He's been there since the start, since the first tentative attempts by UK artists to emulate and expand on the possibilities of electronic dance muzik emanating from the US. When Manchester-based jazz/soulboy Gerald Simpson (inspired by the Acid House sound from Chicago) hooked-up with Martin Price and ex-Biting Tongues member Graham Massey (a couple of white indie-funk lads) to form 808 State, they were plotting a course through uncharted waters that would have a far-reaching effect on the development of electronic music in the UK and beyond. When their first album "Newbuild" (Creed Records, 1988) hit the streets, it took the Acid template to new heights of otherness and proved that Brits could produce convincing underground dance music to rival their illustrious American cousins. Let's not forget that, for young Richard D. James and his chums down in deepest Cornwall (where American imports were no doubt a bit thin on the ground), "Newbuild" was The Mindphuk. So much so that Rephlex would many years later re-issue the album on CD and deluxe 3-disc vinyl in tribute (buy it here). The album remains a dazzlingly hypnotic collection of TB-303 Acid workouts, particularly "Flow Coma", which hit levels of lysergic intensity beyond anything that had yet been heard (and yes, that includes "Acid Trax"!). As Graham Massey later remarked:
'We knew we were copying American music, but often what we heard on Acid Trax compilations and dance imports didn't hit the mark. The charm of a decent Acid record didn't necessarily happen every time. There was maybe one in ten that really rocked, and it was almost accidental that a track was successful. The formula was there, and we knew that we weren't coming up with anything new when we started to make Acid records. It was more the urge to take it over the edge and do that transcending thing with it.'
Indeed, "Compulsion", with it's incessant call to "release your body" is the audio equivalent of brainwashing - a mind-wiping cyclic beat lock-down from which there is no possible escape. Elsewhere, the cold, synthetic sweeping drones of "Narcossa" reveals a darker, distinctly European take on the Acid blueprint that was a personal revelation at the time.
"Newbuild" was the culmination of several months of experimentation by 808 State, and a collection of earlier recordings and live performances was released by Rephlex last year. Entitled "Prebuild", it reveals the creative process that Simpson, Massey and Price went through on their voyage of discovery. As Gerald explains at his website:
"I'd already been on a journey through classic dance, jazz dance, contemporary dance. I'd cut my teeth listening to artists like Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Al di Meola and later on moved into listening to what we called 'street soul' - like SOS Band and then hip hop/electro. I think Graham was coming from more an indie side of things so he understood more of what we called at the time 'student music'. We were learning from each other all the time - it was really educational for me working with people that were from different areas of music than I was used to because I was so engrossed in my own musical roots, there's so much of it from contemporary jazz to UK dub soundsystems that I never really took notice of indie or pop music."
"Prebuild" tracks like "Ride" seem like an almost too perfect example of Massey's white avant-funk sensibilities colliding with Simpson's black electro-soul background. The rudimentary slap bass seems typical of the type of experimental funk that had been brewing in the North from acts like A Certain Ratio, Hula and Cabaret Voltaire. Factor in Gerald's tuff latin-flavoured drum patterns for a curious hybrid of street 'authenticity' and artschool appropriation. Elsewhere, the lo-fi, tape-hiss encrusted recordings like "Johnny Cab", featuring Massey's thin, piercing synth-pop melodies could almost be an early Human League demo from ten years earlier, until Gerald's pumping House beat kicks-in to remind us that this is actually 1988. "Cosacosa" starts out as an early draft of "Flow Coma", seemingly captured at the moment of creation on a portable cassette deck; the layer of muddied tape compression strangely adding an extra element of authenticity and historical importance.
Perhaps best of all is the final 15-minute live freakout called "Thermo Kings", which was actually the first thing they ever recorded together. An Acidic odyssey, it's like a UK version of "Let's Go" the seminal meeting of minds that occurred when Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson first recorded together (as X-Ray) with an extended (and apparently drunken) jam that cemented their partnership as the Holy Trinity of Detroit Techno. God, I wish I'd been there to see it happen! As a document of their transition from Indie/Funk to House/Techno, "Prebuild" is unparalleled. In fact, the very existence of 808 State at that time was unparalleled. I can't think of any other act to emerge from the late '80s 'Madchester' scene that was truly innovating, so totally in the now, without recourse to traditional rock/pop sensibilities. Buy "Prebuild" here.
Another interesting artifact released by Rephlex recently is the "Acid House Mixes" of two New Order tracks, although perhaps the term 'remix' is inaccurate. These mixes of "Blue Monday" and "Confusion" sound more like acidic cover versions; their only relation to the originals being the squelchy recreation of the basslines under what are otherwise typically hypnotic 808 State jams of the period, which were never intended for release at the time, but provide an interesting link to their fellow Mancunion forebears; one of the few acts to successfully incorporate Kraftwerk and early electro influences into their sound. Buy it here.
The partnership was not to last. For a detailed account of the circumstances that led to Gerald leaving 808 State, check this recent interview with Graham Massey, brought to you by those nice people at The Milk Factory. Now working alone as A Guy Called Gerald, Simpson would quickly establish himself by releasing what must surely be one of the undisputed classics of UK dance culture, "Voodoo Ray". Recorded with extremely basic equipment (the track was supposed to be called "Voodoo Rage", but Gerald's pea-brained little sampler didn't have enough memory) it would go on to chart at #12 and seemingly set him up to become the first home-grown superstar of House. Almost at the same time, Massey and Price hit the charts with "Pacific State ", a track that Gerald had actually contributed to before parting company, but which he would not receive credit for for some time.
