In 1994, live performances by UK dance acts were big news. Electronic bands that straddled the divide between club sounds and song-styled accessibility were in vogue. The Prodigy, The Shamen, The Orb and 808 State all played gigs rather than DJ sets — a gateway drug for indie kids — and Orbital’s barnstorming set at Glastonbury converted a fair few to a life of beats and bass. But there was no one else quite like Underworld who, with their third album (and first with DJ Darren Emerson), ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’, blended outlandish art-rock ideas with singular takes on house, techno and ambient. Twenty-five years old, it’s aged gracefully, thanks in part to the band’s refusal to be trapped by genre.
‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ packed in everything from ‘Surf Boy’s delirious acid house, dub FX, and propulsive club drums, to ‘Tongue’s denuded ambient sliver of dawn-rise guitar. It had ‘Cowgirl’ which, with its looped, layered vocals, spiky synth line and thundering percussion, could cause clubs or concert halls alike to erupt; and it had the mellow, bass-led funk of ‘River Of Bass’, a sonic balm to soothe sore heads post-rave. Knitting it all together was an urge to experiment, and also a drive to hook in the listener with melodies and vocal phrases that stepped outside the diva samples or acid gurgles then so prevalent in dance records.
On this album, Karl Hyde’s vocals were a malleable instrument, able to switch from mellifluous tones to adopted personalities, imitating accents and conjuring evocative imagery with spoken word monologues. Hyde’s lyrics were a strange stream of consciousness, the result of listening in to private conversations on public transport, then cutting up the words, William Burroughs style, and rearranging them into non-sequiturs spun out as stories. These words, paired with Underworld’s unearthly electronics, took on an extraordinary power. As Dorian Lynskey said in his 2014 Guardian feature around the album’s reissue, “Hyde is less a frontman than a conduit for a torrent of images, stray thoughts and overheard dialogue while the music has a vast, architectural quality, evoking railway tracks, alleyways, high-rises and secret corners”.
Underworld had been going a long time before they achieved success, and it took a shift into dance music to affect that change. Rick Smith, from Ammanford, Wales, and Karl Hyde, from Bewdley, Worcestershire, met in Cardiff while studying, and formed post-punk band The Screen Gemz, releasing one single in 1979. In the early ’80s, Smith and Hyde started synthpop group Freur, and released two albums through major labels Epic and CBS, ‘Doot-Doot’ and ‘Get Us Out Of Here’. They re-emerged in 1988 as Underworld, producing two more long-players. But their fortunes changed when the pair moved to Romford in Essex where they met DJ Darren Emerson and became a trio.
Initially recording as Lemon Interrupt, the trio’s fresh style chimed with the progressive house scene of the time, and 1992’s capacious ‘Dirty’, released through hip label Junior Boy’s Own, and the harmonica laden follow up ‘Big Mouth’, were huge underground hits. When they returned to the Underworld moniker with singles ‘Rez’ (one of the band’s best-ever instrumentals), and ‘Mmm Skyscraper I Love You’, they hit upon something truly different.
‘Mmm Skyscraper I Love You’, included on the album, contained all the ingredients of their novel sound. The seemingly nonsensical title, and other lyrics (“I see porn dogs sniffing the wind for something new / Something violent that they could do”), nodded to Hyde’s fevered cut ‘n’ paste scribbling, while the production, with its pulsating house bass, rolling breakbeat percussion and bittersweet ambient coda, indicated Darren Emerson’s club expertise as much as it did Rick Smith’s gift for synth melody.
‘Mmm Skyscraper I Love You’ also indicated Underworld’s inventive repurposing of conventional instruments. Hyde treated his only occasionally used electric guitar as a textural device, sending out squalls of feedback and noise over the beats in a way more redolent of post-rock than anything in techno at the time.
On perhaps the album’s centrepiece, ‘Dirty Epic’, jagged guitar jutted out of the speaker, but not until the final third of the song. There, that great rock signifier was reduced to just another shade in the monochrome palette, and Underworld’s original approach was to inspire many an electronic act to come. The presence of Hyde’s sung vocals, his role as a frontman, and use of a guitar onstage, decorated in Underworld’s black and white iconography, gave them a visual and sonic identity that fans of guitar groups could latch onto. Their merging of the worlds of dance and rock can be seen in modern acts such as LCD Soundsystem. As Nick Neyland pointed out in his Pitchfork review of the album’s reissue in 2014, “It’s not hard to see some of Hyde in James Murphy and vice versa, especially as both were old hands coming to this game, bringing a dose of reflection to music that’s so often focused solely on the now”.
In among the indecipherable chains of thought apparent in Hyde’s lyrics, were clearer themes, too. ‘Dirty Epic’ had swells of ghostly church organ and tear-stained vocals, plus a strange feeling of defiled spirituality, further suggested by the lyrics “ride the sainted rhythms on the midnight train to Romford”, “here comes Christ on crutches”, and “I feel so shaken in my faith”, taking on a darker dimension in their talk of “phone sex” and the “emptiness in my 501s”. Elsewhere, the ecological message of ‘M.E’ (an acronym for ‘Mother Earth’) singled out climate criminals with the stinging line, “You just rip off the planet / and take what you want / I’m coming to get you”.
Darren Emerson’s presence on ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ was key. It was clear this music came from a deep understanding of club culture absent in Underworld’s earlier material, and it was Emerson’s knowledge as a DJ, synthesised with Hyde and Smith’s experience of song craft, that made the album so special. It’s a shame that Underworld’s most famous contribution to music remains the simplistic stomp of ‘Born Slippy (Nuxx)’ with its yells of “lager, lager, lager”, because ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ managed something far more significant in its balance of rock and dance — a balance that few others, even today, have managed to get right.