808 STATE are one of the few genuine ‘pop groups’ of the underground scene. Not for them a bunch of hairy ’60s riffs or ideologies, 808 State have capitalised on dance music’s forward march and, with Ex El, they’re destined to be massive. JOHN ROBB goes into overdrive.
HORDES OF police are burning up the M6 in a pointless motorway chase, while God’s Cop’s top toy – the multi-million ‘copter – buzzes overhead, surveying several vanloads of sweat-stained party guerillas.
The underground, it seems, is still alive and kickin’.
808 State may no longer be that underground, but their roots are here and the respect is there. Maybe they are the only real ‘pop group’ of that scene.
More than any other Manchester band, 808 State have taken the late ’80s dance gear and capitalised on its forward march.
Their inventiveness has been fired by their various members’ history and intuition.
From Graham Massey’s pure muso skill to motormouth Martin Price, who can rant on any given subject, and the young blooded Spinmasters – Darren Partington (who gives Price a run in the gobaholic stakes) and his partner Andrew Barker who host their own manic radio show – 808 are multi-media in action.
808 STATE are a band of the ’90s. Not for this lot a load of hairy ’60s riffs or I ideologies. 808 State are massive, bloody massive, yet they still operate like a bunch of clueless fans immersed in conversations about imports.
They have a new album, Ex El, out next week, they will sell out Manchester’s G-Mex on March 16, they appear on Top Of The Pops every couple of months, have had more hits than any other Mancs act and they are being sought out by fellow musos who are looking for some help in reshaping their muse.
A case in point is The Sugarcubes’ Björk who phoned them up and asked them to help out with her solo album – probably to escape from the shackles of The Sugarcubes, whose post-‘Birthday’ music has been wacky trash, only given credence by her startling voice.
Björk was obviously well aware that 808 State are not only capable of nailing some neat dance gear but infusing the lot with an emotional power.
“Björk just rang us up, she wanted to do a solo album. We met her when we were doing The Word. She just walked into our dressing room – we were like dead shy with each other,” recounts the unusually bashful Price.
Björk’s mooted solo album is one of several oddball projects that have been lined up for 808 State (a reworking of Rolf Harris’ ‘Sun Arise’ is another). It seems that they’re being approached by a hatful of cranks at every turn – one of the drawbacks of being bang up to date, if fairly anonymous, chart operatives.
On the plus side, though, 808 State have also recorded a song with the godfather of the whole Manchester dance floor scam, Barney from New Order. His childlike voice is lazily stretched across the near ballad ‘Spanish Heart’ on their Ex El album.
“We gave him the most soulful track, because we thought that he could do something a bit twisted with it, which he has done,” claims Graham.
“By him trying not to get sentiment into it, it builds up in a weird sort of way. It had me in tears!” gushes Martin.
THE THING about Ex El is that it kicks – combining house electro routes with an almost metal sense of monster dynamics. You see, 808 State benefit from the classic band-as-marriage syndrome – the group that argues together stays together.
If Massey is the muso who tidies up the idea, Price is the producer yelling instructions above the frenzy of the Spinmasters’ ideas. But all the bleeders have learned to play now and their roles are continually getting blurred…
“Yeah, I do a lot of the technical side, the programming and all that,” explains Graham. “Whereas Darren and Andy get a lot of the samples and Martin acts as producer. But it changes around, it’s a dead internal thing. If you saw us working, it’s like a real fight – there’s loads of shouting going on.”
808 State might have bummed in on the acid house trip, but they cover all the creative bases from industrial to avant-garde to hip hop break-beating. Theirs’ is a fascinating tale of toothless hustlers, cheeky kids using three decks before sprouting pubes and learning studio technique.
Martin Price spent most of the post-punk era immersed in industrial sounds. As the classic bedroom operative, his band The Grind did little of note.
“After punk I had six years on the dole messing around with drum boxes, getting nowhere. I bought my first house record in ’86 and it sounded like Joy Division. There was one that even had a beat like ‘She’s Lost Control’.”
After going to jazz/funk all-dayers across the country, Price gradually drifted into electro and house.
