AS LOW points go, this one was not merely a dip in life's road. It was a chasm. A gorge. A bloody great sheer-sided canyon. It was the end of 1989. The close of what had been, for many people and in many ways, a decade not entirely to be savoured. And for one Rick Smith, it must have seemed like the end of everything.
Rick was, along with his longtime collaborator Karl Hyde, a leading member of an art-funk band called Underworld. The fortunes of a professional musician are variable at best. Underworld, not long before, had looked to be doing fairly well. They had secured a support slot on an international tour with one of the biggest acts of the day, The Eurythmics. But the tour was a disaster. It swiftly became clear that the band was falling apart. Rick had a miserable time. He broke his leg. He felt sure it was all over. Sure enough, when he got home, he barely had time to put his one good foot up before Underworld were dropped by their record company. Then by their management. On the same day. Which was also when he discovered that the band was up to its armpits in hock, to the tune of sixty thousand pounds.
Rick sold off the band's equipment in an attempt to clear the debts. What little remained - electronic gear, mainly - he moved into a spare room in his home in Romford. He would continue to work here, putting together music with no idea of where he would take it. Until one night he came downstairs, sat down, and started crying. And couldn't stop.
“What am I doing?” he asked his wife. “This is so pointless. I haven't earned a penny for a year. We can't go on like this.”
If you think this sounds like an old Hollywood biopic, you'd be right. Anyone else's spouse might have gently suggested the time had come to reconsider a career in banking. But not Mrs Smith. “You're doing it because that's what you do,” she told Rick. “You write music.”
Three years later, he sold the music for five thousand pounds. It was used in a tampon advert. Not very Hollywood, but it was a start. And by then, anyway, everything was about to change.
NEXT Monday sees the release of the third album by the Nineties Underworld, long since reinvented as a dance trio. As with the first two, you can safely bet the baby's milk money that Beaucoup Fish will be ecstatically reviewed, and will sell enough copies to keep the wolf well away from Rick's door.
The first album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, was hailed in 1993 as a revolutionary mix of techno and rock to rival the Primal Scream/Andrew Weatherall opus Screamadelica. The response was barely less enthusiastic for the next LP, 1996's Second Toughest In The Infants. In between, Underworld put out a largely overlooked single, Born Slippy. When months later a remix appeared in the film Trainspotting, they found themselves near the top of the singles charts with a track many people mistook for a drinking anthem: “Lager lager lager shouting, lager lager lager. . .”
It was an odd experience for Rick and Karl, two men whose early hero was Brian Eno. For the third member of the group, Darren Emerson, it was downright bizarre. He had never expected to find himself on Radio One.
Darren is over a decade younger than his bandmates. Born in his parents' house in Hornchurch, he now lives a few minutes away from Rick in Romford, where Karl has also made his home. Darren was a single minded boy. He was four years old when he started playing records, identifying them by the colour of the labels. At 14 he had his own DJ decks; at 15, a sampler. 1988's acid house explosion arrived with perfect timing - he was 16, working on the futures market in the City. Three years later he'd given it up for full-time DJing.
Darren is a gadget freak. He's what's known as an early enabler. Thanks to the likes of Darren, who buy up gizmos when they're new, expensive and untested, the rest of us can get the same stuff two years later and a few hundred quid cheaper, confident that it won't crash and burn. Technology and dance music were Darren's twin obsessions. At the turn of the decade, Darren was exactly what Rick felt he needed.
“We had a sense,” says Rick, “even before the old Underworld had finished, that acid house was happening. We tried a couple of experiments, but we weren't part of that culture. It was so bogus, it was never going to work. We were taking a karaoke approach.”
Rick asked his brother-in-law, a habitue of warehouse parties, if he knew any DJs. The brother-in-law hooked him up with Darren. Darren thought that Rick was “a bit of a hippy”, but admired his musical abilities and his knack for assimilating ideas. A few weeks later, Rick introduced Darren to Karl, and they began to incorporate Karl's lyrics into the tracks they were making.
