|Game Changer: 808 State ‘Pacific State’|
Ahead of a new tour and album, the visionary Manchester crew recall the making and impact of their acid house classic...
Graham Massey and Andy Barker take their places at a table in the first floor restaurant at Manchester arts institution HOME, just a stone’s throw away from where local clubbing mecca the Hacienda once stood. They’re here to discuss three decades of 808 State and, in particular, the enduring influence of the track that first propelled them towards superstardom: ‘Pacific’. Suitably attired in fading T-shirts celebrating classic synthesisers - Massey paying tribute to the Yamaha DX7 and Barker the Juno 106 - they seem at a loss to adequately explain why echoes of their most famous record continue to be heard in contemporary house records almost 30 years after it was made.
“That’s the odd thing about that record, its endurance is huge, but I couldn’t tell you why that was,” Massey admits. “It fits within the context of a club, it fits within the context of listening at home, but it also has this emotional quality to it. The difference between that and a lot of records is the way the melodies fit over chords and the amount of human qualities to it.”
By the time 808 State made ‘Pacific State’ for what became the ‘Quadratstate EP’, they were already old hands on Manchester’s blossoming house scene. While the Hacienda in particular had become a go-to destination for a new generation of dancers turned on by the nascent ecstasy culture sweeping British clubs, a chunk of the city’s dancers had been doing their thing to early Chicago house cuts for significantly longer. It was within this scene, where pioneering local DJs such as Colin Curtis and Hewan Clarke would play early house tracks alongside electro, Latin jazz and jazz-fusion records, that 808 State first operated.
“We did a lot of soul nights in the early years,” Andy Barker remembers. “It was that crossover time when those clubs were playing British soul music and the newest American dance music.” Massey nods in agreement. “We definitely butted up against that scene when we first started, because that was where house music was played,” he says. “When we first started making house music we were doing funny little clubs out in the suburbs - weird little places that had the remnants of the soul all-dayer scene in tiny enclaves. It was places like Mr Smith’s in Warrington, Mersey View in Frodsham and this small club in Chester.”
Famously, one of the founder members of the fluid collective that would become 808 State, Gerald Simpson - later to find fame as A Guy Called Gerald - had come through this scene, being a familiar figure not only on the North’s vibrant soul all-dayer circuit, but also on the dancefloor at the Hacienda in the club’s troubled early days. When Massey, by then a veteran of Manchester’s alternative scene through his involvement in Factory Records-signed post-punk outfit Biting Tongues, first started working with Simpson and Eastern Bloc record shop coowner Martin Price in 1987, it was initially to make tracks paying tribute to another sound popular in the black-dominated clubs of the North West: hip-hop. “Everybody was trying to make hip-hop tracks at that time,”
Massey remembers. “Andy, Darren Partington and Shine MC were one group, The Spinmasters, then Gerald and MC Tunes were another, and another group was called Sure Four. We used to put on gigs at the Boardwalk with people like Ruthless Rap Assassins. Although we were making hip-hop, we had the equipment to make acid house, including a TB-303, so at the end of the night we’d do a little acid jam. We’d heard that sound because it was being played a lot on Stu Allan’s radio show on Piccadilly Radio.” Fuelled by a growing love of house and, in particular, Detroit techno, the trio got together to make music in any “little pockets of time” they could find, often in Simpson’s mother’s house in Rusholme. “He mostly had his hardware set up in the loft,” Barker remembers. “His mum would be shouting up the stairs, ‘Turn that music down!’ He used to have this soundsystem called Scratch Beat Masters, so he had his homemade speakers from that up there. Everything sounded bassheavy on those.”
Early support for ‘Newbuild’ and debut single ‘Let Yourself Go’ came from two notable sources. The first was, predictably, local celebrity and Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson.“He came to see us above a pub in Bolton and declared us ‘the new Sex Pistols’,” Massey laughs. “It was typical of the grand, over-the-top statements he used to come out with. But he was always interested in what we were doing.” The other was legendary Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who had not only been supportive of early 808 State records but also Simpson’s solo debut as A Guy Called Gerald, ‘Voodoo Ray’. Peel proposed a live session, to be recorded at Maida Vale studios in London.
While it never happened (though Simpson later recorded a solo session), a number of the tracks composed for the mooted show did appear on ‘Quadrastate’, most notably ‘Pacific State’. Opening with a warm, glassy-eyed chord sequence and a burst of tropical-sounding birdsong (the same loon bird sample would eventually pop up in all manner of house records in the years to come), the cut was far more musically advanced and compositionally complex than many of its contemporaries. Unlike other now legendary early British house and techno records, ‘Pacific State’ also included live musicianship, with Graham Massey providing the saxophone solos that give the track its celebrated melodies.
“We were making a Biting Tongues record in the studio the night before, and Howard the sax player had left his soprano sax there,” Massey says. “I’d played wind instruments a bit but I was in no way a saxophone player. I could play the notes that fitted those chords.” It was, Massey says, included as a tribute to some of his favourite jazz musicians, specifically John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Pharoah Sanders. The particular mood and atmosphere of the latter’s ‘Thembi’ album was a major influence on ‘Pacific State’, whose Simpson-programmed drums also doffed a cap towards the rhythms of Latin jazz and period jazz-fusion.
