The man responsible for the UK's first genuine acid house single discusses basslines, bitonality and the grin factor. Baby talk: David Bradwell.
As the tabloid press and Radio 1 attempt a media execution of acid house, one of its British pioneers explains all that is high is the technology.
1988: THE SUMMER of love becomes the winter of discontent. The inevitable tabloid backlash against acid house has begun and been joined by a BBC television and radio airplay ban. Both reactions are based on the high profile of designer drugs within the acid house scene - an allegation which club devotees fiercely deny. But while the drug connection is causing public outrage, it's doing no harm to record sales. House music may have begun in Chicago nightclubs, but British musicians have accepted the challenge with grace and enthusiasm, consequently many of the acid house records currently enjoying a high chart profile are exclusively of British origin.
Enter Peter "Baby" Ford. When acid house began to take off publicly around Easter this year, the word was out about 'Oochy Koochy (FU Baby Yeah Yeah)', generally regarded as the first British acid track. It combined discordant analogue synth textures with a bassline so low the record carried a sticker warning of possible amplifier and speaker damage. The equally intriguingly titled follow-up 'Baby Ford, Baby Ford, Chikkie Chikkie Ah Ah', could well establish Baby Ford as one of the leading contenders for the acid throne.
In '85, Ford drove to London from his native Manchester and lived in a car, parked in Chelsea. Teaming up with a programmer affectionately known as Mr Salt, he worked at perfecting his songwriting technique from a garage in Mitcham, inspired by pirate radio and the new style of club records played by DJs Mark Moore and Colin Faver.
"I went down there one day to do a totally different track", Ford recalls, "but found myself doing 'Oochy Koochy'. I don't know why, it just turned out like that. It wasn't intended to be a single or a particular type of club record, it was just an outlet for a certain energy that was inside". S' Express' Mark Moore was, at that time, a DJ at London's Schoom club. He played the track, and introduced Ford to his record company, Rhythm King.
"I know it's the old story, but I was in the right place at the right time - for the first time in my life. How often does that happen in somebody's musical career?"
FOR THIS INTERVIEW, Ford has done his homework. He's come prepared with a notebook of technical details and lists of his favourite equipment. In the same book are outlines of ideas for music and lyrics. When writing, he refers to its pages as a source of inspiration, drawing on the contents to expand whatever idea he may be working on. He believes honesty is of paramount importance in his music.
"You have to do it for the right reasons, you have to like the music, not just be in it to get a record deal or get a record in the clubs", he begins. "I don't write songs to be chart successes, I write songs that I like. It just so happens that I tend to write catchy bits. The catchy bit in 'Oochy Koochy' was the bridge in the original version. Then I realised that it was the catchiest bit on the record, so on the remix I made it the chorus. I'm quite good at structuring things song-wise, and I do work in seven-inch formulae, although they're not necessarily commercial pop songs.
"What you do depends on how technical you are. You normally need someone who can understand a sequencer and someone who understands the way you put a record like mine together. That's why so many DJs make good records, they know what works on a dancefloor. The way I do it is to start with the feel and the rhythm, and then build from that with ideas on top. The foundations are the drum machine and the sequencer - if you want to do an acid track then something like a Roland TB303 is ideal."
The use of discordant musical intervals such as minor seconds and tritones is a feature of acid house. Ford himself is unfamiliar with the technicalities of his music...
"A lot of the sounds on the single are sampled chords and they go out of tune when you play chords in a different key over the top. It's not a deliberate thing, it's a question of trying it out and if it works, all well and good. There aren't too many rules. The main consideration is feel and the ideas you put on top. I use millions of cassettes and records for influences and inspiration. I treat them as instruments. Playing through a cassette is almost like playing with a synthesiser. If you get an idea from a record you don't have to sample it or rip it off, you can just get an idea and develop it in your own way."
