After all the hype, the ‘Manchester scene’ – the colourful launch pad of the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets – generated far more column inches of fawning prose than bands of commercial stamina. A swift head count, four years on from the scene’s advent, reveals a sorry state of affairs: the Roses have yet to deliver the follow-up to their brilliant debut, Shaun Ryder and his gang of merry rogues have parted company, and the Inspirals, who admittedly still make their impressive three-minute bursts of psychedelic pop, have seen their once-enormous following diminish considerably in recent times.
But with the Manchester phenomenon and its attendant hype now passed, it may surprise some readers to learn that, in chart terms at least, 808 State – the progenitors of British ‘techno’ dance music – have become the most popular Manc band of all. If you consider the hits they’ve scored in their own right – including their last 45, ‘Plan 9’ – together with their collaborations with Bjork from the Sugarcubes and, more notably, rapper MC Tunes, the outfit have notched up no fewer than nine big hit singles.
Although 808 State officially started life in mid-1988, their lineage can be traced back to Biting Tongues, an experimental post-punk dance outfit who first recorded together in the early 80s. Led by Howard Walmsley and future 808 State mainstay Graham Massey, they released a handful of singles and albums on indie labels like Situation 2, Paragon and, later, Factory. Early in their career, they also enjoyed a stint with Richard Boon’s New Hormones, which spawned a collectable cassette-only release called ‘Live It’. Comprising four avant garde, funk-based tracks, the tape kicked off with ‘Even State (The Wave State)’, a new version of which they released in January 1988, via the Belgian Antler label. However, despite several encouraging reviews, the group’s rather erratic output failed to grab the public’s imagination, and the band began to peter out in the late 80s, after switching to a denser, more house-oriented sound. Incidentally, their last release, the 12”-only single ‘Love Out’, appeared on the Stockport-based Cut Deep label in 1989 – some time after Massey had become involved in 808 State.
It was during Biting Tongues’ last days together that Massey – who by this time was an accomplished recording engineer – paid a call to one of Manchester’s most progressive record shops, Eastern Bloc. Here, he struck up a conversation with the shop’s owner, Martin Price, and another customer, Gerald Simpson, and learnt that the pair shared his tastes in dance music – particularly the Detroit techno and acid house styles which were just beginning to take off.
Resolving to collaborate on their own dance record, the trio set to work on a three track 12”, which eventually appeared on Price’s Eastern Bloc label in April 1988. This 500-only white-label promo – featuring the cuts ‘Wax On The Melt’, ‘SPM MC Tunes’, and ‘Shure.4’ – was recorded under the name Hit Squad M/cr, and boasted contributions from several local hip hop artists, including rapper Nicky Lockett (now known better as MC Tunes) and DJs the Spinmasters. With ‘SPM MC Tunes’ marking the debut of the rapper and a nascent 808 State, this scarce 12” is now regarded as the ultimate 808 State/MC Tunes/Gerald Simpson collectable. The most recent copy to turn up was auctioned by Eastern Bloc’s mail order department for a staggering £100: however, these days most dealers would charge no more than £80 for this item.
Around the time that ‘Wax On The Melt’ appeared, Price, Massey and Simpson began producing backing tapes of instrumental techno dance music, for use during their first performances, which took place at Manchester’s famous Hacienda Club. These gigs were often followed by late night recording sessions at Spirit Studios, during which the group – now calling themselves 808 State (a name derived from their Roland TR808 drum machine, and the ‘state of mind’ that the band shared) – worked on the tracks which would eventually grace their first LP, the acid house-inspired ‘Newbuild’. (The ‘4am Mix’ of the track ‘Dr Lowfruit’ provides evidence of their nocturnal timetable!). This album appeared in July 1988 (on vinyl only), again via Martin Price’s label, which was now called Creed.
In November, 808 State released ‘Let Yourself Go’, a 12”-only single featuring a far more accessible brand of acid house than that heard on ‘Newbuild’. Aided by its distinctive strings, sampled from Love Unlimited Orchestra’s ‘Love Story’, a manic bassline and punchy vocal samples, it won 808 State more valuable dance floor exposure, but failed to draw much interest from the record-buying public.
A month after ‘Let Yourself Go’ surfaced, Simpson released his solo debut on Rham Records (RS 804), under the name A Guy Called Gerald. ‘Voodoo Ray’ flew into the charts and, following its tremendous success, Simpson opted to leave 808 State to continue with his solo ventures. A John Peel session, released by Strange Fruit in July 1989 (SFPS 071), provides a fine snapshot of Gerald’s early work.
