Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music
Matt Anniss’ book on the bleep scene feels like an extension or output of Warp Records, exuding the purple colour scheme that distinguished the Sheffield label from its outset. It takes its title from the early (and somewhat overlooked) record release from Tuff Little Unit and employs the sans serif font and simple design of tight blocky design with italicised elements seen on early releases such as the LFO album Frequencies. The label, established in 1989 as both a continuum and fresh direction of previous initiatives such as FON (a studio, a label and a shop), initially became the imprimatur of the bleep sound. Anniss grew up through this scene and clearly holds on to its importance. His book draws heavily on his recent journalism work for the Red Bull Music Academy where he has been documenting the early experiments and activists in this Yorkshire scene. He writes in an impassioned and detailed style, the narrative constantly driven by both the author’s own feelings for the scene and a need to establish himself as an original participant in it. At times it feels as if the book is written for a cohort of believers who keep the faith, like an updated occurrence of the Northern Soul mythology.
There is an important rationale to the book, as Anniss argues for re-assessing the historical understanding of this scene within the wider complex chronology of dance music. He has a point here, and he sets out to demolish myths, redress historical versions, timeframes and figures, and re-situate the northern origins of bleep. This intent is signalled early on, where Anniss sets out the official version of “British dance music finding a distinctive voice” (6) with a when (1991) and a where (London). The originators and perpetrators of this version of history are not initially called out, though Simon Reynolds’ go-to work on dance music Energy Flash is clearly the main culprit. Reynolds’ book, dense and magisterial, covers bleep and the Sheffield scene in an eight-page section within the chapter “Second Wave of Rave 1990-1992” (Reynolds 1998: 97-104). Anniss ultimately calls out Reynolds, whilst acknowledging his pioneering work, towards the end of the book where Reynolds is accused of mixing cause and effect, downplaying the north and overplaying the south (238). This version of events set out by Reynolds—his Hardcore Continuum within a wider lineage of dance music linking Detroit, Chicago, New York and the UK—proliferates as an authoritative discourse, in some way a testament to Reynolds’ powerful writing. Anniss does not list the numerous sources that peddle this accepted version of events, but examples are plentiful. For a typical (recent) case, Richard King’s The Lark Ascending sees UK rave culture having the simplistic lineage of Ibiza clubbers pioneering the Balearic scene and moving on to set up the London club Shoom (King 2019: 267). End of story.
Anniss conducts his careful counter-history, exploring what Michel Foucault considers as the important rupture points, unearthing an “archaeology of a silence” (Macey 2019: 95). This is both a noisy silence of dance music at full volume, and a silent noisiness as the sub-bass that defines the bleep scene is often felt through the vibrations that engulf the body and surrounding environment of the nightclub. There is a constant trope throughout all of Anniss’ interviews regarding the severity of the bass sound; stories of household hi-fi speakers unable to detect the sound, of studio engineers saying it’s more than my job’s worth to cut the record, of club spaces and glass fittings dangerously vibrating as the white labels are played out for the first time. The bass horror script of blown out equipment and speakers, akin to Star Trek’s Scotty engine-room scenario, is an apocryphal story that crops up in many testimonies of dance music.
The book is structured in four parts named after classic bleep records, riffing on (or more appropriately, sampling from) the Warp catalogue. The first part, covered in four chapters, is most interesting for me, and Anniss works hard to craft a different history to the bleep sound, establishing his counter-narrative to rave mythology. He covers the cultural, social, political and topographical background of the places and spaces that gave rise to this sound, settling on three pivotal ideas. Firstly, the north of England in the second and third terms of Thatcher’s government, depicted as a kind of war mentality with left wing councils such as Sheffield offering youth opportunities in arts. Secondly, Anniss carves out an interstitial place in the subcultural slew of the early 1980s, a post-Northern Soul fandom that was previously hindered by racist attitudes. New protagonists repopulate the husk of the scene in the early 1980s to hold jazz-funk all-dayers, dance competitions, the nurturing of dance crews. This quickly leads to an embrace of the nascent electro and break-dancing scene around 1983, with venues such as Nottingham’s Rock City and its Saturday afternoon sessions offering an important beacon. Thirdly, Anniss documents the important role of sound system culture, the lovers rock and dub genres, and the illicit and distinctive blues club scene. Anniss identifies a convergence of these trends, giving rise to clubs such as Jive Turkey in Sheffield. Further influences are added such as the championing of house music around 1986 and the influx of a small cohort of fashion obsessed northern hooligans or grafters noted for stealing and dealing designer goods. Some of these peripheral characters are clustered on an Ibiza scene, but two years before it became famed for the Balaeric sound. Anniss touches upon the importance of fashion without significant detailing – there is mention of Jive Turkey being very dressy and, from experience, I’d say this was something of an understatement!
The second part of the book documents the key activists, chapter by chapter. Manchester’s Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald) takes the chronological priority with his 1988 track Voodoo Ray proving a club hit and eventually breaking into the mainstream charts. Anniss suggests that this provokes a response from Sheffield, who admired the record, giving birth to bleep. This movement is carefully tracked through Bradford’s Unique 3 who release Theme in late 1988, Leeds based Nightmares On Wax who debut in 1989, their city colleagues LFO from 1990, and importantly Sheffield’s Forgemasters who provide Warp’s inaugural release Track With No Name. Part three of the book documents the spreading out of the scene, starting close to home with the relatively overlooked Sheffield label Ozone, and then radiating out to Midlands based Network, Luton’s Chill, the wider bleep and breaks movement, and finally an overseas perspective. Part four is Anniss’ take on the decline and legacy of the scene, taking the Castle Morton 1992 rave as a watershed (the moment where King commences his writing). Anniss suggests a split into darkcore/jungle and happy hardcore/rave, such that bleep and bass has an increasingly vestigial presence.
There are some insurmountable problems. The elephant in the room concerns Warp’s disputed origins and divergent versions of an acrimonious break up, hindered by co-founder Steve Beckett’s declining to be interviewed. Whereas Beckett contributes to both Reynolds’ overarching work, and Rob Young’s Labels Unlimited focus on Warp, Anniss powers on and is driven by his enduring closeness to the scene, sharing spliffs with the protagonists as they recall hazy nights in bedroom studios and dub-plate mayhem. Anniss doesn’t proffer any academic or subcultural theory, though his historical approach of testimony and anecdote glimpses oversights and omissions. There is little contemporaneous source material apart from a single i-D report on the northern bleep scene. Further, in 1990 a clutch of Warp releases made significant inroads into the mainstream charts, jockeying with early 1990s dance-era novelty records such as MC Hammer, Partners in Kryme’s Turtle Power, FAB and MC Parker’s Thunderbirds tribute and Timmy Mallett’s glib sampling of early house records. Both Tricky Disco and LFO climbed the charts, sharing similar videos of cut-up scenes from early cinematography and Eadweard Muybridge stop-motion photography. None of this recalled or analysed by Anniss.
The pace is urgent, intense and breathless, with dot-to-dot detail of dance spaces, club names, tracks and dance moves. Anniss takes an occasional moment to stop and sample the air, such as on Snake Pass between Manchester and Sheffield (64) or at Park Hill flats for a brutalist memoir to accompany the concluding paragraphs. Anniss forgoes an index for a pure chronographical time-line that carries the book through, mimicking the urgency of a dub-plate record – a desire to get the thing out there as soon as it is produced.
King, Richard. 2019. The Lark Ascending: The Music of the British Landscape. London: Faber & Faber.
Macey, David. 2019. The Lives of Michel Foucault. London: Verso.
Reynolds, Simon. 1998. Energy Flash: A Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture. London: Picador.