“If you play ‘Pacific State’ next to a Pharoah Sanders record, it makes perfect sense and it connects with the jazz-fusion and jazz-funk scenes,” Massey asserts. “The syncopation, and the 16th bassline that’s jumping octaves, is purely coming from that direction, or syncopated funk. One of the first places that ‘Pacific State’ took hold was at Gilles Peterson’s Sunday afternoon sessions at Dingwalls.” Jazz fusion and Latin rhythms had once been a Friday night staple at the Hacienda, too. This influence can be heard even more clearly on T-Coy’s 1987 UK house anthem ‘Carino’, which had been written and produced by Mike Pickering, Ritchie Close and Simon Topping with the club’s dedicated dancers in mind. By the time ‘Pacific State’ was made, the club’s clientele had changed, but its influence could still be heard on the record.
“Mentally, we almost made ‘Pacific State’ for that place,” Massey says. “We were trying to emulate the feeling that was going on in there. It was tailored to that place and that environment.” The record had first taken root at Barker’s weekend DJ residency at a club called The Thunderdome. He spent six months playing ‘Pacific State’ as the last tune of the night, with predictably impressive results. “When I first played it, people were unsure, then the beat kicked in and we were away,” Barker says. “People were off their heads on E by that point in the night. It worked so well as a last tune.”
It later became the de facto ‘final tune’ at the Hacienda for around six months, too. “It was like winning the World Cup,” Massey enthuses, before a daytime Radio 1 DJ, the much-maligned Gary Davies, began championing it on air in the summer of 1989. “He’d been out in Ibiza and heard it in a club, come back and thought, ‘I’m playing this daytime’,” Barker says. “That wasn’t something that was really happening on Radio 1 at the time.” Now signed to Trevor Horn’s ZTT Records, primarily on the recommendation of fellow Mancunian Paul Morley, 808 State quickly became big news. A slightly reworked version of ‘Pacific State’, now simply titled ‘Pacific’ and accompanied by a dizzying number of remixes, reached number 10 in the singles charts in December ’89.
It was the launchpad the band needed. With Simpson now out of the picture to concentrate on his solo career - “Gerald was always solo, he was just part of the collective in the early days,” Massey states - the expanded four-piece (Price, Massey, Barker and DJ partner Partington) signed to Tommy Boy in the US and became one of the most celebrated UK dance acts of the period.
Over the years that followed, the quartet recorded a string of club and chart hits, including ‘Cubik’, ‘In Yer Face’ and MC Tunes collaboration ‘The Only Rhyme That Bites’; collaborated with some notable artists, such as Björk, Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield, New Order’s Bernard Summer, Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch and Lamb’s Louise Rhodes; and became one of the first dance acts to find success in the album charts.
They also became a big draw live, touring both the UK and US with a show that mixed club-ready hits with tooled-up versions of more downtempo cuts from albums ‘Ninety’ (1989), ‘Ex:el’ (1991), ‘Gorgeous’ (1993) and ‘Don Solaris’ (1996). It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Massey and Barker will be marking 30 years of 808 State with an expansive live tour this winter. “There’s never been a year where we’ve not played, but because of the occasion, we see this as starting from scratch,” Massey says. “We’ve more or less scrapped the live set we’ve been playing for the last five years and built something from the ground up again. Obviously we’ll be doing the big bangers, but there will also be some new stuff. It’s about getting a balance.”
The new material mentioned could form part of the next 808 State album, ‘Transmission Suite’, which is due for release in early 2019. It’s the product of 18 months spent recording and producing in a temporary studio inside the transmission room at the old Granada TV studios building, an iconic Manchester landmark which will soon be turned into a hotel.
“When they moved out, they left all of the old equipment there, including the vision mixers, tape machines and TVs,” Barker reveals. “It was like moving into a ghost ship.” Both Massey and Barker found their temporary home hugely inspiring, recording and completing enough new material to fill several albums. “I think people from Manchester have a certain reverence for the building,” Massey says. “Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Granada felt like our window to the world, and particularly our window into music. It feels like there’s a lot of musical ghosts in there.”
The inspiration provided by their temporary surroundings has resulted in what Barker and Massey believe to be some of their best music in decades. “I know everybody would say this, but I think ‘Transmission Suite’ contains some of the best music we’ve ever made,” Massey says. “When I look back on some of our stuff, I think there’s times when it’s a little cluttered, a little too layered and there were a few too many people in the room. I think where we are now, musically, is a little more refined.”
Exact release details are yet to be confirmed, with the duo simply stating that they’re in discussions with a number of labels. Whatever happens, it will be their first full-length excursion since 2002’s ‘Output Transmission’ and a genuine “event release”. “It has been a lot of effort and we see it as a coming together of a lot of years’ work,” Massey says. “It’s quite ‘top shelf whisky’.” Barker nods in agreement. “I think after 30 years we’re allowed to say that we think it’s good,” he says. “We have been practising for quite a long time.”
808 State play:
Friday 23rd November 2018, Koko, Camden, London
[Words: Becca Antoon / Matt Anniss, Photos: Peter J Walsh/808 State]