To augment the 808 State line-up after Simpson’s departure, Price and Massey recruited the Spinmasters on a permanent basis. Better known as Andrew Barker and Darren Partington, this duo had begun mixing and DJ-ing together at the tender age of twelve, performing regularly at their local Salvation Army youth club throughout their early teens. From such humble origins the pair grew into a highly professional outfit, whom ‘i-D’ magazine described as “probably the hottest hip hop mixing duo in the world”.
Between November 1988 and March 1989, 808 State’s new line-up returned to Spirit Studios, on the outskirts of Manchester, to create a new six-track mini-album. This offering, titled ‘Quadrastate’, eventually appeared in October, and included three of their popular club anthems – ‘State To State’, ‘State Ritual’ and ‘Pacific State’. This was to be their last release for Creed, as ‘Pacific State’ won them the attention of producer Trevor Horn, who immediately signed them to his Zang Tumb Tuum (ZTT) label. The track was re-recorded and, with the title shortened to just ‘Pacific’, released as 808 State’s debut single for ZTT in November 1989. A month later, it became the band’s first Top 10 hit.
Five formats of ‘Pacific’
were pressed (in line with Gallup’s new laws on ‘line extension’), including
a 3” CD. The second 12” (ZANG 1TX) is the most collectable and features
‘Pacific-909 (Mellow Birds Mega Edit)’, a radical remix of the title track.
Clocking in at 7.08 minutes, this is the longest re-working of ‘Pacific’
available on official U.K. product, and provides a sharp contrast to the
shortest mix, ‘Bonus Bird Beats’ (2.50), which immediately follows it on
the disk. Unlike its counterparts (all of which, incidentally, were credited
to ‘State 808’), the second ‘Pacific’ 12” was not issued in a picture cover,
but came in a plain black sleeve, with the centre hole stamped with a silver
sticker displaying the track details. Collectors should note that ‘Pacific
State – Origin’, one of the mixes found on the CD and first 12”, is the
original ‘Pacific State’ that appeared on the ‘Quadrastate’ LP.
The success of ‘Pacific’ led to demand for a second full-length album, and ‘808:90’ duly appeared in December 1989. One of its tracks, ‘Ancodia’, was seized upon as an anthem by the growing new age / ambient house scene, which ‘Pacific’ had helped to establish. But with their new found success, the outfit weren’t only attracting innovators on the dance scene; they were also the targets of plagiarists. Several artists picked up on the sax hook line of ‘Pacific’, and appropriated it for themselves, with the horrific ‘Infinity’ from Guru Josh [Sid’s note: I actually liked this!] even managing to chart. According to Martin Price, though, there was no temptation for 808 State to re-hash their old material to cash in on their initial success: “After ‘Pacific State’ went Top 10, we could have stuck the saxophone on our next tune and gone for the same winning formula. But we moved on. We could have been safe but we took a risk.”
The risk in question was ‘The Only Rhyme That Bites’, a collaboration with MC Tunes, which was released under the banner ‘MC Tunes Versus 808 State’ in June 1990. Tunes described his contribution to the project as “just ego rap, really”, a remarkably modest assessment of his fluid, 120 bpm-style rhyming, which he performs to a backdrop of 808 State music, featuring samples from ‘The Big Country’ TV theme. The gamble paid off, with the single reaching No. 7 in the U.K., and MC Tunes winning an army of admirers in the rap fraternity.
With ‘The Only Rhyme That Bites’ still in the charts, 808 set out on their first major tour. They had booked the largest venues with late licences they could find and, as a result, all the gigs started around 8pm and – with only three exceptions – lasted until 2am the next morning. MC Tunes joined the band live, explaining at the time: “The collaboration suits everybody just fine. We’re part of the same unit, and for the purpose of the live shows, I’ll be performing as part of 808 rather than as a support act.”
