It hurts my Mancunian soul to write these words but it’s the label Factory should have been.
The products of a warped mind – Incendiary celebrate Warp records
A few years ago a young history teacher told me the first problem he had to overcome whilst teaching kids about the events of 1989 was explaining that the Berlin Wall was indeed a real wall, but the Iron Curtain wasn’t a real curtain. Like me, he was 17 in that pivotal year – an age at which the world always starts spinning a bit faster as new experiences flash past almost every weekend. For us though this was against a background of global change the likes of which hadn’t been seen for half a century: free elections in Poland heralded aftershocks across Eastern Europe and by the end of the year the Wall had gone; Ceausescu got the world’s worst Christmas present, Czechoslovakia conducted a peaceful revolution based largely on the works of Frank Zappa (or something) though in Tiananmen Square China’s pro-democracy protesters didn’t have it quite so easy. Brazil and Chile held their first free elections at least in our lifetime, the gears of progress started turning in South Africa, whilst at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground the face of English football would be changed forever. Frankly I’m quite glad I was 17 – it’d have all been enough to fuck a settled grown-up’s head right in.
Technology was advancing at no lesser a rate: the first radar images of asteroids, the first of the 24 satellites that make up the GPS we take for granted today blinked into life, and Nintendo released an oddly-named thing called the Gameboy. It’ll never catch on. We were young and the new world belonged to us, and we needed music that reflected all this. The previous year Manchester’s Hacienda DJs had returned from the Balearics stuffed full of these mad pills that made them think spinning psychedelic indie, Northern Soul, 70s disco and Chicago house all at once was a good idea but I was your typical teenage 80s indie snob and dance music was for stupid people. That had all changed the night I saw 808 State for the first time; this wasn’t like other dance music and there wasn’t a handbag in sight. This was – well, what the hell was it exactly? A hard, heavy beat. A strange, almost alien sounding vocal sample cuts in followed by some bleepy noises, twisting around each other, looping into something more mathematical algorithm than music as we knew it; it appeared to be coming not from the stage but from the mixing desk where some really ordinary looking blokes were pushing buttons on boxes, and once and for all my distrust of electronic music was blown to shreds. I wasn’t the only one, and by the time the rest of the country caught up my generation of Mancunians were quite used to going watching three guitar bands at the Boardwalk before hitting the dancefloor elsewhere for some bangin’ tunes; by the time The Stone Roses swapped support bands for DJs it made perfect sense to us.
Things were changing the other side of the Pennines too, specifically in Sheffield – effectively the cradle of British electronic music whose legacy of Cabaret Voltaire et al was suddenly being embraced by this new generation. Founders Steve Beckett, Rob Mitchell and Robert Gordon acquired an Enterprise Allowance grant, borrowed a mate’s car, pressed up 500 copies of Forgemasters’ Track With No Name and Warp was born; within a year LFO and Tricky Disco cracked the Top 20 with their eponymous debut singles whilst the music press desperately tried to keep up (as well as figure out if they were all actually the same person) – suddenly their classic constituency of pale indie kids were as excited by BPMs as Rickenbackers. Then in the early 90s things got really interesting. As Warp presided over the clubs and charts, its wayward offspring Artificial Intelligence started sticking out a series of records which sounded absolutely nothing like anything else ever. This is of course not strictly true, but in those pre-internet pre-repackaging-boom days Delia Derbyshire et al’s White Noise: An Electric Storm wasn’t something your average person had access to. This was probably the first time abstract experimental electronica had been readily available in normal record shops – even the local library in south Manchester stocked Autechre and Aphex Twin. I’m still not entirely sure this should have been allowed.
The 21st century has seen far too many independent (in spirit as much as distribution) record labels collapse – now’s probably not the time or place for the Great Fileshare Debate but do think about that next time you rip an album you can’t be bothered to spend the price of three pints on – and yet Warp is still standing. It hurts my Mancunian soul to write these words but it’s the label Factory should have been. The furore amongst largely bearded purists when the label signed indie-guitar band Maximo Park was hilarious, not least in the way it completely ignored the fact that commercial success for the bouncy Geordie popsters created a pile of cash which could be used to support the deranged activities of the likes of Prefuse 73 / Diamond Watch Wrists (yes, they are actually the same person); somewhere between the two sits Atlas by Battles, surely one of the weirdest records ever to become an indie disco dancefloor smash.
Whcih brings us neatly to the present day. I still can’t quite get my head round the fact that the electronic revolution of 1989 was twenty years ago, as those recent Orbital shows (surely Warp’s "missed trick" the way Wilson always cited the Smiths as Factory’s) have forced me to consider. And now there’s this – not so much a collection of music as a monument. It arrived a week ago, the Parcelforce courier surprised by its weight, and it’s standing like the "2001" monolith on my living room table. It is quite the most outrageously packaged collection of music I own, and will eventually (I suppose) share shelf space with all my favourite pieces of vinyl, including my four-disc Radiophonic Workshop box set and much-loved collection of early Maps singles (including one which James Chapman himself doesn’t actually have a copy of, a fact which amuses me every time I, er, don’t play it because I’ve got the tracks on CD). Because Warp Records understand their target market really bloody well. And they know that if there’s one format we ageing electronica addicts prize above all other, it is the ten inch vinyl.
There are five of them. FIVE! Three beautiful medium-sized vinyl singles containing wayward and rare cuts by luminaries such as Boards Of Canada, Broadcast and (of course) Autechre, amongst others. Two more containing a collection of locked-groove tracks from the label archives, for those who prefer to DJ and sample in the traditional way. All of them housed in debossed (it’s like embossed but goes in rather than out) uncoated card sleeves, for those who like to, um, look at nice stuff. And then there are the CDs – each wrapped in a glossy ten inch hardback book cover depicting a purple Mobius loop in a variety of environments. People who buy this box set are also the sort of people who love Mobius loops; it’s geek heaven. There are two "Best Of"s featuring all your favourite bleepy classics from LFO to Aphex’s Windowlicker. There are two selections of covers whereby everyone on the label has a crack at each others’ tunes; Diamond Watch Wrists take on Pivot, Autechre fucks with LFO. And best of all, a continuous mix whereby pieces of 65 different tracks, from Luke Vibert to !!!, Sabres Of Paradise to (yes, really) Maximo Park float around in a single glorious soup as the beats shift through techno, house, hip-hop and stuff that sounds like domestic appliances malfunctioning. And yes, it cost a stupid amount of money, but frankly who cares? This isn’t just music, this is history. One day in the future they will teach it in schools, explaining that yes, there really did used to be a wall across the middle of a European capital city that you could be shot for climbing over – and weirder than that, people on both sides of it listened to music by sticking a sharp needle on a rotating plate of plastic.
Hapy birthday Warp, and here’s to the next 20.
Words: Cath Aubergine 2009.