Kirk Degiorgio tells the story of an iconic UK techno record.
When it comes to the UK's dance music history, London and Manchester tend to dominate. But raves in the South East and The Haçienda were not the only scenes catering to lovers of electronic dance music during its early period. Throughout the '80s, there was a vibrant scene between the cities of Nottingham and Leeds, with Sheffield in the middle of this M1 triumvirate.
Sheffield has a strong, proud tradition of electronic music. Human League, Heaven 17 and Cabaret Voltaire were all synth-heavy Sheffield bands that had dance influences, but they existed mostly outside traditional club music scenes, which were predominately focused on disco and soul imports by black artists. There was, however, a significant black music scene, particularly based around Nottingham's Afro-Caribbean community at venues such as Rock City and the dub-reggae soundsystem culture around Leeds' Chapeltown area.
These scenes collided with Sheffield's starker, more industrial-leaning sound around 1988, when house and techno was breaking all sorts of genre boundaries. DJs such as Parrot and Winston Hazel were pushing the new Chicago and Detroit styles at clubs such as Jive Turkey in Sheffield, while further up the M1 motorway Martin Williams was doing the same at The Warehouse in Leeds.
Around that time in Leeds, Gez Varley, his breakdancing mate Mark Bell and the DJ Martin Williams formed a trio known as LFO. They made around 30 demos in Williams' attic using basic equipment that included a Casio sampler and Jen Electronics SX-1000 and Kawai K1 synthesisers. The sequencer was a trusty Atari ST. As Williams was resident DJ at The Warehouse, they were able to use its soundsystem to test tracks at the beginning of the night, and again at peak-time. At one of these nights, they met the influential Sheffield technician Rob Gordon, who ran the FON label, and gave him a cassette of the demos.
Gordon, along with Steve Beckett and the late Rob Mitchell, had a deal with the London label Rhythm King for a new label called Warp. Warp signed three LFO tracks for release: "LFO (The Leeds Warehouse Mix)," "Track 4" and "Probe."
"At the time we recorded the first EP we were hanging out in the Chapeltown area of Leeds," Varley told me over email. "Which had a huge dub and blues influence on the tracks. At that time, we had very little equipment—the bass is all off a Casio sampler."
"LFO (The Leeds Warehouse Mix)" has the classic elements of three dominant genres: electro, dub and techno. It's deceptively spacious, although not as sparse as listeners may think. The driving beats are powerful and crunchy. It differs completely from the later examples of techno/dub fusions, which tend to rely on huge amounts of space. The track has few elements, but the perfect arrangement creates a bold simplicity. It even has a layered bassline, a pronounced rave-like riff that alternates with a dub-like sub tremor. The vocoder vocals gave the track a slight commercial appeal, too. It was destined to be a rave hit and remains a classic piece of electronic dance music.
"It's a very unique record," Varley said. "If you look at it, there's only really seven parts. The SX-1000 does the lead and the Kawai the chords.".
But the EP is not a one-track wonder. At the time, I probably played "Track 4" and "Probe" more often. "Track 4," with melodic bleeps and tones and sighing vocal pad, was as strong as any of the Detroit techno releases coming out on Retroactive and Transmat, while "Probe" has a dark vibe that was perfect for the more underground raves such as London's Dungeons venue. Its drum loop seethes with menace.
While working at London's Reckless Records, I came across LFO thanks to a few journalists who had received mysterious review copies. They had a couple spare, so they sold some to us. This wasn't a case of a slow-burning classic, however. "LFO" was huge immediately. It had the perfect elements for the rave scene: powerful dance rhythms, ridiculous bass and a hooky vocal. The first promo copies added to the appeal. They just had an image of a stretched Alberto Giacometti-like alien figure with the letters "LFO" and no other information. It hyped up the EP perfectly before its commercial release.
Myself and DJ Mighty Zaf used to play every Friday night at The Plough Inn in Northfields, West London. We couldn't wait to play "LFO" on the soundsystem. It makes me laugh to remember how the beer glasses and windows were shaking as we played it again and again for weeks. The group had trouble cutting that kind of bass level. "We cut the record at Townhouse Studios in London," Varley said. "It took us a while to do, due to the bass making the needle on the record jump."
"I must have heard it 20 times the first weekend," the London DJ Ben Sims told me. "Like 'Energy Flash' or The Prodigy's 'Everybody In The Place,' it became an anthem largely by brainwashing—or simply brain damage from the ridiculous sub-bass."
Along with Forgemasters, Sweet Exorcist's "Testone" and "Dextrous" by Nightmares On Wax, LFO's debut began a microscene known as "bleep techno" or "klang," which became synonymous with the early Warp sound. The LFO cofounder Mark Bell went on to work with mainstream artists such as Björk and Depeche Mode, but sadly passed away in 2014.
As always with a hit record, there's a footnote of controversy. "We signed to Warp Records who had a deal with Outer Rhythm, which in turn was run by parent company Rhythm King." Varley said. "The end result was that we were only paid an advance of £1,000 and no more royalties for our hit 'LFO,' which sold over 130,000 copies. Warp left the deal and went it alone, after which we were paid correctly for all future Warp releases—just a shame we didn't get paid on our hit."