Reigning kings of mind-blowing, faceless techno, LEFTFIELD’s anti-fashion, laid-back stance threatens to make The Stone Roses look like Prince. IESTYN GEORGE tracks down these shadowy figures to find out where their ferocious, hybrid sound comes from, where it fits in the current genre-hopping climate and why there isn’t more of it.
Good mixers: STEVE DOUBLE
New Year’s Eve 1993. A sweltering Brixton Academy is filled to the brim with techno heads, indie kids, hippies and the full gamut of freaks that occupy the Megadog universe
The sound system explodes with shuddering rhythms and stabbing chords of noise, then an all-too familiar howl tears at the walls of the ears, momentarily drowned by 4,000 screams of approval. It’s midnight – and Hollywood burns.
Exactly one year later at Vague, Leeds’ revered home of handbag house, and every inch of floorspace – every last square millimetre of table top, balcony and stair – vibrates to the stack-heeled stomp of the multitude.
Men dressed as women, women dressed as cavemen, boys dressed as Marlboro Man and girls dressed as boys – all raise their hands to the rafters as, once again, the man with the copper hair wreaks his scornful havoc. It’s midnight. And it’s that song again.
LEFTFIELD. LYDON. It even sounded right when you said it. And when ‘Open Up’ hit the Top 40 in November ’93, it looked like Leftfield would lead the techno revolutionaries beyond the valley of the obscure 12" white label and into the promised land, For the first time in an age, a genuinely creative force had swept across all musical barriers, from the dancefloor to MTV rotation, in a matter of weeks. But as soon as the video images faded, so did they.
And since then... nothing. There were others who took on the new challenge: Underworld became the new heroes, then along came rich promise from Orbital and The Prodigy. The underground continued to throw up new twists and turns.
What the hell happened to Leftfield?
Let it be writ large: Leftfield And Lydon Changed The Face of Music. And Then They Did Bugger All About It.
In their defence, there are mitigating circumstances. Soon after 'Open Up', the majors came knocking, resulting in a licensing deal for their Hard Hands label through Sony. Anyhow, we'd sort of got used to the way they'd release a single, do a couple of remixes and disappear for a while. That's the way of the underground. No tours, no promotion - just the music. And what music.
Fact one: most dance records are made to sound like other dance records. Fact two: Leftfield set out to make records that sounded different. Along with early '9Os exponents like React 2 Rhythm and Supereal, and DJs like Andrew Weatherall, they unwittingly set the foundations on which today's British dance music scene is built.
Dub House Disco it was called by some, Progressive House by others. But whatever the term, the indigenous underground ingeniously merged Euro techno and hard American house, adding dub rhythms and Eastern vocal inflections. Seemingly overnight, Britain had developed its own definitive sound instead of merely trying to replicate other styles. And, as in '93, Leftfield provided the anthem of the time in 'Not Forgotten'.
Eventually, 'progressive house' became a term of abuse, cursed in clubland for its no-frills approach and its overwhelmingly male constituency. But its impact is still apparent. Megadog, the ambient movement and the new breed of techno innovators all owe a small debt of gratitude to the likes of Leftfield.
But still, it has been a 15-month absence - which is fine if you are an established rock act resting on the laurels of triple-platinum album sales. But for a group whose entire recorded output thus far measures roughly half the length of a C60...
ENTER THE lair of their half-built, promisingly plush West London recording studio and you come face-to-face with the unexpected - a man eating lasagne. This is Leftfield's Neil Barnes, not at all the techno Rob 'Robert' Newman of his publicity pictures. He's very slight, relatively healthy looking with a hint of 'undernourished comprehensive schoolboy' about him. For some strange reason, he resembles the singer from immaculate pop craftsmen The Bluetones.
Across the room, a larger, mildly threatening figure is enveloped by a comfy armchair. Ruddy faced with close-cropped scalp, he has the forearms of a farm-hand and the demeanour of your archetypal cockney geezer, typified by an exuberant guffaw reminiscent of Sid James. Except he's from Ramsgate, on the Kent coast. And his name's not Del, or Tez. It's Paul Daley.
