808 State - Just say Yo!
Martin Price remains tucked up in bed in his Manchester home as 808 State take their particular brand of rave to America. Is it all done with mirrors? Randee Dawn, meanwhile, reflects on the State of a nation.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
It's 12:15 in the morning and the natives are restless. And why not? Having danced themselves silly since 8:00 that previous evening to faceless, no-name music, having packed themselves like overheated rats into the tiny dance pit, leaving less than a square foot of space per person, and having sweated out most of what they had gotten drunk on, they felt it was just past the allowable waiting limit of time for the band. Heads would roll if it didn't happen soon.
Backstage, wandering around, the band wouldn't be pinned down to a time when they would emerge. If the crowd's having a good time we'll just let the djs play," one had said. Not a traditional response from most band members, image conscious to a fault, insisting on extending their own little area of time on stage if at all possible. But tonight's fare is not your traditional group.
"We haven't got an image as a band," says dj Darren Partington. "We're not pushing an image. We're not about baggy flares, or smoking weed on stage and taking loads of drugs. We're not trying to cash in on a certain thing. We're just four producers, we're just 808 State."
Certainly they are, and they're attempting to do what the Happy Mondays and every other Mancunian band thus far failed to accomplish: bring raves to the US. Tonight's spectacle, resplete with four hours of local and internationally known djs, not a part of 808 State, spinning discs prior to the band's aesthetically overblown entry onstage is the idea made flesh. Lots of flesh, black and white, gay and straight, all thrashing about in their best costumes, sometimes voyeurs, mostly mad participants. It is all very sexual, all very alluring, even without much E. Dj Andrew Barker is playing a commando search-and-destroy video game. He doesn't dance. Darren dances occasionally, jollies up to most anyone else other times. Band mastermind Graham Massey is nowhere to be found.
And band founder Martin Price, is at home, literally minding the store. "We're not John, Paul, George, Ringo, we do all sorts of things on our own as well, " shrugs Darren. "So he stayed at home while we show America who we are." And they are still as they have been for the past three years: pure technology brats...and we wouldn't have them any other way.
Get Up On the Good Foot
Prior to all the mayhem, the Channel club, which today smells like ancient beer, is darkly quiet. What is currently passing for a soundcheck is more like an inspection of arms; no fine-tuning here, just a few random shots fired into the empty club to assure the masters the equipment is still functioning, a cocked head to hear the decibels at a different angle, a-head inserted into the file-cabinet sized speakers at the base of the stage, and a final, arms-folded, firm-jaw stance affected a few feet away, and then with the decision that the servants pass muster, a curt nod of the head.
"It's soundcheck for the 90s," waves Darren in lilting, questioning tones, and crunches down on a potato crisp. "Since we're not a real band, we have all sorts of freedom, " he explains. "We can get all our ideas over in half the time a normal band will because your guitar, your vocalist, your drummer, they all take a long time to get it together. We just press buttons and we've got those people right in front of us."
One advantage 808 has is that they claim no focal point, no singer to watch onstage. They are simply live djs on tour with their own concoctions of heartbeat-fast, layered synth electro-music. No beeps and whizzes, no sirens and few word-samples. This tour, their attempt at bringing raves to the so far uncultured American masses has worked surprisingly well, nearly each show a sellout, and only a few kinks to speak of.
"First time in the country and the smallest crowd we've had was in Salt Lake City, with 250 people," acknowledges Darren proudly. "And Salt Lake was just great. The Mormons rocked, the Mormons can dance. But mostly here the white people still have to learn to dance funky. Enough of this pogoing up and down."
Graham rolls his eyes. "And stage diving. Every gig."
Adds Andrew: "At home, people are different, they're trained to dance venues, they don't turn to look at the band. They turn to dance, it's a considerable difference."
Other differences: no words means no frontman. Although both Bernard Sumner and Bjork Gudmondsdottir have laid out vocal tracks for the 808 album Ex :El , neither have come on tour. And thanks to all those buttons, who needs them? "Since we use samples, we don't have to bring the singer on tour," shrugs Darren. "Bjork was in L.A. and did two gigs with us there. Bernard has done gigs with us in Manchester because he's had the time, but we're not pushing people to come out with us."
