It’s All Coming Around Again – Orbital and Saint Etienne

It’s terrible getting old. You go through life, having fun, travelling, working, getting married, having a kid, when suddenly you hear a fact that makes you feel terribly, terribly old. This week, it was the news that Orbital have been around for 20 years. 20 years! Blimey.

20 years since I first heard “Chime” in a Newcastle nightclub called Rockshots (previously discussed here). And slightly less than 20 years since I used to use their “Green” and “Brown” albums to chill out after a long, hard night out. Orbital, along with Detroit Techno pioneers like Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, and those ker-azzee Germans Kraftwerk, made electronic music fantastically human, and danceable to boot. I’ll talk about them at further length when I finally get to them in the Pitchfork 500 list but for now, just one of their finest tunes, “Belfast”, that made the hairs on my arms stick up after hearing just a couple of seconds the other day.

Because just those couple of seconds transport me to a night out at the Brixton Academy in 1991, seeing them live for the first time, and seeing genius in action. Oh, and I got a shoulder massage from a little Scouse lady that my brother swore was Sonia. Ah, what fun times those were. But 20 years? Sheesh.

And then I saw Pitchfork doing a review of the re-release of Foxbase Alpha by Saint Etienne. Saint Etienne are one of those classic London bands, like Ian Dury and Madness, through to Suede and Tindersticks1, that are so representative of London’s ability to nostalgically hark back to the past whilst looking forward. You can’t take the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line without being plummeted straight into the world Saint Etienne inhabit – Kentish Town, Tufnell Park, Archway, all primary locations on the psychogeography of Cracknell, Stanley and Wiggs. Sorry, I came over all Iain Sinclair there.

So, the review got me back to listening to not Foxbase Alpha, but the great early compilation “You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone”. Featuring singles and b-sides not present on either of their first two albums, it was somehow a better listen than either of their early album. So here’s a couple of tracks from there that instantly transport me to a terraced house in Sandyford, Newcastle, via Highgate, East Finchley and High Barnet. Wonderful stuff.

20 years. Sweet Jebus, I’m getting old.

1 Arguably there hasn’t been a decent London band for years. The Libertines? You’re having a laugh. Maybe it’s because everyone’s been too busy buying houses then watching them plummet in value to go and form a band. I suppose now, with everyone unemployed and bankrupt, they’ll have plenty of time to pick up their guitars once more. Anyone fancy forming a 16-piece post-rock/country/free-jazz band in South-West London, let me know.

MP3: Belfast by Orbital

MP3: Who Do You Think You Are by Saint Etienne

MP3: People Get Real by Saint Etienne

Buy Orbital’s “20” (CD/MP3)

Buy “London Conversations: The Best Of Saint Etienne” (CD)

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The Disco Pitchfork 500 – Summer to Gaye

Back the late 80’s and early 90’s, when acid house and its predecessor Balearic beats were starting to pulsate through nightclubs and warehouses up and down the country, there used to be a little club in Newcastle called Rockshots. It was primarily a gay club, but on Thursday nights it ran a kind-of straight night in collaboration with The Trent House, thanks to local impressario Tommy Caulker. Now, the Trent House was one of the finest pubs in the city*, and had the best jukebox I’ve ever seen, filled with classic soul and reggae, with a smattering of top indie tunes (back in the day when indie really was indie, ooh, it were all fields round ‘ere when I were a lad), along with the Barley Mow and the Egypt Cottage, As a quick aside, the Egypt Cottage was next to Tyne Tees TV, and the inspiration for Viz’s classic strip Roger Mellie, came when a local TV presenter wandered in, obviously half-cut, asked for a pint with a whisky chaser, and when asked sarcastically “Shouldn’t you be on the telly?” by the barman, replied “Yes, so fucking hurry up”. The TV presenter downed them both, left, and minutes later was seen on the TV reading the news. Roger Mellie was born.

Anyway, Thursday nights at Rockshots were legendary. They played a mix of soul, acid house, disco, and anything else that took the DJ’s fancy. The clientele was a mix of locals and clued-up students, the air was filled with the heady scent of poppers (I told you it was a gay club, you know) and there was rarely any bother from anyone, a pleasant change from some of the more, errrr, unreconstructed places like Masters or Macy’s**. And so, this was the first place I ever really got to hear disco music in its pure, unadulterated, hedonistic form – and the uber-Disco song has just got to be “I Feel Love”.

Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte took the electronic savvy of Kraftwerk and mixed it with the Donna Summer’s soulful vocals, creating a song designed soley to keep you on the dancefloor. And listening to it nearly 20 years after I first properly heard it (and by properly, I mean happily off my nuts on whatever drink and drug combo we were doing at the time, with the occasional shot of poppers for that nicely chemical high, as opposed to watching Top Of The Pops with my family whilst I was six), I’m amazed at how it moves. It’s constantly shifting, changing, and whilst the bassbeat stays the same, everything on top of it is evolving and developing. It’s an astonishing piece of music.

Moroder’s own “The Chase”, whilst using the same tricks, just doesn’t sound quite as breathtakingly alive as “I Feel Love”, and suffers rather more from dated keyboard sounds. But you can tell how people like Moroder moved in lockstep with Kraftwerk, and how later bands like Cabaret Voltaire and New Order would take this template and build on it.

Chic’s “Good Times” is less revolutionary than either of the preceding tunes, but as good music goes, it’s up there with the best of them. Funky, slinky, desperately danceable, it’s been one of the most influential records of the last thirty years. You just know that bassline. And the handclaps. The careful use of strings. And that funky guitar – from one of the guitar world’s finest ever players, Nile Rodgers (who, fact fans, used to play in the Sesame Street band. Now, that must have been one of the best jobs in the world). Just like Television’s Marquee Moon, it’s long, but never outstays its welcome. All in all, it’s funky as funky can be and no record collection is complete without it.

Now, whilst I can’t really say that Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is a bad song (it’s not, it’s great), but it’s a cover version, and not exactly a dramatic re-working. And the original, from 1975, is better. It feels a bit like the authors of the list wanted this song in by hook or by crook. Hmmm.

“I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor just about survives the fact that you can’t drink in any city centre in the UK on a Saturday night these days without coming across a bunch of drunken women, usually a hen night, yelling it out at the top of their lungs at about midnight. As the book itself states, it became an anthem for the generation of gay men tragically cut down by AIDS in the 80’s and early 90’s.

Ah, Michael Jackson. It’s tough now to remember why he was so loved, what with the plastic face, the exceedingly dodgy friendships with children, the whole Neverland and monkeys thing, oh, and the hanging babies out of windows, but once upon a time, back in the Neolithic period, he was rather talented. I mean, really, really talented. Together with Quincy Jones, they created some mind-bogglingly good pop music (and Billie Jean’s coming later, so I won’t go on too much about him now). This was the start of it, and the template is in place. Effortlessly catchy, expertly put together, mixing horns, strings, funk guitar, handclaps, hey, the whole kitchen sink is in there, but it just sounds so right.

Doesn't He Look Young?

Doesn't He Look Young?

Parliament’s “Flash Light”…well, what can I say? It’s funky. Funkier than a funkier thing that’s got the funk-da-funk on its funky ass. But it’s not as funky as “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)”, which was released in 1975, so misses out on the list. But watching the live version below, it’s amazing how much funkier it is live, in full funky effect.

I think I’ve said funky enough times now.

To the last song on the list. Marvin Gaye was one of music’s most tragic losses. I mean, you expect, when you’re a world famous musician with one of the best voices you’ll ever hear, honey-sweet yet chilli-hot and with just enough grizzled edge to keep you interested, to get into the usual drugs/alcohol/unsuitable women/traumatic divorce/depression/living in Ostend thing, but being shot and killed by your own dad is just off the bad shit scale. Poor souls. As for “Got To Give It Up”, it’s a surefire dancefloor winner and all, but I have to put my hand on heart and say it’s not a patch on “What’s Going On”, surely one of the finest four minutes ever recorded.

Of these tunes, it’s “I Feel Love” and “Good Times” that last the best. They are songs of excitement, of the heady rush of love and drugs, of thrilling nights out filled with joy. The Pitchfork 500 is full of songs of love, anger, betrayal, yearning, hatred, stupidity, masturbation, being a human fly, and thousands of other emotions and experiences, but few capture them as well as these two. And isn’t that what great music is about?

* And indeed was, last time I went up there about three years ago. The jukebox was still great, the upstairs pool tables still there and playable, and the beers still good. It’s nice to know that some things don’t change.

**One friend did have a particularly nasty experience in Rockshots around 1992, by which time the club had been discovered by a rather unpleasant drug-dealing meathead contingent, and the magic left.

I Feel Love by Donna Summer

Good Times by Chic

The whole list is available here.