Everyone who has lived and loved dance music in the last 15 years 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 allnight 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.
Anthology doesn’t just tell Underworld’s 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, 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, label boss and manager. Darren played Steven their latest piece of work, the Elvis-channelling 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 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 unambivalently celebratory song to date and became a fixture of the Ibizan 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.
And so to Anthology. It’s not the full story – Underworld’s back catalogue is too vast and rich for that – but it’s a gripping one all the same, marking each step along the twisting road from (to paraphrase The Clash) Romford to the world. If Underworld’s music has ever chimed with a moment in your life, these are good memories. The best.
Based in Romford, Essex, England, Underworld were formed from the ashes of Freur in the late 80s, featuring former members of that band Karl Hyde (vocals), Alfie Thomas and Rick Smith, alongside Baz Allen (bass) and video-maker John Warwicker. Smith had also performed on sessions for Bob Geldof, while Hyde worked with Debbie Harry. After their debut album as Underworld, a funk-rock affair produced by Tom Bailey of the Thompson Twins, Burrows was replaced by Pascal Consolli (ex- Boys Wonder). By 1990 Thomas had also departed. Hyde (who had by now taken part in sessions for Prince at his Paisley Park studio complex) and Smith continued with the addition of DJ Darren Emerson (b. 1971, England) – a journeyman of clubs such as the Limelight and Milky Bar. Allen and Consolli went on to become the rhythm section of D-Influence, Burrows eventually joining Worldwide Electric.
1989 Tour America supporting The Eurythmics. Slit shortly afterwards. Rick returns to UK on his own. Karl stays in America to work with Terry Nunn (ex-singer of Berlin. Remember “Take My Breath Away”?) at Paisley Park. He eventually returns to the UK and works as a file organiser for Cooper’s & Lybrand, a firm of accountants, even thinking about quitting music full time. “I just thought ‘this is wicked, I’m getting paid properly.’ I didn’t have to worry about tax and got paid for overtime and everything.”
1988 Underworld release “Change The Weather” album. It sound like a sub-Prince quasi-Eurythmics avant-Yelloo take on white boy funk. You really wouldn’t like it. Trust us. We asked Music & Video Exchange to look out a copy for us, but they’d thrown them all out because they couldn’t shift them.
1987 First incarnation of Underworld release debut single, “Underneath The Radar”, Followed by album of same name. Sample lyric: “Blackbird sittin’ at the kitchen door/Don’t give him bread, he’ll come back for more/Point to the bush where the berry grows/Rub your belly and touch your toes”. They look like A Flock Of Seagulls after an explosion in a Max Factor factory.
This trio comprised Karl Hyde, Rick Smith and Alfie Thomas, and was formed while the three were at college in Cardiff, Wales, in 1981. Their name was actually written as a hieroglyphic squiggle, to the amusement and bemusement of writers and chart compilers everywhere. ‘Freur’ was the phonetic pronunciation. They expanded their line-up with drummer Bryn Burrows (ex- Fabulous Poodles, his party trick of banging his head on his cymbals once led to him being carried offstage totally unconscious) and video guru John Warwicker. The group signed to CBS Records in 1983 and enjoyed a minor chart success with ‘Doot Doot’. Its popularity was made all the more unlikely by the fact that their record company had issued the original demo version rather than the recording the band had made with Conny Plank and Holger Czukay in Cologne. The record was also a big hit throughout Europe and topped the Italian charts. A second album was withheld from release by CBS, after which Smith and Hyde left to form Underworld with Baz Allen.
1985 Second Freur album, “Get Us Out of Here” Released. To massive indifference. They split shortly afterwards.
1984 Debut Freur album “Doot Doot” released.
1983 Freur have a hit single with “Doot Doot”. They are also apparently massive in Israel and Italy. Commenting on Freur, Karl reflect that “if the dance market had existed then, between 1984 and 1987, we’d probable have gravitated towards it…but we wanted a record deal, we had to appeal to somebody to give us a deal, so we had to do pop. That was the way you thought in those times.
THE SCREEN GEMZ
Screen Gemz is the earliest incarnation of the band, Karl and Rick met during their early twenties in a cardiff hard rock-style restaurant, where Karl made desserts and salads, Rick washed dishes, and starving musicians knew the two would feed them when they showed up at the kitchens’ back door. Before long, Rick was the new member of Karl’s band ‘The Screen Gemz’.
In retrospect, Rick couldn’t have been more naive about the music industry. ‘I genuinely thought that when I joined the ‘Screen Gemz’ that they were the best band in the area; they had a single played on the john peel [uk radio show]. I thought, ‘it’s all going to happen now.’ and I think within two months of joining the band that reality just kicked in so serious. I had never schlepped up and down the motorway in a transit van and done all the grueling [touring]. it was so grin; 12 months after that I left the band because I thought it was so crazy.’ Rick Smith
The Screen Gemz released one [correct me if i'm wrong] single called “Teenage Teenage / I can’t Stand Cars”
Known members : Karl Hyde, Rick Smith, ???
if you known more please mail me.
Rick was studying electronics at Cardiff University at the time. Karl was studying art.
Underworld + Sven Vath – Live at Cocoon Club 10-12-2006 (Part 1)
Underworld + Sven Vath – Live at Cocoon Club 10-12-2006 (Part 2)
Underworld – Live Act at Creamfields Buenos Aires on Metro FM95 / 11-11-2006
Underworld – Live at Oblivion Ball Makuhari Messe Tokyo 24-11-2007 (part1)
Underworld – Live at Oblivion Ball Makuhari Messe Tokyo 24-11-2007 (part2)
Underworld – Live at Big City Beats on Big Fm 10-03-2007
Underworld – Live at Isle Of Wight Radio Show 10-09-2008
Underworld – Live at Lowlands Festival Holland 16-08-2008 [VIDEO]
Underworld – Live at Lowlands Festival Holland 16-08-2008
Underworld – Live at Pentaport Rock Festival South Korea 27-07-2008
Underworld – Live at Lemonworld Studios Essex 23-04-2008 (part1)
Underworld – Live at Lemonworld Studios Essex 23-04-2008 (part2)
Resident Advisor Podcast 080 – Underworld
(world ex. usa)
gerry gerrard chaotica inc.
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