They first started working together as percussionists, performing at The Sandals' first club, Violets. Barnes had played for the London School of Samba, having been taught the drums by his grandfather. Daley played in various dodgy punk outfits, became a hairdresser and ended up as a session percussionist for Brand New Heavies - like you do - before appearing on Primal Scream's 'Dixie-Narco' EP.
"Suddenly it became really easy to make records," explains Daley. "Everyone was going out and buying a sampler. So did we."
Barnes had sold his soul to electronic music when he saw Afrika Bambaataa using drum machines live in 1986. The key moment for Daley was when his partner introduced him to the S950 sampler.
"It was love at first sight," he beams. "We've still got it, in fact. It's knackered now, though."
For arch exponents of Faceless Techno Bollocks, they do more than a little to maintain the artistic stereotype. Affable and eager though they are, they still have a faint air of detachment which suggests that making the music is enough. The rest is not part of the deal when you're dealing with musicians who set out to make the most of their anonymity. When Daley explains that he first got into house because it stripped away all the peripheral stuff involved in making music, it goes some way to explaining their attitude. They've no need to prove their worth. whereas rock musicians have always been intrinsically tied with the image-making process. Half of what makes Blur, Oasis, Primal Scream or Suede interesting is in what they say, do or wear -these are major components which have always been integral to pop music. But that's a separate universe from the one inhabited by Leftfield.
"I can't think of anything worse than being thought of as a performer," says Daley with an incredulous smile. "I can't stand hearing our own music in clubs even: it's f---ing awful. I have to go to the toilet. I don’t play our records in our set - we get the buzz out of making it here and that's where it ends."
Do you listen to it at home?
"Sometimes we have to," admits Barnes, "but I don't like it."
"I get my thrills from when I DJ," continues Daley. "All these mad people coming up to you in Italy or Belfast and saying how much they love this track or that track. And playing a set is no different to being a stand-up comic and doing a set for two hours or being in a rock band. You get the same adrenalin rush."
"That's not to say we don't appreciate the way that other people go about what they do," adds Barnes tactfully. "I like Portishead, Oasis - bless 'em - and Pulp. I really like Pulp. I was thinking the other day that he reminds me of Ian Curtis. He's like a comedy Ian Curtis, the way he moves and stuff."
LEFTFIELD ARE currently polishing off single mixes for their follow-up to 'Open Up', having completed their recently released debut album, 'Leftism', towards the end of last year. And. thankfully, it's been worth the wait. Featuring potent new mixes of 'Not Forgotten' and 'Song Of Life' as well as the Lydon collaboration, Daley and Barnes stick to their strengths - an ability to merge and fuse several continents of musical influences and mould them to sound intrinsically, unerringly Leftfield.
For artists used to producing singles and remixes, it's not been easy. Daley concedes that the first time he heard 'Leftism' he thought it was dreadful.
"It sounded shit," he laughs with a throaty chuckle. "It seemed to have no cohesion, the tracks just didn't seem to hang well together. But having lived with it for a while it sounds much better. We're still doing what we've always done - we haven't compromised because of what other people are doing. It's a good album. I think..."
Barnes interjects, offering a more convincing view.
"From my point of view, we've got it right. Who wants to hear so-and-so releasing a record every six weeks? To me, that's dull. It's the record industry who want you to put out a record every ten minutes. I love waiting a while for someone to make a new album. It's a bit big-headed, really, to say that you get more than a few new ideas a year. You end up rushing stuff out and relying on some kind of formula to get you by."
"Sometimes I wish I hadn't listened to so much f---ing music," says Daley, with mock exasperation "My sister had a lot to do with it, force-feeding me Motown and Santana and Hawkwind. And all that reggae… If you wanted to know why it takes us a while to make a record, that's it. There are too many different kinds of things to chose from. It didn't do me any good, I can tell you."
What makes 'Leftism' an unexpected challenge is the variety of vocalists used on the album, from Lydon and Earl Sixteen, to Danny Red and Toni Halliday. Often a risky course of action to take for an underground act, this mixture of croon, chatter and post-goth drama adds further personality to these musical tales from the dark side. It turns out that Barnes was a big Curve fan. and their collaboration with Halliday on 'Original' is the unusually low-key choice for the group's next single, due in March, accompanied by a ferocious alternative mix which is the reason for all the brow-furrowing activity in the studio.
