or me he's one of the key architects that shaped the sound of British underground house and techno music in its developing stages, yet Robert Gordon remains a somewhat neglected figure. Perhaps because, unlike say A Guy Called Gerald, he was very much a backroom boy who's most important work was done behind the scenes, or under aliases. He never became a personality that people could latch onto...more of a shadowy enigma, but still his shadow looms large in my mind when I think about the foundational aspects of the kind of music that really appeals to me. What follows isn't a biography or any kind of well-researched factual account of his career (this is, after all, just a load of amateur dross) but I can tell you that his parents came from Jamaica, he was raised in Sheffield and his earliest musical adventures occurred within the fringes of reggae and punk. He was a bit of a geek from an early age, with a strong interest in electronics that would stand him in good stead when he became a staff engineer at Sheffield's legendary FON studio complex in the mid-80s, working closely with Mark Brydon (future star of Moloko) on many and varied recording projects. For more details of his career, particularly his time with Warp records, I recommend you read Rob Young's excellent book "Warp - Labels Unlimited". All I offer is a brief attempt to tell his story through the vinyl records he left in his wake. This is not a complete discography by any means (that would be too unweildy for a blog post) nor is it simply a 'best of', though I think I've covered all the essential work. It's more a skim through a selection of interesting items that chart his development, including a few of the wrong-turns and disappointments, all within some vague contextual framework. Have fun with it...
AGE OF CHANCE - KISS (FON 12", 1986)**
Hardly indicative of what was to come, but significant as the earliest record in my collection to feature Gordon in the credits, as engineer for the recording sessions at FON studio. Age Of Chance were famous for five minutes, mainly for this outrageous trashing of an excellent track by Prince. They had a female drummer who played a stand-up kit, which made me think they were trying to be a sort of Lycra-clad update of the Velvet Underground. Gordon engineered many sessions by indie groups during this period, most notably Pop Will Eat Itself, and although in most cases the results haven't stood the test of time, it's interesting to listen to these early attempts to fuse a rock sensibility with elements of dance/hip hop...a sort of gestation period before things started to get really interesting. Great example of early Designers Republic sleeve art.
KRUSH - HOUSE ARREST (FON/Club 12", 1987)***
Co-produced by Gordon and Mark Brydon at FON studio, "House Arrest" was a #3 hit single in late '87, one of FON's first big-sellers, and one of the first commercially successful house records of UK origin, charting around the same time as "Pump Up The Volume" by M/A/R/R/S and laying the foundations for an all-out assault on the mainstream by the likes of Coldcut, Beatmasters, Bomb The Bass, Simon Harris, Funky Worm and Double Trouble/Rebel MC over the following couple of years. This was a mainstream frontier ripe for exploitation, and these artists utilized the new potentials found in house and hip hop, blending the strengths, refining and honing a commercially successful formula that was simply unstoppable. Krush were Mark Gamble and Cassius Campbell, with vocals from Ruthjoy (the first chanteuse of northern House). Gamble would shortly move on to success with Rhythmatic (see further down this list). Another wild sleeve design from Designers Republic.
LOVE STREET - GALAXY (Parlophone 12", 1988)**
This oddity was a one-off project by a supergroup of sorts: Stephen Mallinder (on hiatus from Cabaret Voltaire), Dave Ball (ex-Soft Cell, pre-The Grid) and Gordon, though the results weren't as exciting as one might hope. "Galaxy" is a cover of the War classic, and hasn't dated too well. The self-penned b-side "Come On Down To Love Street" is a jolly enough bassline-driven track, but any commercial possibilities dwindle with Mal's limited vocal capabilities. Ruthjoy adds guest vocals but is hopelessly under-used.
UNIQUE 3 - THE THEME (10 Records 12", 1989)*****
Okay, this is where things get serious. The "Original Chill Mix" by Bradford's Unique 3 is generally acknowledged as the first Northern 'Bleep' track, but it's Gordon's "Unique Mix" that adds the bass. Oh, and don't forget Gordon's co-production on "7 A.M.", a mellow pad-laden excursion with precision 808 beats and deep subsonic undertow. What's really interesting is that Unique 3 came out of Bradford's sound-system culture (competing with other systems like Mark Irration's Ital Rockers crew) and that's where the sparser sound and heavier bass comes from; the point where UK operators start to blend House/Techno with Jamaican dubwise sensibilities. It came outta the streets of Bradford, but Gordon was there to midwife the studio sound, and it's all encapsulated in this record - a seminal document, no less.
FORGEMASTERS - TRACK WITH NO NAME (Warp/Outer Rhythm 12", 1989)*****
We might prefer to overlook Gordon's involvement in Yazz's "Wanted" album, but the money he earned from that job was invested in a home studio set-up, where he and friends Winston Hazel and Sean Maher created this definitive statement. Originally pressed as a self-financed white label, it subsequently became the first 12" on Warp Records, the Sheffield label Gordon set up with Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell, and history was officially made. Note the early Warp logo design. Also the distinctive colour scheme not yet in place but with just a hint of purple.
