As a teenage boy, music-obsessed Kris Needs ran the fanclub of '70s bluesy-glam band Mott the Hoople before becoming immersed in the London punk scene in the late ‘70s. He edited the respected ZigZag punk ‘zine and went on tour with The Clash, started his own band The Vice Creems and had his life saved by Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols.
He then helped run goth haven the Batcave, although he wasn't a goth himself and played punk and hip-hop records in the notorious underground London venue, and then in 1984 he moved to New York. Having attended the Paradise Garage and played dance tracks all the way through punk, his ears were pricked up by reports of “this new acid house phenomenon” happening back in the UK in the late '80s — essentially for him, a new punk movement.
“This erupted into an obsession when I returned to the UK in 1990,” Kris tells DJ Mag. “It was all going off, and I did my best to catch up!”
Throwing himself head-first into the acid house scene, he started partying with Primal Scream and Youth and Alex Paterson from The Orb, and soon started DJing again himself. Back in New York he’d met a singer called Wonder who he’d immediately clicked with, and after Kris had moved back to the UK, she soon joined him and together they started Secret Knowledge. “We pressed up 500 white labels of a deep house track called ‘Make Me Scream’, which reached the ears of Andrew Weatherall,” Kris recalls.
Weatherall asked if they’d like to do something for his new Sabres of Paradise label, so they recorded “a mini heatwave of erotic throbbing” called ‘Ooh Baby’ with Juno Reactor’s Ben Watkins and Jah Wobble on bass. “It caused enough of a dent for Andrew to stick us in Orinoco Studios, off the Old Kent Road, for a follow-up,” says Kris.
The night before the studio session, the duo were watching a TV documentary about legendary blues singer Billie Holiday “and Wonder started singing a song she’d written eight years before called ‘Sugar Baby’ — about an old boyfriend who’d treated her wrong”, Kris recalls. “I leapt out of my chair bellowing, ‘That’s it!’ I’d already decided I wanted to unleash her on a merciless Giorgio Moroder groove, so drew a map of the track — complete with an extended ‘Whoo’ that I heard her doing in the bathroom.”
The next day they went into the studio with crack Sabres tag-team Jagz Kooner and Gary Burns, both of whom would later end up in bluesy tech band The Aloof. “Jagz instantly plugged in his percussive groove genius and Gary proved himself master of the instrumental embellishment,” says Kris. “I brought along a D-Train vocal sample and a thunderstorm. For the B-side we recorded a hallucinogenic nightclub version called ‘Sugar Daddy Blue’.”
Kris had been going to UK clubs such as the Drum Club, Open All Hours and Full Circle for the past couple of years, “and I loved being off my cake in the middle of mass explosions of disco delirium”, he smirks. But he’d noticed that most vocals in dance tracks were somewhat vacuous, “so we wanted to make a monster which worked on both levels; Phil Spector epic techno blues capable of demolishing the listener as well as the crowd”.
Kris was immersed in the nascent tech-trance sound from parties and reviewing for Echoes magazine, “and I was struck by this thing called progressive house as propagated by the likes of Jam & Spoon, Leftfield, Underworld, Transform, Sven Väth and the Eye Q/Harthouse crew”, he says. “It was a delicious but swiftly-abused new electronic trouser mutant.”
Kicking off with Wonder’s gorgeously soulful bluesy vox, ‘Sugar Daddy’ soon settled into a voodoo alien proto-trance groove. The guys had all the parts down by the end of the day, and the next day was for arranging and mixing. “The whole thing just flowed,” says Kris. “I’ve done hundreds of studio sessions over the years and not since my punk band recorded a single with The Clash in 1978 had I experienced such a day when everything just built, flowed and exploded. It was like a higher force was at work.
“Wonder turned in that electrifying vocal with no drop-ins or struggles,” he continues. “She knew what she wanted to sing but let the spirit of the song take her over. By the time she got to the ‘Whoo’, it was all over.”
Weatherall was the first to test the water with a dubplate, and reactions to ‘Sugar Daddy’ were instantly positive. “I first heard him drop it at the Casbah Club in Chesham and it’s still one of the greatest memories of my life seeing the crowd screaming, crying or sinking to the floor in disbelief,” Kris recalls. “David Holmes phoned up to say he’d been in Brighton when Andrew played it the previous night, and tried to describe the emotional reaction. He begged to do a remix with his Disco Evangelists partner Ashley Beedle, which would be with Jagz and Gary — so keeping it in the family.”
Holmes came straight from an all-nighter in Brighton, bent on injecting steam train cinematic ambience to the punishing groove. They called it the ‘Out of Our Brains On the 5.15 Mix’ in homage to The Who’s Quadrophenia. “Then when I went to Berlin for the Love Parade, we licensed it to MFS after the young Paul van Dyk used the copy I gave him to flatten the E-Werks,” says Kris. “He did a remix, and I did the 'Sugar-Caned' acid techno version with Jagz and Gary.”
They put out a single-sided vinyl promo of the original mix first, and Kris says he was thrilled to get all the reactions, press and Buzz Chart action — particularly after Pete Tong started caning it on BBC Radio 1. “I was made up when NME called me and Wonder ‘the Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder for the ‘90s’ — not in that order,” relays Kris. “I would have been happy just blowing the roof off the Drum Club.”
‘Sugar Daddy’ became one of the biggest club hits of 1993, with Wonder being hailed as the sexiest singer in dance music. “It opened all the doors,” says Kris, who became Primal Scream's tour DJ for the next couple of years. “We collaborated with Leftfield on ‘Anything You Want’ as Delta Lady, and I embarked on a remixing and DJing career for the next few years. It took us to play fabulous clubs like Slam, Back To Basics and Bugged Out!, and we got to tell the whole ‘Sugar Daddy’ story on an album for Deconstruction before calamity struck, as it often does. ‘Sugar Daddy’ was that once-in-a-lifetime thing — until now!”
Now that Kris has moved to Cornwall and teamed up with Wonder again, they’ve just re-recorded ‘Sugar Daddy’ to mark its 20th anniversary. But what was the strangest story they heard about it from the first time around? “We heard the song was big in UK prisons,” says Kris, “one particular establishment using it as a circle jerking soundtrack. Surely the ultimate accolade?!”