Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Origins Of A Rock Underworld

In April 1988 I witnessed one of the most striking music videos I had seen to that point. It was for a song called ‘Underneath The Radar’ by a British electro-rock quintet called Underworld. The video was shot in such a way as to give the impression of being one continuous camera shot, and aside from one or two subtle, and clever transitions, essentially it was. The fact that the accompanying song was a brilliantly pulsating sample of funk edged rock, pretty much compelled me to trek on down to my local record bar post haste, and purchase a copy of the single. Over the course of the next year or so, I purchased three more vinyl 45 singles by Underworld, and then it seemed with the close of the 80s, Underworld went…..well, Underworld. Fast forward to 1996, and I see the gritty, and confronting film ‘Trainspotting’, from director Danny Boyle. Anyone who has seen it can attest to ‘Trainspotting’ being a bona fide slice of cinematic genius (if your stomach can handle some of the more unsettling scenes). If you haven’t seen it, and you feel like being shaken out of your comfort zone by the likes of heroin addicts Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and the gang, then check it out (in fact check out anything Danny Boyle has ever directed). When you do, you’ll notice a techno-house style music track called ‘Born Slippy’ (credited as ‘Born Slippy .NUXX’) played over the final scene in the film. The remix of the original instrumental track from 1995. The remixed version was released as a single when ‘Trainspotting’ took off, and though I hadn’t noticed who performed the track while I was watching the film, when I saw the promo video for the single, I was intrigued to see the name Underworld attached as the artist. Was this the same Underworld responsible for ‘Underneath The Radar’?

Without wanting to keep you in suspense beyond a simple paragraph break, yes the two Underworlds were one and the same, though with some key changes to the stylistic formula and personnel. To be truthful, I’m not much of a fan of 90s era techno and electronica (it’s one of the reasons I struggled to maintain an interest in popular music during that time), and though I don’t wish to do a disservice to the work of the latter day Underworld, I won’t be devoting much effort to reviewing their later work. Well let’s face it they’re doing just fine on their own, without needing any further coverage from this backwater of cyberspace. Rather, I’m keen to take a closer look at the earlier pop-rock incarnation of Underworld, popularly referred to now as ‘Underworld Mk1’, and in so doing, hopefully gain a clearer understanding of their origins, and their evolution into subsequent Underworld models.

At the heart of Underworld, from its very inception in 1987, through to the present day, have been the core duo, or ‘Godfathers’ if you like, of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, whose musical partnership extends back to the middle ages - well, 1980. Both Hyde and Smith were students at Cardiff Art College, and like a good number of art college students, both had a overriding interest in playing music. Sometime around 1980 or 1981 (records are sketchy), Hyde and Smith agreed to form a band called The Screen Gemz. It was the height of the new wave explosion, and essentially that’s the sort of music that influences the band at that time, though styles as disparate as Kraftwerk and dub-reggae have also been cited by Smith and Hyde as a definite inspiration. The Screen Gemz released one self financed single titled ‘I Don’t Like Cars’ (which I’m sure wasn’t a sleight on Gary Numan), but the Screen Gemz project really didn’t extend much beyond playing local gigs. It did function though to solidify the creative partnership between Karl Hyde (vocals/guitar - oh and Karl was spelled with a ‘C’ at that time) and Rick Smith (keyboards), and by 1983 the pair had founded a new band called - well their name at the beginning was nothing more than a graphic squiggle - and you thought Prince was the first one to try that with his ‘Love Symbol’ moniker. The graphic squiggle was eventually rendered to a word - Freur - much easier to pronounce. Freur were your prototypal electroclash come new wave band, and if anything, it was via Freur that the seeds for the later mark Underworld’s were sown.

Rounding out the Freur line-up were guitarist Alfie Thomas (the tall bald headed dude in the video clips), synth player John Warwicker, and drummer Bryn B. Burrows (ex-Fabulous Poodles) - bassist Jake Bowie joined during 1984. Freur signed with CBS, and it was on the labels insistence that the graphic squiggle was given a name. They released their debut album ‘Doot Doot’ in 1983, the title track of which reached #59 on the U.K. charts during April. A string of singles followed over the next two years but none managed to consolidate the early promise of ‘Doot Doot’. A follow up album ‘Get Us Out Of Here!’ followed in 1985, but only received limited release at the time in selected European markets. By 1986 John Warwicker had left, and soon after Freur retreated from view to consider their next move.

