PERMANENT RECORDS: I FEEL SO GOOD WHEN I LOOK AT YOU, I REFUSE TO BELIEVE THERE WAS EVER A QUESTION
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
34. 808 STATE - EX:EL (1991)
Personnel: Graham Massey, Martin Price, Andrew Barker, Darren Partington, everything; Bernard Sumner, guest vocals ("Spanish Heart"); Björk Gudmundsdottir, guest vocals ("Qmart" & "Ooops")
Producer: 808 State/ Label: Tommy Boy/ZTT
It's always a bit odd to be present at a shift in the musical landscape. In general in life, when big changes happen, we aren't really aware of them. It's often more gradual than we expected, or being caught up in the makeover makes us blind to it. Not so in music, because music has to be experienced, and if it sounds different than what came before it, it's obvious. It's exciting, and it's visceral, and it can be felt.
808 State was just such a shift for me. They debuted as I graduated in high school and released their awesome second album, EX:EL, during my first year in college. I had heard electronic music before, listened to synthesizer pop, but techno wasn't really part of my vocabulary. I know house and other club sounds were developing, but I wasn't yet running out to nightclubs to dance, and it was very much an underground thing. EX:EL--largely instrumental, completely electronic--was a momentous arrival for my ears.
I was an inbetweener at this point. In so many ways. It was life-transition time. What would I become now that I was making my first stumbling steps out on my own? Would the records of my now fading youth still be enough for me? One could mark my initial progression as a music fan from 1983, when Duran Duran released the single for "New Moon on Monday," to December 1990, when I saw the Trash Can Sinatras perform at the KROQ Acoustic Christmas at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. I was gobsmacked by their gorgeous four-song set--"Obscurity Knocks," "Thrupenny Tears," "You Made Me Feel," and "Only Tongue Can Tell"--and the fact that Frank Reader had my same haircut and the same round, mirrored sunglasses I wore. I was about to get my first CD player, and the first two discs I would buy at Something Else while I was home on break were the Smiths Peel Session and Trash Can Sinatras Cake, effectively putting the lid on that era for me. I would not reopen the box until 1993 when Suede came along and kicked-off Britpop. (And you'll likely note that a good majority of the records chosen for this series will fit into those periods.)
Raves and dance music were the new thing, growing up like an umbrella to protect me from the acid rain of grunge. New Order, Depeche Mode, and the like had served as a preamble to this era, but there was a darkness pervading that music and there was a definite focus on lyrics. The growing techno scene of the early '90s wasn't about either of those things. It was about big, bright hooks and a culture of collectiveness. 808 State was a weird doorway into that. They were a hold-over from baggy, and I had been hipped to them when MTV lumped them into the Madchester scene along with the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and Inspiral Carpets. I knew they were different than those other bands, but I didn't yet know what 808 State was actually indicative of.
I bought EX:EL and loved it. It's not entirely avant garde, having gone completely off the map of recognizable song structures the way, say, an Aphex Twin album might (to cite one example). There is even a bit of a bridge between generations, with New Order's Bernard Sumner guesting on "Spanish Heart," a genial chill out track that sounds like an outtake from the first Electronic album (which was just around the corner). It's an interesting track, as voice and music are perfectly aligned. One doesn't move without the other, only occasionally does the music step aside to let the voice step up front, and vice versa.
The Bjork tracks are more abstract. "Qmart" has a whistling synthesizer hook and slowed down acid-house piano. Bjork's performance ranges from guttural throat clearing akin to some of the tricks later employed on her own Medulla to the sort of vocal outburst she was known for in early Sugarcubes. It almost sounds like they recorded her warming up to get ready to do the real song. (If she's singing in Icelandic, then this makes it two weeks in a row my ignorance leads me to slam that country's language. Respect to Iceland!)
"Ooops" is much more traditional, suggestive of Bjork's Debut. Built around an insistent piano riff and a bird-like trill, ebbing and flowing around databank tinkles and a swirly horn bit, Bjork fits her lines between and over the sounds. The chorus is like a ringing bell, her voice going from one side to the other like a head bob, shoulders bouncing in rhythm. Had they released "Ooops" a couple of years later, it would have been a cool side single to Bjork's early stuff, evident as the missing link between the Sugarcubes and "Human Behaviour;" now it's more like a lost treasure. (It should be noted that Graham Massey has done production and remixing for Bjork since.)
