16 January 1993
Is there life beyond the rave? Too right as 808 STATE discover when they confront the rough end of the rock audience with their synths and samplers on the Madness tour and come face-to-face with the golf-club wielding Hibs Casuals in darkest Edinburgh. IAN McCANN joins in with the brown trousers, pineapple marking and mountains of widders.
Art of the State: LOUISE RHODES
Backstage at the NEC, it's plain to see the nerves on Graham Massey's face.
"He's always like that," says Darren Partington dismissively, as confidentially as a naturally garrulous, outgoing lad can be. "That's what he's like."
However, despite being initially loath to mention it, and then reluctant to go into detail, it seems clear that last night's gig in Edinburgh has affected Graham today. From time to time a recollection of yesterday, recounted in the sort of excited, disbelieving voice with which you might recall a nightmare, slips from the lips of a member of 808 State.
Thus far in their career we've had 808 State versus MC Tunes, 808 State versus New Order, and, currently, 808 State versus UB40 for their strange version of 'One In Ten'. However, none of these challenges has troubled their natural Mancunian cool like 808 State versus The Hibs Casuals.
"Do you think it was pre-planned?" someone asks.
"Pre-planned?" scoffs Andy Barker, the third member of the 'band'. "Naw, they were only running round with golf clubs and baseball bats."
Here in Birmingham for the last two nights of Madness' one-step-beyond-a-comeback tour, 808 State are learning the facts of rock road life. "We're still young in this," says Darren. "It's been a bit of an eye-opener."
If you can call being locked in your dressing room an eye-opener, that is. It all went horribly wrong for 808 State in Edinburgh. "It wasn't so much us," figures Darren. "They'd come because it was a football crowd event. Madness attract that sort of audience. So the Hibs Casuals decided that they'd make a mark, let everyone know they're there. You know, like, 'We took The Madness'. All these blokes came running through the crowd with golf clubs and security barricaded us in our dressing room."
There's a look on all three members' faces that suggests it was brown trousers time.
808 STATE are the second act to feel the sharp edge of Nutty Boys' fans' Sta-Prests since Madness decided to return. Morrissey was, of course, the first, barracked and pelted off at the first of two Finsbury Park comebacks. But while it was always a vanity for Morrissey to be part of the bill - flirting with rough boys doesn't necessarily get you embraced by them - 808 State are under no such illusions.
Madness' audience, like that of fellow support act, The Farm, is a sing-song crowd. They're out for a chant and a stomp-along to tunes they've known and loved for years, from 'My Girl' to 'All Together Now'. But 808 State, despite having had a string of hits, don't fit the bill. 808's hits aren't songs, but what was once quaintly called instrumentals. Techno instrumentals to boot - up to a point, at least. And as any fool knows, an ageing football crowd can't sing along to a techno instrumental.
The question is, what the f— are 808 State playing at? Russian roulette? Here they are, a respected hit-making act playing bottom of the bill to two groups with followings that really couldn't care a damp fart about dance music. What's more, there's probably very little money in it. Are 808 State bloody berserk?
"You don't expect to be away for a year and then walk straight back in where you left off," says a slightly hoarse Darren. "I know a lot of bands would've turned this down flat and a lot of people have said, 'Why aren't you second on the bill?', but it's not a matter of that. It's a matter of taking dance music elsewhere, in front of a 90 per cent rock audience."
"At least, that was the idea. It hasn't really worked out that way," demurs Graham.
You've done gigs that are almost as big as this in your own right...
"Yeah, and we could easily opt out and just play raves," says Darren. "But then you're not doing anything for the scene, are yer? There's not many people who have got a passion for the dance scene now, they're just milking it. Anyway, we're small fish when it comes to touring."
"People take it all far too seriously," reasons Graham. "Madness offered it to us so we took it. What else would we be doing otherwise? Sitting in front of the telly. It's interesting to see how people still regard dance music as an alien thing."
Maybe it is interesting, but it's not worth getting a five iron wrapped around your skull just to find out.
808 STATE are inbetweenies. Techno aficionados are a little snotty about them, maybe because 808 are quite happy to do the occasional rock collaboration - with Bernard Sumner and Bjork Gudmundsdottir on the 'Ex:el' album, for instance - and because their sound always had hip-hop's breakbeat element long before it was fashionable.
The rock audience, meanwhile, are none too sure about them. Although Graham can be found swinging an axe or blowing down a soprano sax onstage, there's always this odd suspicion that 808 aren't a 'proper' group. After all, they use synthesisers and samplers, and don't write 'songs'. It's strange that this idea should persist, since Madness use a powerful computer sequencing system onstage, as do The Farm. Christ, you'll even find a sampler among Ned's Atomic Dustbin's stage gear, and if they can use one, it's certainly not 'cheating'.
There's a third accusation that might be levelled at 808 State. That they were part of 'Madchester', a now officially defunct scene. Which means... the mild. sensible Andy Barker as Bez, anyone? The affable Darren as Shaun? No chance. This lot were never part of the groovy train.