In September 1990, a second MC Tunes versus 808 State single, ‘Tunes Splits The Atom’, was released, which again made the Top 20. Unusually for a dance track at that time, the backing featured live drums, courtesy of Phil Kirby. Easier for sharp-eared fans to spot was KLF’s use of the computer-style bleeps that underpinned ‘Tunes Splits The Atom’, on their No. 1 hit ‘3 a.m. Eternal’. “We aren’t going to prosecute anyone”, pledged Massey, despite the fact that others had not been quite so forgiving when they’d been sampled by 808 State. In June 1990, for instance, the group encountered problems with their first collaboration with Tunes. Martin Price told ‘Melody Maker’: “It’s reached the ridiculous point where they’re demanding 50% of the royalties from ‘The Only Rhyme That Bites’ because of the sample from ‘The Big Country’.” And when the outfit were in the charts with ‘Tunes Splits The Atom’, the sampling curse struck again: “When you enter the Top 20, they examine your records under a microscope, sniffing after money. Even the Stone Roses want 50% of ‘Tunes Splits The Atom’, and we only used half a bar of sample time.”
In October 1990, 808 State finally got around to releasing a proper follow-up to ‘Pacific’. A double A-side, featuring ‘Cubik’ and ‘Olympic’, this ‘comeback’ surfaced on five formats, and catapulted the group back into the charts. 808 State fans were already familiar with ‘Cubik’, as it had been issued previously on a 12”, titled ‘The Extended Pleasure Of Dance’, back in February 1990. (This release had also included remixes of ‘Cobra Bora’ and ‘Ancodia’). ‘Olympic’, on the other hand, was a fresh track, and after reaching No. 10 in the charts, became the theme for Channel 4’s late night show, ‘The Word’. If Manchester had been chosen to host the 1996 Olympic Games, it would also have become the competition’s official anthem that year!
The second 12” version of ‘Cubik’/’Olympic’ produced some radical remixes, including ‘Cubik Tomix’, a nine-minute reworking by New Yorkers Tom Richardson and Eric Kupper. Also on this 12” is the ‘Lambrusco Cowboy Mix’, which is a prime example of 808 State’s common technique of ‘silhouetting’. This involves building a track around a sample (in this case the raucous guitar hook-line from ‘Cubik’), only to remove the sample after the track is finished. After some remixing, a brand new piece of music is born. In this way, ‘Cubik’ became ‘Lambrusco Cowboy Mix’, or ‘Lambrusco Cowboy’, as it’s called on their second ZTT long-player, ‘Ex:El’.
In the same month that the ‘Cubik’/’Olympic’ single hit the charts, ZTT released MC Tunes’ debut album, ‘The North At Its Heights’, the backing for which was provided by 808 State. Martin Price described the LP as “mega” and “unlike any rap album you’ve ever heard”, and though this came from the man known as ‘the biggest mouth in Manchester’, he wasn’t far wrong. In November 1990, ‘Primary Rhyming’ was pulled off as a single. This time, it was credited to just MC Tunes, though 808 State was still present, playing their usual musical role. Besides the tones of MC Tunes, the single also sported the vocals of two of his friends, Microphoness and Dewiz, 15 and 12 year olds respectively. (This young pair – more usually known as Dianne and Noel – were given their stage names by the rapper.) ‘Primary Rhyming’ was reportedly issued against MC Tunes’ wishes, and with his subsequent reluctance to promote it, the 45 only scraped into the Top 50. Collectors should look out for a limited edition 12”, which included a free colour sticker sheet of graphics and slogans.
Meanwhile, 808 State took a break to record some of their own new material. They returned in February 1991 with the single ‘In Yer Face’, the bassline of which had evolved from the riff to ‘Olympic’. As usual, the track appeared on five formats, though this time the two 12” versions were housed in flat, and spined, sleeves.
The following month, ‘Ex:El’, 808 State’s second album for ZTT, reached the shops. [Sid’s note: It was released on the same day as The KLF’s ‘The White Room’, which may have led to the ‘rivalry’ between the two bands. The video for ‘Last Train To Trancentral’ by The KLF featured the flyer for 808 State’s Brixton Academy all-nighter (incidentally 808 State were the first ever dance band to do an all-night gig at Brixton). Subsequently 808 State’s video for ‘Lift’ had ‘KLF’ in amongst its computer graphics. There was even a newspaper report in the Daily Mirror at the time which spoke of a ‘Battle Of The Soundsystems’-style gig in London which, to my knowledge, never occurred]. Garnering rave reviews, the LP included ‘In Yer Face’ and ‘Cubik’, together with ‘Lambrusco Cowboy’, ‘Leo Leo’ (the B-side of the ‘In Yer Face’ 12”), ‘Spanish Heart’ (featuring lyrics and vocals from New Order’s Bernard Sumner), and ‘Ooops’ and ‘Qmart’, both collaborations with Bjork Gudmundsdottir of The Sugarcubes. Besides appearing on the standard vinyl, cassette and CD formats, ‘Ex:El’ was also issued as a ‘Limited DJ Edition’, which spread all the tracks across two 12”s. Incidentally, the CD included ‘Olympic’ as a bonus cut.