MAN MACHINE - CYBER SUBSONIK MIX (Outer Rhythm 12", 1989)****
Gordon and co. offer two stripped-back, subby variations of Man Machine's eponymous track. The original sounds terribly dated, still clinging to a kind of novelty scratchin' & sample-heavy hip-house sound, but the Forgemasters versions totally eradicate all that. One side screams "1989!", the other coolly states "Welcome to the Future...".
SWEET EXORCIST - TESTONE REMIXES (Warp/Outer Rhythm 12", 1990)*****
As one third of the original Warp management team, Gordon's primary role was overseeing the production, mixing and mastering side of things. As such we can assume he brought much influence to bear on the sound of all those early classics from LFO, Nightmares on Wax, etc. There were other labels operating in the North, notably Bassic and Ozone, but none made records that cut as deep as those early Warps. As Gordon explained to Rob Young, "There's no appreciation for the amount of research that went into those records. It's not a fluke, why they were good. All the Warp records at that time were cut at Virgin's Townhouse. I insisted on that. There was a guy there, Kevin Metcalfe, who cut the whole of the Greensleeves catalogue. Listen to any Greensleeves record: there's never anything wrong with it". On the occasions when Gordon brought his remix skills to the fore, the results were never less than heavyweight, and his "Testfour" remix of Sweet Excorcist's "Testone" (the second 'Bleep' anthem) is surely the definitive version.
CABARET VOLTAIRE - EASY LIFE REMIXES (Parlophone 12", 1990)****
Gordon and Brydon had a heavy production involvement on the Cabs' "Groovy Laidback & Nasty" album, though the record didn't quite gel. "Easy Life" was the most artistically successful track on the album, the only one that really sounded like a true Sheffield track. When released as a single, they called the 12" version the "Jive Turkey Mix" in honour of the Sheffield club. The additional remix 12" featured three radical remakes by Gordon - 'vocal mix', 'strange mix' and, er, 'very strange mix', which sums it up really. This was the final release for the Cabs on Parlophone and marked the end of their ill-fated attempt to move into the mainstream, though Gordon would continue to work with them on various releases over the next couple of years.
RHYTHMATIC - TAKE ME BACK REMIXES (Network 12", 1990)****
Mark Gamble's Rhythmatic project quickly established itself as a great bleep 'n' bass act in it's own right, but Gordon's reputation for achieving maximum bass density is made explicit in the title of this remix: "Robert Gordon's 0742 Edit - 'With Extra Bass"!
INSPIRAL CARPETS - COMMERCIAL RAIN REMIX (Mute 12", 1990)***
Was there ever a time when Indie and Dance were more entwined than at the turn of the nineties? The biggest 'guitar acts' of the day, particularly from the Madchester scene (Happy Mondays, Stone Roses) plus Primal Scream, Flowered Up, Candy Flip, Jesus Jones, The Charlatons, Blur etc etc all seemed tuned into the dance scene to varying degrees, always aspiring towards new possibilities, often finding ideological connections between the '60s model of psychedelia and current trends in the still-developing Rave culture. Inspiral Carpets were no exception. Despite their resolutely retro image, Clint Boon's Farfisa signature sound and general air of pathos, they seemed to fit comfortably into the general scheme of things. Most indie groups of the period wouldn't be seen dead without a dance remix 12" to accompany their single, and here the Inspirals turn to Gordon's Forgemasters for a stately dancefloor makeover.
ENERGISE - REPORT TO THE DANCEFLOOR REMIX (Network 12", 1991)****
If pushed I'd have to admit that Dave Lee's own 'Electro Mix' is my favourite version of this, but Gordon's 'Hi-Teck' and 'Lo-Teck' mixes excerpt a strong gravitational pull of their own, the former a slice of yelping headlong hysteria and the latter an economically reduced drum 'n' fx workout.
THE STEP - YEAH YOU REMIXES (Warp 12", 1991)*****
With his time at Warp soon to come to an acrimonious end, Gordon delivered another awesome 12" remix, this time for The Step's "Yeah You". The Step was a brief collaborative project between DJ Parrot (Sweet Excorcist) and Winston Hazell (Forgemasters) with co-production by Mark Brydon and vocals by Sarah Jay. The a-side remix is massive, but it's the two dub mixes on the flip that still fascinate me most, as Gordon progressively strips the track down to it's barest essence with added lashings of digital delay. An excellent application of non-retro dub strategies.
XON - THE MOOD SET (Network 12", 1991)*****
They'd already worked together extensively on Cabaret Voltaire and Sweet Excorcist projects, but this, the solitary release from Xon, is where two of my all-time heroes - Gordon and Richard H. Kirk - came together on equal footing. The Cybotron-sampling "Dissonance" is the standout track, but all three electro-flavoured bleepers stand-up as some of their best work. Buy on sight!
FORGEMASTERS - THE BLACK STEEL E.P. (Network 12", 1991)****
This four-tracker is particularly notable for "Stress", which Simon Reynolds described in Energy Flash as "awesomely inorganic...sounds so shiny, sibilant and serrated they seem to lacerate the ear-drum". Also includes a tasty refix of "Track With No Name", whilst Richard H. Kirk repays all those remixes with a brutally effective mix of "Clap".
