As was the case in many towns and cities in the UK in the late '80s, a sizeable portion of the youth of Stafford were infected with the rave bug. More or less equidistant between London and Manchester in the West Midlands (18 miles south of Stoke-on-Trent, 16 miles north of Wolverhampton), Stafford became notable for spawning two of the rave scene’s most successful acts – Altern8 and Bizarre Inc. And then, later, Chicken Lips too.
Mark Archer and Dean Meredith, two local budding DJs, started an acid house project in 1989 called Bizarre Inc and had a modicum of success with some twelves and then the six-track ‘Technological’ album. The tracks came out on Blue Chip Records, but then Archer decided he wanted to pursue a new project with Chris Peat — Altern-8. Tooling themselves up in an almost cartoon representation of the rave paraphernalia of the time — white boiler suits and face masks — they had a number of chart hits with breathless hardcore rave anthems like 'Activ8' and 'Evapor8'.
Dean Meredith, meanwhile, had met another local lad, Andy Meecham, in a Stafford recording studio, and along with Carl Turner they carried on the Bizarre Inc project. They started making tunes under the new set-up, and one day Dean was round at Andy’s mum’s house experimenting with sounds in his bedroom studio set-up.
“We were just messing around with riffs and beats as usual and we came up with the main sample for the ‘Playing With Knives’ piano stab,” Andy tells DJ Mag. “I'm not going to tell you how we made the sound because Dean and I have sworn to take it to the grave!” Once they had the riff for 'PWK', Andy started playing the keyboard and they worked out together what sort of sounds they wanted to go in the track. “The vocal sample was from one of my records, and once we had the riff in the sequencer we just starting spinning the Koffi sample and it seemed to work,” Andy says.
The guys sampled wailing diva Koffi from Circuit's 'Shelter Me', and the opening “Gotta get up, got to feel good” vocal snippet was lifted from Cuba Gooding's 'Happiness Is Just Around The Bend'. “Just dance and move your body”, meanwhile, was from Tyree's hip-house opus 'Move Your Body' feat J.M.D.
Combining a flava of piano riffs popular in old skool hardcore, crunchy mechanistic breakbeats and a wailing diva sample was fairly standard in rave cuts of the time, but it was the squelchy snaking bassline that really gave the track its bite. “The bass sound was a 303 sample and another sample which I am not going to say,” teases Andy once more. “We mixed the two together to make the sound.”
Andy’s bedroom studio was only eight feet by six feet – more like a box room, really. It was stuffed full of the sort of equipment necessary to make tracks at the time. “We had an Akai S950 sampler, a Roland Jupiter 8, a Roland SH-101, an Akai VX90, a Yamaha DX100 and various outboard… can't remember all of the stuff,” says Andy on the various synths and drum machines they were using at the time. “Oh, and a Kawai K1 [synth]. Dean had an 808 and a Pro 1. I think Carl had an [Korg] MS10.”
They played the demo of ‘Playing With Knives’ to the third member of the band, Carl Turner, who loved it. “That was on the demo that we sent to Vinyl Solution to get the deal,” explains Andy.
Dean and Andy sent out a whole load of demos to record labels who they thought might be interested in their tracks. “Then, one day, we spent the whole morning phoning up the labels, and the only person interested in meeting us after listening to our demo was J. Saul Kane, who was signed to Vinyl Solution as Depth Charge at the time,” Andy says.
J. Saul Kane would go on to have underground success with memorable Depth Charge cuts like the football-referencing 'Goal' and 'Romario' and develop a fetish for martial art soundtracks, but at the time he was just a budding young producer and co-owner of a fledgling record label in west London.
“If it wasn’t for Jonathan, who knows what would have happened?” admits Andy. “I think we would have got a deal eventually, but luckily Jonathan liked what we were doing and told Alain [De La Mata, the co-owner of Vinyl Solution] that he should sign us. We hot-footed over for a meeting in Portobello Road, and we were quite shocked that Vinyl Solution was in a tiny office — but they were really keen and eager and full of ideas.”
Alain really liked their demo too, and the guys signed to Vinyl Solution pretty much straight away. They soon released the bleepy, blissed-out 'Bizarre Theme', and meanwhile were getting test pressings of ‘Playing With Knives’ manufactured and feeding them out into the scene.
“Dean took a test pressing to Graham Park who was playing at [Liverpool nightclub] Quadrant Park,” recalls Andy. “He gave it a quick listen, and then put it on. I wasn't there which I'm gutted about, but apparently it tore the roof off.”
‘Playing With Knives’ went on to tear the roof off at all manner of outdoor, indoor, legal and illegal raves as its notoriety spread like wildfire. It’s mix of piano heaven euphoria and hardcore grit ensured it had wide appeal, and the guys actually called the main mix the 'Quadrant Mix' in homage to the notorious Liverpool rave den (now a waste recycling centre).
When given a full release in 1991, 'Playing With Knives' crashed into the UK top ten – peaking at No.4. Off the back of it, Bizarre Inc signed to major label Sony and had hits in the UK and US with tracks like 'I'm Gonna Get You' and 'Took My Love'. The 'Energique' album rounded up their singles with some additional tracks, and they went on to release a third album in 1996, 'Surprise', before they were dropped by Sony.
“Yes, we have lots of regrets about signing to a major,” says Andy, “but it was also a really good learning experience of how never to sign to a major again. They wanted us to be puppets and churn out hits — of course they did. Getting dropped for not entering the top ten was difficult at the time, but I'm really grateful for it now.”
Andy and Dean, of course, went on to found Chicken Lips, one of the principal independent UK duos of the noughties, while lately Andy has also been busy with his Emperor Machine project and Dean with Rhythm Odyssey. 'Playing With Knives' still gets licensed for about five compilations every year and they're constantly being asked to do revival nights, but the guys have left it alone up until this month. Only now, with Vinyl Solution celebrating its 25th birthday, have they agreed a 'PWK' re-release, with remixes by the mighty Utah Saints, Drumsound & Bassline Smith and more. “We all love a good excuse for a party,” Andy concludes.
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