Orbital were renowned for their amazing live shows, and the story of 'Chime', the track that launched their career, shows how they brought their 'live' approach to electronic music to the studio and into the charts.
"It was, like many musicians' biggest hits, written on the fly without even thinking about it, just coming out like diarrhoea." That's how Paul Hartnoll recalls the creation of 'Chime', the first and highest-charting single for Orbital, the techno outfit that comprised him and older brother Phil, from the late '80s until they disbanded in 2004. "I just did it because I was in a happy mood, thinking about going down the pub."
Such were the down-to-earth methods of an outfit who took their name from the M25, the circular London motorway that took kids to clubs when raves became all the rage. Indeed, within the world of techno dance music, Orbital broke new ground by retaining their underground following while becoming a mainstream live attraction at events like Woodstock 2 and the Glastonbury Festival, staging shows that offered more than just a couple of guys standing robotically behind banks of computer-driven boxes. With improvisation substituting for reliance on DATs, their shows actually sounded live, and they also featured attention-grabbing visuals and, of course, flash-lights attached to the brothers' rhythmically bobbing heads.
Dunton Green, a village near Sevenoaks in Kent, is where the Hartnolls grew up, and at the age of 11 Paul (born 1968) was inspired by ska band the Beat to pick up a guitar and set his sights on a music career. Phil, four years older, initially played sax and was into industrial acts like Cabaret Voltaire, yet through their mid-teens there was little interaction between the two while they pursued separate paths.
"I had a friend who was very much a naughty boy," Paul recalls. "He was a shoplifter and always getting into trouble, but I roped him into forming a band with some of the other kids in our village — all the ones who liked punk — and made him the drummer. Well, he told his social worker, and she was so excited by this that she somehow arranged for the two of us to meet Paul Weller in the studio for inspiration. And it was an inspiration. We saw the Jam record 'War', the B-side of their last single, 'Beat Surrender', and it was great. In fact, Paul Weller inspired me so much that years later I ended up playing at the V Festival, on a different stage to him, and I think he made a comment along the lines of 'Watch some real live music instead of blokes fiddling with little black boxes!' I thought, 'Oi, it's your fault!' But I certainly forgive him. I suppose it was my own to choice to fiddle with little black boxes.
"From the moment I heard Kraftwerk's 'Computer World' I loved the beauty and the rigidness, as well as the analogue warmth of that bubbling funk which you only seemed to get with electronic music. I've always enjoyed that — music in 16ths, totally relentless but beautifully done. I suppose it's the whole Donna Summer 'I Feel Love' kind of thing which always got to me."
Indeed, among his biggest influences Paul Hartnoll cites Germany's Kraftwerk and Australian electro-pop group the Severed Heads, along with hi-NRG, American electro and, early on, hardcore punk outfits like the Dead Kennedys.
"Punk influenced me in terms of my attitude rather than any specific musical references," he explains, "and we certainly sampled a lot of that music and brought that attitude to house at a time when it was in no way regarded as the way forward. You were supposed to be on drugs and hedonistic, whereas we like to sample people who were talking about 'smashing the system'! That always seemed like the obvious route to me."
In Phil's case, David Bowie and the Clash were two of the biggest influences, alongside Kraftwerk and, in common with his brother, minimalist composers Wim Mertens, Michael Nyman and Philip Glass. Nevertheless, during the mid-'80s, while Phil was bricklaying for their father's construction company, Paul served as his labourer and played in a band named Noddy & the Satellites.
"They'll kill me for saying this, but they were basically a bunch of friends who couldn't play to save their lives," he remarks. "They needed somewhere to practice and they needed a drummer, and I had a drum kit and a room I used to practice in, so it worked out really well. I'd tune their guitars for them and then let them get on with it, and I loved that. I relinquished all responsibility and let them write the songs while all I did was drum, and that was really good fun. What we did was very indie, slightly rockabilly, slightly the Fall, and there were lots of gigs at local art colleges and places like that."
Despite being able to play guitar and drums, Paul describes himself as "a real jack-of-all-trades and master of absolutely none. I want to do it all. That's why I ended up with a guitar, a bass guitar, a keyboard and a drum kit... Slowly but surely the guitars ended up going under the bed and losing their strings, and they never really came out again."
Ditto Phil's saxophone, which had been his instrument of choice early on. When Paul quit Noddy & the Satellites to concentrate on creating his own music, the spare room at the top of the Hartnoll family home was transformed into an electronic studio where both brothers worked on and off.
