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Revisiting: 808 State’s 90

In the latest in our ongoing series exploring classic albums from decades past, we reflect on a seminal house record that captured the euphoria of 1980s club culture.

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All musical genres have their heroes – creative pioneers and charismatic performers who have left an indelible mark on popular culture. Electronic music is no exception, yet few of its visionaries have achieved global fame – at least not on the same level as the greats of rock, pop or jazz. Kraftwerk, for example, are certainly well-known, but how many people can name the artists who introduced us to synth pop, acid house or drum and bass? 

If Manchester group 808 State had made a seismic mark on rock music rather than techno, they would probably still be appearing on magazine covers. But techno, as a genre, is nowhere near as good as celebrating its protagonists, and some would argue its whole ethos is based on immersing yourself in the music, rather than celebrating the personalities or presence of its creators. 

Perhaps for this reason, 808 State’s Graham Massey, Martin Price, Andrew Barker, Darren Partington and Gerald Simpson remain somewhat unsung innovators, despite creating the defining anthem of the late 1980s club scene. 

“It was lo-fi but infectious, and it provided the soundtrack to an important period in modern music”

The single, first titled ‘Pacific State’, landed in 1988, and reached number ten in the UK charts one year later. It came out of a thriving underground music scene – one that would go on to dominate popular music charts for several years. House music, as it was called, was high tempo electronic dance music, often made on cheap, ageing analogue synthesisers and early samplers, and knitted together onto a DAT master. With simple lyrics and cheap packaging, it was lo-fi but infectious, and it provided the soundtrack to an important period in modern music. 

‘Pacific State’ came out just as it became apparent that the Cold War was ending. The austerity of the early 1980s was beginning to subside, and Western economies were beginning to boom again. As the iron curtain came down, and Eastern European countries finally broke away from the crumbling Soviet Union, there was a sense of euphoria in the air – especially among young people. House – a term borrowed from the so-called mid 1980s ‘Chicago house’ – caught the exuberance and hedonism of the age. 808 State, in turn, released a record that epitomised this, capturing the cultural and musical zeitgeist.

“The result was something that sounded like an odd mixture of disco, electronica and jazz”

The single’s instrumental format was significant.  New music was, at the time, moving away from expressive rock forms and song structures, as well as its archetypal sounds and production values. ‘Pacific State’ was fairly simply constructed on a (by today’s standards) very basic digital sampler, using sounds from well-established and often analogue electronic musical instruments.

The result was something that sounded like an odd mixture of disco, electronica and jazz. The infectious, multilayered percussion came courtesy of a Roland TR-909 – a drum machine that was nearly ten years old at the time, and very cheap to buy. The chirping bird sounds which ran through the song were an obscure keyboard patch on one of the group’s synthesisers, called ‘Canadian Loon’, and the soprano saxophone solo towards the end was performed by composer, producer and engineer Graham Massey.

"There were a lot of jazz influences in what we were creating at that time,” he later told Sound on Sound magazine. 

“That record didn't just come from the house scene; it also came from jazz fusion and exotica.”  

Massey found himself hugely inspired by the creative possibilities offered by samplers. “They were unattainable machines for a number of years in the 80s,” he later recalled. “We would hear about them, think about what we might do with them, until the [Akai] S900 and [Casio] FZ1 became available. At that point, we could exercise all of that stored‑up potential! We didn't have any money, but the new technology enabled us to speak a more international language.” 

808’s image was worlds apart from mainstream pop acts of the time. There were no Duran Duran-style videos shot on yachts in the Mediterranean, or posing with supermodels in double-breasted designer suits. Instead, the band looked like the group of tech geeks that it was – talented ones at that. It was full of gifted multi-instrumentalists who had grown up steeped in popular music and possessed highly eclectic tastes.

Massey, who counted Stevie Wonder, Hawkwind, Gong and Magma among his influences – had been in love with synthesiser music and electronic keyboards from an early age. He later told Sound on Sound: “I was familiarising myself with the names of all the different keyboards listed on the back of LP sleeves … the EMS VCS3, RMI Electra Piano, Moog bass, Mellotron, ARP 2600. People were getting guitars, basses and drums, but you never even saw synthesisers in Manchester unless they were in a music store, and that meant they were still a thing of great mystery to me"

By 1975, he was building his own synth rigs. “I turned a cheap Woolworth's chord organ into my own fake Mellotron,” he recalled, "and a Rolf Harris Stylophone was my synth.” He went on to play an electric violin whilst studying at Manchester Grammar School, which led to him being invited to join a band named Aqua. 

“It is carefully crafted to sound exotic … with snappy, danceable rhythms”

Drawing inspiration from Gong and Hawkwind, Aqua adopted an experimental approach to making music. “We were starting to think of music in a very textural way using tapes of found sounds playing randomly through our metronomic rhythm section,” Massey later explained. 

Likewise, 808 State’s music is all about its combination of texture and rhythm. Mostly instrumental, with occasional vocals added simply to create a mood, it is carefully crafted to sound exotic and unusual, with snappy, danceable rhythms. 

In 1988, 808 State record their debut album, Newbuild, using an early, pre-S900 Akai sampler and multiple rhythm sources. It was a critical success, with some tracks featuring heavily on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show. The Quadrastate EP followed, and included ‘Pacific State’ alongside other tracks that would go on to form their second album.

Reflecting on the inspiration for ‘Pacific State’, Massey once recalled: “We were going to the Haçienda [nightclub] at that time, and a massive record there was Marshall Jefferson's ‘Open Your Eyes’…. It had to do with the chords, the ecstasy culture and the song's tropical warmth…. It was the sort of vibe we wanted to capture for ‘Pacific State’, so we sampled up some chords on a Juno 106, sampled that into a Casio FZ1 keyboard as a chord, and played the same chord on a Roland D50.” 

“A Roland TB909 added the song’s drum tracks, including its distinctive clap pattern”

The resulting sound became iconic in the house music scene, and was widely sampled by various musicians in the years that followed. A Roland TB909 added the song’s drum tracks, including its distinctive clap pattern, and a thick, funky bassline bounced along behind Massey’s sax work.  

The song was re-recorded in 1989, after 808 State signed to ZTT Records. Label head and celebrated producer Trevor Horn wanted a radio edit, which he thought would make “the perfect seven-inch single”. The result was ‘Pacific 707’, which made it onto the album that followed in a slightly altered form.

Released at the end of the 80s, on December 4, 1989, the band’s second album was appropriately named 90. It features eight instrumentals, each around five minutes long, all of which are strong dance-oriented electronic pop songs. Some are highly accomplished electronic ‘soundscapes’, which feel like soundtracks to imagined films. The music is, generally speaking, quite densely packed, with fast, hypnotic percussion and multiple layers of synthesisers and/or samples. 

“The synth sounds and samples are highly textural … with a lovely tonal warmth and sheen”

Although the rhythms are highly involving, there’s a lot of melody too. This was unusual for house music at the time, which was becoming more experimental. Above all, the synth sounds and samples are highly textural; they have a distinctive sonic ‘feel’, with a lovely tonal warmth and sheen that none of 808 State’s later albums ever managed to replicate. 

Mastered to 16-bit, 48kHz DAT, you would never call 90 a premium audiophile recording. On lesser hi-fi systems, it can seem quite dirge-like, with a muddy, dull quality, but play it via a high quality digital front end and it comes alive. Better still, the complex rhythms and counterpoint become clear to hear, making it all the more enjoyable. Although ‘Pacific 202’ remains the standout track, ‘Magical Dream’, ‘Ancodia’ and ‘Sunrise’ are also quite beautiful in their own way.

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