Majestic: The Orb’s U.F.Orb Turns 30

Darran Anderson celebrates The Orb's "chance encounter between Steve Reich and Ming the Merciless in the Black Ark" – one of the most unlikely number one albums of the early 90s

In the winter of 1954, Collier’s magazine serialised the dystopian sci-fi tale The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney in which the occupants of a small Californian town are gradually disappeared and replaced by extra-terrestrial doppelgangers. It was a mirror to the paranoid Cold War times, where suspicion of infiltration, invasion and ‘the other’ ate away at American society but the story also suggested that the rot came from within as much as without.

Even beyond its cinematic adaptations, The Body Snatchers has never left the collective psyche. It’s arguable that it’s just as apt and always will be, given it encapsulates a particularly virulent form of intellectual solipsism – namely the assumption that everyone else is a dupe or much worse. This anti-democratic snobbery is commonplace in parts of the commentariat, online culture warriors and the political and corporate managerial class, as a conscious gatekeeping tool and an unconscious expression of entitlement.

Artists have sadly not been immune – John Carey’s The Intellectuals And The Masses is an eloquent evisceration of the phenomena among literary modernists – and even those who rail against the establishment tend to have an in-built ‘chosen one’ superiority, meaning that even if successful they merely replace one elite with another. What if The Body Snatchers actually worked in reverse and those who thought they were the exceptions amidst the mindless homogenised hordes were actually the brainwashed, co-opted and blinkered?

Setting aside the continual failings of our supposed elites and the abject state of the world today under their enlightened guidance, we encounter what could be called the ‘O Superman’ factor. In 1981, Laurie Anderson’s bizarre melancholic cyborg of a song, inspired by a Massenet opera, the Iran hostage crisis, telecommunications and military technology, got to number two in the UK charts. Despite all the developments in music since, the song is still as strange and captivating as ever and it points to a revolutionary idea – namely that people are not remotely as stupid, base or basic as they are treated and assuming they are is not only grossly offensive but hubristic, that the ‘masses’ are ill-served by the thin cultural gruel they are served, and when somehow something startling and new (Bowie, Hendrix, Kate Bush, Prince etc.) sneaks past the gatekeepers, it is more often than not embraced.

Yet, for all their progressive image, the creative industries still largely operate on a conservative risk-averse model, ignoring the myriad ‘exceptions’ that suggest people, when given credit and not patronised, often love weird shit. Those artists who breach this wall might well make it possible for others to follow but in many cases the wall simply closes over again.

In the summer of 1992, U.F.Orb, a curious experimental interstellar ambient-house album, made it to number one in the UK charts, promoted by a top ten single that was almost forty minutes long. After this it should have felt like anything was possible in popular music and yet, despite helping to shape the pluralist musical future, the album is comparatively overlooked today. To understand how this came to be, we have to set the controls for a quarter of a century ago.

Given the dialectic quality of innovation in music, and any other discipline, so much relies upon those who operate in the borderlands of different genres. Yet there is a danger of getting lost there. In the early nineties, music was still prone to tribalism and policing that would seem unthinkable today (though arguably that tendency has shifted over to identity now). Back then, there was an unholy alliance between a purist music press and a myopic music industry, both of which encouraged groups to be easily and willingly categorised.

The Orb defied this from the beginning, embodying a subliminal but highly influential view that categories were redundant. They were, by design, exceptionally difficult to pin down. The Orb came of age during punk and post punk (working with Killing Joke for instance) and followed the egalitarian DIY ethos of those eras. Yet, The Orb were continually associated with prog rock – in the length and ambition of their work and also their collaborations with the likes of Steve Hillage, Robert Fripp and Dave Gilmour – despite lacking the masturbatory virtuosity, convoluted time signatures or pompous stagecraft of the worst of prog (and repeatedly poking fun at their Pink Floyd comparisons).

In reality, they fitted in neither camp, by design. The Orb were (and remain) certainly ambient, using the studio as an instrument, a la Brian Eno but they rejected what ambient had by then become; self-consciously high-brow muzak by artistes for installations. Instead, they chose a deliberately leftfield but accessible route via dance, a kind of ambient for the people as Alex Paterson would hint at. They were deemed chill out, music to aid re-entry into earth’s atmosphere after raves, but there isn’t actually much ease to be found in their intense ever-changing soundscapes or when they’d break into straight-up dancefloor bangers as they do on the title track of U.F.Orb.

The truth is The Orb resisted their own influences as much as they embraced them. They seemed to have realised that contradiction could be a strength and not a cardinal sin. They learned from avant-garde minimalism, in terms of loops and drones, but they were maximalists too, throwing everything they could find at tracks. They learned to conduct multiple mixes and then piece together the best bits in the way Can did yet they had little of that band’s dynamic. There’s an argument to be made that The Orb have always been a dub act at heart, albeit one on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Or that they are descendants of other artforms and movements entirely, borrowing the irreverent collages of dada or situationism, the absurdist games of fluxus, the surrealists’ explorations of dreams or the otherworld transmissions of science fiction (their name after all comes from a pleasure device from Woody Allen’s dystopian sci-fi pastiche Sleeper). The Orb didn’t fit and that was the point. André Breton wished Surrealism to be "as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table." For The Orb it was more a chance encounter between Steve Reich and Ming the Merciless in the Black Ark.

