Arch remixers and underground gods LEFTFIELD dented the charts last year with the Prince of Punk, John Lydon. Now with the instant classic ‘Leftism’ album and new single ‘Original’ – recorded with TONI HALLIDAY, formerly of Curve – that captures the spirit of ’95 just as Lydon himself caught ’76, it looks like they’re here to stay.
Spiky questions: THE STUD BROTHERS. ‘Field Marshall: TOM SHEEHAN
"IT'S TRUE," SAYS Leftfield's Paul Daley, "that all a lot of these NWONW bands are doing is emulating something that happened 20 years ago. But I've never liked things that were that straightforward, I've always preferred music that takes from other places but moves on. That’s what punk was about and Leftfield is about now. So I suppose, in a way, we are closer to the spirit of punk."
Punk rock supposedly died when The Clash signed to CBS, but it actually kicked the bucket the day Sid died, and has been pronounced DOA more often than Python's parrot. It has also failed conspicuously to rest in peace. It lives on, more ghastly in its old age than it could ever have hoped to be in its youth.
When it wasn’t being resurrected by three-chord fascist thugs, feminists were giving it the kiss of life. When we Brits got bored the Yanks came to the rescue, resuscitating the corpse and calling it grunge. Of course, no one other than the Yanks is actually daft enough to call what they do punk. They say "Oi!" or riot grrrl or NWONW and conjure the "Spirit of Punk", a spirit presently embodied by Elastica, Supergrass et al , one having something to do with youth, energy, vitality and lo-fi production values. It's all very vague, in an emphatic sort of way. Punk, once personified by Johnny Rotten's brutal photogenic pallor, is now pallid to the point of anaemia.
We're not sure exactly what Sid died for, but we're pretty certain it wasn't These Animal Men.
If the spirit of punk (that broad, generous metropolitan spirit that saw The Ruts, The Clash, Slits and others immerse themselves in reggae, funk and rap) resides anywhere then it's with thirty something boffins and bedroom propeller-heads who’ve embraced the new technology and metropolitan multiculture. Groups like The Prodigy who began by releasing records on their own label and whose last album, "Music For The Jilted Generation", a vocal-less digital demolition derby stormed the charts. People like The Orb's Alex Patterson and the Aphex Twin, whose weirded-out odysseys are as close as pop music has ever come to narcotic bliss. And, of course, Leftfield, who are credited by many with kickstarting it all.
Naturally there was a house sound before Leftfield, but it was they (inspired as much by Public Image and Magazine as Marshall Jefferson and Derrick May) who genuinely defined a British sound briefly known as progressive house. Until 1993, Leftfield was just a name bandied about by club cognoscenti, then came "Open Up", their storming collaboration with John Lydon, a record that introduced them to a whole new (music press-reading) audience. Now, with former Curve vocalist Toni Halliday, their new single "Original" is set to go mega.
FOR Paul, at least, the beginning was glam. "Yeah!" he says, "Sweet, T Rex, all that. The first record I got was Gary Glitter's 'Rock And Roll'. I used to practise the drums to that non-stop. Two drummers - oh, it was wicked. And they actually had a dub on the B-side, an instrumental, 'Rock And Roll Part 2' - I used to get right off on that."
Then punk came to Margate, and the pubescent Paul began to spend his days on the seafront watching day-tripping London trannies and spikies stroll the promenade, and his nights at the Queens Hotel and Sunshine Rooms getting his mind boggled and ears bashed by the likes of the Banshees, 999 and Generation X. For an extra fix, he and his mates would hitch up to Canterbury and maybe catch Magazine at the Odeon. Once he even saw Devoto and the lads supported by Simple Minds. ("They were wicked, art school punks, I saw them loads of times.") Up in London, Paul's partner Neil Barnes was punkier still.
"Nah," he disagrees, "Paul was the punk rocker. I’ve seen pictures and he definitely was. I was just confused, and I certainly wasn't all mohawked up. It was really only the wankers on the postcards that looked that way- no one else did. I used to go to the punk venues, the Roxy and the Vortex, and people just used to wear normal shirts and trousers. They looked like students, basically.
"It was the attitude of punk that got me, not even the music, really, which I always felt was just rock speeded up. And most of them couldn't play anyway. I saw the Banshees' first gig at the 100 Club with Sid Vicious on drums and Keith Levene on guitar so l know.
"We used to go see a band every night cos there wasn't really anything else to do. We'd see a band, argue about it and then decide it was shit. Like I say, they couldn't play. It was more the power of it, the simplicity, the way they'd break everything down. It was... good."
For Paul, it was the bands who became more than punk who meant the most. The Banshees, the Pop Group... he followed Joy Division everywhere. And this despite having been in the same class at school as Gary Kemp and Steve Norman of Spandau Ballet ("Their first band was called Roots until they discovered it had something to do with reggae and they changed it. Then came their power pop stage. I saw it all"). He started and finished a bewildering succession of bands, each "a very poor imitation of Public Image" – one was called Elephant Stampede.