Having established themselves with hit singles, both Gerald and 808 State had to follow that up with albums. Perhaps dictated by their respective record deals, 808 seemed to have the most potential, no doubt helped by having a supportive backer on Trevor Horn's ZTT Records, and Massey and Co. flourished over the following years. Certainly the "Ninety" album very much impressed me at the time and led to a period of hero worship whereby I saw them live every chance I got and even got Price and 'guest star' MC Tunes to sign the back of my beige jacket, which I displayed with pride for some time (until I had to wash it!).
By contrast, Gerald's career seemed to falter from this point. His first long-player, "Hot Lemonade" (Rham, 1988) failed to consolidate on his hit single success and received mixed reactions from the critics. Perhaps the heavy quota of relentless jams was a little hard for those expecting a 'pop record' to take. Listening back now, I think it's generally a good record. The title track seems to try a little too hard, but when Gerald keeps things simple and direct it's makes for a satisfying ( if somewhat nostalgic) listen today. In fact, a track like "Rhythm Of Life" retains an elegance and economy of expression that still greatly appeals to me. That combination of hard electronic beats with smooth, melodic, soulful synth textures remains an eternally inspiring design classic that just doesn't date in my world. Right now, my favourite track is "Tranquility On Phobos", which starts with a bubbling latin-acid groove and is soon augmented by a beautiful wash of effervescent melody which is so delightful that Gerald seems compelled to scat a few 'doo doo da doos' over the top. Pure joy.
Although his subsequent deal with CBS/Sony must've seemed like a shrewd career move, in fact the follow-up album "Automanikk" was something of a disaster. From the cover alone, where Gerald looks like he's been groomed for pop-star appeal, you could sense that this wasn't going to be a great record. It's always horrible when talented, creative artists get chewed-up and spat-out by the industry, and this collection of half-cooked commercial dance tracks is a prime of example of A&R interference at it's worst, made all the more annoying by the fact that Gerald's best work from that time remains unreleased and squandered. FYI, I haven't heard this album for many years (it was purged from my collection a long time ago) so my opinion is based on vague memories. If anyone out there thinks I'm being too hard on it, please feel free to state your case!
Thankfully, the unhappy experiences with a major label didn't dim Gerald's spirit and by the early nineties, after being introduced to it by Goldie, he found fresh inspiration in the still-developing underground Jungle scene. Over the next few years Gerald released a steady stream of twelve inches on his own Juicebox label, culminating with one of the first albums to emerge from the ambient/artcore D'n'B axis, "Black Secret Technology" (Juice Box, 1995). It's a beautiful record, better than Goldie's "Timeless" overall, and once again Gerald's star seemed to be on the ascent. But for some reason things went off the boil again and I finally lost track of his career.
I sometimes wonder what might have been if Gerald had had the opportunity to develop the purer electronic sound of his earlier work. The potential locked in some of those "Hot Lemonade" tracks seemed unfulfilled, but Gerald's apparent commitment to breakbeat/D'n'B ensured that it would remain that way. So imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that his new 'comeback' EP on !K7 appears to return to the adventure that fizzled-out fifteen years ago. Called "First Try", the EP is a taster for Gerald's new album which comes out at the end of this month. Having listened to the clips and read the blurb, I was eager to hear the whole thing, but after patiently waiting in vain for !K7 to add the EP at Bleep, or even release it on CD, I ended up buying the twelve inch (once you start, you can't stop!) even though I assume that all four tracks will appear on the album in due course.
It's a curious release....it's what I imagine Gerald would've sounded like in about 1995, if he'd gone down the Neo-Detroit/Technophunk route. The gorgeous title track puts me in mind of some of the soulful techno that Dave Angel released on his Rotation imprint around that time, featuring warm synth pads and bubbling, watery arpeggios underpinned by a deep, subby bassline. It doesn't sound influenced by current trends at all. The lack of vocals is also unusual - one of Gerald's trademarks is to integrate vocal hooks (often female) into his tracks, but here he let's the machines do all the talking. Despite having been in the business so long, "First Try" seems an apt title, as though Gerald has finally allowed himself to try to express complex emotions through pure electronics alone. Second track "Meaning" shifts into contemplative mode, with somber melodies floating over a limpid electro landscape that recalls the elegant beauty of early Autechre (think side 2 of "Incunabula").
The appropriately titled "Pump" features the kind of straight-ahead 909 drum programming that I assumed had been abandoned by 'serious' artists years ago, including the ubiquitous open hi-hat locked on the off-beat and those tasty 909 snare/crash fills, augmented by sparse metallic percussion and jittery bloops 'n' bleeps. It ought to sound moronic by today's standards, yet in Gerald's capable hands it feels just perfect. Final track "Tajeen" is an irresistible blend of choppy sequencer riffs, jazz bass, portentous strings and busy 808 patterns that could almost be a Model 500 track circa "Deep Space".
If this is indeed the sound of Gerald investigating lost opportunities from the past, it's also a timely reminder to all that there was so much beauty in the '93-'95 Techno/Detroit/Intelligent scene that needs to be re-explored and even built upon. As hinted in my previous post, a return to melody, harmony, atmosphere and textural lushness could be another valid direction for IDM's future - a shift of emphasis away from the information-overload and dynamic complexity of glitchy drill'n'paste and towards a spacious zone where direct emotional expression can flourish again. A place where we can be 'dancing with tears in our eyes' once more. As a road map to such a future, "First Try" is the perfect starting-point.