Space was a major theme from the start. It was the name and theme of the abortive first Orb album that Jimmy Cauty ended up releasing (minus Alex Paterson) when he left The Orb for The KLF. Innumerable celestial references and samples (Blake’s 7, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy etc.) follow throughout The Orb’s discography. On their actual debut album, the superlative The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, immediately after their charming ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’, they ascend out of the atmosphere with ‘Earth (Gaia)’ to encounter villainous extra-terrestrial observers (sampled from Flash Gordon), and then the benevolent almighty voice of God.

U.F.Orb continues the imagery but from a more earthy perspective, tapping into conspiracy theories, in a mischievous way; there are ‘black helicopter’ urban myths in the title track, alien abduction in the menacing house tune ‘Close Encounters’ while their epic ‘Blue Room’, an entrancing masterpiece of sorts, is named after Hangar 18 in Area B of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where the aliens and crashed spacecraft of Roswell are reputedly housed.

The most significant space connection though might be in The Orb’s approach to making music. Around our planet, tens of thousands of objects (once-valuable tools and integral machine parts lost in accidents, jettisoned waste and so on) orbit as space debris. It’s tempting, given their astronomical themes and their ability to make treasures out of discarded junk, to see The Orb as inspired scavengers and engineers retrofitting acoustic debris from Colin Wilson’s philosophical musings to transmissions from Radio Moscow onto ambient, dance and, perhaps holding it together above all else, reggae. The latter is the terra firma of the album and it’s a deep deep bedrock, whether the masterful turn of Jah Wobble on ‘Blue Room’ or the thunderous bass sample from The Revolutionaries’ ‘Bamba In Dub’ on the glorious twinkling music box of ‘Towers Of Dub’.

Roots reggae and dub are all over the treble end of the album too – metallic phasing from Burning Spear, a crazed echoing laugh from Scientist Rids The World Of The Evil Curse Of The Vampires, a vocal line from Aisha’s criminally underrated High Priestess album. The Orb were as innovative in the craft of creative borrowing/theft and montage as virtually any hip hop or electronic producer yet are rarely credited as such. Despite this oversight, they did not remain immune from the copyright issues that impacted hip hop’s golden age, rightly or wrongly, and they ran into trouble from their debut single onwards.

It’s a complex issue and it’s debatable whether a gorgeous track like the opener ‘O.O.B.E’ is simply a cover version or remix of the astonishing Guo Brothers’ song ‘Soldiers Of The Long March’ that it samples but nevertheless The Orb’s eclecticism and knowledge would prove quietly influential, in terms of overcoming musical boundaries and distances, with more piracy than piety.

It was humour though that proved the biggest pitfall, despite also being one of The Orb’s greatest assets. They were deliberately tongue in cheek, cartoonish at times, seeing themselves as “a non-centralised figure of amusement on stage”.

Rather than playing instruments on Top Of The Pops, they played chess. They began ‘Towers Of Dub’ with a very funny Victor Lewis-Smith prank call skit for instance, probably in order to puncture any trace of pomposity that might come with making half-hour cosmic epics but therein lay the problem. The Orb did not take themselves too seriously in an industry that demanded it. Had they dialled down the humour and dialled up any conceptual pretensions, they’d likely be seen as ambient godheads now.

Likewise, had they emphasised the radical provocateur situationist quality they possessed, as fellow travellers the KLF did (to significant financial disadvantage admittedly), they might be seen as radical absurdist provocateurs. Also, their exceptional use of musique concrete. The humour was, however, a vital part of what made them The Orb.

The issue points to a more widespread problem we have culturally, whereby profundity is associated with seriousness while levity is seen as throwaway. Tragedy is exalted over comedy, despite the fact that it’s often easier to pull off the former than the latter. One of The Orb’s ancestors in this regard, the Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte, once wrote, “Life is wasted when we make it more terrifying, precisely because it is so easy to do so. It is an easy task because people who are intellectually lazy are convinced that this miserable terror is ‘the truth’, that this terror is knowledge of the ‘extra-mental’ world. This is an easy way out resulting in a banal explanation of the world as terrifying. Creating enchantment is an effective means of counteracting this depressing, banal habit.”

Creating enchantment is precisely what I feel this album achieved and indeed all the music of The Orb’s early imperial phase up to and including the unique lost planet of Orbus Terrarum (while there are many gems scattered through their later work and paths worth following, something precious was lost with the departure of Kris Weston). The world, and indeed the mind, The Orb suggest, is bigger and weirder than all the humourless orthodoxies and restraining algorithms, all the gatekeepers and institutions, all the canons and categories allow us to think, or think of us.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today