IN THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN | Beloved
From indie rock to sampled success - this band have used technology to change their sound and get themselves into the charts. David Bradwell talks technology, samples and football to Beloved people.
Q: What do medieval church music, Stravinsky and a Juno 60 have in common with Salman Rushdie and Billy Corkhill?
A: They're all part of the strange world of a band called Beloved.
"QUE SERA SERA, WHATEVER WILL BE WILL be, we're going to Wem-ber-lee...". It's 6.45 on Wednesday, 15th November, and 15 minutes ago I was supposed to be meeting Jon Marsh and Steve Waddington of Beloved at a Wembley Wimpy, prior to taking them and their press officer Judy to the England/Italy game.
Unfortunately, life being what it is, I'm still on the North Circular in a rather large traffic jam, and my arrival is less than imminent. This misfortune has given me time, however, to recap on tracks from the band's debut album Happiness, and to ponder the changes in their music since they first appeared on the scene.
At the time of their arrival they were much beloved of the likes of John Peel, playing indie guitar pop like so many other bands of the mid-'80s. Now, at the end of 1989, they've just reached the Top 30 for the first time with the deep-house influenced 'The Sun Rising' - a huge club hit and Radio 1 favourite. 'The Sun Rising' is soon to be followed by 'Hello', an infectious mix of rock guitar over a heavy dance beat, supplemented with a list of names as diverse as Salman Rushdie and Billy Corkhill. 'Time After Time' and 'Up, Up and Away' are a ballad and dance track respectively, which manage to show off a further diversity of sounds and influences, without ever straying too far to not be instantly recognisable. Perhaps not since the Pet Shop Boys themselves have a band in this market managed so successfully to rubber-stamp a style of their own over such a range of uplifting, optimistic pop music.
It's now 7.15 and I've arrived. No time to do the interview though, due to the impending kick-off, so off we trundle towards turnstile B. On the way it transpires that Steve Waddington is much more a cricket man, and would probably rather be next door with Neil Diamond in the Arena than at the Stadium with 70,000 football fans. Jon Marsh, a Crystal Palace supporter at heart, but with a sneaking respect for Liverpool seems much keener about the prospect of watching some of the world's "finest" compete in a nil-nil draw. Unfortunately ill-health has taken its toll, and at half-time singer Marsh retires, sick. An unlucky development this, but nevertheless we soldier on.
It's now 10pm and the interview is finally underway in the marvellous setting of the Wembley Stadium car park. At lunch time on Thursday 17th, Marsh is on the MT hotline adding his views and experiences to those of his partner the night before. What seemed a novel idea for an interview has now become an extremely complex operation, a complete logistical disaster.
Accusations that the band changed to producing dance records just to cash in on the current popularity of the format meet with a cool response. They stopped making indie-guitar records in 1987, and it's taken two and a half years to get one hit.
"I don't think that by any stretch of the imagination we are what I'd call a dance group anyway", Marsh begins. "What we try to do is come up with a marriage of our own influences., I'm probably much more into club culture than Steve is, but at the same time he's steeped in a history of weird music and new age Windham Hill stuff. The best bands hopefully are the sum total of their influences plus, if you're lucky, 25% of something new, because there's nothing new left to really discover - it's all about learning from what other people have done and taking the bits you like, but then adding a little bit of your own personality into it.
"This is the fourth record we've put out in a two-year period, and it's the first one people have actually bought. In fact, in the purest sense 'The Sun Rising' is not a dance track because it doesn't have to be heard in a club to make sense, whereas a lot of records of that genre do."
Most of the instant appeal of 'The Sun Rising' was from a choir boy sample, affectionately known as 'the ooeeooeeooeeoo bit'. It was Waddington's idea, inspired by medieval church music, of all things.
"I write the lyrics and nearly all of the music as well, but it varies", Marsh begins. "'The Sun Rising' is one of the few collaborative tracks, and started as something Steve did at home on a four-track. It was originally just a basic rhythm and sample and then it was just a question of putting in overdubs to make it complete."
"The best bands are the sum total of their influences plus, if you're lucky, 25% of something new, because there's nothing new left to discover."
"We sample bits from old records, but try not to do the obvious things", adds Waddington. "It's not a case of getting hold of dance records and resampling the same old stuff, we've been looking for more obscure bits. The pitchbend bit in the single was inspired by Kraftwerk, but in fact is the beginning of The Rite Of Spring by Stravinsky, which was then messed about with. There's quite a few classical bits - the chords in the chorus of 'The Sun Rising' are sampled from Ravel.
