Based in Bath in south-west England, near musical hot-spots Glastonbury and Bristol, Alex Gifford had some quite varied early musical experiences. He played sax with punk band The Stranglers, played keys for revered folkie Van Morrison, briefly joined electronic outfit The Grid with Dave Ball and Richard Norris, and worked at Peter Gabriel’s famous Real World studios near Bath. It was at a sort of open day there that he later first met future Monkey Mafia man Jon Carter.
In the early ‘90s Alex started making his own tunes and frequenting a club in Bath called The Hub. Todd Terry and Masters At Work were among those who his crew booked — as well as Jon Carter, who was starting to make a name for himself in the DJ world. “It was the first night we were doing a Propellerheads night, and I didn’t actually know it was him,” Alex tells DJ Mag.
“We booked it through his agent, and we just knew that there was this guy with a real good rep. So we set up the stage for the Propellerheads thing and in walks this guy with his record box, and I remember saying ‘Three hundred and fifty quid for you!?’”
By then Alex had hooked up with local drummer Will White, at the suggestion of his partner Paddy from The Hub. For their first Propellerheads night they had to build a scaffolding structure to support the decks and drums. “It was a real home-grown effort,” remembers Alex.
“The idea of someone being onstage with a drum-kit freaked some people of that generation out,” he continues. “They thought, ‘This is wrong’. Combining decks and drums was the unusual thing, but the idea of going to a place and there’d be instruments onstage was quite freaky.”
The Props did their first shows with decks, drums and a Hammond — with a lot of the tunes being jammed on the spot. “We were using breakbeat records — quite raw, some of them — and there were gigs we’d do later where the show depended on us beat-mixing backing tracks cut to acetate, stripped down versions that we’d play live on top of,” Alex says. “If the stage was bouncy, or people were dancing too much, things started jumping and it would become a bit shambolic.”
“I remember first seeing the band in Bath, coming to the first gig at Hub or Moles, and being blown away — seeing something that had never been done before, one more time,” recalls Mark Jones, legendary Wall Of Sound head honcho. “The energy that was there was great. I wanted to give the boys the platform to do what they do in the way they wanted to do it — without trying to change it. The energy and set-up was just so different at the time, and some people didn’t know how to take it.”
Mark Jones had called up Alex after either Jon Carter or John Gosling, aka Mekon, had passed him a tape of early Props stuff after their first live gig. Alex’s favourite label at the time was Ninja Tune, and he was just figuring out how to approach them when Wall Of Sound snapped the Props up. “The fact that someone was quite keen was part of the appeal,” Alex says, “it wasn’t all about deals and advances and albums and all that. It was just make a record with a few tunes, and put it out.”
They pressed up 5000 copies of the ‘Dive EP’ of beats and breaks, and were soon assimilated into the madcap Wall Of Sound family. By 1995, the late ‘90s big beat scene was starting to coalesce, and to Alex its rule-breaking was part of the attraction. “It just felt like if you were playing a certain kind of house or techno, you couldn’t do anything else,” he says. “People would start by coming up and complaining, and it felt really ludicrous.
We just couldn’t find enough good stuff in one style to play a whole night. My roots were in jazz and funk, and we started hearing what the then Dust Brothers were doing, Depth Charge and some of the other labels, and thought ‘This is definitely the way forward’. So we tried to put tunes together that we could play out.”
Twangy, shuffly funk-hopper ‘Take California’ took the Props a couple of weeks to make, as there are four or five breakbeats all running in it at once — plus some of Will’s drumming. “I was doing it all on this one sampler,” recalls Alex. “I’d sample up the Hammond, that was actually from The Stranglers, and it was a long process. It was hard to get it to sit.”
This led to the guys being approached by soundtrack composer David Arnold, who was working on a score for the next James Bond movie at the time, Tomorrow Never Dies, and also an album of covers of previous Bond tunes. Arnold asked the Props to choose a Bond theme to cover, and they picked ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. Arnold also got them to do the rhythm track for one of the tunes in the movie he was scoring — a car chase scene, where 007 is driving his car via a mobile phone from the back seat. “You can’t hear it in the movie, of course, cos the sound effects were so loud,” Alex says, ruefully.
He tells the story of going to the premiere, how he’d always liked spy movies, and how their subsequent track ‘Spybreak’ was the soundtrack for a fictional movie in their heads — made all the more sweet when the makers of The Matrix came knocking to use it on the first sci-fi blockbuster in that series.
On the bare bones of another new track, Alex started joking that it sounded like an intro to a Shirley Bassey song — a Bond theme regular herself ('Goldfinger', 'Diamonds Are Forever' etc). “We were coming back from Australia, a Wall Of Sound posse had gone out and done some shows — us and Wiseguys and Mark [Jones] — and we were all sat on the plane talking about doing this, and I remember Mark just leaning over from the row behind, saying ‘Shall we do it, then? Let’s just call her’.
“At that point, we just seemed to have so much confidence – the whole label and everything — it was like, ‘Anything’s possible’,” Alex continues. “Whatever stupid or unlikely thing you thought up doing, it seemed to happen. It was like, ‘This seems really wrong, but let’s see how much further we can push it’.”