The problem, he says, was technology. They couldn't afford any. So when he saw hip hop innovator Afrika Bambaataa play a stormer with a £2,000 drum machine and a stageful of mint equipment, he knew that pissing about with cheapo synths would get him nowhere. He dropped out of music, did a degree in Modern History at North London Poly, learned to play the congas and, in the grand tradition of the Pistols' John Rotten, worked in playcentres around the capitol.
Paul, meantime, in the not-so-grand tradition of the UK Subs' Charlie Harper, became a hairdresser ("Not a barber, a bona fide coiffeur"). More importantly, with punk in the initial stages of its drawn-out death and Spandau Ballet a gut-wrenching success, he discovered electronic music.
"Yeah," he says, "Kraftwerk, Fad Gadget, Coitus Interruptus. That’s how l got into DJing really cos I started a club down in Margate. It was actually a gay club called Skids that we took over on a Wednesday night. The resident DJ was a complete leather clone, though I was too young to realise at the time, and they used to play Giorgio Moroder and that kind of thing. So l was introduced to a completely new type of music."
Paul and Neil met a few times between late '87 and early '88 when both, in true New York stylee, were playing percussion with deep house DJs at warehouse parties and Violets, a prototype Sandals club night. Finally, Neil decided to return full-time to music. He used his savings from the playcentres to buy the necessary gear, laid down the grooves that had spent 10 years mutating and expanding in his head, sent off the tapes, signed as Leftfield to Outer Rhythm and released "Not Forgotten". While recording his second single "More Than I Know", he bumped into Paul who was working with Brand New Heavies in the studio next door. Paul asked to hear his stuff and Neil played him "Not Forgotten".
"There was a real cinematic feel to the music," says Paul. "House, reggae bassline, it was completely new. I said, I wanna remix that, so we worked on it and it was great."
The resulting remix of "Not Forgotten" was a jumpy, funky, resolutely British headf*** that stormed the dancefloors, and launched a thousand rip-offs. It was also the last pure Leftfield release for an age as problems with Outer Rhythm prevented them from using their name on their own releases. Instead they remixed their arses off, producing 15 or 16 treatments of acts as diverse as React 2 Rhythm and David Bowie.
Finally came "Open Up", whose snarled refrain "Burn Hollywood burn!" served as the perfect soundtrack to the LA Riots and whose accompanying vid placed dance music well and truly on the MTV agenda. Then came the Big Wait as Leftfield engineered a deal between their own label, Hard Hands, and the mighty Sony, and wrote, performed, produced and mixed their debut album - the instant classic "Leftism".
"Leftism" is an extraordinary record. Wired, weird, coolly, coldly modernist and hot with hellish passions, its variety and imagination staggers. The songs (Leftfield most definitely write songs) range through ravaged ragga bravado and hi-octane tribal techno to icy ambient soundscapes. Basslines appear as flickering heartbeats and hell-deep dub, guitars crash in and out, cyberspace melodies rise and fall. The overall feel is at once suffocating and liberating.
"Leftism" is absolutely now, and it looks like it’ll stay that way for a long, long time.
CURVE arrived at precisely the right moment so perfectly formed that throughout their three-year career people perpetually wondered if they were too good to be true. In 1991, the indie scene was dominated by godawful baggies and the Thames Valley shoegazers – pop at its most dumb, winsome and sexless. Curve were a marvellous, furious exception. With Dean Garcia's looped meatcleaver bass, Toni Halliday's cruelly distant vocal delivery and savage squalls of guitar courtesy of Debbie Smith (now of Echobelly), they were just about the only British band with an attitude deserving of attention.
Even at the time, Leftfield realised this, recognising in Curve much of what they had loved about punk and its aftermath. "Original" was written with Toni and Curve in mind in the same way that "Open Up" had been designed specifically for John Lydon. Unfortunately, before they made their approach, Curve, after two albums and half a dozen singles, split in the best punk tradition, leaving us begging for more and wondering why. *
"It ended okay, really," says Toni. "We finished the tour and Dean was really upset because, I think, he had two kids and he didn't really know them. He said he didn't want to tour any more and I said, 'You're crazy, you can't not do that'. It was really important for Curve to play live because people would be cynical about our records and where they came from, but when they saw us play they'd go, 'Right, now l've got it'. We really converted live. But Dean didn't want that, he wanted to sit at home making avant garde music."
Is it true that your label dropped you?
"No, I'm still signed, but they dropped Dean. You know Dean, he's not very good at articulating exactly what he means and the label had a bit of a problem with that - they didn't understand when he said he wanted to make Flying Saucer music. But me and Dean get on really well, there's no animosity between us. We said from the beginning that we'd never sacrifice a 10-year friendship for something as insignificant as a band. I completely understood him, I understood but it wasn't for me, so when he wanted me to do what he wanted to do, I had to take control of my own life and say no."
So what is Flying Saucer music?
"What he's doing is pretty ambient, really, but it's still throbbing. Remember he's a bass player, so it will always have that pulse. It’s pretty Out There. He's really into his Moog and he just sits there all day looking for sounds. He really wants to get into film music. He's doing okay."
