State Of The Art
Okay, so which of the four guys that face me is Bob? There's the one with the red hair that grins all the time and stays quiet, and he's Andy. There's Darren, the one with the direct, no-nonsense manner and wicked sense of humour. There's Graham, who looks like the programmer for the "band", which he is, and Martin, who has opinions and doesn't mind airing them. So where's Bob?
"That was on The Pops, weren't it?," says Darren. "Next on stage, Bob State. Which one's Bob? Where's the singer. know what I mean?"
And there was a now-forgotten, TV-advertised rave hits LP which listed them as BOB State, presumably named after the world famous Roland TR BOB drum machine that has fuelled hip-hop breakbeats even more frequently than old JB's riffs. Of course, everyone knows just who 808 State are now, don't they? They're those stroppy cusses from Manchester with the synths and unbending attitude towards marketing.
"Were not deliberately difficult," says Martin. "If it's to our benefit, we'll change. But were not changing just to suit anyone."
There's no reason why any-one should think they ought to. 808 State evolved around the Eastern Bloc record shop in Manchester, for many, still the hest shop of its type in the country. Martin Price was and is the guv'nor, and since he was a bod who never kept his gob shut, pretty much everyone knew that he was into electronic music. Price, being an old bore, had all the crap old synth records. By the time he'd teamed up with Graham Massey and been dragged into modern heats by two youthful scratch-mixers, Darren and Andy, 808 State was ready to be something altogether different in the field of electronic music.
There were no pouting glamour-queens in tutus and DMs out front, al-though they did mess about with a hard-looking teenage rapper called MC Tunes from time to time. Their beats were undoubtedly hardcore - and, to a degree, generated on an 808 - and any fool could understand that this was serious dance music. But there was something else going on here, brilliantly displayed on their album New Build. You couldn't put a handle on it, but it was so far re-moved from what was coming out of America and Europe that the sound, for addicts, was compulsive. By the time they'd signed their lives over to ZTT in the autumn of '89 - the first interesting act on the label since Frankie - 808 State were incomparable, and their single 'Pacific State', and album 90, were runaway sellers. Raves could have been invented for 808 State's music: the beats were furious, sometimes brutal, but at their heart flowed a New Age serenity that laid bare Price and Massey's interest in earlier electronic music.
Three hit singles have passed. 808 State was around before, and have transcended the Manc hype. However, would you know Bob State if you saw him? I think not.
"There's no 'personality' in the band," says Darren succinctly.
"We came into this business to make records," says Martin, with a sense of understatement - these aren't records, they're miracles. "We don't look like a pop hand. There's no boy next door leaning on his hand looking cute. Half the time the company's trying to find a front man. They're trying to do it now he-cause we've got guests on the record."
"They were trying to market us like Acker Bilk when we ' first started," says Graham Massey.
"Oh aye, I was the Acker Bilk of the New Age," says Graham, wryly.
It makes sense: 'Pacific State' as 'Stranger On The Shore'. All that surf and sand sets a young marketing man's mind thinking about seagulls. You can hear it now: we'll have the video with the prettiest one - Andy, you'll do - walking along the beach hand in hand with a girl in a waspie who looks like a black Patsy Kensit with bigger tits... "
Contrarily, Liam Teeling of ZTT, who signed 808, thinks nothing of the sort. "We take quite a pride in 808 State," he says. "I know it's unusual for a label to make 808 State a number one priority. but we'd find it hard to market pap. So to ZTT it's not an unlikely thing for 808 State to be successful. They deserve it."
Having no personalities in the band never harmed Slade or Pink Floyd or any of the Motown acts, who simply made up personae to fit whatever record was out. The problem is, there's no point in thinking of 808 State as a band. They're four bods who make music. Imagine a production team, not four bloody mop-top kiddies in hooded tops. Imagine the Royal Philharmonic in Adiverse trainers. Imagine Michael Nyman with a razor-cut logo in his hair saying 'Fuck New Age, Let's Rave' "
When we first started, there was no-body to compare us against, so no-one could see what we were worth," barks Darren. "Every journalist we met had this look in his eyes that said I'll give 'em six months'. They couldn't see past the year for 808 State. Our stuff is still being played on the dancefloor now. and the new album is completely different. With us it's all in the mix, we thrash it out for hours and hours. We get 2.i tracks and fill 'em up, get all the ideas down even if you don't use 'em in the end. We're all DJs so we know what works the floor."
"You only get so far making records, and then you get into the pop side of it and it's all downhill," argues Martin, "playing all these pretentious games and all this backslappin' that goes on...
"You know the score by what reg car they send to pick you up," says Darren. "If it's an A-reg Rover you're sweet. If it's a B-reg Datsun then you know some-thing's going wrong."
Martin: "Today we came by Brillo pad! You get games like the record company taking down one set of posters and putting yours up when you're there, or getting the secretaries to hum 'Pacific State' when you walk in!"
Darren: "'In Yer Face' was big in the Warners Accounts Department. Okay, so try humming 'Cubik', yer cunt'",
Martin: "I'm glad we haven't made some of those glitzy mistakes like Adamski. Someone's got to pay for all those taxis. But we're all right because we've got two of the tightest men in showbusiness in our act..." He points at Graham. "He can stand on a ten-bob piece and tell you what the date is! It's our sense of humour that has got us through all the shit."
What does this prove? That you don't know 808 State. Their personalities, as opposed to Personality, spills over. You've heard their records and probably didn't recognise them if you're not a raver, but you recognised the 'Big Country' theme that kicked off their hit with MC Tunes, 'The Only Rhyme That Bites'. You knew that they recorded 'Cubik Olympic State' to boost Manchester's failed Olympic bid, and then got a hit with it. You haven't, perhaps, heard their work with world music New Age jazz God Jon Hassell, or felt the crushing weight of 'In Yer Face' through a massive PA.
Perhaps the world will get more of a handle on them when they release their next LP, EX. EL, which features guest vocals from Bjork of the Sugarcubes (who wrote to them as an Icelandic girl who liked their stuff, not an indie love goddess) and Bernard out of New Order. Their tracks, are, in typical deadpan 808 style, called 'Bjork' and 'Bernard'. EX.EL, despite techno title, has a more wistful edge than their previous work, with a distinctly Spanish feel to 'Bernard' and 'Nephotiti adding mystique to one of their harder dance cuts. Their union with MC Tunes had been shelved for his next album, but doubtless their bizarre marriage of rough-kid rap and hip-hop like you never heard will be rekindled later. Whoever they work with, (and their midi-linked universe could include any-one) 808 State stand unique, without help from anyone called Robert.
808 STATE FACT FILE
GRAHAM MASSEY: keyboards, sax, guitar
'NewBuild' (Creed, Nov '88;)