Of course it now falls into place. Now that we've had ten years to think. Now that other groups have taken fragments of these fresh experiments in rhythm that bounced off the club walls of the possible and used them to create careers.
Not that 808 State - an eclectic electric cocktail of techno, hip hop, rock and jazz - would claim to have invented this sonic pile-up we call dance music. But the refractions of it, their insistence suggested, where possible, can be traced directly back to a mould-breaking attitude which left people like me to decide just what it was that they were doing while they simply got on with doing it.
Graham Massey, Darren Partington, Andrew Barker and Martin Price formed 808 State in 1987 (an earlier line up had included A Guy Called Gerald Simpson) at a time when cheap technology was about to spell SHIFT for a lot of well fed pop musicians who could no longer care less. Japanese boxes full of blinking red lights signalled that ideas were everything and, from the start, ideas flowed like water in 808 State. Graham, a musical cartographer and techno philosopher informed by a lifetime of making music happen, was already looking forward to a time when the American template could be thrown out of the studio window. He proved himself more than able to channel the raw energy of an underground culture that could pack dangerous Lancashire warehouses until daylight. DJ's Darren and Andrew, transfixed by hip hop but seduced by the electro subtext of early techno, pushed hard - insisting that things had to count in even the most remote corners of the clubs they played. Martin, who later left to pursue his own maverick vision of how things should be, saw it as clear as day. They were all catapulting forwards in the first milliseconds of the Big Bang we came to know as house. Things accelerated beyond expectation. Within a year the group were playing in front of 14 000 people at Manchester's G-Mex arena as the culture's first no-cheating live group, a status that performance driven acts like Underworld, Orbital and The Chemical Brothers have to acknowledge. It's said that people crawled through the air conditioning to get inside. These were high times when Rave meant something. It tagged a break-fuelled sound which slipped underground and later surfaced as jungle, leaving an EsGood smiley culture doomed to become a comic anachronism.
808 State made music that connected, while almost immediately signposting a way forward - to a place beyond the dance, the drugs and the lifestyle. Sure, this was the only soundtrack for the chemical adventures of a whole generation, but there were levels within records like 'Ninety' which suggested ways this music could also soundtrack personal non-narcotic space too. Others like the still sublime 'Pacific State', 'Cubik' and 'Olympic' worked as bona fide hits without a trace of compromise.
Unaware that they were, to all intents and purposes, giving a masterclass in how to reflect the times without ever worrying whether they were in step with others, the beauty of 808 State is that all this is, even now, so intuitive. At least it seems that way. From here, you could be forgiven for assuming that ten years of genre trampling rhythmically obsessed music (it's impossible to ignore the traces of a junglistic urgency in the 808 State records of the early 90's) looks like a plan completed. The next ten years will show that the plan was and is no plan. And while the few other groups stepping into a second decade of activity have already fallen asleep at the wheel, 808 State are still trying to match their own ridiculously creative standards, inspired by past and present technology and the desire to twist new shapes out of old forms. It's staggering that, from 'Ex:El' to 'Don Solaris', this is what they have always done. Mysteriously, they are rarely feted in the same way as others who are plainly spinning out strands from tired old threads.
Not that they'd frankly give a shit. Too busy in their Manchester studio putting wires where wires shouldn't go. Too busy collaborating with a roll call of willing contemporaries like Bjork and Manic Street Preachers. Too busy remixing music from the disparate likes of Quincy Jones and R.E.M. for God's sake. Too busy playing across the globe to a world outside with an attention span longer than your average British record buyer. Too busy quietly touring America for the sixth time while no doubt reading Stateside magazine stories about British electronic(a) invasions controlled by cable channel executives and commentators who must have been sleeping when 808 State played to 12 000 people at Long Beach, Los Angeles in 1991; the ink still drying in their passports.
This compilation underlines the considerable achievements of these, there-first-and-still-there, square pegs who couldn't drop into the round holes the record industry so considerately provides for the modern musician. Not even if they tried. I listened to these records again and ended up feeling unsettled and elated by the tones, twists and subtleties I had missed first time around. Some of these records started life scoring the moment. It's clear they're still worthy of your time as the culture they emerged from fades to a nostalgic speck on the horizon.
1: PACIFIC 707
3: COBRA BORA
4: IN YER FACE
5: THE ONLY RHYME THAT BITES (Extended Mix)
6:OLYMPIC (Flutey Mix)
8: LIFT (EX:EL Mix)
9: ONE IN TEN
10: PLAN 9 (LP Mix)
11: 10X10 (Gorgeous Mix)
12: BOMBADIN (Quica Mix)
17: PACIFIC 808:98
(track listing on US CD different)
|808 State - 808:88:98
I was incensed when Jonathan King once described Art of Noise's 'Close (To The Edit)' as "a medley of their hit", but that's exactly how the new mix of 808 State's 'Pacific State' sounds. Thankfully it's also here in it's original form, kicking off a career retrospective that continues with the immense 'Cubik' and probably the most accomplished dance record of the nineties, 'In Yer Face'. There's 'Cobra Bora' too which - although now sounding like acid house lift music - points a finger in the direction of 808's seamless early ninties merge of commercialism and credibility. 'The Only Rhyme That Bites' should have made MC Tunes a global star, but it wasn't to be. Forget the Dust Junkies - Tune's finest moment was with 808 on the era-defining 'Tunes Splits The Atom'. But you'll have to search the second hand stores for that one - it's 808's only chart hit that's actually missing from this LP. That mistake aside, 808 should be congratulated for one thing - luring Bjork onto the dancefloor. Nellee Hooper et al may have been responsible for her solo material, but it was 808 that first lured her to perform on the wistful 'Ooops', a gem.
We may be seven tracks into the best of 808 State, but all that happened in just one year. Fate then put a spanner in the works with the release of 'Lift', a track which fell far under par (make that pap) and seriously skewed the mass public's quality-expectation level of an 808 record. Which is a real shame because after this point came their best - if completely overlooked - work: 'Plan 9', '10x10' and the Gorgeous album is by far the best (but least successful) 808 period.
Which brings us up to 808's more recent work. I never did understand 1995's 'Bombadin'
(released more as a ZTT knee-jerk reaction to other, more impressive things going on at
the time). But the three singles from the Don Solaris album certainly saw a new, mature
direction, with guest vocals from James Dean Bradfield and the woman from Lamb. But being
mature never really suited 808 State. As this album proves, they are (were?) at the best
when full of youthful energy and it's that they'll be remembered for.