Back in the Spring of 1991, I was just settling into my second term at technical college. At the time, I was, first and foremost, into rock and metal. Rock and metal formed probably about 80% of all my listening, with the rest compromising film soundtracks, the odd pop group I liked, and electronic music. By the time the new decade rolled around, a lot of the bands I had especially liked were having a much harder time of it – and it would only get worse for the survivors of metal’s late 80s self-parodying excesses, as even the most popular of them started falling victim to the increased popularity of grunge and garage rock that really came into its own a few years later. Even as a dyed-in-the-wool metal fan, I was starting to feel that some of the bands I’d spent years listening to felt… not bad, but tired. If the musical climate was changing, I was ready for the change. I wanted to hear something new.
More than that, I wanted to escape. I wanted something more abstract and less obsessed with the machinations of the human race than a lot of rock music had become. A lot of rock and metal at this time just felt exhausted with human self-absorption: furrow-browed and obsessed with how awful we were being with each other, it seemed to me that a lot of bands had become obsessed with making grand political gestures and weren’t writing about people anymore so much as writing songs making statements that they felt they were expected to make. So much music felt so earnest, so worthy, so… dull.
Happily, after several years underground in the UK, the electronic music scene was really starting to rise to the challenge of presenting a genuinely revolutionary alternative. And I mean revolutionary in two senses of the word: revolutionary as in genuinely new, and revolutionary also in that a lot of what the electronic music scene was serving up was deliberately anti-establishment. For the first time in my living memory, here was what could honestly be termed a counter-culture movement, with a whole different worldview. Freed from the conventions of rock music, the electronic/dance music of the time was unabashedly progressive and intriguing. 40 minute single-track singles; EPs without track listings, or containing only suites of numbered parts, almost as if they were classical music; impromptu gigs/raves… these were all features of the scene which had been gathering momentum since the mid-80s and which now gatecrashed the mainstream in spectacular style.
Whilst a lot of the electronic/dance stuff that ended up in the charts was entertaining if not outright fun, much of it tended to be essentially pop music dressed in new clothing: stuff like C & C Music Factory, Snap! and the omnipresent 2 Unlimited from Holland typified this approach. They were generally big cheesy fun that I didn’t object to, but nothing that these kind of acts did really touched a chord with me. I wanted something that broke the rules, something that Just Did It’s Own Thing, not fussed if people actually went out in their droves and bought copies from Woolworths. Time passed, and I heard a lot of enjoyable but inessential things that weren’t quite what I was subconsciously looking for.
And then, unexpectedly, something dropped right in my lap. It was during an expedition to the best-loved of the independent record stores local to the technical college I was attending in Worcester, a place called Magpie Records (long since gone, unfortunately; I can see a pattern forming here given that Tempest Records that I talked about in #1 of this series has also now gone). A lot of my mates at technical college were also big music geeks – primarily metal (everyone knows that metalheads have an unerring sense of when other metalheads are nearby, sort of a metal radar. These particular birds of a feather always flocked together), but just music generally. So we spent an awful lot of time (and money) in Magpie. On this occasion, though, I popped into Magpie on my own on the way to the railway station. The place was about to close; it was Spring and the nights were drawing out, but the dim lights of Magpie barely illuminated the racks enough for me to flick through them. I had just started doing so, when suddenly a part of my brain shook itself awake and said, “Hey, Dave, like, what the hell is this they’re playing over the speakers in here?”
It wasn’t quite like anything else I’d heard before. It mixed together seeming random samples, sound effects and washes of synth with a steady electronic pulse that faded in and out of the mix, building with a steady intensity before fading doppler-like into the background. There were no vocals, just sampled speech and an occasional choral effect; there was no evident narrative or meaning. It was just… beautiful. It was about nothing and everything at the same time. It had no structure, it just ebbed and flowed without really seeming to ever develop a melody, and yet there was something immediately fascinating and memorable about it. I stood there for perhaps ten minutes, soaking it up, before I realised I wasn’t doing anything else – the racks had been forgotten – and that the guy behind the counter was watching me with amusement. So finally I had to ask, “What’s this you’re playing? It’s amazing.”
The answer was, “It’s A Huge Ever-growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld by The Orb.”
They only had the one copy of the original 12″ left, and that had been ordered in for someone, so alas I couldn’t buy it. I was gutted. But, perhaps sensing my disappointment, Mr Magpie informed me with a grin that The Orb’s album was coming out in a fortnight, and that word had it that this track would be on it. I immediately knew that I would be buying it. Even if it turned out that the rest of the album didn’t live up to what I had heard, this track alone would be worth the investment.
It was a really long fortnight. Time stretches when you’re waiting for anything, and by the end of the second week, my impatience was manifesting itself in unusual ways. Forever cavalier about my time-keeping and coursework deadlines, I had thrown myself into my college work as a distraction and actually finished several assignments days early, which was unheard of. When release day finally rolled around, I got straight off the train in the morning and went straight into Magpie. The album, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, had arrived but hadn’t yet been unpacked. “Come back in an hour”, I was told. So I went to college, sat jiggling through my first lesson, then practically ran back to Magpie to buy the album. My mind was not on college for the rest of the day. I sat there marvelling at the track titles. As well as the Huge, Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain…, we had Spanish Castles In Space, Into The Fourth Dimension, the Back Side Of The Moon and Star 6, 7, 8 and 9. And, of course, Little Fluffy Clouds, a track that rapidly became omnipresent and another huge personal favourite.
I got home, and practically barricaded myself in my bedroom so as not to be interrupted whilst I listened to the album for the first time, both discs back to back (for Ultraworld is a classic double album in the fullest sense). It was like dropping acid (not that I had the faintest idea what that was like back in 1991). It was like a waking dream, a soundtrack without a film, except perhaps of the purely internal kind. It was, in short, a trip. For the first time I experienced some dance music that completely disregarded traditional song structure, constructed without any thought of track times or conventional musical ideas. It was around halfway through the second disc that I realised that I now loved dance music, and that – like rock – the stuff that cluttered up the charts was a tiny, tiny part of what was going on at any given time. And so it was that The Orb turned me on to dance music: a dizzyingly vast genre full of contrasts and musical invention that I just hadn’t been paying attention to.
Over the years, Ultraworld became a chill-out album of choice. It was what you threw on on Sunday morning after a particularly good party, or at three in the morning as the party lost its momentum and became introspective and relaxing. When I was home on my own, it was what I listened to over headphones at night as I lay in bed. And in all the years that followed, it never once lost its shine. I still play it regularly now – and every time I play it, I smile fondly as it reaches Huge Ever-growing Pulsating Brain… at the end of the album, and marvel afresh at this truly cosmic piece of semi-improvisation, a magnificent sound collage the equal of which I still have yet to hear, nearly 25 years later.
Thanks, guys :-).
Here’s the full-length version of the track that I first heard in Magpie Records that fateful evening. Bonus points if you can spot the Floyd sample ;-).