Three Decades On: One Thousand Years Of Trouble By Age Of Chance

Angus Batey revisits an unfairly overlooked album in the history of cut and paste music

The "great lost albums" file is hefty and bulging, but there are very few LPs where one can almost conclusively prove that the reason it wasn’t a big seller was because it arrived at a sound or a style that no audience was ready for. One such is One Thousand Years Of Trouble, the debut by Leeds four-piece the Age Of Chance, which is a record you feel could have changed the course of pop music history if only it hadn’t been quite so far ahead of its time.

Even the background story to the record illustrates some of the ways the group were racing ahead of numerous different sonic curves. Their first two singles, released initially as 7" 45s on the band’s own Riot Bible label in 1985, had been clattering yowls of percussion-heavy post-punk, ‘Motor City’ a kind-of backhanded homage to their home town, ‘Bible Of The Beats’ based around Jan P’s Motown-style tambourine-and-snare-on-every-down-beat rhythm with the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor. There were kindred spirits out there at the time, others influenced by The Fall, Gang of Four or the Fire Engines, even a few bands the Age Of Chance had something in common with: Big Flame, perhaps. But they found themselves lumped in with the C86 crowd, and jangle was never what AOC were about.

Recording a session for John Peel in 1986, the band decided to cover Prince’s ‘Kiss’, then still riding high in the pop charts – a move inspired by the Fire Engines, who had covered Heaven 17 in a Peel session earlier in the decade. ‘1999’ had been up for consideration, but the band had heard that Big Audio Dynamite were doing a version of it in their live sets, so "the other Prince track" got the nod.

Daringly, they didn’t just reconfigure the lighter-than-air original to fit their pugilistic style – incorporating a drum pattern inspired by LL Cool J’s ‘(I Can’t Live Without My) Radio’, and stabs of guitar, heavy and loud but clipped, informed by Rick Rubin’s production – they also wrote new lyrics to help bring the song into their world: "You don’t have to be Prince if you want to dance/ You just have to get down with the Age Of Chance," sang/rapped Steven E. "We wrote a new song, pretty much, around the original," guitarist Neil H told me in a 2009 interview, before Geoff T added: "We basically removed the sex, and replaced it with lump hammers."

The song became instantly notorious and was the obvious choice for their next single, released in late ’86 on the Sheffield-based FON label, founded by industrial/noise/funk artists Chakk with what was left over from their major-label advance after they’d used the rest to open their own studio. AOC got to make a video for ‘Kiss’, by which time an image had been not just created but refined and solidified. Gone were the sensible (if garish) shirts and conventional instruments they’d used in early TV appearances: now the group wore cycling gear in bright colours with unfamiliar (to British eyes) and enigmatic brand names plastered artfully over it and used instruments that looked like they came from a distant future in which music was made by machines. (In fact, the guitars were from the 1970s – Burns Flytes, designed to echo Concord and thus be synonymous with supersonic aviation, even if the result did just look like two Gibson Flying Vs smashed together – and had been used by T-Rex and Slade: but, like the music AOC would go on to make with them, their ability to always appear to come from just a little bit ahead of wherever the fan happens to be is remarkable.)

The record sleeve, created by a new studio called Designers Republic, used a stylised version of the eye-in-a-star logo created for the first single and was rooted in the cut-and-paste style of the two 7" sleeves, but passed through an additional filter of current iconography from American dance music (the band had given DR a copy of a recent Trouble Funk LP which riffed on flag designs and repeated bomb motifs, and told them they wanted their record to look a bit like that). Echoing the lists of corporate centres large brands place on their letterheads, AoC used place names like slogans as a way of showing where their sound was inspirationally rooted: their record may not have had a lot in common with the dominant street sounds of Leeds, Detroit, Berlin or New York, but their desire to inaugurate a kind of cosmopolitan industrialism was made abundantly clear. They even came up with slogans that described what they were doing: "Crush Collision", "Sonic Metal Disco". Nobody in British pop – never mind British post-punk – took things this far. The single topped the independent charts and scraped the outside of the mainstream Top 40. So far, so (very) good.

With ‘Kiss’ about to come out, the group considered signing a publishing deal. They played a gig in Cardiff and afterwards, Damien O’Neill, formerly of the Undertones but then in That Petrol Emotion, came backstage to say he was a fan and to talk for a while. Conversation turned to the imminent publishing deal, and when Age Of Chance mentioned that they didn’t have a manager, O’Neill offered to introduce the band to TPE’s manager, Andy Ferguson. Ferguson in turn recommended the group go to see a lawyer.