Rick and Karl had been in bands together since 1980, when they met in the kitchens of a burger bar in Cardiff. Karl had been studying art at the university there. Raised in the countryside near Stourbridge in the midlands, he had been amazed when he heard about art school. “The local industry was carpets. And the obvious thing if you were slightly interested in art was to design carpets. Fortunately, this woman teacher I
fancied like mad - she wore a leather miniskirt - gave me a right ticking off about that and showed me this prospectus. I actually couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that there was a heaven called Art College, where you did art all day.”
Rick was working in a bank in his home town of Ammanford, South Wales. A weekend visit to a friend at Cardiff University changed that. “I arrived at the Students Union in my brown pinstripe suit with the flares. I was stood there watching The Boomtown Rats, with everyone spitting at each other. Two hours later I was drunk and eating vindaloo curry, thinking, ‘This is the life for me.’ Five days after that I was in the university.”
Rick studied electronics, planning to build synthesisers. He soon joined Karl's band, Screen Gems, thinking, “Give it two months and we'll be cooking. I was so utterly wrong. A year and a half later, things were really awful. It got worse and worse, and I had enough, and I left.”
Not for the last time, Karl and Rick salvaged something from the rubble. Karl played his friend an odd little electronic ditty that would become the basis for a new band - and in which you can hear the beginnings of today's Underworld. The song was Doot Doot, a minor hit here, bigger elsewhere. Karl and Rick started Freur, whose name was represented by a prematurely Prince-like squiggle. “Just talk into the portastudio,” the rest of the band told Rick. “First thing you say, that's the name.” Rick shrugged and emitted an embarrassed splutter: “Phwrrrrhehheh.” His bandmates looked at each other. “Oh Christ,” they muttered. “Okay.”
Freur looked like plastic technicolour goths. One member transformed himself into the living spit of Eno. “It was great dressing up,” says Karl. “We had a lot of fun. Although we were so poor that one of the guys would go to a local hospital and earn money being a drugs guinea pig. We went from years on the dole to a number one hit in Italy. That turns your head. You have to be very strong, very determined for it not to, and we weren't.”
THROUGH successive line-ups of Freur and Underworld, Karl and Rick were chewed up, spat out and reingested by the record industry over and again. They learned the hard way that the best way to deal with the music business is to avoid it as much as possible.
“I realised,” says Rick, “that I had completely misunderstood the way it worked, and that I had no skill to deal with it on those terms, because I'm not black-hearted. It made me fiercely, ferociously independent. Otherwise there's no way this band would exist today, or be able to make the music it's making today.”
In terms of innovation, consistency, esteem and longevity, Underworld are rivalled on the UK dance scene only by Massive Attack and Orbital. Their records tend towards the hypnotic, with Karl's voice scattering fragmented images over the beats. At first Darren made a point of supplying more club-oriented mixes to his DJ friends, but they almost always preferred the vocal versions. Something about Karl's urban vignettes is crucial to the atmosphere of the tracks.
“I concocted this imaginary system in my head,” explains Karl, “where you went out and you were just looking at what was going on, listening to conversations. I thought, I'll just do that, record the day as it happens.” Roving packs of drunks. Whispering waitresses. Propositions from dark doorways. Karl picked them all up and relayed them down the microphone. He found that this method had unexpected consequences. He became, to put it mildly, a heavy drinker himself.
“It was a conscious decision to use alcohol in the process of simplifying life of an evening. I felt that I couldn't discern one bit from another of all the vast amount of information that was coming at us in the city. And I knew that's where it was most exciting, was in the city. Things got a lot simpler, and I could pick them out a lot easier.”
Eventually, he dismissed his habitual drunkenness as boring, repetitive and destructive. He looked at Tomato, a successful art and design collective to which the trio belong, and saw what his colleagues were doing there, sober. Finally, he believed his own stuff was good enough without the booze. If Beaucoup Fish is anything to go by, he was right.
“There's much more of a vibe of being in the daylight now,” he says. “Rather than the twilight zone, like the first two albums.” And there certainly is something shadowy and murky, sometimes even seedy, about those records. Appropriate, really, for a band called Underworld.
“The name was just a tag we got from a film that Rick and I did the score from back in the Eighties,” says Karl. “Based on a Clive Barker book, with Miranda Richardson, Art Malik, Denholm Elliot, Larry Lamb.”
So the eighties weren't a complete disaster for Underworld.
“A fantastic cast,” muses Karl. “It just wasn't a very good film.”
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