Electro had been hip in Manchester since Legends had pumped the stuff out in the early ’80s, way before the Hacienda picked up on it. So the youngsters knew all about electro, and the young Spinmasters were part of that nascent scene.
“Electro was massive in Manchester, that’s what woke the kids up,” says Darren. “Like with any type of dance music that there’s a certain dance to, it really takes off. With electro it was body popping, it was like white kids trying to prove that they were funky as well. It really put Manchester on the map for the first time.”
THE JUMP to house was a little trickier. Manchester was slow on the uptake, letting Sheffield and Nottingham grab a lead – why was that? “As the early house stuff came in we thought, f**k it. It’s hi-energy. You don’t touch it, that’s for them (the gay community). It took a couple of years for electro heads to get into it,” remembers Darren.
“What pisses me off was that Manchester was meant to be the place and when I went down there there was nothing at all,” says Price, based in Bolton at the time. “I wanted to get into it and bridge the gap. I noticed the gap in the market and…”
Price – along with a couple of other Bolton music heads – opened Earwig Records in Manchester’s Affleck’s Palace clothing market. The shop quickly expanded into the import shop, Eastern Bloc.
Meanwhile, The Spinmasters were bang on course.
“We were DJing all over the city – Salvation Army huts, youth clubs, anywhere that would have us. We built our own clubs. If we weren’t on the decks we would go there anyway, show our faces. It was a sense of belonging, like, we did battles with (A Guy Called) Gerald, Scratch Beatmaster (featuring MC Tunes).”
The Spinmasters eventually linked up with Price. “Gerald took a tape into Eastern Bloc with an MC Tunes rap on it. They claimed that he (Price) was mad for it.”
“I didn’t know what to do really,” admits Price. “There were so many people coming in with so much talent. I just had no idea how you went about it all.”
Cue Graham Massey, who had spent ten years stalking the fringes of the Manchester scene in his ramshackle avant-jazz outfit Biting Tongues and was now burrowed deep in Spirit studios on an engineering course. Price hung out in Massey’s cafe during dinner breaks and they quickly got things together. The fact that Massey could play and arrange the surge of ideas around him was vastly important.
“At first it was whoever turned up with a bag of records to sample,” remembers Graeme.
Cutting tracks at night in Spirit and playing them down the Hacienda on Wednesday’s Nude nights, 808 State honed down their sound and found their true home at Manchester’s Thunderdome club, as Price vividly remembers. “The mad bastards, the E’d up aunties, a top robber handing me the key to Ancoats… It was crazy. ‘Pacific State’ was the soundtrack to that place – all the arms held up in the air. It sent a shiver down yer spine.”
‘PACIFIC STATE’ was the club anthem of last summer and with three albums (Quadrastate, Ninety and Ex El), occasional live action and a link tip with their old comrade MC Tunes, 808 State are still a collective working within their original ideals – ideals that indie guitar bands would die to put into practice.
808 State are in a neat position. Dance is the only musical form that’s progressing in the way that rock likes to pretend that it does. These oiks are constantly pushing their margins – covering a bunch of different styles, inventing new ones, pulling off crazy ideas with skill and bombast and retaining that shadowy low-key aura employed by the likes of Price’s beloved New Order. On the dance scene, the only stars are the records themselves.
In some respects, though, 808 State’s rapid rise has taken its toll. At first, Martin was labelled the gob of Manchester for his outspoken views on ‘shandy music’ and ‘indie dance crossover’. Sometimes what he said was bang on, sometimes it was just bullshit. Price has now redirected his super gob to a more positive vibe.
“It came out of the shop,” he says of his former reputation. “I was just stating what I thought and the next thing I was the mouth of Manchester, a right cynic. I went over the top and I was wrong, but I defy anyone to grow up in public and not have teething troubles.”
The Spinmasters, however, have balanced Price’s outbursts by telling him exactly what they think. But it’s probably best left to Price to explain exactly what keeps 808 State together.
“It’s a bit like Albert Einstein doing crazy paving,” he muses. “Very wheelbarrow, cement and sand.”
Warning: that’s what E does to a rational mind, kids. So, er, watch it!
© John Robb, Sounds, 2 March 1991