808 State was keen to praise their contributors, talking enthusiastically about their collaboration with Sumner, and saying of Bjork: “She’s unique, there’s no doubt about it. There’s no other voice in music like that one. Let’s hope that the people who go to the dance clubs, who might not have heard The Sugarcubes, will hear that voice now.”
“We could have just gone for a black gospel singer or somebody with dreads on or something like that,” Massey continued, “but it’s too obvious. It’s better we do it this way.” Around the time of the album’s release, fans were treated to a live version of ‘Qmart’ when Bjork joined 808 State on stage at the Rekyjavic Lido, Iceland. And later in 1991, the diminutive singer also appeared with the group at the G-Mex, Manchester, along with other guests including N-Joi and the ubiquitous MC Tunes. [Sid’s note: THE loudest gig I’ve ever been to, bar none.]
The Bernard Sumner collaboration on ‘Ex:El’ prompted Martin Price to comment: “New Order were great for the way they stood there and played their synths with two fingers and had the keys marked with a felt-tip pen. They were the blueprint for being in a band where you didn’t have to be above everybody.” Sumner was quick to return the compliment: “Apart from (A Guy Called) Gerald, 808 State are the only new Manchester group I like, far better than all that re-hashed 60’s jangly stuff everyone is doing. 808 are more my field, they’re right up my street.”
In April 1991, ‘Ooops’ was issued as a single, backed with a new track, ‘Ski Family’. Also appearing that month, through ZTT/Warner Music Vision, was ‘Optical90’, a video compilation of 808 State’s singles up to that point (though ‘Cobra Bora’ replaced ‘Primary Rhyming’). Available in the States with a different track listing, this collection included three in-concert performances – filmed at the Ku Klub’s ‘Re-live The Dream’ event, staged in Ibiza the previous September – which suggested that the group preferred to concentrate on making music rather than shoot expensive promos. In fact, they have always taken pride in their unassuming image, shunning the whole concept of being a star. “They’re the last thing you want in a club, aren’t they?” Massey said once. “Dance music is about the records, not the people who make them.”
In August 1991, the band released their follow-up to ‘Ooops’, a double A-side featuring ‘Lift’ and ‘Open Your Mind’. Unfortunately, both these tracks were rather weak, [Sid’s note: surely this is subjective?] and the 45 failed to make an impact on the charts. Not surprisingly, ZTT decided to withhold the customary second 12” or remixes. [Sid’s note: a review of ‘Open Your Mind’ in ‘NME’ said that it sounded “like an elephant vomiting into a bucket.”]
Following this poor performance, 808 State took an official 12 month break, though this didn’t stop the band – and Graham Massey in particular – remixing a host of tracks for other artists. Among 808 State’s radical re-workings at this time were the ‘Lectric Blue Mix’ of David Bowie’s ‘Sound & Vision’, which was only available on import, a remix of Electronic’s ‘Disappointed’ single, a jazzy re-fashioning of ‘Papua New Guinea’ by the Future Sound Of London and the ‘2 Close To The Edge Mix’ of Yes’s ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’. Other artists who’ve since enjoyed the 808 State remix treatment include the Art Of Noise, Jon Hassell, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Quincy Jones, Primal Scream, The Sugarcubes, and Afrika Bambaata.
One project the lads considered nearly put their credibility on the line. “We got an offer just before Christmas to do ‘Neighbours’,” recalled Andrew Barker. “There was a scene with Harold and Madge, where Harold was doing a speech and Madge was blabbering over the top of Rolf Harris’s ‘Sun Arise’. And we got this fax sent to our office, asking if we wanted to do the music for a new version of it for the programme.”
With so many songs benefiting
from Massey and Co.’s magic touch, critics began accusing the group of
profiteering; but they were quick to defend their artistic integrity. “You
do a remix because you like the group, not just for the sake of it,” explained
Darren Partington in an interview, while his colleague Graham Massey added:
“It’s great working with other people’s bits of music, because you learn
quite a lot about structure and songwriting. With David Bowie’s ‘Sound
& Vision’, there was something complete about it after we’d finished.”
