The Haçienda’s half full and “you have to go out of town on a Saturday night to have fun”… so can 808 STATE survive the Manchester backlash? DELE FADELE checks their chances.
THE TIME has come to cut through the lies, hype, two-faced dealings and petty bitching and put Manchester into perspective. The so-called centre of the indie/dance universe is nothing but a grimy industrial city blessed with a modicum of musical talent and the biggest gobs since Attila The Hun.
Let’s face it: nothing has happened here that couldn’t have happened in Liverpool or Sheffield three years ago — and probably did — unless you count the media’s capacity for discovering scenes and distorting them beyond recognition. And even the prime movers and shakers on the scene all know that the bubble’s burst.
The Stone Roses have been deified beyond recognition and their current ‘writer’s block’ is just the realisation that they’ve reached the end of their limitations. Happy Mondays have ditched Manchester altogether to pursue the American Dream, devilishly calculating the new LP for maximum Adult Oriented Rock appeal. Inspiral Carpets have gone all waltzy on us, still afraid of that all-important dancebeat. World Of Twist, Paris Angels, Interstella have all yet to prove their real potential, having been thrust into the limelight before their time. And 808 State are laughing all the way to the poorhouse, benign eyes removed completely from the scene, relishing their very facelessness.
This is an epitaph, a requiem for what once was and never will be again, as on a rainy Friday night all the illusions I once held about this beloved city were shattered, turned to dust by the evidence before my very eyes. Friday nights at the Haçienda used to be the apex of the working week, a sure-fire way to wind down in style to the clattering rimshots of the latest music from Detroit, Chicago, Berlin, Sheffield. Now the thrill has gone, the vast warehouse is half-empty and everyone’s wondering if this is really the happening Manchester. All that’s left is the dubious pleasure of sharing dancefloor space with Tracey, Sharon and her friends in glitzy palaces built to attract regular working-class clientele. Dead Manchester. Struck down in its prime.
There’s hope, however, as 808 State are evidence of life beyond Manchester, beyond the narrow parochial attitude that claims you only sing about your immediate environment, f— all the assholes from the next satellite city. With no words, no slogans and an ironic corporate image, they’ve pushed dancefloor functionalism to new limits, charting regularly, but never becoming faces. Graham Massey, who was once in Biting Tongues, an indecipherable experimental outfit, is the ringleader/studio engineer, with caustic Manc wit and an earnest manner of putting points across. Darren seems like a wide boy, but has insights into the world of dance gained from years as a DJ. Andy, seemingly the youngest, doesn’t say much in interview, but is prone to the occasional flash of inspiration. And Martin Price, to put it diplomatically, is a nightmare; a brash, opinionated motormouth who seems slightly bitter about his treatment in the press (although if you put your foot in your gob as often as he has it’s only reasonable to expect recriminations). Together they whinge, talk sense and nonsense and make interviewing a great experience, even if they are tired of discussing Manchester.
“Most people in Manchester are laughing up their sleeves about the whole hype brouhaha” offers Graham to start off, “We knew the score from day one; we were never a part of it. If Inspiral Carpets represent Manchester, you know what I mean? It’s just a big way of making money.”
Martin: “It’s more of a revolution in the clothing industry than anything else. I found it infuriating when faces turned up in the shop (Eastern Bloc, which Martin co-runs) that you know weren’t there for any other reason than they’d been told to go there by the press. They just come up and lean there with this attitude, like, ‘when’s it going to happen?’ I just tell ’em that I’ve been here for three years and it certainly hasn’t happened yet.”
“Everyone in Manchester knows that you have to go out of town on a Saturday night to have fun. There’s nothing happening here,” adds Graham.
808 STATE’S reputation for being outspoken precedes them, but they’re at least forging ahead on the right path, not just picking off easy targets. The current single, ‘Cubik’, is hovering outside the Top Ten as I write but success hasn’t changed them, apart from perhaps making them more defensive.
The only real precedents you’ll find for ‘Cubik’ are in 808 State’s past work. They haven’t invented any colourful musical history for themselves, rather just mapped out their progress from ‘State To State’ and ‘Quadrastate’ — both hangovers from the Acid era — to ‘Ninety’ and ‘Pacific State’ (the first hit).
Although now signed to a major, 808 State have always flown the flag for independence. Not independence in a grey overcoat/anorak/bedsit misery sense, but dance independence — something that’s put them on a level with Derrick May, Warp records, NuGroove Records — as an act not shackled to the everyday Soul II Soul/James Brown beat jargon. Since we’re facing reality, this underground scene has always been closely associated with drugs. Although use has been exaggerated by over-eager police forces — thus effectively killing off the scene by clampdowns — there’s no doubt that there was an ‘E’ boom in which dancers used stimulants to enhance the atmosphere and occupy more intense, altered states of mind. 808 State have a typically sarky view of all this.
“That’s the shallowest thing that could happen,” says Martin, not mincing his words. “You take a drug and suddenly everyone’s your brother. When you come off it you’re back to the same reality. If that’s the only way through, then it’s wrong. I don’t want anyone coming up to me after they’ve had drugs telling me how much they love me.”
Darren: “It’s just an escape for a few hours, basically. In the early days, say about ’89, it was like ‘take that, get off your face, it’s a weekend, who cares?’ After you’ve worked for five days, on the weekend you either get pissed up or you get caned out of your face. It’s a chosen thing, not just ‘let’s talk about ‘E’ and ‘acid’s bad’.”
Martin barges back in: “Alcohol’s worse. You get to a certain stage of poverty and people think the only escape is alcohol so they’re brown-bagging it on the precinct. That’s what people should be fighting against.”