On the equipment front, Ford has a small family of ageing synthesisers that he has come to know well. He often returns to a Roland Planet S, or for basslines an Oberheim Xpander, Minimoog, ARP Axxe or Roland SH09. These are then either MIDI'd to an Atari ST running Steinberg Pro24 sequencing software, or sampled onto a hard disk Emax SE. For drum sounds, he uses a combination of samples and Roland's TR707, 727 and 909 drum machines.
"I know what I am looking for in a sound as soon as I hear it", Ford expands. "It's a certain character, a certain feeling. For bass sequences I mainly use the Roland TB303 bassline which a lot of people are using, and which I used on a track called 'Flowers', although I think the sound's getting a bit tired now.
"Sampling sounds is more important to me than sampling phrases. Things like strings or little snares and filler bits are useful. I can't pay for an orchestra to play Barry White strings so I get a really dodgy sample and then play around with it - reversing it or firing it from the snare. For pianos I either use samples or the TX816 rack, then it's down to EQ to make it sound naff. We EQ'd the piano really naff on 'Oochy Koochy' because we wanted to make it sound like it wasn't a flash TX synth. Reverbs help as well but I prefer to get into synthesisers rather than get loads of synths and use the same sounds as everybody else. I usually try to do things the way they shouldn't be done with EQ. It's all done by ear. It's very primitive, there are no big miracles in the studio. All the drums on 'Oochy Koochy' are sampled off Kiss FM, a pirate radio station in London. In fact, everything on it is sampled except for the bass, which you couldn't get that low if it was taken off the radio."
Talk of the infamous 'Oochy Koochy' bass sound prompts further questioning on the subject. It appears that those warning stickers were there for a reason.
"It blew my speakers when I was writing it and it blew the speakers in the studio while I was recording it as well", Ford recalls. "We had one minor problem - well, major problem to the cutting room - in cutting the bass so low. It actually blew the cutting head, causing £6,000 of damage, which they weren't insured for. I don't think they like me very much. It was an accident to cut it that low in the first place. I was changing frequencies on the top line - which was run by the same synth, the Oberheim Xpander - and while that was happening the bass frequency was being changed as well. In some parts of the record it's so low that you can't hear it, but I wanted it to sound like that. It's just a grin! I should explain: when we're in the studio, me, Mark McGuire (engineer on PWL productions such as Rick Astley's 'Never Gonna Give You Up' and Kylie Minogue's 'I Should Be So Lucky') and Mr Salt look at each other and say 'Grin factor? High!' 'Do you win a cigar? Yes!' That means it's going well. Not quite a cigar is not too good. Grin factor's low or grim factor's high is bad. We've had a few grin factors recently but a lot of grim factors as well. The next single has turned out really well but I was doing a track the other night that took two days non-stop and it was grim. I didn't turn up to the studio and Mark was really annoyed."
RADIO PLAY FOR 'Oochy Koochy' has been virtually non-existent, but in an age where Radio 1 seems to be in a steady decline, both artistically and in terms of influence, Ford doesn't view that as a problem.
"If club DJs like Mark Moore, Danny Rampling or Colin Paver were Radio 1 DJs, British music would be the best in the world."
"It's not a radio record, it's a club record which has established itself in the clubs - which is what I wanted it to do when it was released. It was only ever meant to be something to build on; we've not really pushed it, it's just established me as an artist. That's probably why I've not had a backlash - I've been quite a low-key person, and people probably respect that more than the Bros acid mix."
Baby Ford's debut album is due for release in the New Year. Surprisingly, it seems to be a departure from acid, taking its inspiration from deep house. The chief problem he faces now is that, while albums won't get played in clubs, they are the ideal format on which to include sparse club tracks, as they offer the space to explore several musical styles. The album may also hold other surprises for those familiar with the single, especially in the vocal department.
"I'm a singer. That's my first tool". Ford explains. "Oochy Koochy is a kind of foundation for the stuff to come, which is going to be more vocal. I'm not going for mega vocal songs, I'm trying to incorporate things like singing and a lot of interesting sounds and rhythms."
British acid house is about to celebrate its first anniversary, and as a veteran of the acid house scene, Ford is well placed to review its first year in clubland.
