The Orb - Adventures Beyond the Factory Floor

As with all these sorts of schemes it came unstuck: the acid came on like a thief in the night and he apparently battled giant snowmen down the M66, swerving to avoid them as they enacted a monstrous snowball fight.

This LP’s been on my mind. Quite a bit. And I’m not sure why. I’ve not played it in ages till recently, when it near enough bowled me over with its aplomb and sheer Psychicke scale. For some reason Adventures… is making its presence felt in my life again, catching me out in my walking dreams, turning up when I’m abstractedly flicking through my vinyl. The opening moments before Little Fluffy Clouds kicked in, cosy and familiar as the shipping forecast, just keep whirring up and springing into life, like some long forgotten card index… “Over the last few years, to the traditional sounds of the English summer…” The feeling that this LP’s time is coming again is strong with me, now it’s just passed its 21st birthday – keys to a new door and all that. Conscientious chap that I am, I thought I’d try and make some article out of this, some sense of my jumbled, incoherent thoughts and serve them up, fast food style, to you. But first I have to tell you a story and by way of the telling, a little preamble.

When you work in a factory you need mates, dudes on your side… lads who can show you the ropes. Especially when you’re a gauche, wet as fuck late teen paying off the rent for the moulding, damp room in a violent suburb: the place you call your student digs. Your first week can be a head fuck and it’s good to get some strong non-authority types onside*

My factory mate – well he wasn’t a true mate in the sense of the word, but we did get friendly for a while – my mate was a lad in his late 30’s who I’ll call Alan. Our shared passion was music and beer. I’d pop round to his gaff, nestling in the wet, grey labyrinth of terraced rows snugly set under the glowering, murky presence of the Coppice in Accrington. Once his wife and daughter had gone out on the town, me and about 3 other lads from the factory would start to break open the cans of cheap mild or bitter from the offy and roll up whatever dope we’d pilfered: and Alan would get the records out. Given that he was in his late 30s in 1989/90, and given that he liked what was then known to us proto/wannabe Heads as “the underground”, he had a ridiculous record collection to pilfer and learn our social mores from. For example, his Bowie LPs had all suffered that classic 70’s affectation of –in what seemed initially to be a pointless act to be beloved of many but probably with hindsight a good and widespread insurance against theft - his own name scrawled, artistically it must be said, over the cover and inside sleeve. But I digress…

ANYWAY… Alan’s records were rare as hen’s teeth for a provincial no mark with no money like myself. Perry, the best bits of Zappa, Beefheart, Can, Gong, Faust, Roxy, Velvets, Jamaican Ska and Northern Soul, Bowie, Funkadelic, Prince Far I… Now and again, as a token to sort of balance up the amount of stuff I was borrowing off him I’d bring something round that was new: my offerings were mainly the meat and two veg of the time, things he wouldn’t indulge in. We’d make tapes. You did back then. I remember talking up stuff like Lush, Spiritualised, Pale Saints, Stone Roses, Blue Nile, House of Love, Mondays and Ride, blah blah… and he’d listen and dismiss most of it and put Wire or Richard Strange on. But some things he loved: one was the Kraftwerk mix LP, and the other was The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld. In fact he got so into that record it sort of sent him a bit bonkers for a while. I remember him telling me, sitting utterly bug eyed on his couch, the offending record blaring out – completely blanking his wife, who’d be giving out to us both about the noise - that this was the LP that was as close to New Order’ s PCL for a truly elemental drug sound. He’d try to read deep wisdom into the Russian voice samples on tracks like Earth (Gaia) or Spanish Castles in Space. He’d sit there looking at the speakers, waiting for that nugget of wisdom to fall out into the palm of his hand: the golden dewdrop that would explain everything.

I remember him saying when the Orb played Manchester about late 1992 – just before UFOrb came out I think - that he was going. And to celebrate he’d go on acid, timing his trip to kick in just as the band came in. As with all these sorts of schemes it came unstuck: the acid came on like a thief in the night and he apparently battled giant snowmen down the M66, swerving to avoid them as they enacted a monstrous snowball fight. “An obscure road in the N-W System, your majesty. The inhabitants refer to it as the M66….” My memories of that night was swallowing a lot of dope to avoid a bouncer and wondering what the fuck was going on with my vision as I kept seeing various characters from the Battle of Waterloo – Picton, Boney, Bluecher… as well as vainly trying to stop laughing at a light fitting in Rusholme. But that gig was an event, regardless. The Orb were an event in themselves. Their LPs were events.