I MAKE A toast and we continue. The biggest underground furore groups like 808 State, Happy Mondays and the Charlatans have created has been in the black community. Some professional black people in the music business have objected to the way these groups have claimed dance music for themselves at the expense of struggling black artists. The word is that 808 State are more acceptable in the eyes of the media ‘cos they’re white. I personally think this is a ludicrous notion but can’t help playing Devil’s advocate. For once, 808 State are unamused.
Graham: “I wouldn’t agree that the music has become more acceptable just because white people are making it.”
Darren: “Even from the start our faces were never known. Some people still think we’re black, especially in America. No one knew who we were until we got on TOTP. We never had any decent press, we had a smash in the clubs, we had a smash in the charts and no one knew us.”
Graham: “Things like race shouldn’t matter. You don’t think ‘is the singer black or white’ when you’re listening to a record. I can’t even tell whether they come from Holland or Germany or anywhere any more. I think it’s a media thing: a lot of people do try and get black musicians in.”
Andy: “You can see when it’s being done for the wrong reasons. And it stands out a mile.”
Martin: “It stood out with the Soup Dragons when they got Junior Reid in and now with Jimmy Somerville. He’s had women drummers before due to his views on sexism and stuff, but when he just gets a rasta in ‘cos it’s trendy this week I think it’s wrong, horribly wrong.”
I explain to them that the main problem is that most of the faces that have come out of the rave scene have been white, and some might think this is more than mere coincidence. This leads them to ruminate over the problems Derrick May faced in trying to get the original blueprint for Techno heard in America, Tony Wilson’s misbehaviour and disrespect at the New Music Seminar and the reasons why May isn’t a household name.
“It’s obvious why Derrick May hasn’t made it over here,” Martin proclaims. “He’s not going to make it in America ‘cos America is full of racism in the record companies, everyone knows that. It’s a fact. There isn’t the same amount of racism over here but Derrick May is an imported quantity from America, so therefore he’s not signed to any big label over here who are gonna put the money in to promote him. And that’s how it works. We’re on Tommy Boy in America and they won’t put money into 808 State.”
Money is a subject that crops up with amazing regularity during our conversation. So I try the Conservative angle — are 808 State merely money-grabbing, Thatcherite scumdogs, out to have a good time and forget about the outside world? Certainly none of their beliefs are evident from the vast recorded output.
Graham: “When we approach music we’re not trying to get messages across. You can’t look at the dance scene on that very acute level. You gotta look at it as what it represents to everyday people. We’re making music for people, not to fit any kind of media strait-jacket.”
“I’ve always had the attitude that politics are very important,” coughs Martin, “they affect everybody’s day-to-day life. A record is something you plan and put in the corner. If your politics go with that record to the corner then you’ve devalued everything you believe in. If you’re a political person and you’ve got any goodness about your character, then you’re fighting in a way of life and you don’t need to put it on a piece of plastic. Politics on records often come across as trite, one person’s narrow view.”
REMAINING ON the dance scene’s case, isn’t the whole scene dying out? Hasn’t it got completely out of hand when the Farm are likely to have a Top Five smash by ripping off ‘Pachabel’s Canon’ (one of the most moving pieces ever composed) and adding geriatric drum-machine noises?
Graham: “It’s not dying out, just changing.”
Martin: “I look at it this way: what other type of music do you wanna hear in a club? You want that type of Techno sound in a club because that’s what keeps you moving.”
Graham: “We don’t separate music into hardcore or whatever, it’s all club music, if it works then play it. We don’t approach music like we’re hardcore Techno or anything, especially with the new LP we’re recording at the moment, we’re just looking for spaces to fit our music. A lot of dance music at the moment is just boring the arse off me. Everybody’s making records these days and you’re bound to get a lot of chaff with it.”
“What justifies our position is that there are 49 different versions of ‘Cubik’ out at the moment. There were about 140 of ‘Pacific State’. People always want to jump on your band wagon but if they do something different with our stuff, then that’s good. I heard a version the other night and it took me three minutes to realise it wasn’t us. Things are going crazy but we love it. We’re not going to prosecute anyone.”
Darren: “At the moment we’re broke. I know it’s hard to understand that pop stars can be broke, but we are. Our arse is being sued from every direction at the moment so who are we to pick up on others?”
Martin: “A lot of people who’re promoting the idea of the Global Village are suing people left, right and centre, suing their brothers. I blame the artists for letting these lawsuits be drawn in their names. When you enter the Top 20, they examine your records under a microscope, sniffing after money. Even the Stone Roses want 50 per cent of MC Tunes’ ‘Splits The Atom’ and we only used half a bar of sample time.”
TALK TURNS to the Inspirals (“They’re still singing like they’re on the moors”) in a derogatory fashion, even though Graham did remix an early single of theirs. 808 State live in a closed-off world, and though the dance scene pays them due respect you get the feeling they’d have enjoyed being Rick Wakeman in the early 70s.
But what really makes 808 State tick? Their privacy is jealously guarded and we know nothing about them except that they spend long hours in the studio and sometimes DJ. Could they be members of the Freemasons? Are they Satanists? The tabloids would have a field day but perhaps the most revealing aspect would be their thoughts on the process of making simple, direct love songs, just like everybody else.
So why don’t you deal with interpersonal relationships, Darren?
“We can’t do it. It’s been done to death. Anyone can go ‘on the phone, all alone baby baby!’ it’s too easy.”
Martin: “There’s so much insincerity in ‘I called you on the phone’ records. It’s wrong and anyway there’s a good chance your sister got seduced to one of those records.
“It would be great, though, if in any house where there’s that sort of activity going on a beam came out of the roof so you could see all the people playing the smoochy records, trying to get their girlfriend’s knickers off in the name of 7 ‘I called you on the phone’.”
© Dele Fadele, New Musical Express, 24 November 1990