The young Hartnoll brothers started getting into making music in their early teens. “At 12 or 13 I got a guitar, but the guitar slipped further and further under the bed as other technology came along,” remembers Paul, the younger of the two.
“We loved electronic sounds, really,” adds Phil. “With synthesisers it was like, ‘What made that sound?’ It was that sort of search – for electronic sounds and drum machines.”
Growing up in the commuter town of Sevenoaks in Kent in south-east England, both brothers were in bands — “I was doing stuff like Crass and the Dead Kennedys,” recalls Paul — in tandem with embracing electronic music. “I liked Nine Inch Nails and the whole industrial stuff like Cabaret Voltaire. Severed Heads are one of my favourites, and New Order,” Paul continues. “And then dance music came along — house music — and it seemed to me to be a combination of electro and hi-energy disco music mixed together. I thought, ‘Brilliant, two things I love’, and embraced that more. But taking in the industrial element too.”
The Hartnolls did their first gig together at a club called Grasshoppers in Sevenoaks that had started playing acid house, supporting a go-go act called K-Creative. Phil moved up to London, checking out acid house parties thrown in Clink Street near London Bridge or by the Mutoid Waste crew, while Paul remained in Sevenoaks, although he’d frequently take up proto-Orbital demos for house jock Jazzy M to hear in his record shop in the capital.
Jazzy’s radio show The Jackin’ Zone on LWR had been the first UK show to play house music, and he was an influential figure in spreading the house music gospel around the UK in the late ‘80s. He took Paul under his wing, acting as a kind of mentor by providing guidance on track structure and so forth. “He was brilliant for that,” Paul recalls.
One night, Paul was supposed to be going to the pub with some pals. “I thought, ‘Go on, knock something up quickly’,” he recalls. “Six instruments, get something going, sampler — two things; spare thing, what can we do? Let’s do a weird sound, quick!”
“It got to a point where people behind me were saying, ‘Come on, let’s go to the pub’,” Paul continues, “and I was saying ‘I’m just going to record something’, and I bashed out a quick jam. I probably listened to it when I got back from the pub and thought, ‘That’s alright’,” he adds, dismissively.
The track was ‘Chime’. Paul tells DJ Mag that the equipment he’d accumulated to make the track was a Roland TR-909 drum machine, a borrowed Simmonds drum machine (cos Phil had taken their Alesis HR-16 up to London), an S700 Akai sampler, a Roland TB-303 and a Yamaha DX11 synth for the bassline. “The main sounds are three samples from an easy-listening record of my dad’s, which I obviously can’t reveal the source of,” he teases. And then it was recorded onto his dad’s cassette recorder — a six input four-track Yamaha.
It was the late summer of ’89, and Paul took the track up to Jazzy M, who listened to it on his headphones and then played it out loud to his Friday afternoon shop full of DJs. “There were three rows of DJs in the shop, it was a DJ shop where people would be almost bidding for vinyl — like an auction,” Paul recalls. “Well, every one of those DJs put their hand up before it even hit the main riff! It was unbelievable.” “Jazzy M said to everyone, ‘You can’t buy it, but you will be able to in a couple of weeks, come back then’, and he started jumping up and down,” Paul continues. “That’s when he basically started Oh-Zone Records.”
Jazzy sent Paul back home to add an extra section of the track on the end, and told him to record it onto a metal cassette this time. “People laugh when they hear that ‘Chime’ only cost £3.75 to make, but I didn’t like that at the time — it was too much!” smirks Paul. “I could’ve recorded it onto a D90 for much cheaper, but I had to go to Sevenoaks Hi-Fi and buy an expensive cassette — and I didn’t have any money at the time.”
Paul jammed another take, spreading it out to 10 minutes, and one of dance music’s most iconic tracks was born. “It was actually slower than it was supposed to be, cos my dad’s tape player runs fast, so I think it’s actually 119bpm,” grins Paul. “It was supposed to be 120bpm.” With its motorik hooks and glistening, chiming futurism, ‘Chime’ took off like a rocket. Jazzy initially pressed up a thousand vinyls, and they sold straight away. “We got rid of three thousand before we got halted by Pete Tong, who said ‘Stop! We want to release it properly’,” says Paul.
Six major labels were queuing up to sign ‘Chime’, which was surreal for Paul who was still washing up in a pizzeria at the time. “It was ridiculous, trying to get your washing up sessions in around going to see Polydor,” he says. “It was weird.”
They ended up signing a seven-album deal with Tong’s London Records offshoot FFRR, even though dance acts were more about twelve-inches than albums at the time. “That was our background — Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk – and we didn’t always make stuff that was for the dancefloor,” says Phil. “‘Chime’ just happened to be very suitable. We wanted to be a band, rather than just making tracks for the dancefloor.”
“People were sceptical, but we wanted a career,” adds Paul. “My prospects at the time were washing up at a pizza restaurant, or techno superstar! I went for the slightly more exciting one!” ‘Chime’ became a rave anthem, shot into the UK Top 20, and the guys were asked onto weekly TV chart show Top of the Pops. “We said, ‘We want to play live’, so it was quite embarrassing when they wouldn’t let us,” says Phil. “We felt really awkward.”
“It was our one and only mime,” adds Paul. “All single keyboard wizard acts — we were classed as a double keyboard wizard act — had to have a dancer. It was Top of the Pops criteria, so that they had something to focus on.
“But it was great fun,” he continues. “We were on with Snap ‘The Power’ — what a tune! Gary Davies was a top bloke, we had a double vodka with him beforehand, he talked us through it — it was brilliant.” Much was made of the fact that this hit record was recorded in Paul’s bedroom for the price of a cassette tape, and there was a bit of controversy when Orbital wore anti-Poll Tax t-shirts on TOTP. “We went on the big anti-Poll Tax demo, and it was outrageous the way the police turned on people,” remembers Phil. “You’re not supposed to wear political t-shirts on the show, so we got our artist friend Grant to cobble together two t-shirts saying ‘No’ and ‘Poll Tax’.” “I had ‘No’, he had ‘Poll Tax’,” recalls Paul. “We got away with it, but we didn’t get invited back,” says Phil. “We did get invited back under a different producer, we outlived the production team from that time,” corrects Paul.
Orbital, of course, went on to become one of the principal pioneering dance acts of the last quarter of a century — conquering the album format; seducing Glastonbury with their bald heads, live techno and head-torch glasses; producing film scores; regenerating the Doctor Who theme (the first Doctor Who’s surname was Hartnell, coincidentally); playing the Albert Hall; and much much more. But those are other stories...