In Memory Of A Festival
It was once the UK's biggest celebration of live electronic music, but it didn't fare too well in 1985. Dan Goldstein reports.
Over the last two years, UK Electronica established itself as the premier event in Britain's electronic music calendar. But this year's show was lacklustre and poorly attended, and it could turn out to be the last.
When Sheffield University Students' Union withdrew their support from UK Electronica '85, it looked odds-on that the event would have to be shelved. In retrospect, it might have been better if it had been, since a postponement would have spared the organisers, the exhibitors, the punters and the players from having to live through a mundane, uneventful and for the most part unproductive day-in rain-soaked South Yorkshire. And it could have cleared the way for a bigger, better event to take place same time next year.
But as it was, local art dealer Chris Cox stepped in to save the occasion, and it went ahead in spite of everything. On the day, ticket sales were so far down on the previous year's, some of the artists performing during the day had to buy their tickets to get into the evening part of the show. Most of the manufacturers' and retailers' stands were empty for most of the time, the bar was quite unbelievably quiet, and on the E&MM stand, we sold an overseas subscription and doubled our takings.
The music was variable, but not varied. If there was a single major factor contributing to this year's poor attendance, it was that the bill simply didn't cater for a wide enough range of musical tastes and styles. OK, so UK Electronica has always put the emphasis on the cosmic, the synthetic, and the Schulzian. But you had to listen hard to find an artist that strayed too far from those guidelines at the '85 event, and given that a total of 10 acts took the stage at either the Students' Union building (day) or the fabulous Octagon Centre (evening), that must count as a major shortfall.
The large-format, refreshingly well-produced programme said Ashok Prema combined 'the erotic melodrama of the Indian film with the synthesizer film'. At Sheffield, his performance was straight mid-period Tangerine Dream with a tabla thrown in now and again for good measure, so what read like a fascinating fusion of cultures and musics sounded like nothing of the kind.
Mark Jenkins was better, but then we expected that. As a journalist who's worked for just about every musician's magazine going (just think, it was E&MM who gave him his first big break), he has access to more hi-tech equipment than the rest of the daytime performers had put together — and his set made no secret of the fact. Powerful Drumtraks digital percussion, sparkling DX7 synth sounds, majestic Mirage grand piano... you name it, it was at Jenkins' fingertips. The music? Ah well, can't really remember too much about that — but there was a laser flying around the hall (and bouncing off the musician's mirror shades) to make sure the visual senses were occupied even when the aural ones weren't. But as a demonstration of what you can do with the latest gear and an NUJ pass, the set was a winner.
Then there was Wavestar, three middle-aged composers who probably undertook the most ambitious performing task — using a complete Digisound modular system on stage, marrying it to a load of home-built and heavily-modified gear, playing music of a semi-improvised kind, and all this in what was their first live performance of any description. We were close enough to the stage to hear lines like 'what do I do next?' and 'where does this go?' from the mouths of performers various, but to the rest of the audience, Wavestar's set was crisply constructed and smartly executed. Watch out for them.
In contrast, Land of YRX were heavy going. Like Wavestar, they got more out of some fairly antiquated hardware than many musicians get from state-of-the-art technology, but their music was uninspired to the point of annoyance. Predictable, formularised monophonic sequences provided the backdrop for the sort of hideous heavy metal guitar soloing you'd expect to find on a Kerrang! compilation album, and the audience's reaction was decidedly lukewarm. The band had plenty of enthusiasm (a quality they shared with most of the event's performers), but sadly, it was misdirected.
Mike Brooks, a synth soloist with the misfortune to be based in Luton, succeeded in applying his enthusiasm to a much more inventive end. This time the programme didn't lie: Brooks' music was flowing and simplistic, and a little reminiscent of Schulze at his more inspired. If there's going to be a new generation of synth composers to follow the likes of Boddy, Shreeve and the rest, Mike Brooks should be among them. He knows a good tune when he hears it, arranges his compositions with skill and carries the whole thing off with an idiosyncratic but appealing style.
It was a member of the above-mentioned establishment, Ian Boddy, who headlined the daytime concert, 20 minutes behind schedule and suffering from lack of time to make sure everything was working as it should. He needn't have worried. Apart from the odd logistical error — unnoticed by the majority of the audience — Boddy's set went as smoothly as the best of them. In fact, smoothness was probably the performance's key note from start to finish. Everything functioned with scarcely a hiccup, from the running of the tape machine to the multitude of Boddy patch-changes, and the audience loved it. The Editor loved it, too, especially when Boddy and second synth player David Berkley launched into a new piece titled 'The Necromancer': clever rhythm patterns, tasty arpeggios, and some splendid, sudden changes in instrumentation.
The evening bit didn't start too well. A lot of the exhibitors had become disillusioned and gone home early, though the man from Simmons (who'd earlier dropped his demo SDS9 module and wiped all its programs, poor chap) had to stay to collect a loan kit off headliners Ashra, and provided a bit of light conversational relief in the Octagon Centre's bar.
But long before Ashra took the stage, it was the turn of Steve Jolliffe, ex-Tangerine Dreamer, headliner of 1984's daytime show, and as much the star of this year's event as he was of last year's. His set was more varied, more emotional, less gimmicky and less predictable than anybody else's - not least because in addition to his DX7, he also played brass and woodwind, and even directed north and south at microphone for about 40% of the performance.
There were plenty of the dramatic flute-cum-vocal tricks which characterised his '84 outing, but Jolliffe gave us more songs this time (some of them previously unheard, at least by these ears), and contrasted these with the quieter, instrumental meanderings that have graced his recent vinyl output. By no stretch of the imagination is Jolliffe an accurate singer, but he's a lively and energetic one, and his presentation as a whole had more vitality than most. Like Oliver Twist, the audience pleaded for more at the end of an all-too-brief sitting, but things were running extremely late by this stage, and we had to remain content with what we'd been given.
Ashra were the headliners, the crowd-pullers that didn't pull a crowd. Their roots lie in early-70s Berlin cult outfit Ash Ra Tempel, founded by Manuel Gottsching and including in one of its earlier incarnations a certain drummer by the name of Schulze. Ashra's current line-up is Gottsching plus Lutz Ulbrich and Harald Grosskopf, and the last time they played on these shores was eight years ago.
They were abysmal. I know it's a matter of taste (Ashra's set was enthusiastically received), but I don't reckon the following formula particularly appealing: tedious, repetitive keyboard sequences played with no dynamism whatsoever; a drummer that took 15 minutes to find out where his snare drum was; and the sort of monotonous, volume-no-object guitar-playing that would make Land of YRX sound like Hendrix.
We went to the bar, but there was no escaping Ashra; you could hear them clearly through a couple of kitchen doors that were open throughout the band's all-too-lengthy set. Meanwhile, ambition had got the better of some of the organisers, and we found ourselves surrounded by talk of a two-day hi-tech extravaganza at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre, to be headlined by a couple of 'really big names' and to take place sometime next summer. In '86, the trains won't be on strike, it won't be pouring with rain, the event won't take place on a Bank Holiday weekend — and Ashra won't be top of the bill.
But I get the feeling there won't be a UK Electronica at all in '86. That would be a shame, because the warmth, the creativity and the friendly atmosphere of the first two Electronicas was well worth supporting, and there's no denying the enthusiasm of the people involved in getting what will always be an elaborate show on the road. The best we can hope for is that a lesson will have been learned this year, so that something altogether wider-ranging (with correspondingly greater potential in both artistic and financial fields) can be staged in 12 months' time.
Show Report by Dan Goldstein
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