The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Low Culture

Organic Intelligence III: Wonky Techno
Joe Muggs , November 25th, 2021 16:48

The Low Culture Organic Intelligence playlist is back, this time with dance controller Joe Muggs repping hard for the Brighton sound or wonky techno

DJ Rush

We’re not luddites, we just feel you deserve better than some unsatisfying algorithmical advice when it comes to music. This is the third edition of our new Low Culture subscriber’s newsletter, Organic Intelligence, which features tQ’s favourite people taking a deep dive into their record collections to offer you DJ bag gold, Discogs bargains and all-back-to-mine nuggets. This month Joe Muggs unearths five gems from the world of wonky techno. You can listen to (an alternative mix of) this Organic Intelligence playlist on Spotify, Apple and Tidal (and remember that all your monthly playlists, as well as your exclusive essays, can be found on the Low Culture Quietus page). To get access to the Organic Intelligence newsletter, you need to sign up to our subscriber system via the Steady checkout below.

Listen to the modified wonky techno playlist on Spotify, Apple and Tidal (and remember that all your monthly playlists, as well as your exclusive essays, can be found on the Low Culture Quietus page here).

Genre names are the strangest thing. Whoever would’ve thought, after all, that party hosts coaxing dancers with “a hip-hop, a hibbit, hibby-dibby” would create a name that would dominate global culture almost half a century later? Now, OK, sure, “wonky techno” is no hip hop in terms of popularity to say the very least. But it’s still funny to think of a single, simple, silly moment, some time in the mid-late 90s – the DJ and record dealer Jerome Hill scribbling the word “WONKY” onto a card divider in the vinyl racks of Dragon Discs to delineate a particular sound that people asked for – reverberating through the decades since.

“Wonky techno” – also known as “the Brighton sound” even though almost none of its creators lived in Brighton and there was no audience for it there – was, and is, hilarious. It’s ultra high tech, but also punky, grotty and gritty. Jerome Hill was, after all, a squat rave DJ above all, Dragon Discs was founded by a member of Gaye Bykers on Acid, wonky mainstay Mark Hawkins learned his DJ craft living on a bus in a quarry in North Wales... Obviously these days we’re a little more careful with mental health terminology, but at the time of its genesis it was made very clear that this was music by and for headcases. Yes, it’s blokey, but not in the way that over-serious noisey forms can be: all machismo in its pounding is undermined by the funny, rubbery, funky brilliance of its endless invention; all the not inconsiderable intellect that goes into its creation hidden behind sonic fart jokes. Think a rave equivalent to Nomeansno or the Butthole Surfers, maybe?

There was some crossover into the international clubbing mainstream. The biggest names in the scene, Cristian Vogel, Neil Landstrumm, Si Begg, Dave Tarrida and co all had big followings in Germany – rivalling fellow brits like Surgeon and Regis – and all released on the heartland Berlin techno imprint Tresor (it’s a bit of a tragedy that their contribution got erased in Tresor’s otherwise glorious 30th anniversary box set this year, but such is politics). But really this was square-peg tackle, generally existing in small obsessive pockets in Poland, Finland, Scotland, Ukraine etc.

Wonky hit its creative peak in the early 00s, and in the UK became a vital part of the holiday camp weekender experience via Deadbeat Weekender then Bloc. But it’s never really gone away: even as its practitioners get deep into gnarled middle age, they’re still sweating it out at Jerome Hill’s Don’t events and similar, and younger weirdos are picking up these sounds through the likes of Helena Hauff and Nina Kraviz. And the old records still absolutely slam when heard loud in a dirty, sweaty cellar or warehouse with rattling windows: they still collapse funk, noise and delirium together in perfect unison, and kick down all false divisions between high and low, serious and silly, fine craft and cracked mania.

The sound’s spiritual parents are still going strong: Neil Landstrumm’s grimey Yell Yell mini LP, and Cristian Vogel’s very abstract 25th album... uh... The Rebirth Of Wonky are both among this year’s best in any genre. To celebrate the durability of these outsiders' outsiders, here’s a whistlestop tour of some misshapen gems from over the years.

DJ Rush - 'The Family (Mark Hawkins Remix)'

The no nonsense jacking repetitions of the second wave of Chicago house – see Relief Records circa 1994 – were always easily as important to wonky as the influence of Detroit techno. And here the link was made explicit, on the Dutch noisy techno mainstay DJAX-UP. Rush’s original was at maniacal speed, and unusually for this kind of music had an actual chord sequence. Hawkins slowed it, funked it up further, and kept the chord pattern, but replaced the hovering trancey pads with an archetypal wonky synth pattern. It’s simultaneously growl and banshee shriek, genuinely sounding like a demonic creature singing, and it will stick in your head forever.

TSR – 'The Art of Moving Butts'

Absolutely standard puerility here, by a bunch of Swedish rave freaks, from the smockan flyger på stinky EP, “released on a German Bratwurst”. Everything is distorted to hell on this, the beat shuffles like it’s got an unbearable itch (like a lot of this music, making it impossible for any but the most skilled or the most gung-ho DJ to mix with), the riff sounds more like some mid 80s Steve Albini guitar atrocity than any normal techno – yet somehow it is music for moving butts, it is irresistibly danceable.

Quick & Smart – 'Firewater'

The death of Volker Wiegand from skin cancer aged just 27 in 2008 was a huge blow to the underground techno community – his already impressive catalogue and incredible live sets were beloved of Those Who Knew, and he was still bubbling with promise. This late work, from the Phlokkerbrained EP on Jerome Hill’s DON’T Recordings, is a perfect illustration of just how much finesse there often is in wonky gear. The fact that the sounds slip and slither allows the producers to do some remarkable polyrhythm (or is it polymeter? I can never remember... complicated stuff, anyway) without ever compromising the gut level impact of the sounds. It’s intensely psychedelic, it crackles with wit and intelligence, but it still slams.

Michael Forshaw – 'Acid LOL (live)'

Michael Forshaw, a rave minotaur from Blackpool, tends to play maniacal mashups of breakbeat rave, has been known to incorporate horrible brostep and grime into his DJing, and his live sets have seen him described (by me) as “the Hendrix of the Nintendo DS”. This track is a panic attack in audio form, an absolutely vicious combination of balloon-rubbing, car alarm and howler monkey orgy all synced to a gabber style kick, and it will make you want to rip your top off and roar until your voice gives out.

Ben Pest – 'Tilt Lock'

Wonky is still very, very much alive and nobody has done more to make sure of that than Trevor Wilkes from Hamilton, Ontario. He’s separated from the European heartland of wonk by a long distance, but his Bleep Radio show has become a beacon for the sound. To celebrate its 500th edition, this year he decided to put out a typically quixotic quadruple vinyl compilation, that is end to end sweaty fun. This track by the ultra-prolific Bristol resident Ben Pest is as much proof as you could need of the viability of the sound. Pest is a highly skilled mixing engineer, and if you are a sound nerd you’ll be able to grasp the ridiculous complexity and careful balance of what he’s doing here but if you’re not, you’ll just feel the adrenalised impetus of the growling sub-bass and the ever more exciting impact of each element piling on. It’s the absolute opposite of tasteful “business techno”, and over a soundsystem it’s endlessly, unfakeably, diabolically joyous.