"The whole process evolved," says Paul. "I couldn't think of anything else to do apart from making records, but Phil was always a little more sceptical about whether that would work, so he used to dip in and out. At one point he went to New York on a one-man quest to explore hip-hop, and during the six months he was there I got some more equipment. So, when he came back, we pooled all our gear and things kept developing like that in fits and starts.
"Some friends of mine were into house music and they'd say 'Listen to this, this new thing,' and I'd listen to it and say 'It's not new. It's electro and hi-NRG mixed together. It's great, but it's not new.' Anyway, I got right into the whole house music scene and started creating some stuff of my own, and my friends thought it was really good. They knew a pirate DJ named Jazzy M, who did one of the best pirate acid house shows in London, and they played it to him. Well, he ran a record shop called Vinyl Zone, and he quickly became my mentor. I'd play him some demos and he'd give me a handful of free records and say 'Listen to those and copy them. That's what you need to be doing.' It was very interesting, even though we didn't always see eye to eye. I liked my sort of 'harder edge' and he was a bit more 'soul', but ultimately it was quite good having that kind of influence and advice.
"Through Jazzy M we got in touch with Gee Street Records in Clerkenwell, which was a UK hip-hop label owned by John Baker, whose main band was the Stereo MCs. I'd done a couple of tracks on my own under the name DS Building Contractors on The House Sound Of London, which was a London Records house compilation of UK-based artists, and these had been recorded with Nick Hallam of the Stereo MCs at a studio provided by John Baker. Well, John quite liked those tracks, so he then said 'Right, OK, I'll give you two weeks in the studio and you knock up an album.' I gave up art college for that. This was the big time: I thought I had my foot in the door and was on the way to success. At the time I didn't realise how naïve I was being.
"Anyway, Phil and I did that together. We managed to record four or five tracks before John Baker said 'Oh, I don't know about this. It's not quite right.' So, that was that, and then 'Chime' happened later on. I remember taking a leak next to him at some event and him saying 'Ere, you didn't play me 'Chime' when you did that album demo.' I said 'I hadn't written it then!' As it happens, one of the tracks we'd recorded for John Baker was a very early version of 'Satan', which would be one of our biggies [in early 1991], so I guess he wouldn't have spotted 'Chime' if he didn't spot that one either."
By the early summer of 1989, when 'Chime' was first recorded, Paul Hartnoll's home setup consisted of a Roland TR909 drum machine, Roland TB303 and SH09 synths, a Yamaha DX100 synth, an Akai S700 sampler, an Alesis MMT8 sequencer, a small mono Boss delay and a Yamaha four-track.
"The Yamaha was like a second-generation cassette four-track with a double-speed option and six inputs," he recalls. "I used to overdub bass, lead guitar, keyboards, drum machines and lots of effects, and I just sort of learned my craft from there upwards. What's more, somebody who I knew but won't name — for libel reasons — burgled our house, and this really helped me because with the insurance money I was able to buy much better stuff. A Roland MC202 synth went missing along with a Tascam four-track, a Korg Poly 800, a TR707 drum machine and a DX100, but in their place I was able to buy an Akai S700 sampler and a second-hand DX100.
"The S700 sampler was the main thing to come out of the robbery. That's what really opened up our sound, it's what we'd been looking for, and after that it was one step between there and 'Chime'. Basically, what happened to me appeared to be the same as what happened to a lot of people in Detroit. You couldn't afford a DX7, so you bought a DX100; you couldn't afford a 707, so you bought a 909 — you were getting all the cheaper versions, but actually those machines created the sound of techno and house music. At least that's how it seemed to me. The whole Detroit scene appeared to be built on cheap instruments. I used to like house music, but it was a little too 'soul' for me, a little too much half-baked vocals and dodgy pianos. But then, when I heard the whole Detroit thing, it was like 'Ah, that's it now. That's what I've been looking for.' That and acid house were the things that really got me going."
"The first version of 'Chime' literally came about through me replacing the stolen four-track. I'd always recorded onto four tracks and then mastered onto my dad's 1970s Pioneer cassette player — the gulf between a professional tape recorder and the sort of stuff I had was not only way too vast, but I was also ignorant. I was totally self-taught, there was no one around me to teach me anything at all apart from those couple of sessions at Gee Street, and a DAT machine was way out of my range at that point. I was funding this from pocket money, my spare change while living at home and doing an art college foundation course, so my dad's tape deck was what I worked with.
