The Shamen: Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite
My earliest pop memories are of Duran Duran's 'The Reflex' and Spandau Ballet's 'Communication', each dating from 1983. Both songs were modern heirs of The Who's 'I Can't Explain', in that they explored the impossibility of emotional expression; that God has gifted man with such wonderful and complex emotions, but has not given him the means to express or communicate these emotions, that is proof as far as I am concerned that God is a more complex character than most people assume. Duran Duran approached this theme with a deliberately impenetrable wall of words, whilst Spandau Ballet simply declared that communication had let them down, repeatedly. Neither song worked as a coherent narrative, the impressionistic word-painting defying rational interpretation. This was a common theme of early 80s New Wave, famously taken to parodic extremes by Ultravox with 'Vienna', their most enduring work. 'Vienna' combined the cryptic, the grandiose, and the dreamlike, Midge Ure's repeated declaration that 'it means nothing to me' inviting speculation that the group were deliberately creating a riddle wrapped inside an enigma within which was a man wearing a gorilla mask which, when removed, revealed the face of The Prisoner himself.
But, and this is a big but, although my earliest pop memories are of the aforementioned, these memories are transient and fragmented, as I was very young. Throughout the 1980s I was uninterested in pop, my attention diverted by my home computer. Thus raised on a computer game music, my earliest fully-formed pop memories are of late 80s / early 90s electronic techno acid house dance music, although I myself did not actually dance. Instead, I was a fellow traveller of dance. My beat was internalised. My legs did not move; it was my mind that did the dancing. I appreciated electronic dance music because it was clean, it was numbing, the hypnotic beats of 'A Trip to Trumpton' and 'Sesame's Treet' obliterating all rational thought in my mind. Humanity will only attain parity when difference is eliminated, and the simplest and most effective way to achieve this is through oblivion. Only when the masses are of empty mind will we find peace. If man is not responsible enough to own firearms, if man is not responsible enough to smoke or to drive a car whilst drunk, or to kill without censure, then man is not responsible period. Dance music will save us from ourselves. Dance music, drugs, and surgery.
The majority of early dance acts were anonymous, deliberately so. They hid behind assumed band names and personal pseudonyms. When they played live, they cowered behind record decks. Their photographs did not appear on their records, which were often released in plain labels, sometimes without any printed writing at all. Hundreds upon hundreds of these bands and individuals released thousands of records which were played once or twice, bringing transient enjoyment to the masses, and which were then forgotten. A partial subset of this superset of records hit a nerve and reached the charts; the 'one-hit wonder' came again to the charts during the height of dance, the lower regions of the charts being filled with acts who would not have time or reason to quit their day jobs. The 'toytown techno' boom, in which old children's television theme tunes were combined with rave beats, begat another wave of transience.
A few early dance acts managed to carve out careers, most notably 808 State and Coldcut, both of whom remain critical favourites today. Most managed a few hit singles followed by obscurity, many of the bands not producing enough of worth to justify an album. The stereotypical rave album contained the group's hit single at the beginning, some dull filler material in the middle, and several remixes of the group's hit single at the end. Altern-8 were a good example of this, their crude, infectious songs dominating the public's perception of hardcore rave as a brutal mixture of sampled hoover noises, sampled pianos in fifths and simple lyrics sampled at chipmunk speed. Their album, 'Full On Mask Hysteria', simply compiled their singles and vanished without a trace, a genuine rarity today. 'Hypnotic St8' remains as good a summation of Britain in 1991 as anything. Gonna take you higher and higher, sang the lady. Again and again. And again, for five minutes. Gonna take you higher and higher until it meant nothing, until it was just a noise. A sound that could kill someone from a distance.
The Prodigy seemed set to follow this course, especially given that their most popular single had been part of the 'toytown techno' wave. Yet their debut album 'Experience' was consistently of a high standard, and the group survived, re-emerging a few years later with a darker, less hyperactive sound. With their third album, The Prodigy topped the charts in America, an astonishing feat given that the vast, vast majority of the group's contemporaries had not only disbanded and retired but been entirely forgotten, crushed by time. Indeed, many of the British bands contemporaneous with the success of 'The Fat of the Land' itself, from 1997, have since vanished, particularly Kula Shaker, the group's lead singer having providing vocals on one of the album's tracks. Weeks go by during which not a single person in Britain thinks of Kula Shaker, not including the people who were in Kula Shaker. If you were in Kula Shaker, please send me an electronic mail message. I hope you're alright.
