After a recent bout of Facebook chatter about what our various all time favourite / most influential albums are, my good friend Geoff Morey challenged me to pick my top 10 gigs of all time. Now this had me stumped for a bit, it has been my privilege to have seen some extraordinary music over the 25 years of my gig going career and to pick just ten shows bordered on the impossible.
However, the more I thought about it the more one gig stood out, head and shoulders above the rest, not solely for the quality of the music or the spectacle of it but because it was utterly transformative; it changed not just the path of my musical taste but the very direction of my life. As I thought about it it then dawned on me that this gig took place 20 years ago this summer, so I had to write something about it.
Orbital - 21 June 1994
It was the summer after my first year of university, I had few, if any, significant responsibilities and the annual student rotation had brought a new crop of housemates to 293 Great Western Street. Among them my best friend Ed and a young music student who was heavily in to this thing called techno. Up to that point I'd had some dabbling with dance music, largely the KLF and weird Belgian electrobeat, but I'll admit that up until that point I had never really 'got' it. Ed and I were grunge kids mainly and our idea of a good night out was downstairs at Jilly's Rockworld throwing ourselves about to Nine Inch Nails or immersing ourselves in the pit at a New Model Army gig.
Over the course of a couple of months we were gradually exposed to more and more techno and, perhaps more importantly, more and more techno people. It looked like a lot of fun. We started to think we should check it out....
I honestly can't remember why we chose this particular night to break our duck. I suspect those around who were 'in the know' told us this would be something special. I vaguely knew the name Orbital, largely through the rather bizarre inclusion of their 1989 'hit' Chime on Now 4, but had no idea what to expect from a techno night bar some hints we'd picked up from my housemate and her friends talking about it but I do remember a sense of feverish anticipation among them as the date approached. The excitement was palpable when the day came around. I remember lots of people in the house, getting ready, blasting tunes, building up. And then we set off, mob handed, on the short walk to our destination, The New Ardri.
Please bear with me as I take a moment to wipe away a nostalgic tear. Over the course of the next 3 or 4 years The New Ardri became more or less our second home but this was the first time I had darkened its doorway. For thirteen days in a fortnight it was an Irish pub on a back street in Hulme exclusively used by 'locals' but which, conveniently, had no other buildings near it for about 50 yards in any direction, thus making it perfect for that other night in the fortnight when it became the home for the Mecca of the underground techno scene in Manchester; Herbal Tea Party.
Nerves jangling in my belly, we cautiously made our way in to be greeted with a scene that I can barely describe but stays with me to this day. Parachutes and camo netting hung everywhere, in other corners banners in psychedelic paint took pride of place. It probably seems trite and cliched now, 'surely that's what all techno / trance clubs look like' you're thinking, but back then we'd never seen the like. The beat thumped, the bass throbbed and out on the vast expanse of dancefloor the first shapes were starting to be thrown as people limbered up for the marathon ahead.
The Herbal was run by Rob Fletcher, a fine gent but legendarily inconsistent as a DJ! It didn't matter, he was always on first and while his mixing skills occasionally owed more to stampeding wildebeest he had the BEST tunes and that gets you forgiven a lot. As Rob wrestled his way through his set, we found a dark corner (not hard, the Ardri seemed to be entirely made of dark corners) to sit and soak up the atmosphere.
In a normal piece like this I would at this point go in to a detailed discussion of what happened during the night but I'm going to have to forego that here because a) it was 20 years ago and I struggle to remember last week and b) frankly Orbital opened up my head and re-wrote my programming that night, so the fine details are a little hazy. Suffice to say I had NEVER experienced anything quite like it. The bass was a living, breathing creature that has stayed with me ever since and the percussive stabs in 'Remind' remain to this day possibly the most earth-shatteringly loud thing I have ever heard. I've since discussed the show with other people that were there and none of us can be sure quite what they played but I would guess that it was similar to the set they played four days later at Worthy Farm, a performance that propelled them in to the limelight.
All I can say for sure is I walked away from the New Ardri that Solstice night a changed man. For most of the next decade I dedicated my life to techno, running a number of nights myself (Spiritus, Boom Booom, Atlantis, Champion Sound), wandering the country in pursuit of the perfect combination of beat, bass and squelch and in the process I met some incredible people, many of whom are still good friends today.
We felt, knew even, that we were part of something truly special. We were mostly in our early to mid 20s, bright, eager, smart, pushing our own way in to the world for the first time and having the fucking time of our lives. For those few hot, bright summers in the mid-90s we were kings and queens of the world, untouchable and irrepressible; but it all started with Orbital.