"But then it occurred to me: 'hang on a minute, why don't I bypass the recording phase and just mix live from these instruments into six channels?' I had to sum four of the channels together as pairs if I was recording, whereas this would give me six channels of mixing and I could go straight to the tape deck without losing any quality. That definitely seemed like a good idea, and so before I went to the pub — I remember it was a nice summer's evening — I decided to knock something up. I was in a happy mood, I wasn't consciously thinking about what I was going to do, and so I just knocked up this little refrain by sampling three things from an easy listening record of my dad's, containing instrumental cover versions of popular hits."
And that record was?
"Uh, well, I can't really tell you. I know what it was, but I've never cleared the samples! And to be honest, I can't even find them. I've bought that album twice in second-hand shops, and I've listened to it so many times, trying to hear where 'Chime' came from, and I can't tell. It was literally random sampling and then homing in on a chord and going 'that's nice'. Then I got a 303 going, along with a big, fat bass line on the DX100, and after that I added 909 and [Alesis] HR16 drum machines. The HR16 was Phil's — by then he was living in London and his equipment was up there, but I was borrowing it for a while. He'd just had a baby, which is why he wasn't around.
"So, 'Chime' started as a big riff from me playing this joyous Detroit-y chord progression that mirrored my mood — it was a sunny day and I was off to meet girls down the pub — and then I built a two-bar groove on the 909 that turned out to be rubbish until I decided to play it as one-bar loops. Originally the whole thing was like a sort of jam, using the MMT8 sequencer, and I did the main riff on two different rhythms. One of the things I did like about it was having them next to each other on the MMT8 and then, for extra oomph at any point, I could put the two on together and it phased. You know, where the same notes hit I'd get this nice sort of sample phase, the machine being unable to handle playing the same thing twice.
"Basically, it was a case of 'Let's make everything I've got contribute a sound or have a part in this song, up to the eight tracks on my sequencer, and now let's record it.' That's a nice kind of simplicity, and yet it's bigger than most bands. I had the DX100, the sampler doing three parts, the 303 and two drum machines, and that was it. Then it was just a case of being inventive. That original jam ended at about the halfway point of the original 12-inch — I literally finished recording it as I had people standing by me, saying 'Come on, let's go to the pub... Come on!' I said 'Look, hang on a minute, I'm recording. Just wait!' I remember someone leaning over and going 'You know, that sounds all right, I quite like that!' He was an old hippy friend of mine."
Jazzy M insisted that 'Chime' had to be extended from the point where it initially slowed down and ended. "Leave it like that but then bring it back and go again," he said. "At least for another couple of minutes."
By this time, Phil had retrieved his HR16, so Paul borrowed a friend's Simmons Drum Brain and improved the sound with a much harder kick and hi-hat. Then, by reproducing the song's arrangement on the MMT8, he was free to manipulate the TB303 and use it to jam along with the recording.
"I learned that if you recorded a 303 and did lots of filter frequency messing, it didn't record properly onto a four-track," he says. "It would basically compress, which was a word I'd never even heard of in a musical context. I don't think I understood what a compressor was until about the fourth Orbital album, and that probably accounts somewhat for the sort of sound that we got. Everything was completely uncompressed until it got to the mastering room."
In the end, the second half Paul created for 'Chime' was nearly as long as the first and largely reprised it. He recorded the entire track again on his own, programming the MMT8 to do the samples and the bass line, while improvising the drum machine and TB303 around it.
"I used to run the 909 on its own sequencer, so I wouldn't have bothered programming that," he explains. "I would have just basically gone through the 909 mixer, turning up the handclaps here, turning them down there, turning up the rim shot, turning it down, and things like that."
When Paul handed the new recording to Jazzy M, the DJ recommended that it be mastered to metal cassette. The artist was not exactly pleased.
"I put up a big fuss over that," Paul now admits. "The TDK gold-labelled metal cassette cost £3.65 and I wasn't happy about it. I mean, couldn't we just use chrome? I'm still not convinced it wouldn't have sounded better on chrome, but there you go. That's how little money I had — I was earning £65 per week working three shifts washing dishes at a local pizza restaurant, which left me half the week to work on my music, and I was still mastering onto my dad's cassette machine which ran fast. So, 'Chime' is actually about one bpm slower than it should be! It came out at about 119 and it should have been 120."
