The Orb: Babblin’ On

In this extract from his new book ‘Babble On An’ Ting’, detailing Alex Paterson’s extraordinary life and work, Kris Needs talks to his long-time friend about the blurred boundaries of The Orb, the KLF and Space

KLF lore has always described their third album, ‘Chill Out’, as an early ambient house landmark; a concept album describing an imaginary night-time journey through America’s deep south between Texas and Louisiana. Released in February 1990, it came as a continuous piece weaving KLF synth sounds with samples of Elvis’ ‘In The Ghetto’, Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger On The Shore’, 808 State, Jesus Loves You, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’, Van Halen, sheep and Tuvan throat singers, along with Rolo McGinty from The Woodentops on pedal steel guitar, southern preachers, Russian broadcasts, US radio bites, recurring ‘Justified & Ancient’ vocal, bits of ‘3AM Eternal’ and ‘Last Train To Trancentral’. Jimmy and Bill proclaimed in interviews the album was recorded at Trancentral in one 44-minute “live” take.

In effect, the KLF were laying claim to what Alex and Jimmy had been doing at Land Of Oz and also as The Orb, which initially regarded the “live” recording process as some kind of alchemical ritual done in one go (even if there were times when it was necessary to stop and start again).

The album’s impact was reinforced by reviews like NME’s Helen Mead declaring, “Ambient house music is the answer to stop house music burning its candle at both ends, for although it is not dance music in terms of the ‘Pump Up The Jam’ variety it has evolved directly from the house scene where the message for the future was clear; chill out or burn out”. Maybe the resounding impact of ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain’ motivated the KLF to plant their flag and claim the chill-out crown. According to Alex, what really happened is what led to this first Orb line-up splitting in two and ‘Space’, the project originally planned as The Orb’s first album, emerging eventually as a Jimmy Cauty solo album.

“Jimmy and Bill had hired me – for no money – to come in and have my DJ sessions recorded. I found a lot of the ideas ended up on ‘Chill Out’. That was basically the end of my relationship with Jimmy. They added things that I would never even think of – like Acker Bilk or Elvis Presley.”

Before ‘Chill Out’ was released, Alex and Jimmy had been working on that album intended as the first Orb long-player. In January 1990, with ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain’ throbbing bigger than ever, Record Mirror’s Chris Mellor announced, “There is a triple LP called ‘Loving You’ on the way, consisting entirely of different versions of their single, as well as another double LP of new material called ‘Space’”.

A 1990 press release from KLF Communications (KLF Information Sheet #8) stated, “We hope to see The Orb album ‘Space’ surface on KLF Communications in the next few months”. ‘Space’ was planned as a voyage through the solar system, taking in Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Big Life offered a deal for the album, but then Jimmy wanted The Orb to appear on KLF Communications. The clash led to The Orb splitting that April, with Alex happy to keep the name.

Minus Alex’s contributions, Jimmy released the album as ‘Space’ that July, its Tangerine Dream-like black hole strings, familiar acid house motifs and synths littered with samples including ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ and space flight controllers (the original version’s sampling of Holst’s ‘The Planets’ might have attracted copyright missiles).

“The next plan was to do something that was planet-related as in Orb spheres of music; music of the spheres,” explains Alex. “But running parallel with what The Orb was doing was the KLF. The Orb was also on WAU! Mr Modo and we’d sunk all our own money into it before The Orb-KLF happened. Jimmy and I did this amazing party down in Cornwall to celebrate the ‘Space’ album being finished and ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain’ was doing really, really well. We had decided, to all intents and purposes, to put the ‘Space’ album on WAU! Mr Modo because everything else had come out on WAU! Mr Modo. Suddenly, Jimmy and Bill saw The Orb being popular and wanted The Orb on KLF Communications as part of their package; like a baby version of the KLF. This is where we didn’t see eye to eye.

“I had inadvertently jumped into both camps happily not knowing I was in both camps. I had my suspicions about the KLF very, very early on. ‘Why don’t we split up? I can keep the name and I can keep The Orb going.’ So I kept the name, which was the most important thing at that particular moment.”

After Alex and Jimmy ceased their partnership in April, “Jimmy recorded it as Space and it became ‘Space’ by Space as it couldn’t be ‘Space’ by The Orb now. Some lack of imagination there! Or trying to make a fast buck would be more like it, really.”

“‘Space’ was done solely by Jimmy,” Alex elaborated in Record Collector in 1993. “At the end of the day, he took out all of my ideas and replaced them or just left them as empty spaces. It was a matter of trying to break into a scenario that was happening in NME, which was the ambient house explosion. I knew it was pointless trying to get an album out to nobody; it had to grow.”

Speaking in the April ’91 Sound On Sound, Jimmy described the album as “a record for 14-year-old space cadets who want to take acid for the first time. It all came out in one long process. It was all done on the Oberheim keyboards. There were loads of samples, different bits and pieces chucked in all over the place. There’s some really good big-sounding classical bits that have got a really deep sound, and they were all sampled and looped up. I hadn’t got anything written, so I just jammed the whole thing. I started on a Monday morning and by Friday it was all done.”

