Underworld returned to Glasgow this week (Thursday 12th March) to play their breakthrough 1994 album Dubnobasswithmyheadman in full. The prospect would be unpromising in the hands of almost any other band – a nostalgia gig, in a classical music venue – but the night was a triumph.
This is my journey through Underworld, the band who taught me to dance, introduced me to indie royalty and dangled a rope ladder from the greatest generation down to mine.
I’ve seen Underworld four times now: three times at the Barrowlands in 1999, 2004 and 2010 respectively, and then last week at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. They’re among the best nights of my life.
I was a bit late on Underworld. The first time I knowingly heard them was when Stagger appeared on a free tape I got with a magazine; Q or something like that. I had presumably heard Born Slippy but, still being at school in Glasgow, there was little opportunity for me to connect with rave culture in any meaningful way, if I even knew what it was.
I remember the Second Toughest In The Infants album getting great reviews, and then connecting with Pearl’s Girl when I heard it on the Evening Session. I was interested. But it was a private interest, pursued alone in my bedroom.
Then a couple of years later they released the Beaucoup Fish album and things were different. I was going to see bands all the time by this stage, and had fallen for dance music. The return of Underworld was an event, and I was determined to see them play in Glasgow. It was March, 1999.
Water on concrete, water on sand, water on fire
There’s an anecdote from that night that everyone who has ever met me has heard many, many times. Allow me to record it for posterity.
Remember Kenickie? Theyre one of my favourite ever bands. The previous autumn they had called it a day after a lovely farewell gig at King Tut’s, and there was a level of interest among indie fans like me about what Lauren Laverne, Marie Du Santiago and Emmy-Kate Montrose would do next.
Lauren was a bit of a hero-figure to me, it’s fair to say. At the time, she was going out with Malcolm from Arab Strap, which will become relevant in a moment.
Anyway, my mate Drew and i negotiated our way into the Glasgow Barrowlands for our first Underworld gig (we were underage, but that wasn’t really a problem in those days). Immediately after going through the doors you climb a flight of stairs that leads to a bar and some smelly toilets (the ballroom is the floor above). Having climbed the first lot of stairs, I remember catching sight of a familiar-looking woman standing by herself, a discreet distance from the toilets. I thought I recognised her – maybe she was the year above me at school or something? Don’t know.
I then made my way into the gents and found myself peeing next to none other than Malcolm Middleton. Indie royalty! And then I realised – that was Lauren Laverne who was standing outside!
Excitedly, I made my way outside to update my gig companion. Where did that woman go? What woman? Grr.
We made our way upstairs to the ballroom, where we immediately spotted Lauren standing beside the bar, again by herself. It was at this point I realised I had a decision to make. I felt a strong urge to speak to Lauren and tell her how much I admired her music…but that would involve me overcoming my disabling shyness.
For probably the first time in my life i actually pulled it together, and strode Lauren-wards.
You can imagine the conversation that followed – love your former band, what are you up to now, hope you enjoy the gig, have a nice time, etc etc. Lauren was (or certainly presented herself as being) genuinely pleased to meet us, and seemed touched by our fandom. We toddled off in a lovestruck daze.
People say you should never meet your heroes, but if you do, and they’re unbelievably nice, it’s quite an experience.
Underworld eventually appeared onstage and played the highlights of Beaucoup Fish, the album they were touring at the time. After a couple of songs we completely forgot about our encounter with Lauren. The gig reached its crescendo (of which more later) with Born Slippy, and the Barrowlands vibes were never better.
After the house lights went up, Drew and I dragged our exhausted, sweat-drenched bodies towards the door. Suddenly, amid the squash of the crowd, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
A familiar Sunderland accent broke in. “Did you enjoy your night?” It was Lauren Laverne.
She had actually gone out of her way to say hello at the end of the gig.
I’ve admired Lauren’s career ever since – she’s clearly a class act. But even if she had spent the last fifteen years presenting Blankety Blank I’d still wave a flag for her.
Lauren Laverne – I salute you.
(Weirdly, my wee wee next to Malcolm Middleton wasn’t my last bathroom encounter with a member of Arab Strap (behave). Years later I nipped to the toilet in the Sub Club and was greeted like a long lost brother by Aiden Moffat at the sinks. He clearly thought I was someone else but was so friendly I didn’t have the heart to tell him i’d never met him before).
Anyway, back to Underworld.
You bring light in
Two other things happened to me that night: I learned to dance, and I felt that warm sense of communion that I’ve associated ever since with the generation above mine.
As soon as Underworld started playing (or maybe it was their support act, whoever that might have been) the limitations of my indie shuffle were laid bare. Those moves weren’t going to cut it. Drew and i looked at each other in panic.
