I first saw and heard Underworld in 1993 at a Megadog rave in the Rocket on Holloway Road. Joining them on the bill were Fluke and the Drum Club, but it was the trio from Romford with the frenetic singer/guitarist (wielding a Les Paul, no less) that had the crowd “avin’ it” (in my late-30s, I now find this term a bit embarrassing, but it’s what people said at raves back then to indicate they were enjoying themselves immensely). My memory of the night is sketchy; I have a vague recollection of Karl Hyde blowing on a harmonica at some point, a somewhat anomalous spectacle at a rave. By the time we left the Rocket at 7 am we knew we’d witnessed something unique, possibly life-changing, and even getting lost in the Barbican Estate for what seemed like hours – but was in reality less than 20 minutes – did nothing to cloud the experience. The following weekend I made my weekly visit to Essential Music in Greenwich and came across Underworld’s ‘Rez’/‘Cowgirl’. There was no snazzy sleeve design or coloured vinyl to entice the aesthete in me, just a slab of 12 inch vinyl slotted into that trademark, minimalist two-tone Junior Boy’s Own sleeve. I think I paid less than a fiver for it, and, unlike with so many of the dance 12” I purchased back then, I wasn’t disappointed.
Like a lot of music fans, I’ve often arrived late to the party and only discovered seminal albums months, or in some cases, years after the original release date. But for Underworld’s dubnobasswithmyheadman I was there at the start. Melody Maker was an early champion hailing it as “the most important album since The Stone Roses and the best since Screamadelica… a breathtaking hybrid that marks the moment that club culture finally comes of age and beckons to everyone”. This wasn’t hyperbole, either; dubnobass is a beast of a record, an accomplished fusion of different genres that sounds unlike anything else and yet remains as accessible as any great pop album. The late John Peel said that one of his great pleasures as a listener was hearing a new band and not being able to tell what music they had been influenced by. For me, this was the case with Underworld. I didn’t have a clue who or what inspired Karl Hyde, Rick Smith and Darren Emerson until I’d read interviews with the band (Kraftwerk, Lou Reed’s New York, Miles Davis, dub reggae and DJ Jazzy M to name but a few). Sure, there were other great dance albums released during the first half of the nineties (The White Room, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, Blue Lines, Orbital 2, Leftism) but none match the power, imagination and beauty of dubnobass.
The album begins with ‘Dark & Long’, a sinister bass line accompanied by a pulsating 4/4 kick drum, haunting synth pads and the ominous vocal line: ‘Thunder, thunder, lightning ahead, long/Kiss you, kiss you dark & long”. As the song builds and becomes more complex, Karl Hyde’s cut and paste/stream of consciousness lyrics create tension and add a sense of menace: “I want to smash it up, I want to break it down/I want a wall of tears to wash away”. Next comes ‘Mmm Skyscraper I Love You’, the album’s first Big Tune, clocking in at an whopping 13 minutes. While in many ways it’s the antithesis of those summer house anthems that get the punters going wild on the terrace at Space Ibiza, it’s no less catchy and far more poetic: “I see porn dogs sniffing the wind, sniffing the wind for something new/Porn dogs sniffing the wind for something violent they could do”. Third track ‘Surfboy’, a euphoric acid house number with a chorus of stuttering bleeps and blops segues effortlessly into the vocoder techno of ‘Spoonman’: “Don’t put your hand where you wouldn’t put your face/She said a dollar rubber rat Utah plates/Brilliant green substance unknown/With a face like a peeled onion”, sings Hyde. Whether you consider Hyde’s demented lyrics cryptic genius or nonsensical gibberish, they sound wonderful and make the songs far more interesting to listen to than your average bleeps and blops techno act.
Of course, another thing that distinguished Underworld from other dance acts at the time was the guitar. A few years ago I played ‘Tongue’ to a friend whose only knowledge of the band was ‘Born Slippy’, and she said it reminded her of Jeff Buckley’s guitar playing on Grace (another alumnus from the school of ’94). When I listened to the song again I could hear what she meant; there’s a similar sense of melancholy, a longing for a reply to an unanswered call. This air of vulnerability also inhabits ‘Dirty Epic’, which lives up to its title to reveal the lonely desperation of some lost soul caught between the twin torments of sex and religion: “Well I got phone sex to see me through the emptiness in my 501s/Freeze dried with a new religion/And my teeth stuffed back in my head.” As the song draws to an end, in wanders the synthesiser intro to ‘Cowgirl’, Underworld’s signature riff. Thousands of clubbers will know the joy of hearing this opening hook followed by the looped chant “Everything, everything”, then the repeated refrain “I’m invisible, I’m invisible” (a million times more euphoric than the “Shouting lager lager lager lager” part in ‘Born Slippy’). After ‘Cowgirl’ the final two songs on the album are both sedate affairs: ‘River of Bass’ is a breezy dub chill-out song reminiscent of The Orb, while ‘M.E.’ is a piano-led World Electronica number that would make WOMAD a tolerable experience if half of its line-up were as good.
Like New Order in the previous decade, Underworld showed indie rock bands how to make dance music with guitars. Along with The Prodigy and Leftfield, they were one of a select group of dance acts it was OK for indie kids to like and also made ravers accept that guitars weren’t just for long-haired weirdos (everyone I knew belonged to a tribe back then, each with its own defined boundaries regarding which musical genres it was acceptable to listen to). By the end of the nineties, as the cartoon dance music of Fatboy Slim and others rang out at indie discos across the land, the old tribal system had started to disappear. For myself, and others like me, the sense of liberation that began with The Stone Roses, Screamdelica and Blue Lines was sealed by dubnobasswithmyheadman, an album that redefined the concept of dance/rock fusion by sounding like the future had arrived in the present.
The 20th Anniversary Remastered Edition of dubnobasswithmtheadman will be released on 4 October 2014.