Kirk Degiorgio revisits an intelligent techno classic.
The summer of 1989 was the second summer of love. Among the acid house and rave classics, the occasional sound of melodic futurism would appear for those deeper moments of E-induced euphoria. There was Derrick May's "Strings Of Life" of course, but also the subtler aesthetic of "It Is What It Is," also by May under the name Rhythim Is Rhythim, or R-Tyme's "R-Theme."
This rave scene developed parallel to an equally popular golden-era for hip-hop and rare groove. DJs such as Norman Jay straddled both camps at nights like High On Hope, but the most creative fusion of hip-hop's b-boy breaks and house and techno productions came with rave tunes that blended both. EPs on DIY British labels would imitate Derrick May on one side and supply breaks-heavy rave tracks on the other. This techno-breaks hybrid was encapsulated best on Virtual, the first release by The Black Dog.
The Black Dog were the trio of Ken Downie, Ed Handley and Andy Turner. I knew Ed and Andy as part of a breakdance crew from a small village outside Ipswich. I would often DJ at local breakdance battles, and our relationship began in those days. Ed, Andy and myself found ourselves living in London in our late teens. I had a part-time job at the secondhand store Reckless Records in Soho. One Saturday afternoon, Ed and Andy visited and told me they'd been working on some techno tracks at a small studio nearby, and invited me to come along and share some ideas.
The studio, known as Black Dog Towers, was in a caretaker's office. It was in the shadow of the famous Post Office Tower in central London, and was quite unlike any room I'd seen. It hummed with the warm vibrations of computer drives and modems. Ken was running an early form of social media called a "bulletin board." It was clear from my few visits that this was just as important as the music.
Ken would often send us out for obscure modem parts or computer chips. He was quiet and mysterious, but also the dominant creative force behind The Black Dog. The studio walls were covered in Egyptian hieroglyph and occult references. Ken talked a lot about magic, but never in a pretentious way. For him, it seemed a positive inspirational force.
I always assumed the name The Black Dog was a reference to a magical, folkloric animal. But in recent interviews, Ken has alluded to the other meaning of The Black Dog: a metaphor for the depression he's battled his entire life. My own involvement in the music amounted to a few sketches that were never finished. I had no previous experience with musical equipment, and it was Ken who showed me how to program a Roland TR-808. Other equipment in the tiny studio included an Oberheim Matrix 1000 and a Fostex eight-channel mixer. Sequencing was computer-based, as Ken would run an early MIDI sequencer program made by a company called Doctor Ts on an Atari ST, the computer of choice for early electronic musicians.
That summer Ken, Ed and Andy finished a collection of tracks that they thought strong enough for their debut EP as The Black Dog. The computer-heavy theme was shown on the sleeve design and label art. The art concept was designed by the graphics guru Richie Burridge. Richie B was like an unofficial member of The Black Dog collective. An innovative user of fonts, he would go on to design the classic logo for my own ART label a year later.
Richie cleverly pushed the D and G to the edges of the sleeve, giving a perception of space in which a fractal cube sat heavily in the centre of the design. The label art had no credits, but a pair of intricate and detailed fractal designs. In the wrong hands, this imagery would adorn a cheesy trance release. Here, it feels stately and classic.
The A-side, "Virtual," is ten minutes long. It has a relatively traditional arrangement, which is key to its accessibility. The beats are pure funk, with driving breaks underpinning the glistening micro-arpeggios. The other tracks also highlight the disparate influences on the British electronic music scene at that time. "Ambience With Teeth" is a glorious, introspective piece of electronica with a delicate 808 drum pattern skittering beneath soaring Oberheim pads. This sound became a blueprint for many early IDM tracks. Then there's "The Weight," which samples Stevie Wonder.
Virtual was self-funded, and I have fond memories of driving around London with Andy helping to sell copies to stores on a "sale or return" basis. Initially, there were very few takers. A few vendors commented on the name—it just didn't sound "cool" or musically in keeping with the aesthetics of house and techno.
Fortunately, some judged the release on its content. The influential DJ Jazzy M bought a box load for his Vinyl Zone store in West London. But Virtual's real break was thanks to my manager at Reckless Records at the time, Patrick Forge. He had a regular show on the most popular dance music pirate station of its day, Kiss FM. Not only did a rare-groove and jazz DJ like Patrick play the EP, he even loaned his only copy to Colin Faver, who hosted the following show. Colin played "Virtual" and "Ambience With Teeth," and the buzz started.
Virtual is of its time. Some elements have dated less successfully than other intelligent techno releases, but nothing encapsulates the style so well. It remains a classic. The original members of The Black Dog broke up in the late '90s. Perhaps because of the difficulty discussing former times, none of the original members responded to my request for a few quotes about how they feel about the EP. I hope hey draw some comfort knowing Virtual will always be a cornerstone of UK electronic music history.