During their extended hiatus, bassist Baz Allen joined the group, and with their tenure at CBS at an end, they were for a time label-less. Hyde worked for a time as a session player with the likes of Debbie Gibson and Prince (maybe he dropped a hint about the whole love symbol concept). By 1987 the quintet re-emerged from seclusion as Underworld, and soon after signed with Seymour Stein’s Sire Records label. The Underworld (Mk1) line-up was Karl (with a ‘K’) Hyde (vocals/guitar), Alfie Thomas (guitar), Rick Smith (keyboards), Baz Allen (bass), and Bryn Burrows (drums). The band adopted a more guitar-driven sound, but retained elements of their funk edged electro pop sound, for their debut album ‘Underneath The Radar’ (OZ#36/US#139), released in February 1988. The album had been produced by Rupert Hine (see July 08 post), and featured ten tracks, all co-written by Hyde, Smith and Thomas. The lead out single was the electro-funk edged title track, backed by (as earlier mentioned) a brilliant promotional video. ‘Underneath The Radar’ made an immediate incursion into Australian chart territory, and eventually invaded the top 10 (#9). The single skirted around the lower reaches of the U.S. charts (#74), but flew so far under the radar in the U.K., as to be completely overlooked by the British public. I wasn’t aware of this previously, but apparently the Morse code heard during the first thirty seconds of the song reads ‘Think global, act local’. The song remains to this day a favourite here in Australia on classic hits radio, and experienced a bit of a resurgence in 2006 via an ex-Big Brother contestant, Danielle Foote, who released a half decent cover version (OZ#41). I purchased both follow up singles from the ‘Underneath The Radar’ album, but despite being quality songs, neither ‘Glory! Glory!’ or ‘Show Some Emotion’ (OZ#82) managed to build on the success of ‘Underneath The Radar’.

On the back cover for the single ‘Show Some Emotion’ the quote “never give up” features, and it would prove to be an apt motto for Karl Hyde and Rick Smith in particular. Prior to the end of ‘88, drummer Bryn Burrows had left, and was replaced by ex-Boys Wonder player Pascal Consoli. The revamped line-up released Underworld’s sophomore album ‘Change The Weather’ (OZ#55) in September ‘89, preceded by the lead out single ‘Stand Up’ (OZ#56/US#67). Rick Smith handled production duties this time around, with Julian Mendelsohn at the mixing desk, and ex-Art Of Noise member Geoff Dugmore guested. Ex-Freur drummer John Warwicker maintained ties with the band, handling art direction and design for their album and single covers. Underworld seemed to be on the verge of something big during 1989, and toured the U.S. as the support act for Eurythmics on their farewell tour. But by 1990 both Baz Allen and Pascal Consoli had departed to form a new dance act called D-Influence. Underworld effectively went belly up after that, with Karl Hyde and Rick Smith joining Warwicker to form the art/design multi-media project Tomato (Hyde also toured as guitarist with Debbie Harry during 1991).

By 1992 Hyde and Smith were ready to return to music fulltime, but their chameleonic tendencies were too strong, and so once again a complete makeover was in order. Their earlier love for the work of Kraftwerk, and general predisposition toward all things electronica, led them down a new musical path. They recruited a well credentialed Essex based DJ called Darren Emerson, and initially released a couple of singles under the moniker of Lemon Interrupt, via the Junior Boys Own Records label. By 1993 their transformation, via a fusion of techno and rock, to Underworld (MkII) was complete. Over the next decade the trio of Hyde, Smith and Emerson established themselves as one of the seminal techno-dance acts in Britain and Europe in particular, but their influence extended far into other areas. Albums such as ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ (1994), ‘Second Toughest In The Infants’ (1996), and’ Beaucoup Fish’ (1999), and tracks such as ‘Rez’, ‘Big Mouth’ and ‘Born Slippy’, are cited as landmark works in the genre. In addition to their ongoing duties with Underworld, Hyde and Smith have remained key contributors to the Tomato graphic-design company, and have been regularly called upon to remix work for other artists. In 2000 Emerson departed to once more pursue his solo DJ career, and for a few years Hyde and Smith continued as a duo. In 2005 they recruited DJ Darren Price (who had earlier contributed to Underworld’s 2002 album ‘A Hundred Days Off’). The most recent album release from Underworld was 2007’s ‘Oblivion With Bells’.

Note - After raving about the video clip for ‘Underneath The Radar’, do you think I could find the clip on YouTube? I do have it on a DVD compilation, so in time (and with more bandwidth) I’ll try to upload the clip. Anyway, in lieu of that, here’s a 1983 live clip of Freur performing ‘Doot Doot’, and the 2006 Danielle Foote cover of ‘Underneath The Radar’ (at least to remind you of what the song sounds like - well kinda).

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