Title: Who’s afraid?
Author: Martin O’Gorman
Source: Record Collector
Not Paul Morley, certainly. He’s back with a new album with his studio combo The Art Of Noise. Martin O’Gorman is listening.
You may recall a young ne’er-do-well named Keith Flint, grimacing and posturing to his group’s 1996 No. 1 hit, "Firestarter". Listeners of a certain age will also remember that the Prodigy used a rather startling sample from a classic single of old. It went "Hey! Hey!", and it was from "Close (To The Edit)" by the Art Of Noise, their Top 10 smash from 1984. What’s ironic is that the group who pilfered, remixed and remodelled other people’s tunes and noises, turning them into a brand new artform, have become the establishment from whom young whippersnappers now choose to thieve.
But the AON are not taking it lying down. They’re back with original members Paul Morley, Anne Dudley and Trevor Horn for the first time since 1985, and they’ve got a new album, "The Seduction Of Claude Debussy", to prove that they’re still pushing forward the frontiers of sound. "It’s a great 20th Century thing," says Morley of sampling culture. "I like the idea that what we make out of nowhere then becomes raw material for other people. I find that one of the great technological miracles of the last few years, and think it’s wonderful. It probably makes me happy."
But, is Mr. Morley happy with his new album? "When we do the Art Of Noise, we really like it to be something that will challenge us and be a bit insane," he ponders. "Hopefully, people don’t quite know what to make of it. I mean, are you happy with the record?" Er, I was pleasantly surprised at how ambient it was, says your reporter, slightly taken aback. Morley just laughs.
"I’m always a bit fussy about genres," he says of the ‘ambient’ tag. "The kind of record that we were going to make tended to be like that, and when we got noisy it didn’t suit what we wanted to do. It’s more like a dream about something. It’s music based around somebody’s dream, and about our dream. We’re sort of dreaming about ourselves." Dream on…
Seducing the classics
With titles like "Born On A Sunday" and "Approximate Mood Swing No. 2" signalling different, er, movements in the continuous flow of music, "The Seduction Of Claude Debussy" would appear to be — whisper it softly — a concept album?
"Well, it’s a themed ride," says Morley. "But the word ‘concept’ kind of brings me out in a cold sweat. What we wanted to do was make a kind of entertainment — a lot of albums these days tend to be thrown together. Record companies put pressure on people to come up with two singles, and then the rest of the album is meant to bind that together. The kind of entertainment that we wanted to make is like a film that you could imagine for yourself. It has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, we wanted all those things to go on. We were very keen that you moved through the record, and were moved, that it wasn’t a series of B-sides and album mixes, and that the whole thing was an entertainment."
But why Claude Debussy? What’s he ever done to deserve such treatment? "With the end of the century coming, we came up with this idea of doing versions of songs that were actually written a hundred years ago. We thought that going into the next century doing songs from the turn of the last century was a really good idea. We liked to cover the original music of someone who invented a lot of the rules of harmony and rhythm which have influenced all 20th Century music, right through to jazz and pop. So we thought there was something we could do with that, applying modern technological innovations to music that was made with acoustic instruments, with no sampling or electronics involved. We’d make this bizarre mixture of the old and the new. That just seemed to be an nice kind of Art Of Noise idea."
A time to hear
Morley began his career as a Northern correspondent for the NME, reporting from the frontline as the Sex Pistols brought their revolutionary ideas to the home of dark satanic mills, sending despatches from Manchester’s punk mecca, the Electric Circus. He quickly gained a reputation for frighteningly verbose reportage, which impressed former Yes man and top-notch producer, Trevor Horn, who in 1979 was enjoying a No. 1 hit with the Buggies and "Video Killed The Radio Star". Morely went to interview Horn, who was so intrigued by the Mancunian’s ideas that he enlisted his help on future projects. When Horn set up his label, ZTT, there was but one name pencilled in for Marketing Executive.
Morley and Horn signed studio experts J.J. Jeczalik and Gary Langan to the fledgling label in 1983, hooking them up with arranger Anne Dudley, and naming the collective the Art Of Noise. Their first EP, "Into Battle With…" didn’t set the world alight, even though it was released on the relatively new format of cassette single. It wasn’t until the third single, "Close (To The Edit)", that the public tuned in, sending it to No. 8 in November 1984. The track, which made maximum use of the new Fairlight Computer Synthesiser, was a startling cut-up of sounds, beats, and vocal snippets that influenced a generation — one that included the Prodigy.
