When a mysterious album of nine experimental electronic trance mixes of the same tune was released in 1993, no one could quite believe who was responsible…
Towards the end of 1993, an album started arriving in the offices of the British music press. It came in a plain white sleeve with a limited edition number printed on it, which – SPOILER ALERT! – made it look a little like ‘The Beatles’, aka ‘The White Album’. Inside were two clear vinyl discs, one with a green label, the other with a red one, both featuring a cute graphic of an American firefighter with a hose.
The only other text on the whole package was the enigmatic phrase, ‘Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest’. The music was on-message trance-like electronic weirdness, too slow for the dancefloors of the house generation, but just right for smoking a large amount of reefer to take the edge off the speedy E you took a few hours earlier. It was great stuff, but who was it?
The truth soon leaked out. The Fireman was in fact ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, in cosmic cahoots with Killing Joke bassist/producer Youth. It all started with Youth taking a call from his manager that might have come straight from a Brian Pern documentary.
“Keep your phone on,” he barked. “McCartney’s going ring you in an hour. I don’t know what it’s about, but make sure you take the call.”
McCartney did call, and revealed that he was looking to commission of raft of remixes from his then new album, ‘Off The Ground’. Perhaps he was in a cosmic state of mind, having just dusted off a Beatles-era composition ‘Cosmically Conscious’ for the sessions, but there was something about Youth he liked the sound and look of.
“Paul said he’d read an interview with me which had the headline, ‘Is This Man The Future Of Pop?’ with a picture of me in full Indian hippy resplendence,” remembers Youth. “And in that interview they were talking about sampling, hip hop culture and electronica, and I’d mentioned that what we were doing was nothing new, and that the origins were with The Beatles and Paul, with his avant garde leanings on ‘Revolver’, which culminated with ‘Sgt Pepper’.”
It’s not surprising, then, that McCartney wanted the hot and hip Beatle-loving Youth to remix something from his new album. Youth had a better idea, though, which was to take the multi-track tapes of the whole album and plunder them for sample fodder in order to create something entirely new, with some fresh overdubs from Paul to top it off.
“Paul was like, ‘Ooh, that’s interesting, I’ve never heard of that being done before’,” says Youth. “He was interested in doing something new.”
So Youth headed to McCartney’s studio in Sussex and got busy sampling the tapes and anything that moved, like the lighting system in the studio control room which made strange mechanical noises. He also set about a little interior design.
“Whenever I went into the studio,” he remembers, “I’d put up all these Indian hangings, and get a smoke machine going, and lights, and Paul and Linda were like, ‘Wow this is really good!’. And the next time I came back, they’d done it themselves! They’d got all these Indian hangings and stuff. They were up there for years!”
In the suitably decked out studio, Linda provided some backing vocals and percussion, and Youth pressed Paul into playing various instruments, including drums.
“Paul said, ‘If I’m playing drums, you should play bass…’, and of course all his team crowded in and were like, ‘You’re going to play bass on a Paul McCartney record, are you? Good luck!’, and I suddenly realised what I’d agreed to do. I thought, ‘I’m not going to go anywhere near Paul’, so I did this really heavy deep rumbly tectonic seismic bass. I knew Paul and Linda loved dub, and I got a round of applause after I played!”
Later on during the Fireman process, Youth was playing one of his regular dub DJ sets in Brixton and he invited Paul and Linda along not expecting them to show up.
“To my amazement,” Youth recalls, “they turned up, without any security or anything. They went straight onto the dancefloor and the place went ballistic. Suns Of Arqa were playing a live set, and when they saw Paul and Linda they started playing their version of ‘Baby You’re A Rich Man’. It was an amazing night.”
From the sampling and recording sessions for ‘Strawberries…’ Youth created a clutch of mixes, each a variation of his trademark groovy psychedelia, full-on oil wheel mind-altering stuff. Paul, Linda and the family hung out during the mixdown and stayed up with Youth until the sun rose, enjoying the mixes being churned out.
“They were all buzzing and in a really good mood,” recalls Youth.
After giving McCartney a copy of all nine of the mixes, Youth took them back to London, and was preparing to chop out the best bits from the nine mixes to create one “long and epic” remix when there was another phone call. It was from Paul’s team. They told Youth that Paul loved the mixes and wanted to put them out as they were. As an album. And it would be a band now, if Youth was up for it, of course.
“Obviously I said I’d be honoured, and so that’s what we did! It was a great pleasure to re-establish his sovereignty with underground cutting edge music.”
Melody Maker called the album “staggeringly brilliant” and it was a crucial plank in the rehabilitation of McCartney’s reputation with the music press. Whether on CD or one of the double vinyl sets, ‘Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest’ is now scarce and fetches high prices on the collector’s market. It is on Spotify though…