So what are 808 State? They admit to being "faceless", but that doesn't stop them from trying to take dance music to rock crowds, and their stuff is certainly a studio creation, but then again, whose isn't?
"People think rave music is two lycra tarts and a keyboard," smirks Darren, "but it's not like that."
They're certainly no more anonymous in the personality stakes than New Order originally were, but unlike New Order, they haven't been marketed as some amazing alternative with that generic, Factorial package. 808 State haven't become icons, in other words. They're just three or four blokes who stick out great records from time to time.
Maybe it would have helped if founder-member Martin Price had hanged himself instead of simply leaving because he was reluctant to tour. His departure, apart from causing "less arguments", in Darren's half-joking words, caused 808 to take another look at what it was they were doing. They claim that Martin's absence hasn't made their job any more difficult technically, but they have, apparently, faced up to the fact that there really isn't a huge amount of money to be made from having the occasional hit single. Hence, they now renounce the obvious route:
"We could have just made rave records and it would've been easy," claims Andy. "People have been expecting 'In Your Face' every time, but we're not going to do it. It would be too simple."
Instead, they've made 'One In Ten', an unlikely union of an old UB40 hit and 808's cerebral house, and a taster for a forthcoming album, 'Gorgeous'. It was, says Darren, "Made when all those ragga-rave records were in the charts but it's hung about six months before it was released."
At least it's given their current audience a song they might recognise, even if they've still given 808 a hard time on some dates.
"It hasn't been as bad as I thought it would be," says Graham. "It has got a bit hairy at times - particularly last night - there's never been a violent element in our audiences."
"I thought that Nazi stuff was finished over here," says Andy, shaking his head sadly.
"We're not used to all that," says Darren. "I thought that territory attitude had all died in 1982. I mean, it's bizarre, what have Madness got to do with that? They're just out there giving it some, it's like cabaret all the way but you can tell they're into it."
A lot of dance gigs are cabaret. We've all seen the likes of Felix do PAs with someone dressed in a pantomime catsuit behind. But rock can be the same act night after night, just like dance.
"You've only got to see 10,000 people going mad to 'Baggy Trousers' to know it can work," Darren reckons. "At raves, Shades Of Rhythm do the same thing: there's costume changes, acting. The Prodigy do the same thing, and it works. You can learn a lot on a tour like this about how to work yourself onstage. Suggs and Carl have got the audience by the balls. We're here to learn. It's been an interesting experiment... any gig we do after this tour will be brilliant! It would be too easy to do raves: just go out, set your keyboards up, walk off again, and get ten grand."
THERE'S MORE to learn than how to prat about onstage. To start with, you have to know how to mark your pineapple. For part of your rider, the list of extras that you get in addition to a measly payment for gigs, you might get a bowl of fruit. That fruit should be fresh every day, but just to make sure it is, you mark your pineapple - assuming you haven't already used it for some dastardly onanistic act - so that you can check whether it is the same one that turns up at the next day's gig.
You learn to fill time - tours offer endless hours of hanging about - with waffle. For example, last night, 808 State were in a hotel bar at 3am listening to roadies' stories about the Roxette tour, while fans regaled them with the history of Edinburgh's rave scene from 1987 to the present day. "You've gotta look interested," says Darren, wryly.
These dates have given a new phrase to the 808 lexicon: Horlicks Man. Because they've played so many raves, they're used to arriving at nine and then killing time until 4am when they're due onstage. According to Darren, "On this tour we're offstage at a quarter to eight. Then we can get pissed and go to bed early... Horlicks Man!"
Their tiny, windowless dressing room is home to much banter and bullshit. Soundman Pablo, a former member of Sweet Sensation, who had their moment in the spotlight with 1974 Number One 'Sad Sweet Dreamer', wanders in to announce a missing DAT tape and to ask, "Oh, is the pineapple back?" before inspecting it for the marks of yesterday.
Keith Mullen comes in for a chinwag and to hog their shower for 20 minutes. Darren and Andy yack about fans in Japan, who hold drum machines in the air, and shower the stage with computer discs to show unity.
One 808 member, who shall remain nameless, explains the delights of dropping a couple of Es and plonking your feet in a Clairol Footspar. Something futuristic on the video, like Terminator II, adds to the effect.
Graham Massey starts to look a little more relaxed, and Darren talks ten-to-the-dozen while watching Andy raid the beer crate. There's also a discussion of the term "Widders", which means sausages. It's short for "Widow's memory". With such things are boring hours whittled away.
And so 808 State take the stage at 7.15 for their ritual hiding-to-nothing. Tonight, they receive a gradually-lessening silence, and, after 30 minutes, scattered applause. I think that constitutes a victory, albeit pyrrhic. By 8pm, 808 are tucking into a dinner that, with a pleasing symmetry, includes widders. There's one more gig to go, and then Clairol evenings beckon.
808 State have realised that there's life beyond the raves, and they're attempting to sell themselves to people that buy albums rather than just the odd, non-profit-making venture called singles. In the meantime, they're making the transition between club music and golf club music, boldly going into the rough where no ravers have gone before. And considering the bunker mentality of most house acts, that's to be applauded.