from the Papua New Guinea EP, Jumpin’ & Pumpin’, 1992
In an otherwise positive review of The long-player goodbye: how vinyl changed the world, Jon Savage says that Travis Elborough ‘falls for the tedious tropes that bedevil much music writing: the insistence on personal experience and the fear of being thought too serious.’ Jon would say that, of course, being essentially an academic practitioner of music criticism, one who enjoys a worked-for authority, but also one who likes to set his thoughts in the firm foundations of objectivity. It begs as ever the question of which came first, the authority or the objectivity? Like the egg and the chicken, they depend on each other, puff each other up, forming a cycle broken only by a good wringing of the chicken’s neck.
Jon is simply being too prescriptive here. There’s plenty of room for all kinds of music writing, objective, subjective, freighted with heaviness, giggling with levity; the joy of it is the particular blends that individuals develop. Not everyone is setting themselves up to be a rock historian, and how dull if fluctuations in style were all evened out into the sub-edited smoothness that is the hallmark of establishment media and publishing. If we always leave our own personal experience of music and its effect on our lives to one side, writing about that music might well come out too cold and calculated; and if all we are left with is a portrait of the music critic as a young man or woman, the music that is superficially being written about will be hidden behind a mass of personality (or its lack) and will fail just as soundly. Approaches which combine personal response and factual authority in varying proportions dependent on the kind of music under consideration are surely going to get the reader further than furrow-browed objectivity or Burchillesque rhetorical subjectivity alone. There are a million different ways of conveying the smell of music, and bottling the essence of what it does to and for us.
And if you were obliged never to bring our personal experience to bear, what then would you do when the music about which you are is writing is in important senses impersonal, unauthored, and neither grounded in a Springsteen-style portrait of reality nor born out of the Bowie-esque invention of character? What when you have no sense of who has made the music, but only the music itself? Do you attempt to be a musicologist and socio-cultural commentator, explaining as best you can the logistics and the theory of the music, not forgetting its contextual relevance, or do you slip some personality and imagination into the partial vacuum, and in so doing attempt give life on the page or screen to the music as you hear it?
I’ve never really known anything about the Future Sound Of London, not even the duo’s names, or even that they were a duo, until looking them up as I finished off writing this. I never felt the need to know, nor that there would be any advantage in knowing. Give or take Kraftwerk, FSOL were among the first makers of technological music to disappear so completely behind a moniker; to refuse any cult of personality; to represent themselves only through their music and the artwork necessarily connected with that music. Paradoxically as the musicians effaced themselves and disappeared, so the imagery that they presented appeared heady, exotic, necessarily creating a possible path into the future that you and/or music might wish to follow, a path that reached beyond urban environments of the present to dwell in a dimension and at a point far from our own. ‘Papua New Guinea’ might be that far away place, or it might be our own globally warmed future landscape rendered tropical – the ruins of London overrun by rain forest.
It reached my ears while I was living in Bristol, properly discovering dance music for the first time. In the context of 98° Proof club nights hosted by Daddy G and featuring Andy Weatherall and numerous other DJs playing mind-expanding house music, a CD with no less than eight remixes of the same track made perfect sense. Without the pull of ‘Papua New Guinea’, I might not have pursued the electronica coming out of Warp and elsewhere as vigorously, nor fallen into and for the liquid dreaminess of Ultramarine, nor run as far from my indie roots as I did. Its 38 minutes of music lifted me above the grubby Bristol bedsits in which it was played, and allowed me to escape from them.
The Andrew Weatherall remix – all 9:43 of it – follows straight on from the lead track, the 7” original with its uptempo house rhythm, pulsing bass, oscillating keyboards, rhythmic drop-outs, eerie backing vocals and rapturous foreground vocalising. Presciently pitched between acid house, dub, and warped electronica, it points the way to the anonymous ecstasy recently perfected by Burial on Untrue.
Weatherall chooses to dress ‘Papua New Guinea’ in symphonic clothes, with chords that might soundtrack a scene of sci-fi doom. It shakes down into a four to the floor beat, but it’s four minutes in before the familiar pulse of FSOL’s bass enters, and the phrase picked out high on the keyboard begins to circle a rain forest clearing like an exotically coloured lorikeet. Then we cut to down below on the ground, where one of Papua New Guinea’s myriad tribes is gathered around a cooking fire to sing something ancestral. In both FSOL’s and Weatherall’s hands, this hymn is simultaneously ancient and modern, as well as tropical and urban.
Weatherall hands on the baton to a minute and a half of dub, after which we take the ‘Journey to pyramid’. As far as I’m aware there are no pyramids in Papua New Guinea, so it seems reasonable to suppose that FSOL are positing an out of body flight between Oceania and Egypt. A variation on the melody and the brooding bass suggest that our flight is taking place at the dead of night over the dark mass of the Indian ocean. Eventually a coastal string of lights in Oman or Yemen appears on the horizon, before we swoop away again, higher into the night, heading for the glimmer of dawn and the delta of the Nile.
808 State’s Graham Massey sticks closer to the original, but acidifies it with cartoon loops, snatches of synthesised chords, and a treated saxophone phrase. The most ambient mix, ‘Dumb Child of Q’ is next, the beats stripped away to reveal all of the overlying elements in turn. But after nigh on half an hour of rhythm, a breather is just what’s required before the 12” original (known as the Dali mix on its release the previous year) kicks in. Though it only has little more than an extra minute over the 7”, it’s the definitive mix and the one that will have rallied innumerable dance floors for one last communal push. We are brought gently back to earth by the Hamish McDonald mix, which begins with bird song and laughter, before a Brazilian favela rhythm is blended with the pulsing bass, giving us to finish with something rather different from all that’s come before. The birds and the speakers keep on tweeting until the close, with a range of speech and reggae record samples fired across the scene, momentarily dying like fireworks.
So what do I now know about the Future Sound Of London? The most pertinent of the freshly researched facts are these. FSOL were Garry Cobain and Brian Dougans, and they met in Manchester, not London. They look as unprepossessing as you might imagine artists who elect to be faceless would be. The duo were entirely responsible for their own visual presentation, and subsequently gave themselves more aliases than a double agent, unsurprisingly ending up as Amorphous Androgynous. For ‘Papua New Guinea’ they sampled Lisa Gerrard’s vocals from ‘The host of seraphim’ by Dead Can Dance as well as the vocal by Koffi from Circuit’s house classic ‘Shelter me’; the bass line was pinched from Peel favourites Meat Beat Manifesto‘s ‘Radio Babylon’. Those are telling samples, but out of them FSOL made a sound that was very much their own.
I was never drawn to FSOL’s long players, somehow sensing that they might disappoint after the moments of perfection afforded by ‘Papua New Guinea’. And how many variations on a theme is it possible to make? An infinite number, if the renovations FSOL themselves carried out on ‘Papua New Guinea’ in 2001 under the banner ‘Translations’ are anything to go by. Without having heard these, I am inclined to trust the judgement of a reviewer at Discogs.com: the new variations largely fail. Paradise has become dystopia, and the idealism of 1992 buckles under the threat not only to the tropics but to the temperate zones. But nothing short of global catastrophe can destroy the eternal magic of the original set of ‘Papua New Guinea’ mixes.