808 State - The In Crowd
8th December 1990
THERE'S A NOISE EMINANATING FROM 808 State's recording studio near Manchester that sounds like several chickens being garotted. Look inside, though, and you'll discover a quartet of flush-faced and highly excited musicians being handed cheques by Mandy, their manager, for the regal sum of £6,500 apiece. These are bonuses for the Top 10 smash "Cubik".
808 State only have one worry in the world right now: how to spend the money.
"I'm gonna buy some Taiwani women," decides Martin Price, the man who, in one of Melody Makers most memorable interviews this year, turned the indie-dance debate into a question of supreme ethical importance. Programming and editing engineer, Graham Massey, won't tell ("mind your own business"), and quiet DJ, Andrew Barker, isn't sure where his money's going. But his disc-spinning other half knows exactly what he wants.
"I need a new car," says the extremely likeable Darren Partington, owner of the loudest speaking voice in pop.
"A new car?!" Martin is stupefied by Darren's outrageous lack of frugality. "I can't even afford a new carpet."
RIGHT now, 808 State are in the Top 20 for the fourth time this year, and are enjoying the fruits of fame. Or they should be!
"Who's that?" asks one passing teenage girl, on her way out of the school that faces 808 State's studio. Stephen Sweet is taking photos of the group on the steps of a nearby derelict building, and from the steady flow of school-leavers the chaps receive the odd smile of recognition, one or two high-pitched greetings like he yelps of starving dogs, but, mostly, mild bemusement. The aforementioned young lady is simply baffled. "I've never seen them before in my life," she says.
WITH more hits this year than any other Manchester band, how is it that 808 State have retained their anonymity?
"The thing about us is that we're not dead spottable, like some stars are," says Graham, back at the studio. "I think we've remained pretty faceless for a group that's been in the charts as much as us."
Do you like your lack of fame?
Darren: "I wouldn't mind a bit of it!"
Martin: "I'm not bothered. I travel on the train when we're not in the studio."
808 State do get the tabloids on their case sometimes, though.
"Yeah, a couple of times The Daily Mirror and The Sun have interviewed us, and asked us how many girls we're sleeping with, whether we've ever been sick in a club, or cried while playing football (!). And usually the interviews end up not being used, cos they're not interesting in the way they want them to be." Darren: "The thing is, we're not known. People don't know 808 State. It's like, people come up to me and say, 'You're in that MC Tunes' band, aren't you?' or, 'You're in that group, MC Tunes'!"
DOES it matter that 808 State are yet to be regarded as a bona-fide recording unit in their own right; that, even if their records are known and loved, a large proportion of the buying public has yet to make the connection between the group and the music they make?
Martin: "I'm beginning to think it does matter. It's all about having success. You've got to be successful, that's what everyone aims for, whatever they might say. But I think we've got to get ourselves together in terms of promoting and marketing, if we want to be more successful than we already are."
Darren: "People didn't know who 'Cubik' was by for months. Friends of ours in London said, 'F***in' hell, was that you?' And some bloke in Germany said, 'For the life of me, I didn't know it was you guys!' Our problem is, we put too much time into the vinyl. Take the Pet Shop Boys – they schedule the album, the formats, the remixes, when to do the press . . . You can learn a lot from that."
Martin: "Right, and if we wanna take it further, we're gonna have to make the effort to get into all that. You can't just look like four separate people. There's got to be something that says we're together, as a unit, as 808 State."
Graham: "The thing about us is, we like to get in the charts, and earn some money. But we're more concerned with the underground, and the dance scene."
GRAHAM'S remark says plenty about 808 State's determination to put the hardcore club crowd before the general populace, to give credibility priority over commerce. Darren goes even further when he decides that 808 State's frequent forays into the charts are less beneficial to the band than they are to the dance scene in general.
"We don't think of it as 808 State in the charts," he says, "we see it as the clubbers in the charts. We're not so much a band as part of a scene. We belong to it and, when we're in the charts, that scene's in the charts. We didn't put £10,000 in to promote 'Cubik' – it's the party people out there who put it up there, and it belongs to them." 808 State attribute their success not only to the fact that they can manipulate the state-of-art tools of their trade with scientific precision, but also to their devotion to the music and dancing of the club scene. Darren and Andy have a regular DJ spot at the Thunderdome, as well as a weekly slot on Sunset Radio; Graham's a DJ at Precinct 13 on Tuesdays; and there's Eastern Bloc, the record shop that Martin owns and stocks with every happening 12-inch single.
