Remixing the Art of Noise
ONE of the true ground-breaking bands of the Eighties, THE ART OF NOISE have long been cited amongst the forefathers of modern dance music. Now, an album of their work has been remixed by many of today’s dance luminaries, and DAVE SIMPSON talks to all the participants about ‘The Fon Mixes’, and the state of the current dance scene. Art(y) pics: STEPHEN SWEET
THE SIGN ON THE DOOR MAY READ FON Studios, Sheffield, but we could just as well be in the Tardis. The room is awash with sophisticated gadgetry and whirring computers seem to be everywhere. “Good morning”, a silky voice emerges from behind a glassy screen. It belongs to an outsize Barbie (Is it real? Is it a robot?!). “You must be Mr. Simpson? I’ll take you through to the Control Room”. Yikes.
Welcome to The Art Of Noise versus The Remixers. This month, China Records have released “The Fon Mixes”, a double album of radical AON dancefloor reworkings overhauled by some of the finest dance artists and producers in the country. I’ve travelled to the nerve centre of the project in the hope of talking with some of the remixers about the album and the state of current dance music in general, but there’s nobody here.
So, where are these people? These faceless, unseen boffins who have been infiltrating our charts like computer viruses for the last few years, delivering their weird, squiggly, electronic dance records with the mechanical precision of open heart surgeons? Do they exist, or am I awaiting an audience with brains in vats? Thankfully, one by one, they arrive. There’s Robert Gordon, the quiet intellectual from The Forgemasters and Unique 3, who’s produced everybody from LFO to The Fall to James; his Fon Force partner, Mark Brydon, once of Chakk and Krush, and more recently involved with The Chimes; DJ Parrott and Richard H. Kirk of the brilliant Sweet Exorcist (the latter also in Cabaret Voltaire); and Graham Massey, the masterly mind behind 808 State. But there’s still no sign of The Art of Noise’s spokes-boffin, J.J. Jeczalik.
“J.J. might be a little late”, the PR explains. “He’s flying in.” Wow. Through the window, presumably.
THERE’S a knock at the door. It’s Jeczalik, an eccentric-looking, statesmanly figure. He could almost be Doctor Who, or an inventor responsible for some crazy discovery. As it is, the ebullient Polishman is often cited as one of the father figures of modern dance. His band, The Art Of Noise, were the first act to utilize sampling in a dance record (“Beatbox”, 1983) and they pioneered the writing of “songs” using samples and sounds.
More importantly, they took their radical records into the charts, clocking up a string of hits between 1983 and 1989. Along with Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire and Yello, they paved the way for what we now know as Techno, and are, after James Brown and Ralf Hutter’s Dusseldorf automatons, the third most sampled artists of all time.
But, while every man and his dog have been ripping them off (JT And The Family going so far as to nick an entire track for their “Moments In Soul”), The Art Of Noise’s own music (and influence) has been overlooked. Hence the idea of getting it remixed.
“It was quite simple”, says JJ. “We just decided who we wanted to do it, and rang them up. ‘Will you do it?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Okay’.”
THE finished tracks that form “The Fon Mixes” bear hardly any relation to the original recordings. One can’t help wondering what The Art Of Noise first thought of the album. Did it meet with their approval?
“It didn’t. I’ve got to say that”, says Jeczalik, pausing for a sharp intake of breath, “but, now I’m listening to it all the time, it’s influencing me to a terrifying extent. Initially, however, I must say that my mouth fell open.”
Presumably, the remixers weren’t over burdened by reverence?
“There was a bit of that”, admits Graham Massey, whose bubbling remodelling of “Legs” is one of the highlights of the collection, “but you generally have to chuck it out of the window. When I got hold of the tapes I thought that I would be using their sounds, because some of them sounded really primitive.”
“Primitive?!” snorts Jeczalik, in palpable disgust.
“Yeah”, answers Massey. “Dated, in away.” (Chorus of laughter).
“Pah!” spits the Polishman, distinctly distressed.
Of course, the honourable gentleman might not be J.J. Jeczalik at all, but an imposter. Throughout their career, The Art Of Noise maintained a cult of anonymity, at one paint achieving it so successfully that they were awarded Second Best Black Dance Act at the American Grammy’s (quite an achievement for an all-white ensemble). When they actually toured there, excited fans would turn up at the gigs only to refuse to believe that the Caucasian band on stage was actually them.
The Art Of Noise were the ultimate in instantaneous, anonymous pop.
“Oh, we were totally anonymous!” laughs JJ. “Purposely so, cos we’d worked with the Frankies, and we’d seen the cab bills when Holly Johnson used to go shopping in the King’s Road. He used to have a black cab cruising the street so that he wouldn’t get his clothes torn from his back, literally! He’d jump in the cab and be off, and that’s where all I the money went. So we decided to step back from that.”
