"When you first heard stories about people waving their pints in the air, it was a little bit disturbing." Karl Hyde on those lager lager lyrics
Darren Emerson on Underworld: "Karl is mad. Rick does spend all his time in the studio. And some people think I'm a bit of a lad."
1996?"Everything Went Nuclear"
Serious drinking at the Mercury Awards and your dad dead drunk on tour. Stumbling off 'planes feeling "like a piece of stinging meat"
and the maddest gigs you've played in your life. The best album and the best single and the best film of the year. So what sticks in Underworld's
collective brain from the year when "everything went nuclear'?
Writer: Alexis Petridis
Photographer: Antonio Petronzio
IN ten year's time, how will you remember this year. What's going to stick in your mind - incidents, tunes, defining moments? Tribal Gathering? Big Love? Gareth Southgate and 'Three Lions'? 'Firestarter' and 'Setting Sun'? Or will you remember The Kick Drum?
The kick drum that snatched your breath as Renton snatched Begbie's bag. The kick drum that burst out of the Breakfast Show when you were least expecting it. The kick drum that rattled off festival stages, through club PAs, out of car stereos all Summer long, shouting lager "lager lager lager" and powering a nasty, twisted bit of dancefloor poison straight to the top of the charts. The kick drum that told you that Underworld had finally, irrevocably arrived. Sitting in a London pub as 1996 draws to a close, Karl Hyde squints back over a year of endless gigs and TV shows, singles, albums, interviews and awards. He thinks for the hundredth time about The Kick Drum. "When I first heard it on the radio, I just thought, 'This can't be happening. I don't understand anything anymore.'" A pause. Then he smiles. "But what a giggle, eh?"
JANUARY 1996, before Trainspotting and 'Born Slippy' and 'Second Toughest In The Infants'. Karl Hyde is on the phone. Rick Smith is on the other end. All is not well. "I remember specifically when Rick phoned up and said, 'I don't think we've got an album,'" he shudders. "I went cold. I was saying, 'Calm down, hang on, let's think about this, let's get another opinion.' I was a bit shaken by that. 'Good morning, I don't think we've got an album. ' Great."
Underworld had already spent months recording the follow-up to 'DubNoBassWithMyHeadMan'. They had three hours of stuff on tape, but none of them
knew if it could top their debut, a record that people were already talking about as one of the greatest dance albums ever.
"We were pretty nervous because we didn't know if we'd done a pile of rubbish or something half decent," says Rick. "We were working
solidly for ages and it all became much of a muchness. You don't have a clue about anything."
So they copied the tracks onto tapes and handed them round to friends, asking them to pick their favourites. Everyone picked different tracks.
Useless. To add to their worries, their record label kept badgering them to re-release the one-off single they'd put out last year. All three of
them had seen Trainspotting, the British film that soundtracked Irvine Welsh's tale of heroin addiction in Edinburgh with 'Dark Train' and 'Born
Slippy'. They loved the film, loved how the director, Danny Boyle, had used 'Born Slippy' at its crucial moment to heartstopping effect. But they still
couldn't see the point of releasing the track again.
"I didn't want to put down 'Born Slippy'," says Rick. "It was a great record and it captured a lot of things and blah blah blah, but it was luck. It was not a plan. Darren, Karl and I did not want it put out again. We were really unsure. 'It's already been out.' 'It's already sold 30,000 copies.' 'What are we doing now?' 'What's the point?'" After all, the whole thing was meant as a joke in the first place. Its patchwork of euphoric breakdowns and relentless, tuneless pounding was Underworld's idea of a satire of the dance genre. "Taking the piss," as Darren Emerson puts it. "When we did the track two or three years ago, it was quite hard," Darren says. "We thought, 'Let's put some cheesy strings on it'. We thought they were cheesy. One minute it was cheesy and the next minute it was really slamming. It was a bit of a piss-take then, but we listen to it now and it ain't."
In 1995, 'Born Slippy' came and went with little fanfare. It dented the charts but failed to make the end of year lists: just another cool Underworld single, like 'Spikee' or 'Dark And Long'. 12 months later, once Trainspotting had exploded and Underworld were finally convinced to re-release it, 'Born Slippy' sounded, well, different. With Tribal Gathering cancelled and tabloid E hysteria still rife, 'Born Slippy' unwittingly captured the mood and the moment perfectly. It was the chaos of the dance scene in minature, the blissful dancefloor moments and the furious, desperate struggle to survive all present on one piece of plastic. And as the media crowed endlessly about New Laddism and the letters pages piled up with tales of club nights ruined by pissed up beer boys, there was the little matter of 'Born Slippy's lyrics. From Karl Hyde's original lyric about "me as a piece of meat, wheeling around Soho", "lager, lager, lager, lager" became the year's buzz phrase, 96's "Acieeeed" or "Techno! Techno! Techno! Techno!" half rallying-cry for shameless fucked-up hedonism, half confused howl at how far things were going. Those four words have followed Underworld around the globe for the best part of 12 months, from Tribal Gathering to Japan and back again to Big Love. They're clearly sick of talking about them. Darren Emerson says it's "bollocks", Rick Smith says Karl "wrote it in all sincerity and if you start to think about the implications, you'd stop expressing yourself in the way you want to." And Karl himself?
"They're ironic lyrics," he says. "It was very personal, it wasn't pointed at anyone other than myself in a less than clear headed mood. When you first heard stories about people waving their pints in the air, it was a little bit disturbing, but I think the way it was used in Trainspotting redressed the whole balance. People are always going to put different interpretations to the one you intended and that's alright, as long as it doesn't cause anybody any grief. Some of the most wonderful things in the world have been abused for the most horrific reasons and I think on a scale of one to ten, this is pretty minor. There's nothing we can do about it, it's public property, you know. 'Born Slippy', the Queen Mother, fish and chips..." So that's 'Born Slippy'. And the album they agonised over, that almost didn't get released? Oh, they wrote 'Pearl's Girl', added that to the best of the rest and that was 'Second Toughest In The Infants'. Mercury Music Prize nominee and undoubtedly the best album of the year. What a giggle, eh?
"The best bands in the world
are made up of people who are really different.
You look at it on paper and you go,
'How does this work?
What's holding it together?'" - Karl Hyde
THINK about the members of Underworld, and three clear public images start to focus. There's Karl Hyde, the nutcase with the daft dances and the silly faces and the lyrics no one understands. 'Mad bloke', as he put it himself in the tour diaries he sent back to Mixmag over the course of the year. Then there's Darren Emerson, the bangin' techno beer monster, DJ and Essex lad. And Rick Smith, the quiet one, the respectable, bespectacled studio boffin. You could almost put them in a cartoon like The Beatles or The Jackson Five.
"Yeah, it's all true," grins Darren. "Karl is mad. Rick does spend all his time in the studio. And some people think I'm a bit of a lad." And, yeah, seeing them at the photo shoot, it all fits. Karl goons around, putting on funny voices and mugging for the camera. Ask him a question and he twists the words back at you in bizarre, funny shapes (Question: "You jam a lot on stage, don't you?" Karl: "Jam on stage? Always have jam on stage. Loads of jam"). He says he acts the way he does on stage because "that's the way the music feels to me, that's what it said to me to be like." The others never tell him they don't understand his lyrics, "but they don't have to say anything. It's in the way they look. I think it's just accepted now. They're like [knowing voice] 'Oh yeah. Just leave it with us, Karl, we'll sort it out. It's very nice. Lovely."
Meanwhile, Darren turns up with a record bag and two cans of Stella. You start asking him about being an Essex lad and he interrupts you to yell at someone else: "Go and get some beers in, mate!" Perfect. "Essex is where I'm from, y'know what I mean?" he says. "I just think it's quite funny, really. 'Oh, you're from Essex? Oooh, dodgy place, Essex birds, Essex lads...' If you go to Bromley or anywhere, it's just the same, but Essex has got that name. Look at The Prodigy. Great news they're at Number One again. Fair play to 'em, mate! They're Essex boys. There's loads of Essex people making music at the moment," he muses. "Let Loose! They're Essex boys! Actually, one of Let Loose used to go to school with me..." Darren thinks there's two kinds of people in the music industry, "People who want to be pop stars and swing their pants about and people like us." He "doesn't really like going on TV" and he's "not excited by the stardom bit". He gets embarrassed when Karl pulls him and Rick from behind their equipment to take a bow at the end of gigs. "We think it's really cheesy," he confides, "but, y'know, Karl gets so into it..."
And then there's Rick. "One of the best people on Earth," according to Karl. The George Harrison of Underworld? "Ah, no offence to
George," grins Karl, "But I think Rick does a bit more."
"If I wanted to be known as the gorgeous one, I guess I'd have a problem," says Rick. "But I don't. Someone wrote that I appeared at
an interview looking like a geography teacher. And it just made me laugh. I spend 90 per cent of my time in the studio, that's what I'm interested
in and that's why I get called the techno boffin. So if someone tells me I look a bit like a geography teacher, then it doesn't really matter. I just
think, 'Well, do you get off on my records?'"
But of the three, it's Rick who seems most uncomfortable with the success of 1996. Bad memories of his and Karl's earlier brushes with fame - in both 80s synth band Freur and the disastrous first incarnation of Underworld, both "conned" by the music business - are still heavy on his mind. "I am a bit pissed off with 'Born Slippy' and the supposed status it's given us. It's bullshit, real bullshit, the music industry. It doesn't change. Who's going to remember me and what I've done in 20 years' time? 'Born Slippy'? Big bloody deal. It got to Number Two and sold 400,000 copies. So what? If 400 people or 20 people had bought it, and it had touched them, it would still be the same. It can work against you. Look at Bjork. The poor bugger. All she's trying to do is express herself through her music and some toe rag goes and sends her a bomb and tries to lay the blame on her. That's the downside of success."
Friends or not, you can imagine that three contrasting personalities are occasionally going to clash, particularly when they've spent most of the year in each other's company. All three admit there's been some tense moments. "We have huge rows, but we get through it," says Karl. "We're like anyone else," he reasons. "Stick us in a metal tube and throw us round the world for ten months and we're going to run the whole gamut of emotions. But we're still more like a gang than any other band I've been part of."
1996? "Heaven and Hell," says Rick. "It's been a grind, it's been fun, and it's been mad," says Darren. All three think virtually
every gig they've done this year has been great. There's been other stuff as well. The night of the Mercury Music Awards, for instance. Underworld knew
they weren't going to win. So they compensated by getting dressed up, taking their wives and girlfriends and, ah, ordering more alcohol than anyone else
in the room.
"I've never seen so much drink on one table in my life," remembers Karl. "There was literally no room to get the food on the table. There was just this mountain of liquid-filled glass." "As we walked in, people were watching the table like, 'Who's going to sit there? Sad alcoholics!'" Rick laughs. "Steve Hall [from their record label, Junior Boys Own] was ill and Karl wasn't drinking..." "...and I basically drank it all," grins Darren. But all that pales into insignificance next to the on-the-road antics of Karl's dad. You can see him in the photos of their Japanese tour, an older, bearded version of 'mad bloke' who tagged along for the ride. He even appears to pull the same daft faces when you point a camera at him. "Bloody Nora, he was out until four or five every morning," Karl mutters. "They found him wandering the streets! I actually found him wandering around a hotel corridor, listing slightly, trying to look straight through a wall. We'd scuttle off to bed and he'd be off out, raging hard. It was great. At the Mount Fuji festival, we went into the banging section and I looked out to see this group of Japanese kids dancing round him. He was dancing like a nutter. At first it didn't register it was my dad, because he was dancing so brilliantly. Then I just went [adopts sulky teenaged voice] 'Oh shit! Dad! What you like?'" Drunk at the Mercury awards and your dad 'avin it on tour: This is the other side of Underworld, the other reason they work so well. Because behind the artiness and the weird song titles and the lyrics Darren and Rick don't understand, behind all that stuff that characterised them in the first place, there's something more basic. Rick might spend "16 hours a day for two months" in the studio, planning their live sound before a tour, but he's the one who talks about their gigs in terms of sheer electric power. "People have had enough of all that sonic shit," he says. "They want to get off and they want to dance and abandon everything else that's happening. And that's what we do. The old art bit is very nice, but there's a lot of people doing that, playing moody tracks and searching for sonic perfection. 'Is that reverb right on the hi-hat?' Bullshit! Let's go! Sometimes it's like trying to see how much we can fuck up onstage, because when it goes wrong, that's when the adrenaline really starts rushing."
SO Underworld finish their drinks and leave. Darren's off DJing in Brighton, Rick's going back to Romford, burying himself in the studio for 16 hours
a day, planning Underworld's next move, getting busy on the Depeche Mode remix he and Darren are working on. "We've got no new material," he
announces, "and we need something special. Until we get something special, we won't be doing anything."
And Karl's taking his dictaphone and his little camera (he takes pictures of everything, and I mean everything - me, the table in the pub, people's elbows) back out into Soho. Wheeling around, picking up snatches of dialogue, half-heard conversations about people and places you'll never know. Sooner or later, it'll get cut up and mixed up and transformed by Darren and Rick. And that'll be the next Underworld album. "Sometimes," he says, "I don't understand what Darren and Rick do. I'm inspired and intrigued by it and I'm drawn to what comes out. Sometimes I feel like a fan who's been let into the band."
A band where no one understands what the others do. And in 1996, they've made the best records, played the best gigs, mattered more than anyone else in dance music. Underworld. What a giggle, eh?
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