After that it was a case of 'down the pub and forget about it'. The recording just remained on its chrome cassette until Paul finally played it to Jazzy M in his record store on a Friday afternoon a couple of months later. The DJ was enthused, and at that point the fledgling artist realized the raw track might actually have something going for it. After all, Jazzy normally wouldn't even listen to his demos on a Friday afternoon when he was enjoying his big rush of customers — in Hartnoll's words, "loads of DJs all clamouring like kids trying to get on a school bus, desperate to buy their tunes for the weekend". However, after he persuaded his mentor to take a quick listen on the headphones, the latter's eyes lit up and a big smile spread across his face as he exclaimed "Hang on a minute, we're going to have to play this over the speakers!"
"Before the main riff had kicked in, all of these DJs were going 'Yeah, I'll have one of them,'" Paul recalls. "I just stood there thinking 'Fuck me, I can't believe this!' And Jazzy M was laughing at them, saying 'Well, you fucking can't have it! It's only on tape... But you will be able to buy it here soon!' He was loving it, and he turned to me and said 'Right, we've got to release this. It's going to start my label.'"
What's more, after Paul played Phil the recording and told him of Jazzy M's reaction to it, he said "This is going to start our career."
'Chime' was paired with 'Deeper' as the 'B' side, and the Hartnolls agreed to split the £1000 cost to press 1000 12-inch records 50/50 with Jazzy M. Two weeks later it was a different story: the first 1000 had already sold on the DJ's Oh-Zone Records label and, with another 1000 about to be pressed, the profit would cover the cost.
"It just took off from there," Paul asserts. "At one point, Jazzy M had six record labels all trying to license it, which was unbelievable, and in the end we went with Pete Tong and FFRR."
With Tim Hunt engineering, and pre-programming taking place on the MMT8, a seven-inch version of 'Chime' was subsequently recorded from scratch in the professional environs of London's Marcus Studios, basically downsizing the song to an edit of around three minutes and using no elements whatsoever from the original 12-inch. That is, aside from the aforementioned easy-listening album samples that had been saved to a computer diskette.
While a live performance of 'Chime' appeared on Orbital's untitled first album (generally known as The Green Album), released in September 1991, yet another, altogether more techno studio version recorded at Marcus subsequently appeared on a London Records compilation.
"One thing I've always done is live recordings," explains Paul. "Even most of our albums were recorded from the equipment on to a DAT in stereo through a mixer. I've never gone to tape and then mixed from that — with technology that just seems pointless, really.
"The seven-inch version was cleaner than the 12-inch and I think there was too much space around everything, created by all the separation and tape compression. To me it sounds clinical — not warm and woolly like a Detroit record, which is how the original sounded. In fact, it was the 12-inch that had the main impact — the 3000 copies flying up and down the country in white vans, with DJs playing it all over the place — especially the North of England. It was really big there."
In March 1990 'Chime' hit number 17 in the UK charts, having climbed six places after Orbital made their debut appearance on Top Of The Pops.
"I was 23 and working in this pizza restaurant, and everyone there was younger than me and thought I was such a loser, still working in the kitchen," Paul Hartnoll recalls. "They were all going to be actors and actresses, or they were on a break from university, and I remember coming in with my handful of 'Chime' discs and selling them to my co-workers for 50p each just to get some money for a pint. However, when we got the call from Top Of The Pops, I had to go to the BBC on a Wednesday to record the show and I'd forgotten to take the day off, so I told the manageress 'I can't work on Wednesday.' 'Oh, why?' 'I've got to go and do Top Of The Pops '. Well, she just screamed. 'Are you joking?' I said 'D'you know what? I don't think I'm coming back.' We'd just been given a £2000 advance by Pete Tong and I'd thought 'Hang on a minute — that's a year's wages in this job!'
"We wanted to play live but Top Of The Pops insisted that we mime. However, when they provided us with flashy keyboard stands we sent them away and got trestle tables from the canteen. In our minds, flashy keyboard stands just wasn't us. We were used to performing on tables at the backs of pubs and we just had to set things up the way we knew. Still, we were so embarrassed to be miming. I'd always complained stroppily whenever I saw people doing the same on Top Of The Pops, and now here we were, miming while some woman danced next to us in leggings, a silver top and a silver hat. She looked bored, we looked embarrassed and Top Of The Pops said 'We'll never have them back again.' As it happens, they did, but only once the staff had been replaced by people who'd forgotten they would never have us back again!"