"The ooeeooeeooeeoo bit isn't actually a choir boy at all. When I was getting the basics of the song together it was a sample of a 14th Century hymn, sung by a woman. I'm a big fan of early medieval music, and I had an idea of what the atmosphere was going to be, and so I wanted something that was from that era of church music. I eventually found the bit, but when it came to doing the single, we had to get somebody in to sing it for legal reasons. It's funny how sampling has become engrained subconsciously when you're listening to music. Getting somebody to sing the whole part all the way through, repeating it over and over sounded wrong. We had to get somebody to sing it once, and sample it, because we've become so used to listening to samples that it sounds wrong any other way.
"It was the easiest song on the album to do because it's such a simple idea, and there was very little to do."
THE ACTUAL TRANSITION INTO THE NEW style of music came about through a gradual change in the band's tastes.
"There's no point in doing the same thing for the rest of your life", acknowledges Waddington. "I like what we were doing originally, but I think we'd gone as far as we could with that. It was time to do something new and this is what we were into at the time. We're not going to be doing this for ever.
"Jon was probably the first one to get into dance music. He kept coming into the studio trying to get us to listen to LL Cool J or Mantronix. We were getting into dance music before the house thing took off, but it wasn't until we started getting into the early house records that we realised that was what we wanted to do. When we were trying to get the deal Jon went to New York because there was interest from some labels over there, and some of the people he met introduced him to the music, which he then brought back over here."
As well as American house music, Marsh claims to have been influenced by the likes of Barry White, in respect of the emphasis on melody rather than just a rhythm track.
"There are also people like Mantronix, whose approach to technology was really rather innovative", he adds. "His records nearly always sounded like he was trying to do things that maybe the machines weren't meant to do, but he did it anyway. The end result is far more important than the way you get it. House music is a very anonymous form of music. There are a lot of very good people doing it, but there's no one person who stands out. Maybe Frankie Knuckles, but if it's him it's because his approach is based more around melody. Rhythm for its own sake isn't really interesting."
One of the trends Beloved have borrowed from dance music is the perpetual onslaught of different mixes of one song. With two 12" versions, each with four mixes and a CD with another four, 'The Sun Rising' became a huge club hit even before it reached the Top 40. At the moment the band are in the studio preparing around 20 different versions of 'Hello' for release in January. But why so many? Steve Waddington begins:
"The pitchbend bit in the single was inspired by Kraftwerk, but in fact is the beginning of The Rite Of Spring by Stravinsky."
"We just enjoy putting out different versions of a song. The way we work is to continually change the songs and go back to the beginning to start all over again. There's no such thing as the finished article - you just run out of time and the record company comes down and takes it away from you. There are many different ways of approaching a song, and that's why we do so many mixes."
"It's another excuse for us to get back into the studio", adds Marsh. "It's very much an environment that we like, and short of having new songs to write it's a way of doing it. A song basically consists of a top line and the lyrics and so in a remix situation we're writing new songs by putting a brand new track underneath, but without having to worry about finding the ultimate hooks because they just stay the same."
The tempo of one remix of 'Hello' is 118bpm, 17bpm faster than the original. For this version it wasn't quite as simple as rebuilding the track behind the vocal, because the vocal was at a different tempo. Waddington explains how it was done.
"We took the original vocal and used the S1000 to sample every line and then time-stretch it up to 118bpm. Jon isn't too happy with it because it's lost a certain human quality from the singing, and I'm not sure if it's something we'll attempt again. It's frustrating sometimes when you come to do a remix and it's going really well and you think you could turn it into a whole new song, but as long as the ideas keep coming we'll keep remixing them."
'Hello' is seen as the definitive Beloved track, and will be the first song on side one of Happiness when it's released next year.
"It's basically about good and bad things, which is why the list isn't a definitive list of people that I like and secondly that there are people in there that I really don't like at all", explains its writer Marsh, referring to the lyrics. "There isn't a tie-in between the chorus and the verses, that's the lunatic thing. We've thrown everything in - obscure political references which we're very good at, lots of cross-cultural pollenation of stupid rock guitar over a quite heavy dance beat and then just a list of names."
