“To tell the truth I didn’t like house. I did not like house. Jack-jack-jack your body, all that, I thought it sounded like [sigh] look, I’m a producer in a 24-track studio, I know how to operate all this, I’m pioneering sampling, I could probably produce [ponders] say, a Frankie Goes To Hollywood record and that wouldn’t have been a sweat. Technologically I’m up there at that time. House sounded like what my 12-year-old kid had been messing about with when he’s just strung two or three bits of equipment together. It felt like there was no skill in it, it was just vibe by itself, and I thought ‘woah, you can put skill in it as well, surely?’ And then I heard techno, as opposed to house – I remember being in this place and saying to DJ Parrot “what’s this? What’s this music??” I said “we’ve been here all night, listening to all this crap house, and as you know I hate house, but this record, who’s made this??” And he said “Derrick May.” – Rob Gordon of FON & Warp.
It all started with Chakk, an “industrial funk” band that emerged at the tail-end of the Sheffield musical explosion of the late 70s and early 80s. They had an indie hit, “Out Of The Flesh”, and a Peel Session, and with a dearth of other sellable talent from the city, found themselves with a few major label talent scouts sniffing around them. A familiar story all-round then, but with an odd twist. Instead of moving down to London and spending their advance on drugs and girls, they insisted on staying in Sheffield, and had MCA build a recording studio for them. Only five years before, Sheffield had nothing more advanced than Ken Patten’s front room, and now it had a state-of-the-art recording space, in the hands of forward-thinking musicians.
Of course, the Chakk story didn’t work out with them becoming international stars. Their album was rejected by MCA for having ‘no hits’, and nobody was happy with the re-recorded version that eventually made it out shortly before the band split for good. FON studios (“Fuck Off Nazis”) lived on, though. Towards the end of their time there, Chakk had joined forces with Rob Gordon, a studio electronics expert who had taken a sideways step from the world of reggae soundsystems. With the band gone, he became the in-house producer. At first the results were something less than sonically revolutionary, the debut release being from early Richard Hawley group Treebound Story. Soon, however, the studio was producing pop records like the first Yazz album and (despite Gordon’s initial misgivings) sample-based music like Krush’s ‘House Arrest’, which got to number 3 in the charts in late 1987, paving the way for the house boom of the following year.
The other side of FON records was a small record shop set up by Chakk’s manager, Amrik Rai. While new things were going on up in the studio, the shop was still stuck in the industrial funk past until Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett were recruited to give it an overhaul. Though they were both from the city’s indie scene – having played in Lay of the Land with Steven Havenhand before he joined Pulp – they knew which way the wind was blowing, and before long the shelves were filled with Detroit and Chicago techno and Trax Records releases.
When Rob Gordon recorded the pioneering “Track With No Name” with DJs Parrot & Winston (calling themselves Forgemasters to reflect the industrial city they came from), Mitchell and Beckett decided to join forces with him and start a record label in order to get it released. After coming up with the names Big Bass, Deep Groove and Twisted Records, they finally settled first on “Warped Records”, then on “Warp.” Their second release – Nightmares on Wax’s “Dextrous” – sold around 30,000 copies, third release ‘Testone’ moreorless defined the new Sheffield bleep sound, and by the end of the 80s they found themselves at the very apex of electronic music.
And against this backdrop, there was Pulp – another set of veterans from the Sheffield scene, similarly burned by a record company, beginning to take an interest in electronic music. It was only late 1987, though, Steve was yet to join, and Jarvis was yet to go to any raves – the major electronic factor in their sound still being that old Portasound. And that’s what makes ‘Death Goes To The Disco’ such a puzzle.
On the surface it’s just a ‘house’ remix of Death Goes To Town, produced at the tail-end of their second FON session. At first it doesn’t sound like a radical re-working – a bit of echo here, an 808 trill there – but on closer analysis something about the track has fundamentally shifted. The song has been hacked apart and reassembled behind a steady Jive Bunny / Stars on 45 backbeat, which miraculously glues the thing together perfectly. Still, things proceed normally enough until three and a half minutes in, when we drop into an unfiltered chunk of house. It’s not perfect by any means, but considering the time it was recorded (prior to Krush’s House Arrest for example) it’s pretty astonishing to the extent that the cut back to the song itself is a little disappointing.
Who put this section together? I can’t believe anyone in the group knew enough about house music so early on, but the remix is on the original tape and not part of the remix session for the single version of Countdown as I initially suspected. Perhaps there’s some alternate dimension where Pulp emerged from the gloom of the 80s metamorphosed into a dance act, as Underworld did. But, once again, the song was not released by FON. Lay of the Land had supported Pulp, and Rob and Steve were still fans, so Warp would prove to be much more pro-active – a few years later, as the group found themselves entangled in immense legal troubles, a sub-label would be created just for the release of their singles.
By that point Death Goes To The Disco had already found it’s way out – released as the B-side to Countdown, and thereafter featured on all manner of compilations, from the annoying chronologically-backwards ‘Countdown 1992-1983’ in ’96 to the wishful thinking of ‘Pulp Goes To The Disco’ in ’98 – an attempt to cobble the group’s most ‘Disco’ tracks (including remixes) together into a dance LP which is marginally successful until they run out of material after seven tracks and throw on Love is Blind / The Mark of the Devil / Master of the Universe to pad out the running time. Classy move, Fire, well done.