But there was one group in particular, one. One group who bridged the gap between the anonymous ravers of yore and the manufactured boy-bands who would cast their spell over the pop world during the latter part of the 1990s. The group were not anonymous. They were not particularly good-looking but they were not overweight, as Orbital were overweight. I speak not of the Utah Saints, no. The Utah Saints were driven by conflicting impulses; they were simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by fame. No. The group of which I speak enjoyed the limelight, they sought it out. They had no parents. Their direct descendants were East 17. They were The Shamen.
Yes. Yes! The Shamen. There is no shame in The Shamen. Age-ed pensioners wax nostalgic of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Our parents speak wistfully of the Beatles and Moby Grape. The parents of the children who steal our mobile phones may dimly remember the Buzzcocks or the Normal. For my generation, there is The Shamen. They loom large, whether we want them or not. We might not want to remember them, just as we might try to forget Tank Girl or the spectacle of comedy as the new rock'n'roll, but they are part of our heritage, they are part of me, and they are part of you. Do not deny it. Accept it. Read the following line in your mind:
"Love, sex, intelligence"
Yes. "Coming on like a seventh sense". Without thinking, you immediately completed the line. You could not help yourself. More than a decade has passed since the height of the group's success, yet the shadow they cast shows no sign of fading. We still travel along the path that they cleared for us.
The Shamen emerged in the late 1980s as a neo-psychedelic guitar rock band, in which form they enjoyed some critical appreciation but no commercial success. As with occasional labelmates Finitribe, the group assimilated more and more elements of dance music, until by 1991 they were a fully-fledged dance act. This formative period nonetheless served them well; they had learned to create conventional pop songs, with hooks and choruses, whereas most of the novice dance acts of the early 1990s knew little of what made people hum. The Shamen wrote pop songs that were also dance songs, dance songs that were also pop songs. They adopted the language of rave - such as the substitution of 'ph' for 'f', a nod to acid - but they were at heart a pop band.
The early 1990s were halcyon days. The Cold War was over, the nightmares of inflation and unemployment were no longer relevant, poll tax had been abolished, life under the paradise of John Major's government was good and we grew fat. The future seemed to promise so much, especially for computer enthusiasts. It was still possible to be a 'computer enthusiast' in the early 1990s, computers did not yet permeate society as thoroughly as they do today. Computers were still novel, still mysterious, the world of BBSes and telecommunications still dangerously futuristic rather than being a reality of routers and frustration and ISPs and so forth. Fractals, crop circles and drug-induced dancing seemed to herald a new age of techno-mathematical utopia, a transhuman revolution of floating tax havens, electronic money and a world in which everybody would be better off, even the poor, or at least the poor who could afford all these gadgets. The dot.com boom was still waiting to happen and everybody loved America, whilst the Middle East seemed to be engaged in a luvved-up ravegasm of Glastonburian proportions. Everything was dancing and laughter. In 1994 a pulp thriller novelist called Dale Brown wrote a book called 'Storming Heaven', in which terrorists used airliners as giant bombs in order to attack airports and buildings. It was a moderate success, not as popular as his 'Flight of the Old Dog' novels but enough to keep the wolves from his door.
In 1994 very few people knew what it looked like when an airliner dove into the side of a skyscraper.
A special effects artist might have imagined the airliner crashing into the building yet remaining whole, its tail sticking out. Or he might have imagined the aircraft simply exploding against the side of the building, raining polystyrene chunks onto fleeing actors below. I would have imagined the aircraft folding into itself like a dum dum bullet, becoming an onrushing ball of expanding metal. I would not have imagined the reality, the aircraft merging with the building and disappearing, followed presently by a gout of flame. I would not have imagined the fear I felt, even though It had happened on the other side of the Atlantic, the fear I felt as the aeroplanes above my head were grounded at Heathrow and normal programming was suspended. The Shamen were fans of the late Terence McKenna, who believed that the evolution of man's intelligence had been set on track by psychoactive mushrooms, and that humankind would benefit enormously from mass ingestion of same. In 1991 it was possible for a rave dance band to have a politico/philosophical message. That is not possible today.
'Magnificent desolation' is how Buzz Aldrin described the surface of the moon. The Shamen's first chart success came in 1991 with their 'Pro>Gen 91' EP, of which the most popular track was the title track, also known as 'Move Any Mountain'. This had been recorded with the group's original vocalist and songwriter, a man called Will Sinott. Whilst on location for a video shoot earlier in the year Sinott had drowned, the group continuing without him, based around the nucleus of Angus Young and Mr C and a lady woman who sang. Angus Young wrote the songs; Mr C rapped over them, the lady woman sang. The Shamen helped start off the practice of including a rap during the middle eight, a practice later exploited by eurobeat groups such as Snap and Clock. 'Move Any Mountain' contained two raps, one of which I remember word-for-word:
Deputies of the Reichstag!
We know that any mountain is capable of being moved.
And over the last four years this party has shown that it can achieve this task.
Our message is this. The soul of the people can only be free when the people are one.
We do not believe in half measures. Our message flows from the people like water from a fountain.
This is why we can move any mountain."
The rap came from the unconscious, its lack of grammatical sense and logical consistency irrelevant in the face of Mr C's obvious passion for the message. The rest of the song was founded on a cyclic, sampled bass rhythm which did not loop quite properly; the vocal melody of the verse was literally monotonous, a single note repeated against the beat. Critics nowadays cite it as the group's greatest achievement, marred only by Mr C, a man whose voice many thought brash and grating. Later in the song there was another rap from Will Sinott, which was infinitely superior to Mr C's rap but I can't remember it at all, only that it existed. Future feeling, new sensation... body is rocking... reeling... flowing like a river into the ocean... better get yourself ready for the new vibration... transition... one day will come a time, etc.
But the song was overshadowed by later singles. I shall not dither. 'Ebeneezer Goode' was their biggest commercial success, one of the best-selling singles of 1992, one of the most subversive pop songs of all time. It shot to number one in the charts and remained there for week after week after week, for a total of four weeks, until The Shamen themselves deleted it, tired of its ubiquity. They sang it on Top of the Pops. The chorus went like this, shouted as if by Slade:
"Eezer Goode, Eezer Goode,
he's Ebeneezer Goode!"
Surprisingly, it took the newspapers a couple of weeks before they realised that the group appeared to be singing the praises of Ecstasy, the wonder rave drug which had recently entered the mainstream, and that the chorus was actually 'E's are good, e's are good, etc'. The verses were apparently about a Dickensian character called Ebeneezer Goode - portrayed in the video by Jerry Sadowitz, a top-hatted comedian in the modern style - who was mysterious and devious, and who vibed up the party like no other man could. Mr C sang the lyrics breathlessly, as if in the grip of drug-induced euphoria.
When questioned about the lyrics, the group claimed that the song was merely about a fictional character, just as Pete Townshend had once claimed that 'I Can See for Miles' was merely about a man possessed of prodigious eyesight. The controversy was more amusing than that surrounding Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'Relax' of almost a decade earlier, the double-entendre of the chorus calling to mind the 'Carry On' films. Whereas 'Relax' was quite frankly about the practice of sucking a man's cock almost to the point of orgasm but no further, 'Ebeneezer Goode' could theoretically have been about a man who was cheerful and who enjoyed the music of Vera Lynn. Tasmin Archer. William Latham. Stelarc.
The song destroyed The Shamen. The accompanying album, 'Boss Drum', was a big hit. Amongst its collection of rave-orientated pop songs, most of which now sound badly dated, there was a sweet ballad entitled 'Phorever People'. We are phorever people, the lady sang, etc, and we don't have to look too far to find ourselves, etc, phorever people we will be, phorever in eternity; phorever people we can see, tomorrow in each other's eyes etc. Listened to today the song is bitter-sweet, hopeful and sad at the same time, because of course we aren't forever people and neither were The Shamen. The rave generation of the early nineties now work as team leaders in call centres, assuming they work at all. Mankind did not, after all, make contact with the aliens, aliens which we will probably never meet, and even if we did it would be like meeting a new form of aquatic mammal, and they would probably have the same problems as us. The internet was a huge success, and is now rather like cable television. It is not an endless grid upon which float rendered pyramids, no-one uses virtual reality headsets or gloves.
Nonetheless, a private individual has reached the edge of space, there is that. Funded in part by the co-founder of Microsoft, the corporate domination of space does not so far involve grimy mining ships and robot slaves fighting battles with subterranean freedom fighters. Indeed the rebels of today seem to be anti-freedom fighters, fighting for ever-stricter interpretations of their religion or political ideology. Why can't there be Buddhist militiamen, Sufi terrorists, Zen guerrillas? Why do people not fight for good things, only bad? Where are the good warriors? Could we not have cloned Audrey Hepburn rather than a sheep?
But I digress. The Shamen were torpedoed by their own success, just as the German submarine U-869, commanded by Hellmut Neuerburg, had accidentally torpedoed itself in February 1945. Their next release was a remix album, always a sign of trouble. With the exception of a freak hit in the form of 'Destination Eschaton' they re-emerged as an ambient techno band, seeming dated and old-fashioned before their time, destined to always be the kiddie rave pop band who did 'Ebeneezer Goode' and who had a mockney shamden rapper called Mr C. The new sound of then was intelligent drum'n'bass; The Shamen were not. Nowadays they could probably earn a crust as a nostalgia act, touring fields around the M25 orbital along with Altern-8 and Spiral Tribe.
But, ah, there was a time.