Some say the nineteen sixties was still swinging until the mid-seventies. In which case, the nineties must have started in 1987 when 808 State formed. Barely had the corpse of seminal Mancunian band The Smiths been laid to rest, when Graham Massey, Martin Price and Gerald Simpson released their debut album Newbuild in September 1988. Fourteen months later, Ninety came out and gave a waiting world the first serious Acid House long player…
Of course, House music was an American invention, reputed to have come out of Chicago as early as 1984. The Arthur Baker-produced AEIOU by Freeez was an eerily prescient track (released that year and scoring a UK number one) – if not quite the first ever House record, it certainly had all the component parts. By 1989 though, the genre had evolved, darkened and gone slightly psychedelic; beguiling a whole generation of kids with its hard, repetitive beats from ageing Japanese drum machines (such as the Roland TR808, after which Massey named his band).
Set over this was the warm, sumptuous sound of classic analogue synthesisers; at the time they were only a decade or so old, but new sampling technology allowed them to be woven into far more complex tapestries than the original machines were ever designed to do. 808 State were a big fan of Roland Jupiter 8s, Junos, Mini Moogs and Korg Monopolys – anything that made a warm, ‘phat’ sound; none of those wiry sounding Gary Numan-esque Oberheims here!
The 808 State sound was full, dense and layered. It was melodic but not in the symphonic sense that Kraftwerk propounded, and they lacked the big power chords of, say, Ruichi Sakamoto. Instead the music was intense, subtle, repetitive and trippy. This was perfectly captured by Pacific State, which became the band’s first commercially successful single, reaching number 10 in the UK in 1989. It was very much of its time; indeed it was about the most zeitgeisty song of the late eighties. A fast moving instrumental based on funky, Moog bass noodling, with cheesy TR808 hand claps and cowbell percussion, over which eerie electronic bird warbling sounds were overlaid, and a wonderful wash of analogue synths with some blissed-out saxophone added for good measure.
It was a great dance track, and more than this, emblematic of the new decade approaching; the nineteen nineties wasn’t about the angst-ridden alienation of Indie pop, Cold War austerity or economic recession; the late eighties generation was keen to leave all that to their older brothers and sisters, and go out and party…
Around the time Pacific State was released as a single, Gerald Simpson left the group for his own solo project, leaving Price and Massey to enlist DJs Andrew Barker and Darren Partington for Ninety. It was a brilliant moment, delivering some forty minutes of highly listenable tunes for a generation used to dancing. It had shades of Kraftwerk, a dabble of Cabaret Voltare, a touch of BGM-period Yellow Magic Orchestra; it was a little darker than you might expect, with some strange, twisted sounds and some thumping minor chords. All this time, a manic, 120bpm drum track thrashed along in the background. Tracks like Ancodia and Techno City show real depth, the band delivering a frenzied fog of electronic thrashing and bleeping in an intelligent, loving way.
Interestingly it came on ZTT Records, a label that had been on the back foot for several years. After its stellar success with Frankie Goes To Hollywood in 1984, it spent the latter part of the eighties floundering. Having 808 State was a declaration of intent that the label was prepared to adapt with the times and sponsor great new music. Shades of Rhythm, another great Northern House music act, soon followed – although the label hit paydirt with Seal’s first album shortly after the release of Ninety. The cover was beautifully designed and studiously avoided pictures of the band themselves, something far too ‘rock’n’roll’ to this new dance generation!
Ninety isn’t the greatest album ever, maybe it’s not even the greatest album of 1989, but it’s a bold, daring, loving, thought-provoking and beguiling album of electronic sounds which – for a moment at least – pushed the game forward and was unerringly cool. Indeed, it still is. Nowadays, Acid House sounds as dated as punk or glam rock, but if you’re looking for a stimulating and classy way in, this is it.