A reissue of their second single, "Moments In Love", introduced the general public to more ambient textures, but some group members weren’t happy with Morley’s role as "Director". His eccentric marketing methods irritated Dudley, Jecazlik and Langan, who were replaced in publicity shots by a strange, hooded figure whose face was covered by an enigmatic mask. Weird. Also weird was ZTT’s BPI-baiting multi-format extravaganza, which resulted in at least four different versions of "Close (To The Edit)" bearing the same catalogue number. A veritable nightmare for discograpbers, and a trick that Morley also pulled with scally superstars Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Morley remains unrepentant on the subject of multi-formatting: "Remix or die! I love the idea that things can be endlessly refashioned. We have an album that is the sort of central planet, and then everything will begin to orbit around it and create this kind of galaxy of mixes and versions, endlessly refashioning the original thought, the central point. You send it out to be remixed, and within a few days you’ve got a new version of the dream. Hopefully in about six months time, ‘The Seduction of Claude Debussy’ becomes ‘The Abduction’, then six months after that, there’s ‘The Reduction’." Does the introduction of the internet and CD-ROM technology have a part to play in this process now? "Yeah, that will probably be the fourth thing to happen — ‘The Masturbation Of Claude Debussy’."
They’re back! Back! Back!
Such shenanigans prompted Dudley, Jeczalik and Langan to leave ZTT for China Records in 1985, taking the name with them, as they considered themselves responsible for "98.98% of the music". While Morley became a well-known pop pundit and Horn went back to the studio where he was most at home, the other members seemed to turn version two of the Art Of Noise into something of a novelty band. High profile collaborations with computer-cartoon TV presenter, Max Headroom, twangy guitarist Duane Eddy and — God help us — Tom Jones, all made the charts, but the band lost a great deal of credibility. Even dipping a toe into the blissed-out world of ambient remixes couldn’t help stop the law of diminishing returns, and by what seemed like the 99th mix of "Paranoimia", the Art Of Noise appeared to call it a day.
"Working with Trevor Horn again is a wonderjul20th Century dreamwork. You find yourself hallucinating about sound."
"Working with Trevor Horn again is fabulous," says Paul Morley of version three of the group. "It’s like being in a film that’s being directed by Stanley Kubrick, because it’s full of wonderful excesses, bizarre moments, and the constantly unexpected. It’s a wonderful 20th Century dreamwork, you find yourself hallucinating about sound." Morley also enthuses about picking up his collaboration with the now Oscar-nominated Anne Dudley: "One of the things that we wanted to do with the Art Of Noise which we didn’t used to do so much, was not use any samples. Originally, we used to sample everything from around us, from our environment, and this time we wanted to generate the music from within. In a sense it all came from Anne’s original, organic playing, which we then built around, so it’s hopefully an Art Of Noise album without any samples. Apart from internal samples, where we generate the music and then sample that, but we’ve not actually gone outside to bring in any samples at all, because we did all that a fairly long time ago — 1912 or something. This time we thought it would be really cute to not do that."
There’s also a fourth member in the AON to add to the mix (and indeed, the remix): former 10cc man and video/studio boffin, Lol Creme: “We were very keen on the idea of there being four members," says Morley. "Four members is the ideal pop group Beatles, Buzzcocks, I just think you’ve gotta have four, it’s kind of a surreal Monkees. Lol just happened to be in the room when we started working, and lo and behold, he stayed. He came to the meetings. Music these days is simply put into machines and constantly sculptured. We’d put all the ammunition in, and the four of us would then adjust it, making it turn out in the shape it’s turned out. Lol was just part of the process."
While the Noise of old collaborated with trash-pop icons, Version 3.0 have enlisted the services of one of this country’s top actors, John Hurt. "One of the great things about being in a pop group is that you can start to invent your own gang," laughs Morley. "I loved the idea of having a gang where we had John Hurt, Roni Size and Rakim, this weird Magnificent Seven. I liked the idea of John Hurt as the ghost who narrates it, this guy who was once in Alien and had something come out of his stomach. He was once Bob Champion, and he’s in the new David Lynch film, so it’s something that intensifies the fantasy. In the end, it’s the voice as well, he added a musical texture. If we wanted a voice, we could imagine no better voice."
What did Morley think of the Prodigy taking the Art Of Noise’s voice? "Oh, it was just a great pop record, it’s sort of a hand-me-down, like a form of time-travelling, I really like that." Are they doing the same thing as the AON did in the 80s? "Not really, no. Maybe in some kind of spirit. It’s in the same area, but they’re a bit angrier. We’re angry on the quiet, you know."
"I think the old records are very entertaining," he continues. "I think they’re still what they were, and they don’t sound like A Flock Of Seagulls or anything. So I kind of like that, that they were of the moment, but that they travel though time as well without sounding too quaint." But is Morley trying to avoid the whole 1980s reunion bandwagon that’s currently fashionable? "One would hope so. I never really felt we belonged to the 80s. Being fairly invisible, it’s not as though we’re making a comeback, we’ve just come here again. We’ve never gone on that career trajectory — it’s not like we’ve reformed for many of the reasons other bands reform, for vanity and money, it’s more the thing itself. The thought of it brought me out in a cold sweat again, but there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s one of those things that’s involved when you have to go out and start selling yourself."