"We went to see this lawyer," Neil recalled, "and he’s got gold discs everywhere. We gave him the publishing contract we’d been asked to sign, he looked at it, and went: ‘Shall I show you what I think about this?’ And he tore it in half. He said, ‘Go grab a bite to eat and come back in an hour.’ We came back in an hour, and he says: ‘Right, sit down. See this bit of paper here? There’s 11 names on it. These are 11 record companies, and every one of these record companies wants to sign you, immediately. Who do you fancy signing with?’ And we were speechless. We had no idea there was any awareness of us, and anything that we’d done, beyond the odd review." The deal they eventually signed with Virgin earned the band a £100,000 advance, and – unusually – saw them dealing directly with the head of the label rather than an A&R executive; it was also around the time Virgin was setting up an American arm, and the deal was for worldwide releases. The effect on the band – at that point, Neil didn’t even own his own guitar amp – was liberating.

The next step was another masterstroke. The band created a cut-and-paste remix of their version of ‘Kiss’, which they pressed a few white-label copies of and sent out to DJs and media. The ‘Kisspower’ mix was an instant word-of-mouth hit, its samples from Prince’s original, Run-DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’ and the MC5’s ‘Kick Out The Jams’ adding to the beat-heavy approach to pitch the track squarely into hip hop territory. Virgin baulked, the memorable advice being that Springsteen would sue because he had lots of money while the MC5 would sue because they didn’t. (Steven E recounts playing it to the head of Virgin America, "and when it went into the Bruce Springsteen bit he visibly blanched, then just kind of shook his head and said, ‘No.’")

Had it received more than a couple of plays from John Peel and some ecstatic write-ups in the music press, it’s likely the record would have had an impact every bit as profound as Coldcut’s ‘Say Kids, What Time Is It?’, which was made some time later. ("I’ve actually looked it up," Geoff T said with a wry smile. "Six months and two weeks. Not that I’m too bothered about it.") Yet, instead of writing its own new chapter, ‘Kisspower’ became a footnote to the cut-and-paste story – a record that belongs to a similar lineage but sits to one side of the timeline, the fact that it was heard (mainly) by fans of independent music rather than hip hop or dance aficionados compounded by the impossibility of obtaining it and the very limited means of even getting to hear it robbing it of any meaningful contribution to the dialogue between DJs and old records that Steinski, Coldcut, the JAMMs and others were then engaging in. It came from a similar place yet it inhabited a different world. (Chakk released their own remix of ‘Kiss’ – the Sonic Crush Symphony – which arrived after ‘Kisspower’ had been played by Peel: it wasn’t just its failure to follow the same path that left one disappointed by it – the remix comes from a very different perspective, Chakk’s own take on noise-tinged disco-funk tempered but still very evident, AOC’s burgeoning feel for hip hop almost entirely absent.)

But it would be all these different pieces – the background love of The Pop Group, The Fall, Sonic Youth and the Fire Engines; the early experiments with Motown beats and declamatory sloganeering; the absorption of hip hop and its amalgamation with pop; the keenness to adopt cut-and-paste for both music and sleeve art – that fed in together to form a debut which still stands as both mould-breaking and timeless. It helped that AOC ended up working with a producer both established and successful enough to be given free rein by the label, and so open to their approach to music that he would, years later, found a group of his own which worked in a not entirely dissimilar way. Howard Gray had produced hits for UB40, The Cure and Terence Trent D’Arby so was by no means an obvious choice for AOC’s debut, but he and his brother, Trevor, were fans of ‘Kiss’ and keen to make use of a new bit of equipment, the Sequential Circuits Studio 440 sampler/sequencer. Howard and Trevor became so enamoured of the machine they would name their group, Apollo 440, after it. Even the engineers on the session would draw on the lessons learned in later life: engineer Mark "Spike" Stent went on to work on rock-rap-sample-pop collision/collage projects such as U2’s Pop and Bjork’s Vespertine, while his assistant on One Thousand Years, Steve Osborne, went on to work with Paul Oakenfold and produced the Happy Mondays’ dance-rock breakthrough, Pills, Thrills And Bellyaches. The other crucial ingredient AoC added was a bona fide scratch-mix DJ. Noel Watson was part of a duo with his brother, Maurice, whose standing in the London-based UK hip hop scene was sufficient by 1987 to have them mentioned in a rap by Derek B (on the single ‘Get Down’). Rechristened DJ Power Cut, he joined Age Of Chance for the making of the album and a subsequent tour – one of the earliest examples of a rock band including a DJ in their line-up.

The record that came out of the sessions remains arguably the pinnacle of a style that others went on to adopt in the following years. AOC set a template others followed but none really managed to improve upon. It is all too brief – its nine tracks clocking in at under 35 minutes – and as it was released on a major label it did not qualify for the independent charts, so although it probably sold well enough, it did so largely below the radar, and without the benefit of a chart placing to attract further attention and help tempt the curious into investigating. It’s clear that a raft of musicians who would follow in short order were paying careful attention: Geoff remembers a conversation a few years later with Clint Mansell, who told him Pop Will Eat Itself would not have begun using samples had it not been for AOC; Carter USM were fans; Jesus Jones and EMF had hits with sample-laced guitar pop songs that owed a significant debt to One Thousand Years and the other records it influenced. The ripples even spread out beyond the UK, with Geoff arguing (persuasively) that it’s their way of looping a small section of Sly & The Family Stone’s ‘Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)’ in ‘This Is Crush Collision’ that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis used to make Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation’ in 1989 rather than the original track. Yet this Rosetta Stone of British pop rarely gets the attention it so clearly merits.