The rest of the album incorporates a ton of influences, leaving no sound unheard. The vocal sample on "Leo Leo" sounds like it was lifted off a reggae single (and indeed, there is a B-side version with Raagman on vocals), and the one on "Nephatiti" works with the ominous washes and distant beat to create something like a soundtrack to a sci-fi movie where the Egyptians rule the future (didn't Peter Milligan do a Vertigo comic book about that?). "Lift" is as much a descriptive as it is a title, an ambient dance track that goes up and up, like a ski lift heading towards the top of a snowy mountain. There are some real bangers, too, like the frenetic "In Your Face" and the relentless "Techno Bell" with its chiming breaks.
And then, of course, there is "Cubik," the song so mega it had to be on both of 808 State's first two LPs. On the US version of EX:EL, we are actually treated to a super long remix by Eric Kupper and Tom Richardson. "Cubik" has one of the most amazing hooks ever on a dance track. It's beauty is its versatility, working both as a quiet sequence of bloops and blips and as a rough industrial grind. It's like reveille for the dance clan, a call to the floor. It has alternating beats, a metallic snare going up against more inorganic drums--a gauntlet being thrown, a duel for the honor of commanding your feet. Still, the star remains that hook. It goes on and on for days, but it never grows less potent.
And yet, while being dance music, EX:EL is adaptable to moods. You can party to the CD, or you can chill; play it while you work, or while you exercise. In essence, it's all-purpose, just like pop records should be.
Liking the music wasn't the whole shebang, however. I wouldn't fully grasp what was happening until a desire to see 808 State in a live setting accidentally lead me to my first rave.
The fact that I can say I "accidentally" ended up at my first rave is probably indicative of how out of step I was in danger of becoming. I had seen the show advertised as an 808 State concert, I didn't consider that it could be anything more. I was still dressing in all black--in my day, back when dinosaurs drove Model Ts, we called it "death rock," not "goth"--and I had a shirt I really liked that was like a rainstorm of skeletons, one bone daddy tumbling down after another. Little did I know that I was going to be entering a hall full of kids in baggy jeans, oversized T-shirts, and day-glo colors. They were emulating "baggy," a new moptop fashion. I was James Dean by way of Andrew Eldritch. Take a picture, see what does not belong.
I began to feel more and more out of place as the night wore on. The band wasn't going to play until late, so until then, we were free to wander the venue, which was like an airplane hangar turned into a convention hall. It was at the same place where the Queen Mary and the Spruce Goose were both docked, right near my college in Long Beach, California. The event was set up like a carnival, with booths hawking flower power T-shirts and big rubber houses for jumping in. I was attending the show by myself, but unfortunately, I wasn't unknown.
You see, a bunch of kids from my high school had driven the two-plus hours for the party. They were younger than me, and a couple of them had been in my creative writing class my senior year--the first creative writing class at Quartz Hill High. One of them in particular was a smarmy little kid who liked to shave his hair down to the scalp except for one handful that he grew as long as he could, letting it fall down his face and nearly touch his chest. I hated that kid. He was the kind of faker who I despised, who wrote poetry that was full of words people didn't know off-hand and that never added up to much. He was a big reason I learned not to trust the knowingly weird, the creative types whose work obfuscates its own lack of meaning so the dim will think that because they do not understand it, it equals art.
This boy and his cohorts were sitting outside the venue when I arrived, and they immediately saw me and knew me and ushered me over. I sat with them, not saying very much, mainly listening. They were making references to things that were beyond me, and this is where the real shift became most evident. I was all of eighteen years old, but the separation between myself and them was more than a long drive. I was in college, they were in high school, ergo I was an old man who no longer got it. I showed up wearing a skeleton shirt and they laughed at T-shirts urging us all to "Say NO2 Drugs." I didn't even know people were taking nitrous oxide to get a buzz!