"It doesn't take a genius to do acid house" he observes. "The tag 'acid' is something the record companies are using just to sell a few more singles. I don't see it as a problem, because if people make good records that's good for their careers and bad records are detrimental to their careers. The scene has just evolved this year and its getting massive now. In my eyes it's very healthy, no matter what media people say about it. I'm still quite into acid but it's hard work trying to filter through all that's coming out. The quantity is greater than the quality at the moment.
"I think that house will develop and acid will be an ingredient within that which will move on. It is the ultimate dance music, with techno and acid house, deep house and garage house. The main ingredients for good music are feel and melody, and that won't date, even though the acid trend might date through the media hype and the fashion and drugs. I'd like it to cross over, so we could have acid secretaries and acid bank clerks.
"I think that the scene has come up around me and I've been caught up in it. I don't see myself as a pioneer. 'Oochy Koochy' was the first, but the only reason I did it was because that was what I wanted to, for the sheer fun of it. I don't see what's coming next, I just go the way I feel the whole world is going round. I don't try to push it in a different direction just because I want to be first. I just try to follow my heart a little bit.
"I think the likes of Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May really are a talented bunch. It's just naively brilliant. It seems that they're not really trying to follow anything. Techno's been around for a long time, and it's just something that they've developed themselves which is to be applauded, especially the early Rhythim is Rhythim stuff."
Meanwhile, Ford views the advent of the DJ record as possibly the most significant musical happening of the decade. He shares a record label with three prominent London DJs, Tim Simenon, Mark Moore and Jay Strongman.
"I think records like 'The theme from S-Express', Bomb The Bass, M/A/R/R/S and Coldcut have brought a new angle to pop music. It's what I, as a record buyer, have been waiting for. I know it's probably inspired by a lot of the American artists, but what we're doing is distinctly British. It's a similar situation to when punk happened because charts and pop music have become bland and all the teeny groups have major record companies and loads of money to go and be trendy. But trendy things went out two years ago in my mind. Everything's really slow in the music business. That's why the techno people have got to wait before they can release their music. If Mark Moore was a Radio 1 DJ, British music would be the best in the world, or any of the club DJs like Danny Rampling or Colin Faver. I just can't listen to daytime radio any more. You go to clubs or listen to pirate stations and it's exciting. It's the new underground."
Aside from writing his own songs. Baby Ford is quickly gaining a reputation as a remixer of other people's work. Most recently he has worked with the Beatmasters, producing the 'Orange Sunset' and 'Yellow Sunset' remixes of 'Burn It Up', as he explains: "I really liked 'Burn It Up' and what the Beatmasters stood for, so it was really exciting for me to do that as a new unknown artist. I did that before 'Oochy Koochy' did anything at all so it was more of an experience and more of a learning process. Technically it is not perfect as a record, but it's got a certain energy. There are two mixes, I did one Baby Ford-style and one Beatmasters/Baby Ford-style. I also did the 'Visitor' mix on the B-side of 'Superfly Guy' for S' Express, but we cut the wrong one. I was in a trance - I'd been working for about three days with no sleep; I went to cut the record and it was the one without any middle in it. It's deep."
Ford has few problems with technology, because he's using tried and tested equipment to make new music rather than the other way round. In fact, his only problem has been an over-abundance of ideas.
"Sometimes technology can't cope with the amount of ideas I have" he comments "That's why I'm working with people who can channel all these ideas into some sort of workable format."
In years to come, the tarnished reputation of acid house and the media outrage it has caused may prove a more lasting memory than many of the records that were released during its peak. For Baby Ford, however, there is neither hype nor scandal.
"For me it's very therapeutic, it just makes me want to dance! My ultimate aim is to make the ultimate club record, and write a brilliant song. But there isn't a technical way of doing that, it's just from the heart. What dance music is about is passion and feel, it's not really about what synths you're using and how you did it. At the end of the day, all that matters is that your heart is in it."
Interview by David Bradwell