Says Andy, "A vocalist can sometimes make it mundane, it takes the edge off it, out of the air."
"Once you give someone a vocalist, they will stand and watch you all night," Darren agrees. And while 808 must do just fine on their own, they have fabricated a frontman for their U.S. tour in the form of one MC Alphonso, a dreadlocked, fashionably dressed maniac, who bows deeply, hands shaped in a triangle, as a form of greeting. "He's like a master of ceremonies, a crowd cheerer-upper. He makes you dance and he talks to you and if you're not dancing he'll embarrass you into dancing. We're all a bit shy about getting onto the mic onstage. He's here to make the tour different in case anyone's seen us before. It's what we're trying to do all the time, change the show and change the angle of it."
That this works is debatable. Alphonso's bare-chested leaping and strutting to the thrumming 808 tunes, silhouetted by the smoky green lasers at his back, make him a striking character. His chanting 'End of Summer 1991' and randomly stolen - or, rather, sampled - Parliament/Funkadelic phrases all force the eyes of the crowd on him, and he becomes the replacement frontman, further confusing the situation. No matter. The natives are dancing.
Laugh if you will. It's as close as Boston, with no farmers' fields, police-happy neighbours, and a real drug problem (ie crack) to contend with, will come to a sanctioned rave, if such an animal exists. The notion of such a dance, and all the attendant music, has outlasted the fad stage, or so it would seem, surviving analysis in national magazines and the progression of indie music beyond the Acid stage. This does not often happen. So there is skepticism as to whether 808 State is not perhaps pushing its own agenda by trying to import an all-night dance because those dances have died at home.
"It's not happening in Manchester no more." This much is clear from Darren, who now seems anguished to have brought up the subject. "Manchester...please, never mention Manchester in an interview again. People are getting in cars off to Preston and Blackpool and all that On the weekend, they travel now. They might spend a couple of hours in Manchester, and then, two in the morning, the clubs close so what do you do? You get in your car and you try to find a party in ChorIton, where Graham lives!"
"The party centre of the universe," rings out from Andrew.
"And the drug scene's gotten really boring in Manchester as well." Darren shakes his baseball capped head. "The Ecstasy's really gone bad. It's sad to see some of the kids who are taking the drug in Manchester. There's been a lot of babies conceived over the last two years over this drug Ecstasy."
"They're being sold Ecstasy and it's not ecstasy..." notes Graham softly. "Whenever there's money to be made, the villains get in and make their own version," says Darren, "and it's not the same. You don't see people walking around in clubs hugging people no more."
A pall falls over the salsa and chips. Andrew rebels. "We were thinking of opening a marriage bureau on Saturday nights for all the couples who were in love with each other..."
"And a divorce one on Sunday morning," laughs Graham.
Undaunted, Darren continues his social commentary. "It has got worse. A lot of the kids, when they put their shirt on, puts his E in his pocket as if to say, 'This is part of my uniform.' It's awfully stupid. Djs are making music so you don't need drugs. You can still get off on the music, it is good, it is creative, the stuff we were getting at the start was crazy mad music, there was passion in it. There's no passion for it anymore. Any person who needs any stimulant is a weak person anyway."
Andrew: "I need stimulating all the time."
Darren: "Yeah, but not with drugs."
Graham: "You're not at it for a month at a time."
Andrew shakes his head. "It's all chemicals."
"If you do take Ecstasy," Darren waves his finger sagely, "the one thing that's not in Ecstasy is in an English cup of tea. I'm telling you. After taking Ecstasy, a pot of tea levels you right off."
"Equilibrium," Graham nods.
"There are a lot of kids taking the crap now." Darren tilts his cap to Graham. "This geezer ended up in an alleyway once, with a dustbin. We've all had our bad experiences."
"Graham saw the light," waves Andrew.
Mutters Graham: "It was a fluorescent one!"
Does this mean 808 State can be a member of the EC? Having brought the light (of sorts) to America, they are now ready to flee back home. There is a lot to still accomplish in the world of 808 State.