What happened next has always stayed with me. A big group of adults (like, proper men and women!) took us under their collective wing and showed us how to dance.
I don’t mean we had a dance lesson: this was a wordless exchange. They just accepted us as part of their group and, by osmosis, transferred their moves to us. It was incredible.
Within six months we’d all be old enough to get into nightclubs and this would be taken for granted, but at the time we had no idea what it felt like to be made welcome, regardless of geekiness and abysmal dancing, and accepted as an equal by a group of adults.
Whoever they were, they’re all saints and stars.
And as if that wasn’t enough to process by way of late-night epiphany, Underworld suddenly reached the climax of Born Slippy. Those legendary piano notes painted the Barrowlands like rainbows. The house lights came up. Behind us stood 1500 people at the very apex of joy, thrusting 3000 arms in the air and roaring like Scotland had just won the World Cup.
I’m from the west of Scotland so I’d never really seen my fellow-Glaswegians visibly demonstrate happiness. This was a revelation. Dance culture was clearly worth investigating.
Have I mentioned that Lauren Laverne popped over to say hello after that? I have? Ok.
The pieces of the puzzle are waiting
The 2004 gig must have been great, but I can’t remember much about it, other than Two Months Off filling that amazing room with more redemptive colours.
But in 2010 they returned to the Barras and I won’t forget that one in a hurry. The Barking album didn’t really grab me but the best songs (especially Scribble) were worthy additions to the set list – and you know what you’re going to get with Underworld. Everything sounded great and they put the house lights up again during Born Slippy. I was there with my sister Jenny and my dear friend Mark among others, and it was another joyful experience.
The highlight, though, was after it finished. We all emerged blinking into the winter night to find it had started snowing. Jenny and I stayed out afterwards and watched the snow from the windows of the ABC, wrapped warm by the open hands of Glasgow’s best people.
That generation – the one just before mine – are so beautiful. And they came out to play again last week.
I’ve grown so close to you
The Royal Concert Hall seemed an odd choice of venue for Underworld’s return. It’s basically a classical music venue. My last visit was for La Traviata. I think the time before that was for my sister’s graduation. It’s not really techno.
On arrival we discovered that the bars were due to close when Underworld arrived on stage, as if it was King Lear (and with no interval!). Also, you could get an empire biscuit with your lager if you ordered from the cafe.
We made our way inside the auditorium (there’s a word you don’t often hear in a rave context) and found our seats. Yes, our seats. The first few rows had been taken out to create a dance floor but the rest of the venue was just as you’d expect for a piano recital. And we were told to sit down.
It was pretty quiet until Underworld appeared, and even then the atmosphere was muted at first. Happily, a slow, growling Dark and Long settled everyone down, brought them to their feet and jumpstarted the night.
After a few minutes my eyes focused on the two men onstage (we were right at the back) and I realised Rick Smith wasn’t there. He was later pointed out by Karl as standing at the other end of the venue entirely – just along from us. He was programming the music from the back of the hall and looking more like Alan Rusbridger than ever. Perhaps this resemblance explains the gorgeous font that introduced each song?
Going back to Romford
A word on Dubnobasswithmyheadman, then. As noted above, this record pre-dates my awareness of Underworld, and I didn’t actually own it until relatively recently (I thought I did for years, and didn’t. I recommend this sort of mistake – it lets you ‘discover’ a ‘lost’ classic years after you expect you’ve exhausted the back catalogue of one of your favourite bands).
As such, the prospect of hearing the album played in full didn’t strike me as a nostalgia trip. In many ways it was a voyage into the unknown, unlike the rather underwhelming Dolittle and Screamadelica gigs I’ve been to previously.
The rest of the audience (crowd seems the wrong word for such a venue) probably saw it differently. Jenny, her partner Colin and I were about the youngest people there, and by some margin. The only exceptions were two young women (late teens, maybe?) who danced tirelessly at the front of the balcony like 1991-era ravers for the entire gig. They were obviously well brought-up.
The band played through Mmm Skyscraper I Love You, Spoonman and various other tunes, building the feeling in the room with each song. They even played Tongue, which doubled as a Mid-Set Lull and toilet opportunity for the older fans. And then they played Dirty Epic and the whole room ignited.
It’s such a gorgeous song, and sparked much forty-something rave dancing.
That generation are so beautiful. They never ever learned to dance properly, now I think of it – instead, they learned to dance without thinking about it, without inhibitions. And they passed it on to some of us.