The Art Of Noise also believed the public were being duped by the fashion statements of musically retrograde groups. Similarly, none of the remixers (Graham Massey included) are exactly known for their gargantuan public profiles. Is it more honest to operate like that, without a personal image?
“I don’t think it’s more honest”, says Massey, “It’s just more appropriate, because the music’s mechanised and, as such, it doesn’t lend itself to flamboyance. Although, whenever we (808 State) go to America, the first thing they say is, ‘Hey, guys, it’ll be great when you’ve got the singer!’”
Don’t you think it’s true that a group like 808 could never be as big as U2 or Guns N’ Roses, say, because they haven’t got that focal point, that performance value? There’s not much to latch on to, is there?Continue »
“Yeah, there is that, but, then again, its always amazed me that someone like Jean Michel Jarre can probably sell more records than U2, and what’s that if it’s not faceless technology music? If he can do it, someone else can. Things are getting so huge now, there will be a massive techno star.”
IF there is, it might be Prodigy, whose pounding rehash of “Instruments Of Darkness” is the first single to be taken from “The Fon Mixes”, and seems destined to follow the likes of Altern 8 and crash into the Top 10. Like most of the pieces on the album, “Instruments Of Darkness” is what most observers would probably call a Techno track, but to do so is to arouse DJ Parrott’s considerable ire.
“I hate that word!”, the crop-haired Sweet Exorcist knob-twiddler explodes. “Techno is now used as an all-encompassing term that comes out of Detroit that sounds in a certain way: music made by Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins. Not long ago, records that were being made over here started getting labelled Techno. And we thought, ‘Hang on, we’re not making Techno records at all!’ And Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson were getting well pissed off, cos they thought that we were trying to rip them off. But everything from Belgium, all the Euro stuff, anything that sounds like ‘Cubik’ —
Is it that important? It’s only a word, for God’s sake!
“It has become important now”, says Graham Massey, “because there’s so much crap around. You don’t want to show allegiance with it. But I love that early Detroit stuff, and I think this album’s got more of the spirit of early Techno than a lot of the stuff that’ s coming out now.”
FOUR, three, or even two years ago, if you’d have asked Graham Massey, Robert Gordon or Mark Byrdon of DJ Parrott what they most desired, the chances are they’d have come up with something like this: ‘We want dance music to take over the world. We want a Top 10 full of club music, we want ravers everywhere and we want club music on the playlist of national Radio 1". Now, it’s here. They must be the happiest men alive. Are they heck!
“It’s been hijacked,” says Robert Gordon, “hijacked by commercialism. There’s a lot of people making a lot of money and there’s a lot of people going to raves, but, musically, it’s rotten. The feeling’s gone.”
“A couple of years ago, things were really interesting”, ponders Richard Kirk. “You did something different, and different people liked it, but, now, it’s gone back too state like how it was after punk, where there were all these bands, and they were all jumping on the bandwagon, and all the records started to sound the same.”
It’s hard not to sympathise with Kirk’s point. Robert Gordon identifies the problem as a case of sampling having run riot.
“Most of the new kids now, they don’t realise that you can make a track without sampling somebody else’s records. They go in the studio, and there’s a pile of 12 inches and a sampler, and that’s all there is. They don’t even know what a synthesizer is! It’s just a sampler and a record deck, and that’s how they make records! You hear’ em, and you can hear all the ingredients, all the records that they’ve stolen it off.”
This can have its advantages, however.
“We had a situation with ‘Cubik’”, Massey relates, “where we collected something like 45 remixes out, cos everyone just went into the record shop and said ‘Have you got Gnnnr-gnnnr-Hnnnrr-errrr-errr?’, and they sold ‘em ours!”
NOT everybody’s been so lucky, however. Bleep pioneers, Sweet Exorcist, have lost count of the times that parts of their vinyl have languished nearer the 100 mark. All the team are agreed that, unless this riot of magpie-like sampling subsides, dance music is in serious trouble. Continue »
“The situation now is very similar to Disco”, agrees Brydon, “and look what happened then. Disco killed itself off.”
So, what happens now?
Graham Massey: “I think now’s the time to be annoyed, cos we’ve spent a lot of time doing something we love doing, and now it’s definitely been given a back seat in favour of something that’s crap! So, now’s the time to be annoyed, and now’s the time to change things.”
Starting with “The Fon Mixes”.
“The Fon Mixes” and Prodigy’s remake of “Instruments Of Darkness” are out now on China Records.