|808 State and Robert Owens
808 State heard about "charide" project Putting Our House In Order they were sceptical. When they knew they would have to cover a Rolling Stones record used in an RAC advert they were even more so. But when they discovered there was a chance to work with 'I'll Be Your Friend' vocalist Robert Owens, they knew it was a dream ticket. Mandi James joined the new pals' topsy-turvy world in Manchester.
Photos: Peter Walsh
I LIKE an artist who knows how to suffer for their art. Hung by their ankles from a piece of scaffolding, which in return is suspended by a chain attached to a winch and pulley, dangling like four bats in the belfry and squealing like stuck pigs, are four of the hardest working men in show business. 808 State and Robert Owens have met, created a magical alchemy and now, for their sins, must pay the price for fame.
The reason for this canny alliance and why they're strung up like sinners for what amounts to a near-disastrous photo session, is their storming rendition of The Rolling Stones' classic 'Gimme Shelter'. Having turned the track on its head (hence this bizarre scenario), stripped down the rock, sent it on a roll, jacked up the atmosphere and injected some muscular dance rhythms, 808 in their usual manner of quirky yet creative collaborations have enlisted the mighty vocal talents of Robert Owens to replace the Jagger drawl. Although primed unashamedly for the dancefloor and pointed firmly in the direction of the charts, this calculated assault has however nothing to do with personal gain or the search for that long-elusive hit, and everything to do with an ambitious project aimed at helping out the homeless which is called, appropriately enough, Putting Our House In Order.
"We do a lotta work for charidee, mate," grimaces Darren, swinging precariously from what looks like some ancient S&M contraption. Robert Owens says nothing, just clutches onto his hat, looks slightly bemused and dangles helplessly as the loose change from his pocket falls onto the floor below him.
"WE just got sent a fax to our office asking us if we'd contribute to the project," explains 808's Graham Massey, feet firmly plated on the floor by now, but still trying to cope with the blood-rush to his head. "And as it deals with something which is literally on your doorstep, it's not difficult to see what's going on around you, how could we say no?"
Despite initial misgivings about the "cheesy showbiz angle that charide events seem to encourage," 808 knew they had backed a winner when they were told the weird and wonderful combinations contributing to the project, jumping at the chance to help out as soon as Robert Owens's name was mentioned.
"To us the Robert Owens thing is more interesting than the Rolling Stones aspect," continues Graham. "None of us even knew what the song was until we realised it was the music off the RAC advert. We're a bit post-Stones really."
How thoroughly post-modern. But then 808 State always have been. Since their inception in '87, 808 have always forged their path as the future sound of the dancefloor. They have confused and confounded their critics by producing music as diverse and dynamic as 'Pacific State' and current single '10 x 10', and as dodgy as their rendition of UB40's 'One In Ten'. Yet whether you think they're on the cutting edge or creatively bankrupt, 808 State can never be accused of being conservative. They provoke the most extraordinary feedback, from out and out adulation to complete fear and loathing which, as confusing as these adverse reactions are to the band, at least proves one thing.
Strobes, dry ice and lazer dynamics. Manic Moby molesting his keyboards with his acid punk pyrotechnics. Big, beefy sound systems and gut-wrenching sonic booms, 808 State rocked the house wherever they laid their baseball caps with a show that makes your average gig pal in comparison. These three unlikely lads who have weathered the storms of fickle fashion, home-town hype and the abrupt departure of obstreperous fourth member Martin Price have constantly redefined the boundaries of dance music. Through mixing and matching their genres and teaming up with an odd assortment of characters including Sugarcube singer Bjork, New Order's Bernard Sumner and ex-Echo & The Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch, they've given panoramic melodies hallucinogenic undercurrents and put a bit of humanity into technology based music.
"If we had a regular singer who did all our songs, it would pin us down," explains Graham. "Obviously you've got to make sure it doesn't turn into The 808 Variety Show, but most of it works on a matey level, people who we've met and clicked with. You couldn't spend 12 hours in a studio with somebody that you didn't like or you didn't admire. We've never particularly pursued anyone, it's not like the record company have got candidates lining up at the door. It's mainly come from the artist because they want to branch out, get off the beaten track. They welcome that bit of space, which is why the combinations for this project have worked."
HAVING themselves worked with the crème de la crème of cool, contemporary crooners, 808 are still all dilated pupils and full of breathless admiration for the latest addition to their clan.
"We really enjoyed working on 'Gimme Shelter'," beams Darren in that booming voice of his, to enthusiastic nods from Andy and Graham. "It's nice doing things like that though because you don't have to get into your hit mentality and that's when things generally click, when you're more relaxed about it. Our main concern was 'Right, if we can get this Rolling Stones track to sound anything like a dance track we'll be happy.' Mind you, it was a bit nerve-wracking, a bit 'Oh my God it's Robert Owens', so we wanted to come up with a backing track that was worthy of him."
Robert Owens, it has to be said, is one of the most pleasant people you could wish to meet in the ego-mania world of the music business. Until this point he's stayed modestly in the background, very laid back, very relaxed and if slightly bemused by the mayhem around him, has the professional courtesy to grin and bear it. Something of a legend in his own lifetime, revered and respected equally by DJs and dance dilettantes alike, Robert Owens's output is hardly prolific, yet every time he releases something, it has a profound effect on anyone who opens up their ears to him.
Last year, his only contribution was the sublime strains of 'I'll Be Your Friend', yet in a medium where the rapid turnover of records and cut-throat competition determines the shape of the dancefloor, it stood out like a shining star. Although people don't often get excited about male singers, most musicians and studio boffins are forever searching for that distinctive vocal to mark their music, so Owens's is a rare gift, something to be treasured. Owner of velvet vocals that are poetry in motion, the sound of pure petrol emotion, Owens is well established as the voice of house music.