I don’t really know what it’s like to be young anymore. From what little awareness I have of youth culture these days I get the impression that The Kids look out for each other, and embrace difference more than ever. But I don’t know how comfortable they seem in their own skin. The beauty of tagging onto the coat-tails of the rave generation was learning how to be happy. They worked out that by accepting themselves and everyone else, embracing optimism and simply being friendly, they would actually change their lives. Not in a structural, political sense – at least not in isolation – but still meaningfully, by infusing their lives with meaning. I think that’s beautiful, and it was that spirit that drew me towards the Yes movement at the time.
Meanwhile, Karl Hyde was speaking onstage about nostalgia being unhealthy and his past being unhealthy. The only thing that made his breakthrough album worth revisiting was the strength of his bond with Rick, and the momentum it had given them to make new music. But some old music is renewed every time it is played, so this one was for us:
That one took the roof off, as you might imagine.
They finished the Dubnobasswithmyheadman songs shortly after that, but the night wasn’t over. It was time for Rez.
This is a song that lies at the very heart of the Underworld story, marking their creative rebirth after the forgotten Mk 1 period and serving as an article of communion between band and crowd. Apparently Rick wrote the song in one go after watching Darren Emerson play an acid set at the Milk Bar and wanting to emulate what he’d heard.
Underworld’s glory run of 90s records veers between the throbbing, 4am techno of Dubnobasswithmyheadman, the glacial soundscapes and amyl breakbeats of Second Toughest In The Infants and the crisp house music of Beaucoup Fish. Somehow Rez looks forward to all of those records, while being at the same time something quite apart from them. Have you ever heard anything sound more like the experience of being at a rave? The synth line careers around in childlike wonder, darting this way and that but always remaining in harmony with the beats, like a raver rediscovering the possibilities of human movement in the middle of a dancefloor.
In a sense, Rez represents Underworld learning to dance too. And while the Concert Hall crowd was enthralled by Dubnobasswithmyheadman, they were reconnecting with a “head” record they’d largely experienced at home. By contrast, when Darren Price unfurled a supercharged Rez last Thursday night, 2000 people were transported back to a hundred lifechanging nights enjoyed with largely the same crowd back in the early 90s. And from the moment the title appeared on the back screen, through to the final diminuendo, the good ravers of Glasgow communed with Underworld and with each other all over again:
After the emotional climax of the evening, there followed a swift detour into Underworld’s brief Harmonica House period with a rare unveiling of Bigmouth. It’s not a record I was familiar with, nor one that I’ll be seeking out, but it was entertaining to watch Karl bash out some bluesy riffs on his mouth organ.
Then they left the stage.
(“One more tune, one more tune…”).
And then they were back. Now, I’ve had the opportunity to witness some decent encores in my time, but you know when you’re in the presence of greatness. Underworld strode back onstage, took the acclaim of the crowd, and then clubbed us over the head with the thunderous opening salvo of Born Slippy.
(“No fucking about”, as Colin remarked to my left).
Four times I’ve seen Underworld, and four times I’ve seen them play Born Slippy. And even though by this stage I know exactly what’s going to happen, the experience leaves me trembling with thrilling happiness. And once again, as those graceful, elevated piano notes drifted to earth, the venue was bathed in redemptive, warm light, and 2000 people raised 4000 arms to the sky in rapture.
Fair cheers you up of an evening, being a part of that.
And then they were gone for good, and the good ravers of Glasgow, who were out pretty late for a school night, sprinted joyfully for the door in hope of catching the last train home.
We’ve got work in the morning, these days, but how we can still play when we get the chance.
Ride the sainted rhythms
So what’s with Underworld revisiting an album from 1994; a dance record from 1994? Hasn’t it dated? Aren’t we all different people now?
It’s fair to say the beats on a couple of the Dubnobasswithmyheadman songs sound a little bit flimsy these days, but otherwise it’s remarkable how well the album has aged. In fact, perhaps the most recherché aspect of the record to the post-iTunes ear is the fact that it’s sequenced as an album-length musical journey at all. The changes of dynamic are probably better suited to listening at home – Tongue and Rivers of Bass dragged a bit when we all just wanted to dance – but the whole gig served to underline how Underworld’s architectural instincts were fully-formed even back in 1994.
And the world of Dubnobasswithmyheadman is our world – a world of information overload, in which we search for emotional connection with other damaged people and find it through music and hedonism. That’s not changed, and Underworld captured that world on record better than anyone else.
People like me feel these songs deeply and love this band truly, because they soundtracked transformative moments in our lives. Those moments and those influences resonate in our identities today.
The devotional reaction of the crowd to Rez or Born Slippy on Thursday night wasn’t a cheer of nostalgic recognition. It was a roar of gratitude.
Communication is a relief, and last week Underworld’s music spoke to Glasgow’s rave generation all over again.
“I want to give you everything/ in one final scream of love”. Poetry, infinite joy. A hand reached out. Underworld.