SHOUTING MEGA MEGA
Everyone who has lived and loved dance music has had an Underworld moment. Maybe it was hearing Rez for the first time at a Boys Own party in 1993 or Two Months off on an Ibiza terrace ten years later. Here, for the sake of argument, is Underworld's Underworld moment.
It was August 1996 and Japan's first ever outdoor all night dance event, the confusingly titled Futura 2000, was taking place on the slopes of Mount Fuji. Underworld headlined, facing up the slope over the heads of 18,000 clubbers, countless flying scarab beetles and a single security guard to the summit of the volcano. "It was a real buzz to be offered these extraordinary places to play music," remembers Karl Hyde. "The slopes of Mount Fuji, a beach in Norway, a Roman amphitheatre in the south of France... We were a live band doing what a lot of DJs had done up to that point. We were part of that crossover."
And at the heart of it was one song in particular. Named after a greyhound, inspired by a drunken night out in Soho, originally released to minimal acclaim as a B-side, then immortalised in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, Born Slippy became the soundtrack to the year. It also epitomised the contrasts and tensions which have always defined Underworld: between those jackhammer beats and celestial chords, between the "lager lager lager lager" and the "dirty numb angel boy", between the geezerish and the godlike.
Underworld’s diverse catalogue of material doesn’t just tell their story. It traces the narrative of dance music itself, from tiny, hard-to-find white labels and sweatbox clubs to Hollywood soundtracks and world tours. Wherever you may have checked-in along the way, whichever period sends nostalgic shivers down your spine, chances are there was an Underworld track playing in the background: always evolving, never standing still.
RIDE THE SAINTED RHYTHMS ON THE MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO ROMFORD
Underworld came to life in Romford, Essex in 1989 when Rick Smith and Karl Hyde were looking for a DJ to collaborate with. They found Darren Emerson, DJ, stock exchange runner and drinking buddy of Rick's brother-in-law. "He was 18 and full of attitude," says Karl. "It was scary but it was good scary. It was a kick up the arse.
Underworld were always going to be different. In an era when most dance acts had the lifespan of a mayfly and about the same charisma, Underworld had far more wide-reaching ambitions. Their inspirations included the electronic innovations of New Order, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno on one hand and the flexibility and improvisation of reggae sound systems and Miles Davis on the other, but not Guru Josh. Simultaneously, they co-founded the award-winning design agency Tomato, which would be responsible for Underworld's record sleeves as well as numerous adverts and film title sequences.
In 1992 the trio pressed 500 copies of their first single (on a £500 loan from their long-time manager, Geoff Jukes), a Balearic double-header called Mother Earth/The Hump, and released it themselves. They also met Steven Hall, head of the Junior Boys Own imprint and the man who would become their long-time friend and label boss. Darren played Steven their latest piece of work, the Elvis-channeling space cadet travelogue Mmm... Skyscraper I Love You. Dance acts simply didn't make records like this. Nobody did.
From day one Underworld were going to take it live and that meant that token PAs at M25 raves weren't an option. At Glastonbury 1992, they camped out on the fringes of the festival with some like-minded collaborators and set up the Experimental Sound Field, an improvised, ever-mutating hybrid of DJing and live performance which lasted from noon till dawn. "That really was the blueprint for Underworld," says Karl. "We couldn't go back after that. And we'd still like to play for 18 hours." They may have become more concise but to this day Underworld don't use set lists.
The same organic approach informed their epic remixes for a colourful range of clients from Leftfield and Orbital to Shakespear's Sister and Simply Red. Karl's lyrics were equally unusual. Inspired by Lou Reed's New York and Sam Shepard's Motel Chronicles, he took to carrying a notepad around to record things observed and overheard, turning them into surrealist collages and bringing a manic poetry to dance music.
"I believe we all see the world as a series of fragments," he says. "I just try to write them down as fast as I can." Starry-eyed clubbers would thus find themselves shouting along to tales of porndogs, waitresses and erasers of love without having the faintest idea what they meant.
In the early 1990s, dance and rock music still for the most part kept each other at arm's length but Underworld's appearances at Megadog's live dance events and a string of singles which rearranged techno's DNA (Rez, Dirty, Spikee) helped close the gap. Their 1994 debut album, dubnobasswithmyheadman went to number 11 in the charts. Clearly it wasn't just the clubland cognoscenti who were listening. Karl: "We weren't even intending to make an album. It's just that Rick said, We've got enough tracks. What do you reckon? It was only later I discovered that it was a lot of people's introduction to dance music."