During the group’s one-year sabbatical, Martin Price decided to leave the band, believing he had achieved as much as he could within its set-up. Besides concentrating on his record shop, his future plans included establishing a ‘mind gymnasium’ – whatever that is! – though nothing more was heard of this bizarre project. In early 1991, Price appeared on a ZTT promo-only 12”, released by his new band Switzerland and featuring the track ‘Inflight (T.C.U.O.D.)’. This outfit, which comprises Price and two of his friends, Neil and Dill, is currently [Steve:not anymore!] working with singer Terry Hall, and hope to issue a 12” EP, sporting several Andy Weatherall dub mixes of ‘Inflight’ in the near future.
In February 1992, 808 State pressed up a 12” promo featuring two mixes of ’10 x 10’, as a taster for their upcoming album (which didn’t actually appear for another year!). These mixes, which echoed the hardcore techno sound favoured by The Prodigy, are not available elsewhere, making this item worth up to £35. ‘TimeBomb’, an energetic sequencer piece, appeared last summer, back with ‘Nimbus’, a track faintly reminiscent of synth band Propaganda’s work. The third and longest cut, ‘Reaper Repo’ was enhanced by the distinctive sound of timbales, and consequently enjoyed an experimental, world music feel. But despite this interesting mixture of styles, ‘TimeBomb’ failed to make much impact.
Undeterred by this flop, the group released a pre-Christmas follow-up, a re-working of UB40’s 1981 smash, ‘One In Ten’, under the guise of 808 State versus UB40 (or UB40 versus 808 State on the remix 12”). Unlike its predecessor, this song was a huge hit, reaching Top 20 over the festive season. “They gave us the master tapes,” Graham Massey told the press, “and the track we’ve done is an idea based upon a mix that Darren had on one of his car tapes, which fitted really well with this techno track.”
In February this year, ‘Gorgeous’, 808 State’s long-awaited album, hit the racks, after a delay of over four months. The wait was partly due to the band ‘road-testing’ the tracks in various clubs, using acetates pressed at FON Studios in Sheffield, where most of the album was recorded. With blistering tracks like ‘Moses’, which features vocals from ex-Bunneymen singer Ian McCulloch, and the mellower ‘Black Morpheus’, the LP is perhaps their best yet, and has already spawned a startling 45, ‘Plan 9’. The first track on ‘Gorgeous’, it appeared on four formats, each one containing ‘The Word’ version of ‘Olympic’.
Already mooted as the next single is ‘Contrique’, another number from ‘Gorgeous’ which, at the time of writing, is beginning to pick up airplay in its own right. As well as sampling from Joy Division, this track also finds 808 State recycling their own back catalogue. “There’s the vocal sample ‘let it take complete control’, which we used on our first single,” explains Massey. “In fact, we spent some time sampling off our original one-inch tapes, so things come out of the dustbin many years later.” Another track off the album, ‘Europa’, samples from Diana Ross, and features vocals from Caroline Crawley, [Sid’s note: isn’t her surname ‘Seaman’?] who can be heard singing on This Mortal Coil’s ‘Blood’ LP.
Collectors should note that initial copies of the vinyl pressing of ‘Gorgeous’ include a free ‘Disco Disc’, featuring the ambient dance tracks, ‘Sexy Synthesizer’, ‘Femme Deluxe’, ‘Lemon’, ‘Purple Dust’ and ‘Sexy Dancer’. The first and last of these appear on the CD edition, which also includes the exclusive ‘Stormin Norman’, while the others are unique to the ‘Disco Disc’. Incidentally, one track from the ‘Gorgeous’ sessions left in the can was an Orb-like cover of Rolf Harris’s ‘Sun Arise’, to which the artist himself contributed some masterful didgeridoo. This, of course, had been prompted by the call from the producers of ‘Neighbours’, mentioned earlier!
808 State have achieved so
much over the past five years, and they are still a prime force in the
U.K. dance scene. They’re also beginning to make a sizeable impact in the
U.S., where they performed as part of the Hacienda Night, during the New
Music Seminar of July 1990. A critic from the ‘New York Times’, who was
undoubtedly impressed by their performance, summed up their appeal perfectly:
“The clear standout among Manchester’s electronic bands. Where the other
bands dress psychedelic and play disco, 808 State combine them into an
aural fantasy that can survive even if it is removed from the dance floor.”