Mark Moore takes us on a trip – and it is a trip – through the making of the S’express 1987 Number One smash hit. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro…
If you love music, making a record is always something you want to have a go at. Even if it’s just some background clapping on your mate’s band’s record, just so you can be involved somehow. While I love music, I’m not really that musical. I studied it at school, I knew how to read music and I tried to play the piano and the guitar, but to be honest I was rubbish at both.
The story of ‘Theme From S Express’ started when I was DJing at the Mud Club in London. Me and Tasty Tim used to be an alternative to Jay Strongman, who was the main DJ. We’d play all the stuff you shouldn’t play – a bit of glam rock, a bit of electronic hi-NRG, but mostly disco – and something I really loved was the long intro on Rose Royce’s ‘Is It Love You’re After’. I just wanted to loop it over and over, like a lot of the new hip hop stuff we were hearing then. Guys like Double Dee & Steinski were making whole tracks out of repeated loops and they sounded totally coherent, even though they were snippets of other people’s records edited together. So I started thinking I could do the same thing, but instead of using James Brown and slow funky beats, I could do it with a disco track.
Around the same time as this, Rhythm King Records opened their office across the road from where I was living on the Harrow Road. It was started by Martin Heath, James Horrocks and Jay Strongman, who I knew from the Mud Club, so I’d hang out in their office, have a chat, grab some records. After a while, I started taking records to them and saying, “Why don’t you put this out?”. The first one was Taffy’s ‘I Love My Radio’, a really catchy hi-NRG record. They signed it and it became the label’s first Top 10 hit. Then Tim Westwood told me about The Beatmasters and this great track they’d done with The Cookie Crew. He sent me an acetate of ‘Rock Da House’, which I thought was amazing. I told Rhythm King about it and they signed that too. I got them to sign a few others as well, like Baby Ford and Renegade Soundwave.
I was happy if Rhythm King gave me some imports in exchange, it saved me a few fivers in Groove Records, but one day they said, “Look, we’ve made money out of the records you’ve brought us and we want you to have this”, and they gave me a cheque for a grand and said to let them know if there was anything else they could do for me. I told them I had all these ideas for a track of my own and I wanted to go into a studio myself, so they put me in touch with Pascal Gabriel, who’d just done ‘Beat Dis’ with Bomb The Bass. Rhythm King said I should put my ideas down on cassette, so I literally recorded all the samples I wanted, little snippets of tracks, one after the other. I kept thinking to myself, “It will make sense when I put everything together”.
The studio we went to felt like it was out in the middle of nowhere, which back then was probably east London. Or was it Peckham? I remember it was really cheap. The track took two or three days and I think the total bill for our time was about £250. We were just farting around mostly, you know, “What does this do?” and “Let’s see what this sounds like”. There were lots of brilliant house records coming out then and they all had this crisp tsk-tsk-tsk hi-hat sound. I thought it sounded like a can of hairspray, so we decided to get some hairspray and give it a try. The first few times, the microphone got covered in hairspray and it made this terrible noise. You had to point it away from the mic to make it sound good.
Of all the samples we used, my favourite is definitely Karen Finley. What a voice. It’s the “You drop that ghetto blaster” line. She’s an American performance artist, famous for sticking yams up her nether regions, but she made this fantastic electro music with Mark Kamins, who launched Madonna’s career. It’s from a track called ‘Tales Of Taboo’ and the full sample is “You drop that ghetto blaster / Suck me off / Suck me off / Suck me off”… which we didn’t use on the seven-inch version. ‘Theme’ wasn’t all samples, though. We wrote a bassline for it and I got my girls in to do the “S’Express” vocal parts. They were all good friends of mine from the Mud Club. A lot of the sounds were sampled so we could play a tune with them on the keyboard. We did that with the vocals too.
We cleared all the samples on the record. People didn’t know what sampling was in those days, so it was a lot easier. They would say, “We don’t really know what you mean but, sure, you can have it for 50 quid”. To do it now would be a nightmare, of course. So everything was worked out properly, with artists like Rose Royce getting a cut of the publishing.
To be honest, I didn’t think ‘Theme’ was going to be a hit. Disco was still a dirty word and I remember thinking, “They’re going to love it in the clubs, but everyone else will be horrified”. When itwas released, Radio One wouldn’t touch it because it sounded so alien. But it went Top 30 and the following week it shot up to Number Three, which was when Radio One realised they were going to look dumb if they didn’t play it. The week after that it went to Number One.