method back then which was to throw audio paint at the wall and then carve out shapes with eight hands on the mixing desk, record that and then edit it. Lush textural exotica with biblical epic melodies, seeds of electronica and jungle landscapes.

Firecracker — Edit

I had to shave a few minutes from Blueprint here and there as we originally planned it as a double CD. But I think 'Firecracker' benefits from less repetition. Taken from Quadrastate (1989) when everything was tape and if you needed to edit a desk performance you got out your china-graph pencil and a razor blade, so one was perhaps more willing to let things pan out a bit longer than needed.

The weird crash ending was a result of some damaged time code on the 1-inch 16 track tape. We were using the Atari 1040 computer for the 1st time and it couldn't track the code and so jerked the drum machines around giving rise to the firework ending and title.

Plan 9 — Radio Edit By Trevor Horn

Trevor Horn, who ran ZTT with his wife Jill Sinclair, was always interested in what we were doing and although we recorded a number of things in his Sarm Studios more often than not we were up North around Manchester, Oldham, Bury, Sheffield and Liverpool recording at the time at some very fine studios.

Trevor came in the studio with us a couple of times but was perplexed by our messy recording practice and jazz-hand mixing techniques. He was always very encouraging and had a lot of advise about the perfect Radio Edit. He would often take our sprawling epics and get busy with his blade. This is an unreleased version of 'Plan 9' from the album Gorgeous that was a Radio One exclusive.

Lopez — radio Mix By Brian Eno, Featuring James Dean Bradfield

'Lopez' started out as a guitar instrumental for the album Don Solaris. We were recording in Tears for Fears' old studio near Bath and up the road the Manics were recording at Real World. We had a mate in common and collaboration occurred with Nicky Wire writing some lyrics and then later on we recorded James Dean Bradfield’s vocals at Sarm Studios.

I think we all thought it had a special atmosphere though it was unconventional as a song even for us. Eno got to hear it through Paul Morley who was back working for ZTT at that point. I wish he had been there at other times as he was instrumental in signing us to the label but left just after we joined.

In this mix, Eno practically re-recorded the backing tracks using some of his musicians, only the vocals remain from our version. There was some serendipity to this situation as I had his 'country music in space' concept going on at its inception and always a bit of a Bob Fripp in my guitar concept.

Lemonsoul — Featuring Guy Garvey

We left ZTT in 1997 when the label left Warner Brothers. Contracts had been fulfilled and we perhaps thought we should try new things. We did however continue on some projects with ZTT such as Optibuk (a video compilation with a CD of new material added called State To State 2) and 808:88:98, singles compilation with some extra new mixes.

Outpust Transmission is something of a lost album and the reason we sort of gave up in 2002. With the best intentions and good faith we set about the project with a label called Circus but the relationship broke down shortly after the record was released. It's a common story, and now I can see through the red mist. I look back on that period at the turn of the century as a very creative time. Especially in Manchester where there was a great deal of cross musical activity happening in what is now known as the Northern Quarter. Places like Night and Day Cafe, Band on the Wall and Roadhouse were all kicking off and it's reflected in Outpost and its collaborations.

Elbow have, of course, been going almost as long as The State. Our Venn diagrams cross through various people so we invited Guy to contribute not only because of the quality of his lyrics but also his openness to experimentation. Check all the weird background singing through live fx he's doing, he's a sonically conscious singer.

Qmart—featuring Björk

Back to the ex:el album and 1990. Bjork met us while we were performing 'Tunes Splits The Atom' on The Word. She brought along a ghetto blaster with a cassette of some of the material that later became Debut. Things like 'Anchor Song', 'Airplane' and 'Violently Happy'. There wasn't any singing on them and they were played by a brass quartet of sax, trumpet, trombone.

Simply on intuition we invited her to stay on for a few days and try out something else for our album. We met up a few days later in Manchester and 'Qmart' was the first thing we recorded almost as a warm up. The instrumental already existed and Bjork just stepped up and improvised. We used the first take, though I think there's another on tape.

We were using a new Sony Digital multitrack. It's pretty hard to go back to, though a working one may exist somewhere on Earth. I do remember hairs on the back of my neck standing up, something she still can induce in me some 20 years later when I witnessed her resent Biophilia shows here in Manchester.

I was stood at the final concert with Mark Bell from LFO. (It's odd how she found us northern needles in that haystack.) We would occasionally grunt at each other as we exchanged shifts at Sheffield’s FON Studios back in the early 90s. There's a smell of someone else's all night session – electricity, cigs and armpits. Very northern! 808 and LFO were both on Tommy Boy Records in the U.S. I think eventually we had a messy night out in a Sheffield night club but mostly techno bands never spoke to each other as a rule. Hermetically sealed units as we were.

606 — Revisited, Featuring Simian

Zoom forward again to Outpost Transmissions in 2002. I met James Ford in an Oldham Street Jam Session one Saturday Night. He was playing drums. I had taken my Mini Moog and Sneaky from Fingerthing was playing Bass. We continued to do a lot of music together in my experimental band Toolshed and then we were both playing in Homelife with Paddy Steer.

This energy was added to the 808 State live situation when James became our live drummer. Previous drummer Mikey Wilson got too busy with The Dust Junkies (MC Tunes' band). Paddy also joined us for gigs on bass. James had started his own group Simian so it was a spontaneous collaboration when we worked on the track '606'.

Simon Lord is doing all the singing but it's arranged by Simian. I have remixed it for Blueprint as I always thought the original went a bit muddy with deliberate distortion. Simian of coarse went on to be Simian Mobile Disco.

Spanish Ice

I found this unused track on a DAT tape from 2003. I think we thought it was too Kraftwerky. We have a tradition of this elevator music-infused techno, which might include tracks like 'Lift', 'Nbambi', 'Revenge Of The Girly Men' and 'King Quill'. A big chunk of my record collecting is Easy Listening. The last thing I'd want to listen to would be more Techno when I come home. I was quite pleased that 808 were included in the recent BBC Four documentary about Easy Listening. Someone had picked up on that aspect.

Everyone always used to say you'd never get an instrumental in the charts, but they were always my favorites as a kid growing up in the 60s: The Shadows, Tornadoes, Cozy Powell. More power through mystery. I like to think of some of our stuff as a continuation of that genre. The instrumental pop single. We were still on 7” vinyl at that time and we knew the Manchester jukebox man who supplied the pubs. 'Take Lift' - an odd choice for a single but not next to 'Love's Theme' by Love Unlimited Orchestra which was a number one!

Metaluna/Compulsion — Revisited

'Metaluna' dates from 2003 where a much slower version had been licensed to Bluebell Records' Hear You Soon compilation. We revamped it this year for a live version at a brisker pace that went into various acid improv endings (we liked to stick in a cover like 'Nervous Acid'). Here a replayed version of 'Compulsion' from Newbuild appears to bring the compilation full circle.

808 State's Blueprint (“Greatest Bits”) is out now on ZTT/Salvo