"Jon wrote the lyrics and he had us guessing what it meant for weeks", adds Waddington. "He eventually explained that it's a political thing about certain political parties pretending to be green when they aren't at all really. This song has got a bit of everything that has influenced us in it. It's got TR808 rhythms, the dance element, the guitars.
A lot of the bass sounds are mixtures of the Juno and Minimoog, with a TX802 thrown in as well. "We're pleased to announce we now have a MIDI keyboard of our own, which is a Juno 60 which we've had for a long time, but before getting that MIDI'd up we had no MIDI equipment. We've got a TB303 Bassline, and we've hired in all sorts of equipment in various studios. The keyboards we've used most lately are the Juno and a Minimoog, with a bit of Prophet and D50 thrown in. There are a lot of old synths that we would like to get hold of, now we can actually afford to buy equipment. When a new keyboard comes out everybody goes out and gets it and is using those sounds, so it's nice to get hold of something a bit different.
"We have a rough idea of what the technology is capable of, but we don't have the hands-on experience of which buttons to press. When you know how it works and you work it yourself, you can easily fall into traps of using the same sounds and the same ways of working. Not knowing exactly how it works makes it much easier to get more out of a machine and a producer than they might have got on their own."
"The way a band can keep their identity on a piece of music is through their human input, on top of whatever the computer is doing."
THE HUMAN ELEMENT OF THE MUSIC IS very important to Beloved, as is its overriding sense of optimism. The album is called Happiness because that's what it's all about, it's designed to make people happy. Despite the present climate of economic doom and gloom, everything seems to be going well for the band and they're well aware of their own good fortune. They're equally well aware that music made by machines can lose a certain human quality, and they're anxious not to let it happen to them.
"There may be just two of us, but we are a band and it's not all machines", begins Waddington. "There are quite a lot of guitars on it, some of the keyboards are played live and there's live percussion. If you just use machines and you're completely reliant upon them I think you lose your identity. The way a band can keep their identity on a piece of music is through their human input, on top of whatever the computer is doing."
"I think the human element is the most natural aspect of what we do", adds Marsh. "Maybe making it not sound contrived is a problem, because sometimes you do things which to you aren't worth thinking twice about, but other people may misconstrue. All the best music has always had a human element. I like Kraftwerk, but for me, they need those ridiculous vocals over the top. Even though they're trying to sound like a machine they don't, and it's like having somebody there pointing out that this is not to be taken too seriously.
"At one point we were toying with the idea of sampling my vocal on 'The Sun Rising' and making that very machine-like and then putting a more human feel into the choir-boy part. There's a certain hypnotic quality to samples, the fact that they always sound constant. Previously we've done things where you sample a whole chorus of vocals and spin that in, either to save time or because you're having trouble singing it, but that to me is taking it a bit too far, because then you really are dehumanising the music."
Away from more established forms of music such as records, tapes and compact discs, Beloved songs have also been heard live and in the cinema. One song was used as part of the soundtrack to the film Sammie and Rosie Get Laid, and recently the band have had another offer to provide a track for a forthcoming big screen release. Steve Waddington has reservations.
"You have to decide before it's been made whether or not you want to do it and if so what you're going to give them. You don't know what the film's going to end up like, and you're relinquishing total control over the way that you're seen. If we ever had the time, to sit down and make a proper film soundtrack would be great, but in terms of a career you have to take quite a long time out to do that."
Playing live is something the band probably won't be doing again for some time.
"It's not something we've really considered", begins Marsh. "We've played a lot of gigs before, when we were a guitar band, and obviously it would be a radically different idea now, but I'm more interested in being a contemporary studio band. Obviously there may come a point where we may have to play live in order to further our career, but it's not something that I have to prove to myself because I know we've done it in the past.
"The risk a lot of bands run now is in playing live and promoting a single around the world, and before they know what has happened 18 months have gone by, and they're forgotten."
If there's any justice in the world it will be a long time before Beloved are forgotten. It's a pity the same can't be said about the England/Italy game. Waddington has told his press officer that he wants to conduct all of his other interviews in the summer.
"Spending a day at a cricket match is one of the greatest things on earth", he explains. "Take along a packed lunch and a few cans of beer, and you just laze about in the sun. You have to go to the sorts of matches where there's nobody there, there's no point in going to a test match. You have to go to a county match where there's only ten people, then you can sit back, and the bar's open all day. That's my idea of heaven."
Interview by David Bradwell
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