Richard Barratt ‘Testone’

Sweet Exorcist’s Richard Barratt – aka DJ Parrot/Crooked Man – recalls the making of 1990’s essential bleep techno cut, ‘Testone’, with Richard H Kirk

“Both Richard H Kirk and Stephen Mallinder came to Jive Turkey, the club night I ran in Sheffield, right from the off in 1985. They were always super-supportive of anybody doing interesting stuff in Sheffield. The idea of working together came up simply through being out and about, and socialising. Prior to Sweet Exorcist, Richard and I had made a track under the name Wicky Wacky – something that started with Rich banging out house chords on the piano. We put some light girly voices on it, then darkened things back down with the break from Dynamic Corvettes’ ‘Funky Music Is The Thing’ and the Cabs’ 303.

“Me and Richard had both somehow ended up under contract to major record labels and were desperate to do something different. The sessions for ‘Testone’ began speculatively. Western Works, with its beautiful staircase and large warning poster of Sir Nose, had by this point fallen victim to the town planners, and the Cabs had built a new studio, Universal Works, down the road in another ex-industrial space.

“I didn’t have any kit of my own, but the track was created specifically for Warp, and thankfully they paid the tab when they picked the track up. For some reason, Warp had a problem with the spelling ‘Testtone’ and lost a ‘t’. Decades later, I’m still getting folk violently insisting that the record’s called ‘Test One’.

“Working with Richard, there was always an element of experimentation – turning stuff upside-down and giving it a good shake to see what might happen. The idea of using the test tones for lining up tape machines was there, I had the little vocal sample, the title of the track and the name of the act. What I didn’t have was the tricky musical stuff. That’s where Kirky came in.

“I wanted to connect the dots between the kind of music our friends were making and other earlier forms of Sheffield electronics. In my head, there was a direct line between the birth of Cabaret Voltaire in 1973 and the formation of Warp Records in 1989. There was a lot of chatting and discussion of ideas, quite mellow in general – at least when the equipment wasn’t fighting back.

“The computer we were using to sequence – an Atari, running Creator – was on its first outing, and neither of us was particularly technical. There was a lot of profanity. Not quite industrial music, but certainly industrial language. Robert Gordon [Warp co-founder/producer] was eventually called in.

“Richard was a natural musician. Although untrained, he could get the semblance of a tune out of just about anything that was put in front of him. Conversely, I’m a natural non-musician. If ‘Testone’ has a unique sound, that would be down to the idiosyncratic nature of the people rather than the machinery or any special techniques.

“We used an E-MU Emax to sample the vocals, test tones and 808 hat, which we then reversed. The Emax also provided the choral vocals. And we had a Roland Juno-60, an SH-09 and an 808, all mixed down onto a Soundcraft two-inch through a 24-track, eight-bus Soundcraft desk. Then, because we couldn’t make the Atari do what we wanted it to do, we put sections onto quarter-inch tape via a Revox B77 and edited them together, ‘olde-worlde’-style. I had to get in touch with Mal to remind me what the desk/tape hardware was, which he kindly did.

“Mal also told me the interesting fact that all the Soundcraft tackle came from Blackwing Studios in London and had previously been used on massive records by the likes of Depeche Mode and Yazoo. I think the main bleep might have been the Juno-60. The more melodic bleeps that appear later in the track are the sampled test tones.

“Although they were planned to be the musical crux of the tune, when translated into real life the test tones didn’t feel substantial enough, and the Roland bleep was allowed to take over. The voices were a preset in the Emax. Forgemasters and Unique 3 both had synth vocals on their records, so we thought we’d better have some on ours!

“I’ve heard people say over the years that we nicked this or pilfered that, but honestly, the spoken intro is the only part not performed in the studio. To my mind, the key dance element and real rhythmic driving force of ‘Testone’ is the 808 percussion part. That’s what glues the track together, while simultaneously pushing it forward. Kirky did that, not me!

“This all happened at some point in 1989, but the finished track took fucking ages. Thankfully, the first time I played it at Jive Turkey, it went down really well. It got played twice that first night, the second time as the last tune of the evening, after which it received whistles and a good smattering of applause. Warp spun that into a vision of the dancefloor erupting into a spontaneous roar of appreciation. What I remember most is that one side of the choral voices disappeared in the dropdown, which me and Kirky had totally missed when we were editing the quarter-inch. So we had to put that section down again and then fit it back in – duh!

“It’s rather surprising to be talking about ‘Testone’ 30-odd years later. Dance music has always been a very trend-driven form, and if a tune or style becomes popular there’ll always be a flood of soundalikes quickly chasing it up.

“The ideal way to get a floor-moving hit is to make a track that’s samey enough not to scare DJs or timid dancers, but different enough to have its own personality. With people like me and Kirky, there’s always the danger that a piece will be weighed down with a little too much personality to ever get carried out of the record shop.

“Happily, ‘Testone’ was something that pulled off the tricky balancing act of being the same, but different. It wasn’t by any means the first bleep record, but it had enough of its own identity to stand out and to give the genre a name… and I must say that ‘bleep’ slips off the tongue with rather more elan than fucking ‘Yorkshire techno’.”

Richard Barratt’s Athletes Of God project have a single, ‘Don’t Wanna Be Normal’, out on Foundation Music

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