Mar 22 2011
It was never supposed to be this way. Twelve years-almost to the month-since their first single bought Top Of The Pops to a virtual standstill and six full albums later, Orbital present their singles collection Work, and prepare for another headline tour of Britain’s wide open spaces. And no-one is more surprised than the Hartnoll’s themselves. “In the beginning, I gave it a year,” says Phil. With characteristic self-deprecation Paul will tell you that, “our best work comes from trying to copy other people and getting it wrong.” If only all musicians were so candid. But whatever the lineage or the unlikelihood, Orbital continue into 2002 as default godfathers of British electronic music with an attitude and a body of work that never fails to inspire, astonish and entertain.
To put things into context you need to consider that at the end the 80’s the phrase “a career in dance music” was-with the possible exception of mobile Djs- oxymoronic in the extreme. That a scene that seemed so devoted to living in the moment should yield something so long term was the last thing on the mind of those that made it happen. That Orbital have endured in such spectacular fashion can be attributed to their firm foundations both personally and musically. As brothers, the Hartnolls (once memorably described in The Guardian as “the anti-Gallaghers”-i.e Southern, passive, harmonious) bought with them a personal dynamic and debuted with a piece of music that became a cornerstone in the construction of modern British dance music.
The making of Chime (recorded on their old man’s malfunctioning tape deck whilst various associates suggested packing it in and repairing to the pub, total cost under £1) has long been the stuff of legend-and is discussed at greater length in the sleevenotes to Work. It’s impact though resonates to this day. In Channel Four’s acclaimed series Pump Up The Volume the arrival of Chime was singled out as a defining moment-the point when the UK scene took the Detroit basics and produced something absolutely it’s own. On that same programme Pete Tong explained how the Hartnoll’s took the then radical step of following Chime up with a series of albums and a career whilst Paul Daley recalled the joyous shock of seeing near-motionless men with machines appear on a Top OF The Pops still locked in the eighties performance dynamic.
In January of 1991 the Hartnoll’s next single would yield two more classic tracks that remain staples of the Orbital live set more than a decade later. The more esoteric Belfast/Satan settled on the lower reaches of the top 40 but served to enhance the notion of an identifiable Orbital “sound.” Whilst, in a wider context they were innovating the brothers were also developing a sonic identity that has sustained throughout their career (and remember this was supposed to be a faceless medium.) The band’s status as outsiders and political concerns were confirmed by their next single the Crass sampling Choice/Midnight. By the autumn their first album (the untitled/Green one) was released and the global reach of their sound was confirmed with triumphal new years eve shows in Australia.
1992 saw a deluge of remix work as Phil and Paul are perceived as part of dance music’s rapidly expanding (and simultaneously crumbling) elite. A first US tour is preceded in the UK by the release of another instant classic (and continued live favourite) single, the epic Halcyon arriving under the auspices of the Raddiccio ep. A foretaste of the coming LP arrives early the following year with the release of Lush. Further sections of the second (or Brown) album are heard on the UK’s Midi Circus tour which the band headline. In May the album arrives to widespread acclaim (Mixmag would go on to rate as one of the best of the decade.). A session is also recorded for John Peel, always a fan, who astutely remarks that “despite being theoretically mechanical it doesn’t sound mechanical!”
1994 was a benchmark year for Orbital, the point at which they went from being a successful act to a bona-fide phenomena, and it was a process of two parts, the indoor and the outdoor. The enclosed section was the completion and release of the Snivilisation album. Possessed of a title and a rolling dystopic concept this was a significant progression from their earlier work. Prior to it’s release that Hartnoll’s chose to perform it before their largest crowd to date, last thing on Saturday night, second stage Glastonbury festival. Since 1990 the festival had been absorbing dance music into it’s more traditional fold, and by 1994 the time was right for a performance that would transfix all that saw it irrespective of prior allegiances, and at the end of a famously beautiful day that’s exactly what happened. Not that rain could have stopped it. Orbital and it seemed, British culture shared the same momentum. Since their outset the Hartnolls had improvised their live shows, using technology as part of a genuine live performance that was never the same twice. Finally in possession of a stage that could make the most of their audio and visual techniques-refined over the previous years on the road-and with an album of unheard and unparalleled music, rock n’ roll history was made (Q magazine declared it one of the 50 greatest gigs of all time) and a precedent was set that echoes happily to this day (and this years festival where Orbital will take the same slot).
So a dance band could make albums and cut it live. Sighs of relief all round. Snivilisation rolled into the charts at No 4. From then on Orbital live is a force to be reckoned with. Woodstock II follows and a 20 date UK tour. In ’95 Orbital remix Madonna, headline the first Tribal Gathering before 25,000 people and play the main stage at Glastonbury.
The bleak mid-winter of 1996 yields an album that sounds a lifetime away from the bucolic triumphs of 94/95. In Sides, an altogether darker six track masterpiece enters the carts at No5 and the band play London’s Albert Hall in May. After shows at 16 European festivals including the UK’s V96 the band perform Satan live on Jools Hollands later with full visual backing and much to the astonishment of other assembled rock n’rollers (including Joe Cocker). A long way from 1990’s TOTP and no mistake. The by now traditional new year show takes place at Alexandra palace with Chime looping in and out of the chimes of Big Ben.
Proving that the devil has all the best tunes Satan rears it’s head again to enter the UK chart at No3 in January. In keeping with their avowed stylistic affiliation to the world of soundtracks and movies Orbital release their version of The Saint which proves way more popular than the re-made movie it accompanies. After a stint on Lolapalooza the movie theme continues with another version of Satan (featuring guitars by Metallica’s Kirk Hammet) for the movie Spawn. After the Phoenix festival in the UK come a collaboration with Michael Kamen on the Event Horizon soundtrack and the remainder of the year (and much of the next) is invested in the construction of a new studio.
In 1999 to herald ten years of Orbital the band undertake their largest UK tour to date. This is followed by their fifth album The Middle Of Nowhere, which becomes their third in a row to debut in the UK top 5. After a brief rest (and a turn of the century show at Liverpool’s Cream) the Hartnolls spend 2000 working on their sixth record. Recorded in surround sound The Altogether will become (by Orbital standards) a more light-hearted affair-it even includes a version of the Dr Who theme, a live favourite added by popular demand. Phil even goes on to describe the record as “like getting on a ride at Thorpe Park.” It arrives in 2001 along with DVD promos for each track. There is a tour of the UK before another assault on the great outdoors culminating at the Homelands festival in Hampshire.
And that’s pretty much how it happened. A story of instinct, integrity, humour and enthusiasm that has seen Orbital travel from beneath the underground to true people’s champions-somewhere far outside the po faced requirements of sanctioned cool. This say Phil and Paul, is just the end of the first chapter. A self-devouring industry that considers longevity a crime can be of no long term consequence to those that truly matter. And a good thing too. If you worried about what other people were thinking, you’d never have got started in the first place. The beat, as they say, goes on…