Title: Pure genius
Author: Tom Doyle
They evaporated in 1989, but the ghostly presence of The Art Of Noise still haunts today’s techno landscape. Now LFO, Sweet Exorcist, The Prodigy and a crack squadron of other remixers bring The Noise up to date. Why? “Because they’re the ones that started it all”
IN 1984, BILLBOARD MAGAZINE’S AWARD FOR THE BEST NEW BLACK DANCE Act of the year went neither to a velvet-voiced soul cipher, nor a studio reptile in Jeri-curls, nor a young turk of the emergent rap scene. It went to a bunch of flowers, a spanner and a clenched fist. This was The Art Of Noise - a group without a face making music without instruments. Their record sleeves resembled classical albums, recordings of ancient madrigals, arty photographic albums, even furniture catalogues anything but club dance records. They arrived with deliberately confusing sleeve notes courtesy of ZTT Records’ notorious Paul ‘I’m post-modern, me’ Morley. And their music sounded, as was intended, like all the spare noises of the 20th century collapsed together and drilled to the beat of the biggest drums yet created.
Behind the screen of anonymity, The Art Of Noise weren’t quite so exciting - just the ZTT musical engine-room, a quartet of hardened (white) studio hands with a perverse sense of what was possible. But because The Art Of Noise made club music, Billboard and America assumed they had to be young, hip and black.
IF THAT SOUNDS LIKE A FAMILIAR story, it’s only because exactly the same process drove the House revolution. Technology makes irrelevant the accepted rules of what constitutes black and white music - like The Art Of Noise, techno can’t be comfortably pinned down as either, simply because no one has done it before. It has no history in the conventional sense. Who, for instance, is the Bo Diddley of House music? GaryNuman?
So there’s something appropriate about ‘The Art Of Noise - The Fon Remixes’, a much-pondered remix project that takes chunks of the AON back catalogue to Fon Studios in Sheffield (one of British House’s many shrines) and sets them at the mercy of LFO, Sweet Exorcist, Youth, Graham Massey of808 State and The Prodigy.
But why do a remix album now, of all times?
“The main reason is that we all felt that because the band aren’t recording at the moment, there was a huge gap in our knowledge as to what is going on right now,” says JJ Jeczalik, producer and founder member of The Art Of Noise.
“It was someone from another record company who first suggested that we get these remixer guys involved, because they’re very ‘in there’ and ‘happening’, and so on. In fact it was the same chap who suggested we should do ‘Kiss’ with Tom Jones, and he was right the first time, so if someone’s got a nose like that, you don’t ignore them.”
In other words, try it and see. Which, behind all the carefully crafted mystery and Dada-ist blarney, was The Art Of Noise’s real manifesto.
“Initially it all started when Gary Langan and I had a late night working on the Yes album ‘90125’,” recalls JJ, “and he told me he had this great idea and I was desperately tired and wanted to go home, but he twisted my arm and we just started sampling and making loops up - which is probably the first time anyone had ever done it - and we created ‘Close To The Edit’ virtually overnight.
“Around that time of course, myself, Gary and Anne Dudley were all sort of in Trevor Horn’s A-team making records with him, and so we played this stuff to him. He suggested that Anne played some keyboards to make it a bit more musical, because it was all fairly tough at that stage - just huge drum grooves and the odd racket.”
The result was a hard-edged industrial dance sound which appealed to the most fashionable of audiences, and had unforseen arty-political connotations.
New York hip hop had already pulled the ‘80s trick of deconstructing and reconstructing sound at one end of music - the street level. Now The Art Of Noise took the blueprint of emergent DJ culture, and applied it not with DJ and turntable but with equipment that cost more than a mansion and required near-genius to operate. This was the origin of the most played-out argument in pop: “It’s not real music, it’s theft!” versus “It’s more original than real music!”
Yet behind it all were these fairly boring-looking English people. Was that why they hid behind a bunch of flowers, a spanner and a clenched fist?
“I think because we’d all worked on the records of people who had haircuts and not much else - to put it politely - we decided we would consciously take a step backwards from the limelight,” JJ replies.
“Having seen Frankie Goes To Hollywood hiring black cabs to kerb-crawl them while they were shopping, so that they could jump in and escape being mobbed, we were pretty wary of fame.”
And they never got it in the conventional sense. After those bizarre early years AON faded through the ‘80s. They split from ZTT in 1985 (“They didn’t notice our contract had expired - we couldn’t believe it!” says JJ) which is why the remix album doesn’t feature early classics like the oft-sampled ‘Beatbox’, ‘Close To The Edit’ and Madonna’s favourite ‘Moments In Love’ from their first, best LP ‘Who’s Afraid (Of The Art Of Noise)?’, all released in 1984.
An American tour and a further four albums for China Records produced the odd hit, but nothing like the underground frenzy of ‘83/’84.
“There were heaps of other people doing what we were doing,” JJ reckons. “It was just timing and the name and all sorts of things which happened and pushed us to the front. I don’t thing we necessarily merited it actually.”
“THAT’S A BIT MODEST. THEY’RE THE band who started it all,” states Mark Gamble of Rhythmatic, who contributed most work to the project, remixing five tracks, including ‘No Sun’ and ‘Peter Gunn’. “They inspired the whole techno scene really, gave dance music a direction. Everyone’s sampled them.”
“To begin with, I thought it was a bit strange to be remixing The Art Of Noise,” admits Liam Howlett of The Prodigy. “Because, other than their influence on the sound, they’re not a name connected with today’s dance scene as such. But they’re a group who pioneered creating music with unusual sounds, and I respect them for that.”
“They were the originators, they were the creators of what’s going on today,” adds DJ Carl Cox, who remixed ‘Paranomia’ after having played it as part of his set for the last three years. “I suppose they’ve been left on the shelf a bit these days because everyone’s taken what they started and developed it in such a way. But they were totally out there. They need to go away and write some new songs and just hit this market because it’s made for them really. They should be out there commanding this scene.”
So does JJ Jeczalik, with his new-found knowledge of bleep, recognise the group’s influence on current dance records?
“Yeah, I do. There are my samples and things that I created appearing all over the place and I’m deeply honored by it. Other than when people rip off whole versions of ‘Moments In Love’ which I think is fairly unacceptable, it’s all very flattering. If people think that by sampling our bass drum or car horn sound, that they’ll have a hit, then that’s great.”
But if anything, despite the hardcore techno feel of the record, he thinks that most of the mixes are a bit too respectful to the original.
“I actually thought they could have been a bit more ‘out there’. My personal favourite track is Graham Massey’s mix of ‘Legs’, because it’s got quite a bit of melody in it and I quite like tunes. If I had a comment about any of the other ones, I would say they’re a bit tuneless, but that’s just my personal view of it.”
As if the hardcore scene cares about tunes… The Prodigy’s headstrong remix of ‘Instruments Of Darkness’ is already proving popular at raves, and The Art Of Noise are getting ready to go back into the studio again, fresh from their credibility overhaul.
“Of course, I knew nothing about this hardcore rave bleep stuff,” JJ says, “so it’s a bit of an enlightening experience. But actually, when I listened back to some of the stuff we did back in the early days, I recognised huge elements of it, and now I sort of understand what it was all about.”
He knows the score.
STORY BY TOM DOYLE