THE ART OF NOISE - THE FON MIXES (CHINA 2xLP, 1991)***
FON-mania reaches it's height with this album of remixed updates from Art Of Noise's back-catalogue. Sweet Excorcist, LFO, Mark Gamble/Rythmatic, 808 State's Graham Massey and even some bloke called Carl Cox all get to stamp their mark, although The Prodigy's mix of "Instruments Of Darkness" is, as you might expect, the most heavily dated track here. Liam Howlett was hardly part of FON's extended family anyway, so god knows what he was doing there in the first place (well actually it's pretty obvious what he's doing there - helping to sell the record off the back of his meteoric rise to fame). Gordon contributes a refix of "Backbeat" notable for the extreme arcs of equalisation on the hi-hats - a Tubby-esque technique that also predates the effect of 'filter house' by a number of years.
FORGEMASTERS - QUABALA EP (Hubba Hubba 12", 1992)****
Change was already in the air by '92, and this four-track EP turned out to be the final release from the Forgemasters, on the tiny Hubba Hubba imprint. I don't remember this record making much of an impact at the time, but still it exudes much charm today. Includes a new version of "Shall We" (the b-side of "Track With No Name") featuring an added (uncredited) female full-vocal and piano flourishes that could've had some commercial potential if it had been released earlier on a more high-profile label.
TOM TOM - THE IRON HAMMA (Beeswax 12", 1993)*
By '93 the climate had changed beyond recognition. Bleeps were already ancient history, Warp had turned their attention to developing ambient album-orientated electronica whilst in the South radical new forces were coalescing into what we now refer to as the 'hardcore continuum'. Gordon, once the undisputed king of bass, was now a marginalised figure seemingly unwilling or unable to compete on these new frontiers. The management and financial problems encountered by FON studio, which shortly led to it's closure, would soon rob him of a base of operations for his production/remix work too. The only record I own from '93 that bears his name is this one, and I've never much cared for it. It might be a solo release, although Gordon is only credited for mixing/engineering on the label. It's a fairly nondescript slice of piano-led repetitive hard house that bears little resemblance to the deep, spacious sound he was best known for.
VIEW TO VIEW EP (Source 12", 1994)***
...but the story wasn't over... yet. I have no documented info on Gordon's activities beyond this point, so all further comments are pure conjecture based on the recorded evidence available. It would appear that Gordon found a benefactor in David Moufang, producer and owner of Source Records in Germany (perhaps Gordon relocated to Germany at this time?). Recorded at Moufang's reSource studio, View To View was a collaborative effort spawning this four-track ep of deep, melodic techno. It's a very satisfying collection, even though it features none of Gordon's hallmark production weight, and it's nice to hear him spreading his creative wings in a less competitive market situation. Final track "Nightcruz" in particular has a beautifully languid, minimal atmosphere that still sounds very effective.
BLACK KNIGHT EP (Source 12", 1994)****
Gordon quickly followed with another four-tracker for Source, under another new guise, with partial collaboration from one Glenroy Edwards. Opening track "Capita" is wicked - a sub-heavy monster of a tune that finally brings his sound forward, whilst "Moody" harks back to the glacial percussion and stealthy riffs of his earlier phase, with added Rasta-centric samples that would sound perfect on a dubstep record today. A spectacular return to form!
OZOONA - BLACKBIRD SUITE/THE HUNT (FAX 12", 1996)****
...but then everything went quiet again for another year, until Gordon suddenly re-emerged for this one-off collaboration with another German-based producer, legendary ambient don Pete Namlook, and the results were extraordinary. "Blackbird Suite" is a kind of intelligent drum 'n bass thing, with chopped breaks and deadly deep subs working in counterpoint to Namlook's trademark swirls of dreamy analogue synth texture. But "The Hunt" is something else entirely - an alarmingly intense rush of hyper-speed breaks fed through the sonic mangler - an avant-garde post-jungle experiment of frightening proportions, and on the whole this is a fascinating glimpse into Gordon's response to the d'n'b genre.
ROB GORDON PROJECTS (Source 2xLP, 1996)****
The story ends with Gordon finally getting an album all of his own - the only record in this whole list to proudly bare his name and image on the cover. But rather than being the start of his artistic revival, this comes across as a retrospective that collects all his stray unreleased recordings from 1991-95, including three forgotten Forgemasters tracks, a collaboration with Richie Hawtin (as Fuse/BK) and the previously unknown A1 Project (a collaboration with some guy called Stephen Naylor). Respect to David Moufang for bringing it all together. Incidently, just last year Moufang (in his guise as Move D) released a track called "Sheffield Dance" on the Modern Love label, that in both name and sound comes across as a homage to Gordon and the scene that he played such a crucial part in. As far as I know, Gordon released nothing else of note beyond this point and I have no idea what he's up to these days. Any information and enlightenment will be gratefully received...