It’s a record that could probably only have been made at its precise moment in time – that brief window where hip hop and house coexisted on the playlists of the same clubs, before the hip house hybrid and the misplaced vogue among label executives to try to get rap acts to cross over by giving them house remixes combined to drive a wedge between the two scenes that would polarise them into the 80s equivalent of mods and rockers. The second single from One Thousand Years, ‘Don’t Get Mad… Get Even!’, has one foot planted firmly in each camp, Power Cut’s scratches and Steven E’s angular vocal delivery matched by Neil H’s abbreviated squalls of guitar to give a chopped-up hip hop feel, while keyboards and sequenced bass, coupled with the driving tempo, give the song a similarly strong house vibe. A series of remixes by Bruce Forest amplify the house elements, largely by stripping back the guitars and foregrounding the keyboards – though a superb extended mix that follows a more traditional route (an episodic, instrumental first half followed by, more or less, the standard version of the song), called ‘The All-Nite Crank-Powermix’, may well be the definitive version.

Throughout the record, the group douse every track in shouted slogans, a style that seems political in itself but which amplifies the content of a set of what remain very pertinent songs. They make sure there’s an exhortation, an instruction or a point of vocal release never very far away: every song has its own exclamation, from ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Noise’s "Go!" and ‘Don’t Get Mad…’s "Rise up!" to the titles of ‘We Got Trouble’, "Ready Or Not Here We Come’. ‘Hold On’ and ‘Shut Up And Listen!’ which are deployed as terrace chants. ‘Ready Or Not’ satirises American military adventurism in a way that hasn’t been out of fashion for a moment in the 30 years since it was released; ‘Hold On’ was pitched to TV networks as a possible theme for election coverage – it would make as fine a choice for this year’s rushed exercise in democratic meaninglessness – though it would be ‘Don’t Get Mad’ that became one of the first long-lived "synchs" when it was used for three years by a US network during live football broadcasts. ‘Take It!’ uses a decaying powerchord from The Clash’s ‘Tommy Gun’ as a recurring sonic motif, the lyrics working as both a critique of consumerism and a defence of sample-based music-making (a remix, from Chuck D and Hank Shocklee, which ought to have sealed AOC’s place in the history of rap-rock, instead turned out to miss its target: the Public Enemy team seem to misread the group and their intentions, toning down the contrasts and settling for a skittering, thin-sounding slice of conventional hip hop production, against which Steven E’s vocal buzzes without ever feeling properly integrated). The closing track, ‘Learn To Pray’, wraps up the politics, the anger and the sonic daring in a churchified piece of electro-rock-gospel, Steven E’s lyrics warning that even faith in a higher power won’t be enough to save you if you’re not being true to yourself.

The album’s first single had been a track designed to tackle what they group felt were some widely held misconceptions about them and their sound. ‘Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Noise?’ remains probably the one song that best sums up the mixture of inspiration, madness, intuition, confidence, technical achievement and musical daring that made the band so remarkable at the time and leaves their record sounding so durably excellent three decades later. A thunderous collision of sonic elements, precisely arranged yet delivered with explosive force, the song asks listeners to surrender to its thrills. Inspired, partly, by Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’, which had been released in a series of different 12"s each featuring alternative mixes, both ‘Don’t Get Mad’ and ‘Big Bad Noise’ were released on two different 12"s in different sleeves with different a-side remixes: both the ‘Dancepower Mix’ and the second 12", ‘Let There Be… Sonic War Sculpture!’, which is credited to Power Cut, feature tiny stabs of Parliament’s ‘Flashlight’ (a deft DJ doff of the cap to the originator of the song’s "Free your mind and your ass will follow" slogan) against treated, stretched and distended Zeppelin drums, all draped over the basic skeleton of the original song. Both are masterpieces, every bit as good as ‘Kisspower’.

And yet, for all the effort and the considerable levels of excellence, for some reason it just didn’t work. Those who took up the mantle did so some time later: with the exception of Big Audio Dynamite, no-one else was doing anything in quite the same area in 1987, and even if house and hip hop hadn’t yet fractured into two entirely different British club scenes, few seemed prepared to allow either to coexist with independently minded, singularly spirited rock. The group soldiered on after Steven E left, releasing a second LP with a new vocalist, but it was essentially a different band.

What Age Of Chance did, and which really hasn’t been done as effectively or as naturally before, was to take all the disparate parts of music, art, politics, cultural theory and visual presentation that inspired them and made them work together without any joins being visible/audible, and without any single part either overshadowing the whole, or looking, sounding or feeling out of place. They proved there was something special to be found at the point where rock, hip hop, independently minded music and innovation met, and better than that, in their hands every element worked. It would not last and few were able to follow their path: but that glorious LP, and all but one of the remixes of its singles, still packs the kind of punch pop almost never delivers.

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