Alex went home, wrote some lyrics and recorded a demo overnight, putting his voice through an effect to make it sound more Bassey-like.
They sent it off to Shirley Bassey’s management, and initially heard back that she wasn’t looking for any new material. “We thought, ‘Oh well, what were we thinking?’” recounts Alex. “Then a few months later they came back and said, ‘Actually yes, she’s up for it’. We all fell about, cos by that time we’d given up on the idea.”
Lining up the ducks to record 'History Repeating', they booked a studio for the day, cos they weren’t going to ask Shirley to come to Alex’s bedroom to record, and she showed up — at the second time of asking. “She wafted in, and turned out to be really down to earth and friendly and funny, and just belted it out,” Alex recalls.
“There weren’t that many takes,” he continues.
“She actually said, ‘How do you want me to sing this?’ I was like, ‘Well, duh! Like Shirley Bassey!’. ‘That’s what everyone says’, she said. ‘What is Shirley Bassey?’ I was thinking it wasn’t the right time for philosophical questions, but with a little bit of direction…”
He tells of how Shirley had her musical director there, he’d notated everything from Alex’s demo, and he conducted her. “She stood way off the microphone cos she’s got an amazingly powerful voice, and then in a couple of hours she was out.,” he says “Did some photos for us, it was a pleasure.”
At the time, it seemed that Wall Of Sound acts could do no wrong. “We had this fluke-ish sense of confidence, we just seemed to be on a roll,” Alex observes. “For a start the tune was kinda wrong, cos it was big beat plus this diva from our parents’ generation, a jazzy song, and we released it at the worst possible time of year from the point of view of trying to get a chart placing — right before Christmas. And then, of course, it charted.”
Arriving at the height of the big beat explosion, ‘History Repeating’ was the anathema of most of the scene's bombastic, bung-it-all-in big block-rockin' tunes. Jazzy and camp, it was big in the sense of sounding like it had big production values — it was almost like a missing Bond theme. It was different, it broke the rules, and it married people from contrasting worlds — a contemporary beats act with a classic singer — in a way that had scarcely happened previously at that point. That's what made it great.
With minimal marketing, it cracked the Top 20 in the UK in 1997, and the Props set about finishing their debut album. They’d contacted both hip-hop legends the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul for collabs for the album, but hadn’t heard back so they’d cut ‘Decksandrumsandrockandroll’ — but not for America. Suddenly both came back on the same day, so Alex legged it over to a studio in New York. “I had two exceedingly intense days in a studio where various Public Enemy records, LL Cool J records were cut,” he recounts.
“It reeked of old skool hip-hop. Suddenly I was there, this kid from Bath with these total heroes — completely down with us. Meanwhile, I get a call to say we’d got Top Of The Pops, and that Shirley Bassey was going to do it but was now having second thoughts. Will you call her?
“So I’m calling Shirley Bassey, trying to convince her, cos she heard a remix that we’d done that we hadn’t played to her, and she didn’t like it,” he continues. “So she decided in the end not to do Top Of The Pops with us, but there was this very surreal situation where I was there, with De La Soul in the control room, sat outside on the phone trying to talk to Shirley Bassey, who I was imagining was on a plush sofa eating chocolates, trying to convince her to do Top Of The Pops. Absolutely bizarre.”
The ‘History Repeating’ remix that Shirley had heard was a pumping big beat thing, quite noisy, with sirens on and stuff. “It was another chase scene, basically,” says Alex. “She’d heard someone play it on the radio, and felt let down a bit. She had her reasons and I respect those, so in the end we didn’t do Top Of The Pops… but we did have a video…”
Shot like a 1960s light entertainment jazz programme, the video featured some of the Wall Of Sound crew dressed up smart in sixties gear and Shirley belting out the song in front of Will, Alex and a big band brass section. “We had to lift Shirley onto a podium thing,” says Alex, describing the shoot. “She was wearing this dress that was so chic that we had to lift her up onto the thing, and once she was up there she had to stay up there. And then she got a bottle of champagne that was on her rider, drank it, and then proposed to me! During an interview. Did I accept? I didn’t actually, as I remember. It was very kind of her to offer, though!”
“Then she got back into her Daimler and teetered off, saying ‘I’m off back to Monte Carlo, darling’, and swept away,” he continues. “That’s what you want from a diva — that kind of behaviour. Brilliant.”
'History Repeating' was so out-of-the-box, so wrong in a way, that it was beautifully right. “What it told me is that there must be enough people out there who were leaping at the chance to get this music that wasn’t just another bit of formulaic house or whatever,” Alex says. “We weren’t forcing anyone to buy this, we couldn’t have been doing anything wrong, and it seemed to capture people’s imaginations. It gives you confidence.”
“We forget nowadays how easy it is to get exposed to all different styles of music — without spending any time or money finding it,” he continues. “You can educate yourself really easily now, and it’s much easier to have eclectic tastes. Back then, you had to go to the right kind of record shop, and if your town didn’t have that kind of record shop you would never hear that kind of music. It was much harder for people to develop eclectic tastes, and I think that was always Wall Of Sound’s mantra — play a bit of everything that was good.”