Whether or not this was another exercise in KLF hype will never be known. What’s quite glaring is how tame and dated the album’s ‘Sky At Night’ theme reshuffles and sound effects sound in 2020, especially compared to what would actually materialise as The Orb’s first album.

The front cover of ‘Space’ borrowed a section of French painter Théodore Géricault’s ‘Raft Of The Medusa’ in the bottom left hand corner, its survivors dressed in white KLF shirts. But it was the centre stage astronaut against a star-scape that bit Jimmy on the arse – much to Alex’s amusement.

“Talking of plagiarism and nicking things, which happens to us all, the irony there is that Jimmy took a magazine picture of the stars for the front cover of ‘Space’. Then the bloke who took the picture saw it and wanted about 20 grand. If that’s not karma I don’t know what is. ‘Chill Out’ samples… swings and roundabouts, and vice versa with The Orb as well.

“Jimmy and Bill were never going to be happy just doing music. They used the KLF as a vehicle to get to where they needed to go in the next stage of their careers or lives or endeavours. I’ve never woken up and decided I don’t like music. Jimmy admits he used music as a vehicle to promote his art. That’s all it is, all it has been and always will be.”

“Jimmy’s background is as an artist and he works in that way,” affirmed Youth. “He wanted The Orb to be a one-off statement, like the grand designs executed in a silly way with the KLF. And Alex wanted a career.”

This is where we leave the KLF, as they cease to be relevant to Alex’s story now; unless it’s as a motivational force like his mother. After one last hit in November ’90 with Tammy Wynette warbling ‘Justified & Ancient’, their aborted road movie ‘The White Room’ provided their fourth and final album in March ’91, with its soundtrack and old tracks recycled with comedy raps and stadium grandiosity. “They sunk a lot of their money into that film and it wasn’t working,” says Alex. “Then they came up with another idea to turn the money into a brick and sell it. But they decided to burn the million quid instead and make a film about that.”

After several last grand gestures, the KLF ceased to exist.

“We did it all at the height of the whole thing,” Jimmy told me in 2012. “I think if we’d carried on another month there would have been a massive backlash against us. The press loved us and we couldn’t put a foot wrong, but those things don’t last. They would have gone, ‘Hang on a minute… Nah, don’t like this any more, you lot are idiots’. We managed to get out without having that happen to us as well, which is quite good. Getting away with it.”

By then, apart from several short-lived dalliances with music, including the Transit Kings with Alex, Dom Beken and Guy Pratt, Jimmy was concentrating on his art, exhibiting at the Clerkenwell-based L-13 Light Industrial Workshop. “I’m still considered outside with the art stuff,” he maintained. “I mean, I’m not showing at the Tate or anything. I like to call it underground; you could call it just unsuccessful, but underground’s better!

“We do get a lot of people coming up to us going, ‘How much do you want for the catalogue then? Do a gig and we’ll give you a million quid’. But we’re definitely not gonna do it. I know everybody says that and, in the end, caves in, but I really can’t see it. There doesn’t seem any point. I still do bits and pieces with Bill. There’s still business to do even after all this time. There’s things that have to be dealt with. It’s minimal, but there’s definitely no plan to put anything out. The value of the catalogue is really going down all the time, plus the fact that there is no music business really. People keep saying, ‘You’re so broke now, you should put your catalogue out’. But even if we did we wouldn’t actually make any money out of it. We’d probably lose money by putting it out.

“They’re idiots; they just want to re-release the stuff and it’d be just horribly embarrassing. Most of it is really dated. There’s only one track we did that’s really stood the test of time and that’s the Tammy Wynette. The rest of it is of that era and it doesn’t work outside that era too well. I don’t like it. We’ve still got all the stuff from our office; put it all in a shipping container. It’s like a weird kind of time capsule full of costumes and bits of old equipment. Anything to do with running a record company is there. So everything’s in the shipping container. I smashed the police car up at one of those stock car race, demolition derby things. It got completely trashed.

“I still love pop music but I don’t have the will to make it. I don’t care, that’s the thing. You need to really care about it and I really don’t give a shit any more. There’s no way of getting that back. You’ve got to have your finger on the pulse. I’m happy to not be doing it really.”

Jimmy talked about making a film, but stressed, “I’m not a careerist. We’re doing it just for the hell of it really. Same as the KLF.”

As seen by that attempt to work together again in the Transit Kings, Alex and Jimmy have no beef these days, especially after The Orb transcended the Space episode to go everywhere Alex could’ve dreamed of, including Number One in the album charts.

“There were little moments with Jimmy that I find very poignant,” he says now. “The first time I saw Jimmy in ages and ages and ages was after he’d left Cressida. One of their children, Alfie, was in the same class as my daughter Mia at primary school; unbeknown to either me or Jimmy. I was standing outside in the playground waiting for Mia, turned round and who was standing there waiting for his boy but Jimmy. It was like us two meeting in a small playground in London.”

‘Babble On An’ Ting: Alex Paterson’s Incredible Journey Beyond The Ultraworld With The Orb’ is out now, published by Omnibus Press

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