Arts: Lord of the trance

Steven Berkoff, mad dog of stage and screen, is about to be unleashed on vinyl. John O' Reilly meets pop's new pin-up
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The Independent Culture
What is Steven Berkoff playing at? Why is one of our greatest contemporary dramatists, the author of Greek and Decadence, hanging out with a dance band called N-Trance, a band known mainly for shifting ludicrous quantities of singles - "Set You Free" (3-4 million), the remixed "Stayin' Alive" (1.5 million) and "D.I.S.C.O" (still counting). And what, more to the point, is a dance outfit hankering after youth appeal doing putting the voice of a 60-year-old on its new album and single?

According to N-Trance's mixmasters Dale Longworth and Kevin O'Toole, the story goes like this: they were about to go into production for their new album, The Mind of the Machine, when they saw Beverly Hills Cop, in which Berkoff appears as an art dealing villain, a variation on a role that has become his screen trademark, from the sci-fi corporate nasty in Outland to the Eastern Bloc rogue in Octopussy. The inspiration for the album was an article about the hugely powerful IBM computer Deep Blue. The piece summoned up a familiar futuristic nightmare of computers generating other computers and by-passing their human creators. The band wanted an actor who could imitate the voice of a machine. Berkoff's delivery and face seem to guarantee maliciously detached violence.

Longworth says: "We wanted a Richard Burton-type tone and thought of Anthony Hopkins. Then we saw Beverly Hills Cop and we heard this great voice, powerful and completely scary. We looked through Steven's back- catalogue and he's got the right kind of image for it. Pure evil." So were they surprised that he agreed? "When we first got in contact with his agent, he rang our record company back and said he thought we were taking the piss. We didn't believe it either, though, when he said yes."

When I arrived at the studio, the band were listening to Berkoff doing a convincing imitation of an automaton, intoning with a rich apocalyptic weariness: "We can only hope there is compassion, understanding, even pity, inside the mind of the machine." The band were directing Berkoff to deliver the lines more slowly, and at each point Berkoff gathered himself for the performance, seeminglyunaware of the function his speech would have in the music. At the end of the recording, they asked him for one more thing. Would he mind screaming "Shut Up!", which, they explained, came from Beverly Hills Cop? Berkoff became strangely self-conscious for someone who can ham with the best. He refused, saying he didn't want to cannibalise old stuff.

The actor-author had just flown in from Los Angeles where he is putting on his latest play, Massage. Its story concerns a woman, who, while working at a massage parlour, is introduced to a client who happens to be her husband. He is also bringing Coriolanus to Israel and Japan. Tanned, attired in leather jacket, baseball cap and cowboy boots, he looked every inch a West Coast rocker.

Interviewing Berkoff is a bit like being attendance at one of his one- man shows. It is, in effect, a free-wheeling monologue. Occasionally you can grab the wheels and steer. His easy conversation was variously genial, jet-lagged, vain, articulate and, above all else, communicated an endearing insecurity, masked as narcissism. Such as his claim, for example, that he has replaced William Burroughs as an icon for certain rock groups.

What attracted him to the prospect of working with N-Trance? What kind of similarities are there between dance music and the sometimes brutal theatre of Steven Berkoff? Well, for a start, his productions are often purely physical theatre without props. Empty spaces where bodies clamber over each other, which, when you think about it, is a little like clubbing. But his opening gambit was simply that he is following the money: "You have to go wherever you can to pay the mortgage."

But he was also keen to stress a history of connections with musicians, from working with Roger Daltrey in McVicar, to meeting Bono in Dublin at one of his plays, to the possibility of working with Sting in the future. He is flattered by the interest that musicians have shown.

And he is clear about the relationship of rock and the kind of theatre he is interested in. "It's about an emotional, physical, psychological release and abandonment, which I think is the nature of drama. But most theatre doesn't really explore that any more. Drama is about the releasing of demons and devils out of the public psyche. The original Greek theatre was a bloody business. It was meant to be a sop, an amelioration to contend against death, violence, plague, wars. It harnesses our energies. To some extent, the only people who have replaced that primitive, vital, throbbing, dangerous theatre in the 20th century have been rock stars."

In this way, Berkoff is an enigma. He is a man who knows exactly what rock music should be about - so why is he considering working with Sting? His early theatre was punk in spirit and it comes as no surprise to hear him suggest that the sneering, Brechtian John Lydon was an early imitator. "He came to look at my style. I think he impersonated me a bit. He came to see East and the one-man show where I did Dog." (Lydon, of course, would turn it around and brag that Berkoff copied him.) I asked him to define this style that so fascinates members of the rock world. "The candidness and the very frankness of the language I use, and its physical expression on stage.I sometimes have a little bit of disdain for what I regard as the sour arse of the establishment and rock 'n' roll has some kind of finger on the pulse of what energises people." His taste for it is selective, however: while he sees this project as a natural extension of what he does, unlike Irvine Welsh, you don't see him putting his face about in clubs.

N-Trance themselves are a deeply schizophrenic band. Aside from what they see as the promo music of "D.I.S.C.O.", which is basically pop junk, "Stayin' Alive" got the imprimatur of Pete Tong's "Record of the Week" long before it reversed the relationship with their bank manager.

I asked Berkoff whether he thought he might be a new pop sensation and whether he had considered touring. He turned the thought over, partly to see how it might sound and partly as a genuine fancy, of how the idea might play out. "I think I'm going to go out with my own rock 'n' roll group. Have a new career, write my own songs, have my own backing group. I'd like to tour a bit, become Number One. Using my language, putting it to music, so it becomes more coherent, more political, more emotive, creating a more powerful, more dissentious kind of language." When it comes to pop, Berkoff is a chancer. If he learns to swear a bit more in interviews, and be a bit more surly, he might even have a career.

`The Mind of The Machine' is released on All Around the World next month