So what was it about this particular LP that gloriously drove Alan, techno-coloured and raving and unafraid through what must have, in hindsight, been his male menopause; what was it that prompted us guitar loving Sonic Youth fans to explore the dance culture we’d been slightly wary of a few short years before (and certainly were dismissive of, once the whole “Madchester charabanc” got spray painted a queasy shade of primary colours)? What was it about this LP? Maybe because it calmed us down. Tracks like Back Side of The Moon or Perpetual Dawn informed us in a tremendously gracious and generous manner. It also came out at a time when a lot of things seemed possible musically: what with the three behemoths of that year driving music into what we thought was some kind of never ending Arcady, but in fact turned out to be a cliff’s edge before a descent (in my opinion) into pastiche and empty gesture. MBV’s Loveless, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and this LP were the corner stones – sod Nevermind, I don’t think I ever bothered with that.

I suppose Adventures… made us realise that these sorts of sounds could be given a modern, foreword-thinking interpretation. My mate Mark** was as knocked out as I was: I usually remember Mark as a supine presence at university, especially when this was on the turntable. He’d be propped up on his bed, listening to the whole thing from start to finish and back again in this remarkably unruffled way, just not moving. Nope, it was all about (as I think Mark said, slightly preposterously), channelling Barrett in the medium of dance. Now.

The most gargantuan trip: right now. I’d been to some primitive raves in 1987-8 with another mate, Martin, who got quite into the whole scene that starting evolving round old industrial sites round Shadsworth, or Altham Industrial Estate, a place too perilously close to my parents’ house to allow any uninhibited enjoyment. I liked driving to some godforsaken place to find out there was a party that contained no-one wearing chinos and listening to the Reynolds Sisters well enough, but somehow it just didn’t connect. The music was insistent and raw, chapped lipped: often lacking a lot of depth, or so it seemed. It just felt incredibly exciting and not a lot more. And you spent a lot of time avoiding falling into disused sump pits… Unlike a lot of the music at those early rave acts the Orb lot were bravely and carelessly channelling sounds from everywhere and anywhere: hitching it up to a world view that lasted beyond the dawn.

That the sounds on tracks like Outlands were referencing or emulating things that most of us just couldn’t get our hands on back then, things out of print or naively seen as naff, like early T-Dream, Dub, Gong, Piper at the Gates of Dawn/Sauceful of Secrets –era Floyd didn’t matter. It seemed immense. In a way it looked forward to what DJ Shadow and a lot of others like DJ Krush did in the late 90s. It was an outlying stone maybe for the moment when Warp, Coldcut or Aphex Twin and those tremendous Trans Europe and Trans American Express compilations started to make a splash. A signifier to say that dance music could have 20-20 vision almost: and unlike these others, the Orb possibly made the first record to truly marry the feelings thrown open by acid house with things from the standard rock canon: victory by assimilation, with no attempt to appear “on-message”. It was like a delightful secret - like the best boyfriend a girl could possibly have….

The only bum track was the last, which sounded stodgy, sounded as if it wanted to please: even the name was long-winded… A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre of the Ultraworld… I just don’t know why I didn’t get it. Bits of it were tremendous, the beginning of it promised so much – using that “ahhing” that worked so well for The Stone Roses on something like Simone or This is The One. But the bit when the “Loving You” sample came in I just wanted to bash the bloody thing. It was too soggy, too obvious, lacking any of the quicksilver charm of the rest of the LP.

After that the follow up LP, UFOrb was a gas (we had the gig episode don’t forget) and the Glastonbury live LP was tremendous and then I don’t know what… I just slipped out of that particular mind-set. You noticed – as with all things (and as that the opening line in Little Fluffy Clouds had indeed foretold) – that the initial moment of promise had atrophied into an accepted, routine type of behaviour for people getting out of it… just a hod of braying people who were, as Cocker said, sorted for E’s and whizz. I started buying lots of Julian Cope LPs. He was in fine form round 1993 in any case.

Sometimes LPs are like the messengers from Olympus; they come and go in different guises, leaving us guessing as to what to do next. And Adventures… just slipped off to some other, slightly off-kilter place in my psyche. But still, there’s something stirring again. Maybe it’s the male menopause, passed on down by our Alan.

* Something I’ve held to in all the years I’ve worked in factories. Saves untold hassle.

** Mark recently & rightly reminded me of the Aubrey remixes which are definitely worth a mention in the context of this review