FOR some three years now, they reckon, Leftfield have wanted to use a female vocal track that wasn't your standard soul diva nonsense. Given Neil's assertion that Curve had blown him away in much the same way as Big Black ("They had power but they were also really moving"), it was a natural move to ask Toni Halliday to collaborote.
"It made total sense, really," confirms Toni, "because Dean was influenced by everything to do with dance culture, right back to James Brown. Dean was completely convinced that, if it didn't move your groin, it was all wrong."
Toni wandered down to the Leftfield studio where she was played 12 minutes of music, veering through what she considered to be five or six different songs. ranging from eyes-to-the-sky ambient to raging techno. They also played her some Nico.
"It was the atmosphere of Nico that we were after," says Neil, "that feeling that's sort of... tragic. That's the kind of music I'm into. I don't like happy music, it pisses me off."
"It was weird," continues Toni, "because l love Nico and I'd never heard this track before. It was just her on her own with her little organ. Completely brilliant. Actually, I used to really admire Nico until I read that book, 'The Lives And Loves Of An Icon', and discovered she injected her own son with heroin when he was 18 because she wanted to share the greatest experience she'd ever had in her life."
Perhaps he should consider himself fortunate she didn't make him sleep with Lou Reed.
"Well... but what a total nihilist. She didn't think anything she did was wrong. Her own son! F***! He's a junkie now."
You could call her a free spirit.
"Free spirit?" interjects Paul. "More like a total f***ing nutter!"
So Toni took away the 12 minutes of music and sat there wondering what the f*** to do with it. Eventually she hit on the idea of simply laying down snippets, bits and bobs of everything that sprang to mind, a welter of ideas. Spill 'em all, let Leftfield sort 'em out.
"I took it in the next day, played them the demo and we spent the whole day laboriously recording what I'd done all over again. About three weeks later they called and I was thinking, 'Oh f***ing hell, they hated me, I was bollocks, I've lost it!' but they said it was really good. I went in and discovered what they'd done was write a completely different piece of music and they'd set it to one bit of what I'd done. Which was great because I never really knew what they'd do.
"I much prefer it now, it really helped me to come to terms with the way my voice sounds. I'd never done this before because I'm a bit of a control freak but, thankfully, it really worked."
She's right. "Original" is, ahem, just that. Low-key, melancholy yet bizarrely uplifting, it's a strange trip through song and spoken word, life-support pulses and ambient sweeps, driven on by percussive echoes and a slow, slow dub bass. It's a world away from hands-in-the-air euphoria.
"It's about forgetting," explains Toni, "forgetting who you are and what you stand for and how much you sacrifice for other people."
"It seemed to me," says Neil, "that it was about something coming to an end."
"It's about something that's already ended, but people hang on for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years to something that's completely dead. It's about when you sit there in front of the TV or whatever and don't even talk. You just sit there in your interactive suit shagging Cindy Crawford with your girlfriend next to you."
"Yep," interrupts Paul, "sounds like my house."
"You know what I mean," says Toni. "It's about disconnection from other people, and especially your chosen partner. You're there, you're not learning anything, you just stagnate." She pauses. "Oh, there was this other thing I was gonna say. When I went into their studio for the first time, they had the lyric booklet from 'Cuckoo'. I opened it up and looked at the lyrics to 'Left Of Mother' and in the middle it says, 'Call me left field. And they did. I couldn't believe it."
Hmm. Though we feel "Left Of Mother" may have gained a surreal edge from the line "Call me Eddie ‘Flashin’ Fowlkes", it’s all beginning to make a spooky kind of sense.
LEFTFIELD aren't punks, of course, not even a new wave of techno or house or whatever. They have though absolutely captured the spirit of their time. "Leftism" is as kaleidoscopic, as alive with the hum and buzz of urban Britain, as was The Clash's first album. And, like the Clash before them, they've sold out and signed to CBS. Well, Sony, but that only makes it worse.
"Bollocks," says Paul. "The album was sorted before they even got involved. They never even came down the studio."
Cool. Just like The Clash.
'Original' is out now on Hard Hands/Columbia
LEFTFIELD’S GREATEST HITS
1) DJUM DJUM - DIFFERENCE (Outer Rhythm)
2) LEFTFIELD - NOT FORGOTTEN (HARD HANDS MIX) (Outer Rhythm)
3) REACT 2 RHYTHM - INTOXICATION (Guerilla)
4) ICP - FREE AND EQUAL (Raiders)
5) INNER CITY - HALLELUJAH '92 (Ten)
CURVE'S GREATEST HITS
1) BLINDFOLD EP(Anxious)
2) FROZEN EP(Anxious)
3) DOPPELGÄNGER LP(Anxious)
5) TURKEY CROSSING(Anxious)
(article nicked from 'New Musical Express', dated 18 March 1995)
* Note: a year after this article was published, Curve reformed and recorded THE album of 1998 with 'Come Clean' - featuring some of their strongest material to date. Ironically enough, the UK press who before couldn't get enough of them (as demonstrated in this article) dismissed them - New Musical Express in particular branding them a band that "never chanced upon a tune" and released "identically flawed records" with "songs about nothing". So much for the press "begging for more"... Curve are still going strong today - visit their unofficial site here or their official site here.