That autumn Underworld played their first headlining gig at the London Astoria, supported by an up-and-coming duo called the Dust (soon-to-be Chemical) Brothers. The following year director Danny Boyle played dubnobasswithmyheadman incessantly while assembling Trainspotting and used it as the soundtrack for the rough cut. Then, in the final stages of editing, he picked up a copy of Born Slippy in HMV and the rest we know.
Underworld, and the scene from which they sprang, were moving too fast to pin down. Dance festivals like Tribal Gathering, and changing tastes at old stalwarts Glastonbury and Reading, made electronic music a main stage proposition. Underworld's increasing live abilities informed the raging, relentless flow of their second album, 1996's Second Toughest In The Infants, which took its name from a proud boast by Rick's nephew. Incidentally, he's now an appropriately tough 6'4".
Thanks in part to Born Slippy (reissued by public demand and only kept from the Number One it deserved by the Fugees), the rest of the globe opened up to Underworld. They played landmark shows in Japan, Europe and America, watching the world embrace the joys of the kickdrum and the acid squiggle even if, as in the case of the US "electronica" fad, they sometimes they got the wrong end of the stick.
By now U2 and REM were among their admirers. Even Hollywood was wooed, and Underworld produced the punishing Moaner for the (sadly hopeless) Batman Forever. "Whenever we're asked to give tracks for films, it's for the drug-crazed-DJ-in-violent-car-chase-death-scene," Rick lamented. Karl went to the London premier but left before the film even started. Good choice.
AND YOU GO PING
All honeymoons end eventually and the making of 1999's Beaucoup Fish (working title: Tonight, Matthew, We Will Be Underworld) was fraught with pressure. Karl gave up drinking, which had become a problem but had also helped fuel his high-speed lowlife monologues, and spent a few months relocating his muse. Expectations and workload were both testingly high.
The result, however, justified the tribulations. More eclectic and reflective than its predecessors, Beaucoup Fish dipped its toes into a number of styles, from aquatic deep house to panic-attack techno and kung-fu breakbeat. King Of Snake was inspired by the alarming sight of mongoose-cobra battles in Japan and the album title came from a sample of a Cajun fisherman Rick met in the 1980s.
For the first time, Underworld threw open their music to remixers, including Fatboy Slim, Dave Clarke, Francois Kevorkian and the Micronauts. That year they played to their biggest crowds yet, including a triumphant Saturday night set before headliners Manic Street Preachers at Glastonbury. Beaucoup Fish was justly nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, their 2nd nomination.
The strain, however, claimed a casualty. Darren left in 2000 to pursue his DJ career, kick-start his label ‘Underwater’ and begin his own solo productions. Karl: "If someone needs to move on, they need to move on. It just wasn't the space for him anymore."
Rick and Karl pressed on. The live album/DVD Everything Everything was already a work in progress but with Darren's departure it became an unrepeatable memento.
YOU BRING LIGHT IN
In 2002, Underworld released their first album as a duo. A Hundred Days Off proved that their trademark sound and ingenuity hadn't disappeared. The single Two Months Off was their most un-ambivalently celebratory song to date and became a fixture of the Ibiza summer. Rick and Karl followed it by compiling an album for DMC's Back To Mine series, an insight into their influences, from Gregory Isaacs and Depeche Mode to LFO and the Aphex Twin.
2003/04 was intensely prolific period for Rick and Karl – holing-up in Lemonworld (their Romford studio) and writing a couple of hundred pieces, or ideas. These were to fuel the coming few years that spawned two major film scores (for Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine), a series of web-only releases dubbed the Riverrun series and an increasingly varied and mixed-up live show.
The Riverrun series was intended to break the cycle of making, promoting and touring a new album. The idea was to create and immediately snapshots of Underworld’s creative process. Work-in-progress material was jammed with as they would live, creating 30-minute mini-shows of new material. From these 30-minute pieces came a series of 12” releases including more finished versions of the material and remixes by DJs and producers Rick and Karl had encountered on the road. A seed planted for the future. Something to return to.
Then towards the end of 2007 came Oblivion with Bells – Underworld’s fifth studio album and further proof (if it was ever needed) that all was well in Lemonworld. The album was launched alongside their Oblivion Ball in Tokyo, at the massive Makuhari Messe with 25,000 fans, a 50-meter long wall of art (created live by Rick, Karl and members of Tomato and the extended family), a festival stage of bands and DJs curated by Underworld.
So what’s next for Underworld? If we’ve learned one thing of this band over the years it’s that it’s almost impossible to guess what’s next. One thing’s for certain. There’ll be light. There’ll be dancing. And there’ll be cake.