Adventures in Lo Fi

Britain's big beat sensations bring their serrated soul to the Scene Music Awards.

2002 Scene Music Awards Showcase, with Lo Fidelity Allstars, Cobra Verde, Conya Doss, and the Signoffs Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1 Key Plaza 7 p.m., Thursday, July 18. 216-515-8444. Admission is free with a ticket.
The Lo Fidelity Allstars: Hopping a plane for their only - U.S. gig this summer --  the Scene Music - Awards.
The Lo Fidelity Allstars: Hopping a plane for their only U.S. gig this summer -- the Scene Music Awards.
"The world is changing," Diane says to Renton in a scene from the 1996 British film Trainspotting. "Music is changing, even drugs are changing. You can't sit around all day with your heroin and listening to Ziggy Pop."

"It's Iggy Pop," Renton shoots back.

"Whatever. The guy's dead anyway."

That exchange stung some American rock fans. Even if they had noticed the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, and a few other thumping English acts that saved electronica from its own hype, Trainspotting (and its booming electronica soundtrack) suggested that maybe we Yanks had missed an entire musical revolution, one that rendered Iggy Pop worship as good as dead -- or worse, a secondary draw compared to DJs, who by then were filling soccer stadiums.

"It all really kicked off around 1988, '89," says Phil Ward, DJ and backup vocalist for England's Lo Fidelity Allstars. "The rave scene, happening when it did, was a massively important part of the dance world kicking off like it has . . . I mean, my wife is American, and she's about three years younger than me. And when I was growing up, going to raves and listening to Stone Roses, stuff like that, she and all her friends were into Mötley Crüe.

"[Club music] was such a massive revolution in England that it's sort of still being heard today," says Ward, speaking from his home in Brighton, the coastal resort town 50 miles south of London. "I think if it hadn't happened, England would be in the same state as America when it comes to dance music."

In the States, electronic music has always been a second-class citizen. While big beat prime movers like Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers have been known to draw audiences in excess of 20,000 in the U.K., they'd be lucky to see crowds one-fourth of that size in America.

For evidence of dance music's widespread appeal in the U.K., venture no further than Ward's own voice: His thick, working-class accent suggests the music has reached far outside of Britain's exclusive clubs, which tend not to take kindly to commoners.

"It may be not [entirely about] working-class people, but the club scene is a very big working-class scene," says Ward. "I think the sort of indie guitar scene in England is a lot more middle-class-based than the club scene. You can write a demo with a guitar song in your bedroom and you can put it out, but it'll always be at a demo level.

"With the equipment these days for dance music, you can write a song and have it pressed upon a piece of vinyl within a week and get it played in the clubs within two weeks, all from your bedroom. I think that will always be the best thing about dance music."

The Lo Fidelity Allstars, in fact, pretty much started from the bedroom, around the time that Trainspotting was bringing the noise back in the States. While working at Tower Records and DJing on the side, Ward hooked up with keyboardist Matt Harvey and his friend, vocalist Dave Randall, to record some tracks in Ward's London flat. In time, they were joined by Ward's old friend Andy Dickinson on bass and Johnny Machin on drums. "It was just like stumbling into each other," says Ward. "There were no adverts put in magazines or anything like that. And we just really jelled within our first rehearsal of us all together; it just worked out perfectly."

The English press and public thought so, too. The band scored hits in 1997 with "Vision Incision" and "Battle Flag" -- a dark, brooding blast of funk beats and punk attitude that became an exemplar of England's big beat sound.

The Allstars were different from the scene's other players in that they intermingled live instrumentation with big beat's defining party-hearty breakbeats and over-the-top samples. In doing so, the Allstars established themselves as perhaps the most musically accomplished act within a genre whose major stars -- Fatboy, the Crystal Method, the Prodigy -- were often derided as banal.

But it was only a matter of time before a scene predicated on bombast wore on people's nerves. In the same way that American teen pop seems to have exceeded its critical mass, big beat's oversaturation -- as well as the intense one-upmanship among its top acts -- created a bubble destined to be burst.

"Big beat, in England especially, is a name people dread these days. It really is seen as comedy music almost," says Ward. "But for want of a better term, I think big beat did sum up the bands that did mix in rock -- it was a lot heavier than house. So that was the thing that attracted me to that whole scene -- bands like the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy, who were just mixing up styles, who were brave enough to do that."

The Allstars were also brave enough to push the music ever closer to African American styles, even after the group got caught in the big beat backlash. The decision to forge deeper into beats and samples cost the Allstars their lead singer, Randall, who was soon followed out the door by Harvey. "Being in a band is like children in a playground," sighs Ward. "You know, bands the world over are the same, and I think it gets a little bit petty, unfortunately."

With the help of new keyboardist Andy Maloney, the Allstars have returned this year with Don't Be Afraid of Love, a far warmer, more joyous, and eclectic album than their boom-to-bust debut. It features Bootsy Collins smoking beer and drinking cigarettes in "On the Pier," a tender, loopy ballad the likes of which the P-Funk bassist hasn't cut in decades. Then there's Ohio native Greg Dulli, dripping warm saliva all through "Somebody Needs You"; it's exactly the kind of raunchy dance number that Dulli's superego never allowed when he fronted the Afghan Whigs. Even when the group offers typically tough, distorted vocals on "What You Want," another voice breaks through the techno haze on the coda, whispering sweetly: "You're gonna keep on keeping on." The album title itself -- Don't Be Afraid of Love -- pokes fun at the band's reputation as big beat's dark maestros.

Ward admits that it was a conscious shift. "I just think losing the vocalist opened up a whole different spectrum of sounds and directions it could go. It would be nice if people could take something from the album, a little bit more of a joyous moment. I remember Martin [Whiteman], our keyboard player, saying, 'I think the darker the times, the more joyous the music is.' If people want to write dark songs about Satan, that's fair enough, but I think people would want to take a little bit of joy with them and not dwell on the sadness of it all."

Ward certainly doesn't. After the interview, he's catching a flight to a DJ gig in a Belfast club. His latest finds include American underground rapper Cee-Lo and a new breakbeat master called Freq Nasty. But he likes to keep things open. Sometimes, he says, he'll even throw in a little Iggy Pop.

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