I avoided them once inside. While the whole rave culture would eventually come to signify a coming together in most people's minds, I kept to myself. I don't even think I danced there at first. I probably just did my usual concert routine of hanging around down front hoping to be on the barricade when the show started. Still unclear of the concept, really. You come to a dance show to dance, not to slavishly worship the band down at the front. I wasn't really going to lose this stigma of the dark outsider--which may or may not have existed anywhere beyond my head--until the place went dark itself. Once 808 State took the stage, none of that mattered. Just as they were pioneers of the genre, they were early in making the music work live, with a lights show and a Jamaican-style toaster rousing up the crowd. They played multiple instruments, including the clarinet for songs like "Pacific."
But the big surprise was that Bjork had traveled to California for the gig, doing both of her EX:EL songs. There was a huge wave of excitement, people had not been expecting this turn of events. Even I lost myself in the hysteria. I was dancing now, shouting, joining in the festivities. Had I wanted, I could have been part of the community. Last week, I joined the Sigur Rós tribe by accident; in 1991, I stayed out of the 808 State by choice.
I never completely joined, not that night or any night. I always stayed out. Having never done drugs before or since, I didn't get that part of the subculture, and I was never going to accept the uniform. I always went to raves in my regular black. There was a point where I tried to make sense of it all, writing a story called "Patriot Jughead" about a boy a lot like me who went to that very show, saw some kids very much like the ones I knew in high school, and we both spotted the titular oddball making his way through the crowd. As clumsy and embarrassing as the prose is now (and you can point and laugh at the pdf of this fifteen-year-old story here), it's a pretty accurate report of what I saw and heard--minus the love triangle bit and the anguished gesture at the climax, that's all fiction. I guess I wanted to understand it as an observer so I could experience the music, but I wanted to maintain the island of one that I called me, something I would continue even into my move to Portland, which was still in the sweaty and un-deodorized grip of grunge when I moved here in 1994, around the time I re-engaged with a scene and the aforementioned emergence of Suede.
Which suggests that perhaps the only Jughead was me: a witness to history, not a participant. I said earlier it wasn't just about liking the tunes, but I made sure that's how it was for me. So, despite its musical merits, I may have doomed EX:EL to a slot in my permanent records marked for my own stubbornness.
Even so, put on "Cubik," and I'm going to dance. Every single time. Wink at me the right way and ply me with enough champagne, and you never know, I may just dance along with you. What can I say? I've softened. But don't get cute, because it's not by much.
NOTABLE B-SIDE: Not so much a B-side, as a lost A-side, possibly a white label. Around this time, Los Angeles got a new radio station called MARS FM. It was the greatest radio station I've ever heard. They played everything, and well ahead of everyone else. I heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on there at least two months before the "World Famous" KROQ, it was the first place I heard Moby's "Go," and I recall them hosting Paul Weller for five nights in a row when his first solo album came out. It was on one of their mix shows that I heard the 808 State remix of "Owner of a Lonely Heart" by Yes. It's an execrable song in its original form, but 808 State took the best route available by obliterating any recognizable reference to the Yes version and crafting something new out of the tiniest of building blocks. It was bold and daring, and that's probably why it never officially got released the way their much safer revamp of Bowie's "Sound + Vision" did. I only heard it that one time, and had I not met one other person since who'd heard it somewhere, too, I'd have stopped believing it exists. Anyone got it?
Reminder: You know, I don't see any of my Permanent Records entries showing up in my referrals account at Amazon. For shame! Once again, a lot of this 808 State music I am linking to, including EX:EL, is available super cheap, less than a buck before postage. Wju not try it? This post is full of links to Amazon. Click on any one of them when shopping, and Amazon will shave a few pennies off their take to give to me. So, if my reviews make you all hot and bothered and you just have to own one of the things I'm talking about, use my link and contribute to buying me more stuff to review. (Those reading a Live Journal feed will likely have to click to the actual blog page first before heading over to Amazon, though.) Either way, thanks for reading.
Current Soundtrack: PM Dawn, Jesus Wept
Current Mood: indifferent
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich