Melody Maker | Feature | 5 December 1992 | Photo: Tom Sheehan
RELEASE THE PRESSURE!
Critical acclaim means bugger all in clubland. Here, an act's reputation is better measured by the number of others sampling them. And right now, it's impossible to guess just how many groups are either sampling or trying to emulate the fusion of dub, disco and house originally forged on Leftfield's 1990 debut single, "Not Forgotten".
We're probably talking triple figures. Which is more than enough for some bright spark to take the trouble of thinking up a name for the sound – progressive house. No wonder Leftfield's Neil Barnes and Paul Daley don't know whether to laugh or cry.
Neil Barnes began his music career as one of the first resident DJs at The Wag Club. He swapped his turntables for a selection of percussive instruments around the time of rare groove. His congas and cowbells were then traded in for a grand's worth of technological wizardry three years ago. A deal with Rhythm King and the release of "Not Forgotten" followed soon after. Paul Daley, then a member of A Man Called Adam, was called in for the remix.
The track, which still sounds years ahead of its time, was a massive hit with DJs, but the club reaction did not translate into sales. Neil blames Rhythm King and is scathing at their recent reissue of the record. Paul left A Man Called Adam and joined Leftfield in time to help Neil begin his lengthy legal wrangle to free himself from the Rhythm King contract.
Unable to release any Leftfield material during the dispute, Neil and Paul spent most of 1992 on remix duty. The sound now known as progressive house was honed down to a fine art during their work on React II Rhythm's "Intoxication", ICP's "Free And Equal" and Supereal's "Body Medusa". Inner City, Sunscreem and Ultra Nate also benefitted from their knob twiddling.
Leftfield's follow-up single to "Not Forgotten", "Release The Pressure", finally dropped this summer on their own Hard Hands label. A slow stomp featuring Jamaican toaster Earl Sixteen, it was instantly heralded as a progressive house classic.
"But 'Release The Pressure' wasn't really even a club track," says Paul. "I'm sure everybody would have called it progressive house if it had been a rock record. The way progressive house has suddenly given a name to the sound we've had for two years is absurd. We liked it better when it didn't have a name."
Which adds a rub of irony to the release of their new single, "Song Of Life". It's a driving, dubby and dead classy record. It's everything prog house should be.
"We basically wanted to make the tribal drums and all the other ideas people are hearing everywhere at the moment sound better than ever before," says Neil. "But there are some unique touches in there too. The ethereal vocals for a start. It's an East European folk singer."
"There's also the fact that, after 'Release The Pressure', we wanted something pumping, something to rock the systems," adds Paul. "Something uplifting and positive as well. We recorded it just after my friend Steve had died in Ibiza and his death had an effect on the way it turned out. Hence the title."
If "Song Of Life" is a new high for the sound with which Neil and Paul have made their mark, the other two current releases on their Hard Hands imprint are on a radically different tip. First, there's an EP of giddy remixes of "Release The Pressure" entitled "Release The Dubs". Then there's Dee Patten's "Who's The Badman?" – a raw, spooky, ragga rocker.
Paul: "'Who's The Badman?' completely defies categorisation, which is just brilliant. It was recorded on an eight-track with no gimmicks, no nothing. It's a really honest record."
Neil: "The same goes for 'Release The Dubs'. We've put those tracks out without making a fuss. We don't want people to think they're part of a grand plan. There's never been a grand plan. Right from the start, the aim was simply to cut across barriers and explore new territories. I was listening to a lot of film scores when I wrote 'Not Forgotten' and the idea was to do an alternative to Trevor Jones's 'Mississippi Burning', not start a new trend in dance music.
"Paul and I are easily bored and we'd drive ourselves nuts if we only made one type of music. That's why I'm looking forward to an album early in the new year. It'll be great to have vocal tracks, instrumentals and dubs all on the same record."
Paul: "Yeah, we might be a club act but we'd also like to be thought of as an album act."
Now there's a novelty. The pair are already at work on a list of singers they want to involve in the project.
Neil: "Another track with Earl Sixteen and a track with Papa Dee. We'd also like to try something with Galliano too. Then there's John Lydon. Maybe. It's well known how much he despises dance music but, for some reason, he seems to like us."
Paul: "We actually had a track with him in the pipeline a few months back. Then we heard Yothu Yindi's 'Treaty' and, believe it or not, it sounded remarkably similar. Even though we had to bin that idea, I still think the combination of John's vocals and our production would be really good, really new and different. We want to work with unique vocalists, not just get in some American soul singer. If we have vocals, we want them to say something. John does. He's a brilliant songwriter."
The vocals on "Song Of Life" are used like an instrument. There isn't even a hook line, let alone verses and choruses, but the sensational dynamics of the track prove that Leftfield are also brilliant songwriters. They are reminiscent of Fluke. With a little Andy Weatherall thrown in.
"Weatherall's a genius," says Paul. "The first time I heard him DJing, he changed my whole outlook on music. He is as much responsible for progressive house as us."
It's inevitable that we're back on the subject of prog house. However much they hate the thought of being associated with that phrase, Leftfield acknowledge that it identifies a real, sexy, vibrant and distinctly British dance music movement. And however dubious the designs of Leftfield copyists, let's not forget the innovation of acts like Future Sound Of London, DOP, Jet Slags and The Diceman, and DJs like Weatherall, Darren Emerson and "Boss Drum" remixer Justin Robertson. Each holds a key position in prog house – and each is intent on pushing club music a bit further. Each has the sense to see p*** house as an attitude, a state of mind, rather than a sound.
Above all, Leftfield and the cream of the crop they've helped to sow bear witness to the fact that, despite the bludgeoning effect of the million and one shite hardcore techno tunes we've had to endure this year, there's still life left in the dance scene yet. A whole lotta life. Can U feel it?