"We're struggling with the video as well," sighs Daley, staring at the floor, head in hands. "People keep on sending these ridiculous treatments with opening sentences like, 'Toni emerges from the sea wearing a wet suit and carrying a knife...' It's like they want to organise their holidays in Belize around the video shoot or something. What's wrong with a warehouse in Deptford is what I want to know."
IN AN unheralded bout of activity, Leftfield have also contributed part of the soundtrack to the British-made film Shallow Grave. "When you see Keith Allen's corpse being dragged along," says Daley, "that's us. And we've done all the opening scenes."
Which is partly the reason why they've kept their remix work to a minimum. Only Renegade Soundwave have benefited from their services in the past year, and they've recently had to turn down offers from Bomb The Bass, EMF and, curiouser still, Radiohead.
"I really like the Radiohead track," confesses Barnes. "It's really hard. But I can't see what we'd do without tearing the whole thing apart. Usually you know within a minute or so whether there's something to work with, that you can maintain the identity of the original track. We don't do new tracks, we just do versions."
"You've got to be careful, though," chips in Daley. "We've been asked to remix a lot of New Order stuff and we can't really see the point in that either. It's fine as it is. We did Bowie because we liked the track but, once you put yourself about like that, you end up just being part of a marketing ploy. It starts with a McCartney triple-pack remix single and you end up doing Keith Harris and Orville."
Anyway, Leftfield aren't just studio technicians. Living in the shadow of cabin fever, the disorientating madness that strikes people when they've fiddled with the hi-hat sound one time too many, they've yet to be struck by the barefoot, bearded and mad-eyed condition of more than a few of their contemporaries.
Paul scratches his scalp in absent-minded contemplation.
"I reckon there's something weird about people who just sit in studios making interesting sounds all day," he surmises.
"It's a stupid occupation, innit?" agrees Barnes.
"My mum and dad are well into it, though. My dad loved 'Open Up' and he's 75. But then again, he is mad."
1995 AND the wheel of fortune is spinning out of control. Dance music has split into an atomic quagmire of different sounds, styles and ideologies. In less than a year we've seen jungle grow from a distant pirate station crackle to become the soundtrack for a generation of urban youth and the target of major label attention.
Think about it. In the time it probably took The Stone Roses to complete a couple of vocal mixes for 'Second Coming', an entire movement graduated from the underground to the charts, from the advertising flyer to the pages of the Sunday Mail supplement.
And as soon as something fresh, new and exciting appears from some basement studio in Deptford or Nottingham or Manchester, it's marketed, consumed and regurgitated before the white labels have even had time to sell out. Even jungle has become a fractured collage of different stances, from ragga-hardcore to rugged soul and on, into the unknown with the molten genre of the jazz-junglists.
Then there's 'trip-hop'. From the atmospheric coffee table hip-hop of Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky to more surreal incarnations courtesy of The Dust Brothers and the Cloak & Dagger label, the breakbeat has boomed. In the red corner, The Dust Brothers and their ilk - merging hip-hop, house and disorientating acid sounds. And in the blue corner, the Mo'Wax label - embracing hip-hop influences and giving them a definitive jazz twist.
But even before the ink is dry on Mo'Wax's major label contract, the detractors are already spreading whispers of discontent. Not even allowing for a quickfire back catalogue bulging with infinitely memorable sounds. from DJ Shadow to Nightmares On Wax, some are already off on another voyage of discovery. Apparently, someone's been seen breakdancing (Ask your parents - Ed) in a club up north and everyone's digging out their copies of 'Planet Rock' as revision for the oncoming electro revival.
Where Leftfield now fit in this mutant jigsaw of house, techno, trance, handbag, jungle, hip-hop, jazz and dub is anyone's guess.
Frankly, one suspects they couldn't give a flying toss.
For more than just the sake of argument, however, you could justifiably claim that Barnes and Daley's relentless pursuit of the unknown rather than the familiar is one of the key reasons why we're standing knee-deep in this glorious mess.
(article nicked from 'New Musical Express', dated 5 February 1995)