"It's all about knowing your scene," says Darren, buzzing now. "It's all right knowing how to work the desk and the software, but you've also got to know what people dance to. It's like judge and jury, standing in a club and watching what two bars of a record really freak the crowd out. It's all about knowledge, and we're constantly learning. We never switch off, we're constantly keeping up with the scene, getting new records from the Bloc . . . Once you stop going out, seeing what's happening, you lose it."
THERE'S a rumour going round that all the characters have been squeezed out of pop by a glut of faceless dance technicians, that the personal quirks and colourful idiosyncrasies of those charismatic one-off stars that used to occupy poster space and chart places, are taking second place to - God forbid - the vinyl itself.
Ironically, 808 State, in the flesh, have loads of personality, while Darren and Andy spend a lot of their time on their Sunset Radio show splashing cheeky Manc humour, and their very own aural problem page (sample: "I'm in love with Ian Brown - what shall I do?"), all over the airwaves. Just before, Martin was suggesting that 808 State need to raise their media profile. So are 808 State really anti-star?
Graham: "Stars? They're the last thing you want when you're in a club, aren't they?"
Martin: "We don't wanna talk superficial shit, telling people what our favourite dish is, what colour socks we wear, and who our girlfriends are. Dance music is about the records, not about the people who make them. They might put something of themselves on them, but that's a really British and European thing, where you've got to have the bodies to look at."
Darren: "That's a self-centred load of bullshit–like (adopts messianic popstar tone a la Bono or Bruce), 'Oh, yes, my children'. That's bullshit, man. If you can't down yer keyboard and dive into the crowd and give it loads of what you're all about, then you're nothing."
That man-of-the-people stuff's all well and good – but isn't pop all about stars on the walls and in your eyes?
"No, it isn't. You look at people like George Best (?) an' that, and you you think – asshole, he took it too serious."
Martin: "Stars have character defects, drug problems, drink problems. Those aren't things you can iron over."
In the Sixties and Seventies, pop was more of a community, people got together to celebrate the same stars at the same time. Now it's more diverse.
"I'm glad there aren't stars any more, that there isn't one fashion, one music," Martin says, before returning to the theme of good blokes in pop, and the removal of pop stars from pedestals.
"Look at the Roses, Mondays, Inspirals, Northside, us and a couple of others from up here – I bet you there's more kids now who've touched them, got into them and realised who the bands actually are, than from any other time."
Darren: "Why should somebody, just cos they've got a record out, be seen as different?"
Martin: "Pop stars are not gods or religious symbols. What I'm saying is, a lot of people might worship them, but for fuck's sake don't worship us! Don't worship our private lives, otherwise you're gonna be in right big loads of shite. Cos we've got every foible known to mankind."
IT'S that ineffable blend of across-the-board appeal and underground kudos that so many bands crave, yet so few achieve. 808 State are one of the few. With last year's album, "808:90", and now "Cubik", they are propelling some of the wildest, strangest noises ever into the charts, turning on its head the idea that the public gets what the public wants. As far as 808 State are concerned, the public can't even know what it wants, since the best (dance) music is available only to those very determined souls who assiduously track down every import 12-inch. It is 808 State's duty to make accessible, to as wide a public as possible, the avant-dance explorations of these hard-to-find records.
"I was laying in bed the other Sunday," Martin remembers, "and they played the industrial ending to 'Cubik' on Radio 1 all the way through. And it hit me - that's the weirdest record I've ever heard, ever, in the charts."
"Don't forget that the dance people are a law unto themselves," says Darren. "What they like WILL happen."
Martin thinks that, for dance music to continue to flourish, it's "got to go more left-field. There's only three or four acts now with their own individual sound". He also believes 808 State are possibly the only band working in that marginal area light years left of centre, who are also making frequent visitations to the pumping heart of the charts.
"The thing is, we promote so many different kinds of music through what we do. There's jazz, hardcore, rock, dub, reggae, raggamuffin, Acid, House . . . We once said we could make one of the best records from any genre anywhere, whether it's dance or metal or whatever. Obviously that's a bit of a brag, but I think it's true."
Price doesn't think 808 State's dazzling eclecticism will stop them achieving huge international success.
"Not at all. What we've got to aim for is to be as successful as Depeche Mode or the Pet Shop Boys, cos we are individual, there's nobody like us. It's natural we'll end up in that sort of position, as one of those bands that are happening in a really big way, but that are still completely credible."
MC Tunes' "Primary Rhyming", with music by 808 State, is available now on ZTT Records.