The Only Way is Essex
What are Underworld, exactly? I mean, what is it they do? Is it dance music? Techno? House? Electronica? Pop? They’re popular, but pop? Nah. What the heck is it? The more I listen, the less clear it becomes.
Completing a run of three super deluxe 20th-ish anniversary reissues comes 1999’s ‘Beaucoup Fish’. Like the preceding ‘dubnobasswithmyheadman’ and ‘Second Toughest In The Infants’, it’s been remastered at Abbey Road and reloaded with all manner of outtakes, remixes and rarity treats.
Released first time round in the wake of smash hit ‘Born Slippy’, it’s fair to say ‘Beaucoup Fish’ was eagerly anticipated. Alongside Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, wunderkind Darren Emerson was at the controls for the final time and, well, it finds Underworld at the peak of the powers. Their best? Don’t get me started or we’ll be here all day.
It opens with ‘Cups’, a statement of intent if ever there was. It is one of the most glorious 12 minutes of electronic music you’ll hear this side of anywhere. You should see it, say Underworld on their website, as a journey through city streets at night. It starts out as a nod to Chicago house, but then begins to buckle and Chicago becomes Detroit, “the glassy cool of house gives way to techno’s mechanical futurism”. Which is neat trick, right? But as it reaches its climax, the whole thing evaporates into an “almighty electronic squall”. “All that’s come before has been enveloped in this noise,” they say, “erased by it. There’s no Chicago, no Detroit anymore. There’s only Essex”. It’s the only way.
And when you start looking at it like that… so ‘Cups’ is followed by hard-as-heck ‘Push Upstairs’, the sleek warm rhythmical ‘Jumbo’, the blistering Moroder-nod sequencer swirl of ‘Shudder/King Of Snake’… Nearly two decades down the line from the first time I heard this, it strikes me that these aren’t songs, they’re movements. First time round, they were live bangers that could plough entire fields, somehow, 20-ish years on, ‘Beaucoup Fish’ has become a symphony, with a beginning, middle and end. There’s structure here, a discipline. This isn’t about three-minute pop songs, it’s an electronic opus which is more to do with Bach than The Beatles. I mean have you heard ‘Kittens’? Have you?
A mere seven and a half minutes, ‘Kittens’ is the pinnacle of the album, the crescendo. It’s what everything has been building to and from where everything leads as we enter the calm of ‘Push Downstairs’, ‘Something Like Mama’ and, finally, the explosive conclusion of ‘Moaner’. It starts with a frantic kick drum assault and rattling, staggering-around snares, a cymbal crashes, chattering, urgent noises start climbing the walls. They don’t stop. A drone of strings appears, it builds, and it builds, like you’re tuning into something, and then suddenly the beat drops out. The shimmer of sound that begins to build is majestic, like a huge, quivering spaceship landing waaaaay over there. That noise is, well, it’s made in Essex. Could only have been.
There’s nods to the past in their work, for sure, but no one sounds like Underworld. No one else drops a beat like that, no one does lyrics like that, no one builds those huge walls of sound like that. There’s a reason they were enlisted by Danny Boyle to soundtrack the Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2012. Want to see 80,000 people on their feet? Young and old, men and women, boys and girls. Drop a bit of Underworld. Wildly popular without being pop. Another neat trick.
So while ‘Beaucoup Fish’ is a line in the sand, something of a masterpiece, a straight 10/10 album, the other three discs that come with the super deluxe version are what Underworld do for fun.
You’d pay good money for the disc two – an 11-track rarities, outtakes and alternate versions set – on its own. Unreleased material is usually that way for reason. This is as good as everyone else’s released stuff. The pick? There’s ‘Jumbo (Diff Bass 2 A1317 Nov 97)’ which, guess what, has a different bassline. It’s stupidly thrilling for it. As is the stripped back version of ‘Push Upstairs (Alt 1 A1336 July 98)’. Karl’s alt vocal take on the banging ‘King Of Snake (Garage Mix A1313 Set 97b)’ is also a very satisfying treat.
The remaining two discs are remix collections. ‘King Of Snake (Fatboy Slim Remix)’, anyone? Just listening to it makes you feel like you’re coming right up on one. There’s a dub of ‘Jumbo’ by Rob Rives and Francois Kevorkian, the Salt City Orchestra remix of ‘Cups’… where to stop?
The upshot of all this, and where we came in, is that asking what Underworld are is a bit “What have the Romans ever done for us?”. They make techno, sort of. And it’s a bit housey, kinda. And it’s got this Essex thing going on, this odd slant, which is clearly some sort of moondust thing. Housey technoy Essexy. There you go, pretty much nailed there I reckon. Born slippy? Just a bit and we wouldn’t want it any other way.