From his humble beginnings in Ohio where he developed his gift through the gospel tradition of the Pentecostal Church singing with the famous Voice Of The Cornerstone Choir, to his jaunt to Chicago where he discovered and fuelled his passion for club culture DJing at the Warehouse, using his vocals to stitch live mixes together, Owens has thrilled his fan base yet remained resolutely hidden, standing in the shadows. "I've always stayed in the background," whispers Owens in his calm, collected voice. "After I started DJing, I would put my voice on tapes and play it behind my set when I was mixing and people kept asking me 'Well who is this guy?' At first I was too shy to tell anybody, but then somebody introduced me to Larry Heard."
And the rest, as they say, is history. Owens and Heard joined forces to create Fingers Inc., concoct seminal tracks such as the joy and pain of 'Tears' and 'Mystery Of Love' and a most reluctant star was born. "My whole approach to Fingers Inc. and for most of the people that I've worked with was to make music that could not be pinned down to an era, to make music that was basically timeless," he explains to our enraptured audience. "It's an attitude that's inherent to the way I work, you just move along until you find a set of people that are really in tune with where you're going and the direction you're trying to take music in." Unable to exist in the cultural vacuum of America, Owens now lives in London, is without a deal and has at least three albums worth of material up his sleeve. "I've been coming to England since about '84/'85, so I've been familiar with the progression of that whole club thing and I built up good friendships with people here, it just seemed like a good move. I basically need a change, I needed to get out of the environment I was in. It just wasn't happening for me in America career wise, basically the music industry has caused me to move over here. Over here people are more receptive, more open-minded to something that's different."
America's loss is very much our gain, their prodigal son has become our prodigy. And because he's dead fussy about who he works with, his vocals are a gold seal of approval. No wonder 808 State are looking so pleased with themselves. They've clicked yet again.
"What can I say" says Robert coyly, looking vaguely embarrassed. "I am very selective about the people I work with, I go a lot on vibes, I feed off the energy of the people I'm around, really classic music should be a fusion of that energy."
THE rather delicate Robert Owens and the rather more robust, rough and ready 808 State looks like an oddball combination, poles apart culturally, but when it comes down to music they speak the same language.
"I think Robert expected some hardcore techno track, he was a bit worried about working with us I think," elaborates Darren.
"Actually when it came down to it, reworking 'Gimme Shelter' was like falling off a log, it sounds like Ten City or something along those lines, which ain't a style we've ever done before, but we've obviously absorbed it."
Each party is obviously well impressed with the other, but before it disintegrates into a back-slapping and mutual appreciation society, just how are they going to overcome the stigma attached to charity records? It's an unfortunate fact of showbiz that worthy causes are often surrounded by less than worthy intentions and smack of self-promotion rather than altruistic gestures. Whereas Live Aid was definitely a worthy cause, indeed the first of its kind to rally round the rock 'n' roll circus, prick their cocaine-addled consciences and make them pay their dues, it was also a promotional tool for those rock dinosaurs everyone had forgotten about which had the knock on effect of their back catalogues selling like hot cakes.
"Everything's got so career orientated in music, people are suspicious about your motivation for doing anything," accepts Graham honestly. "But there's no red noses involved in this you know! We're not that desperate for publicity, we've always managed pretty well without it."
"At the end of the day," states Darren pragmatically, "it's raising awareness about a serious issue, making people concerned about what's happening around them that counts. I don't like seeing all this nonsense, starving kids and bag ladies in videos. That annoys me, you don't patronise people like that, that's what gives a bad name to charity and that's what puts you off."
"Well," shrugs Robert, "I still think it's better to do it than ignore the situation." Perhaps the point we should be making here is that 'Gimme Shelter' isn't Stars On 45, it's not wheeling out the usual platitudes and party tricks for the sake of a few quid in the tin. And perhaps, more importantly pop pickers, this isn't 'Ferry Across The Mersey'. It's an act of class and pure pedigree.
"We're lucky, we get the opportunity to work on these projects. That we have the opportunity to meet people like Derrick May, Saunderson and now Robert Owens," concludes Darren. "To us they're the people who count, it's the songs they did way back when that influenced what we did, gave us a direction at the start. That's why when we met Owens, we didn't want to come across like fawning idiots, we wanted him to dig us as much as we dig him."
Can you dig it? Yes you can.
WE nearly killed 808 State and Robert Owens. The cunning idea for our cover was to hang them all upside and then print the picture with them appearing the right way up, hence the water falling from the sky back into the bottle. Photographer Peter Walsh built a scaffold in his studio specially for the purpose and strapped the four of them in upside down about a foot off the ground. He had only banged off eleven shots when the combined weight of Manchester and Chicago's house gods bent the middle bar and had the floor rapidly rushing up to meet their heads. As you can see from Walsh's shot (above), Robert Owens and 808's Graham Massey are the only ones who didn't bottle it, still posing heroically as the whole thing started crashing down.
808 State and Owens are just two of the 24 acts contributing to the Putting Our House In Order project that's aiming to raise money and awareness for the plight of the homeless. All the artists have hooked up in pairs to record a cover version of The Rolling Stones's 'Gimme Shelter' and release them simultaneously this month. Neneh Cherry has been working with Utah Saints, Sandie Shaw with Cud and Samantha Fox got together with Hawkwind. It's all most worthy but 808 and Robert Owen's version is also a top tune to boot. And, as Mandi James reports, it was also a dream ticket for the Mancunians and the 'I'll Be Your Friend' vocalist.