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Pop: Slaves to the rhythm of the market

EARLIER IN the day of The Orb's "concert", I drifted into "Creative Organisations", a short, sharp Design Council event in which the marketing guru, David Bernstein, urged business people to loosen up and (a) tolerate failure; (b) reward success; (c) encourage playfulness; (d) suspend judgement; and (e) countenance risk. Later that evening, I realised these tests could easily be applied to The Orb.

Failure? Well, the sound was terrible but the audience tolerated it. Success? You can't ignore sales. Playfulness? Anyone who promotes a single on Top of the Pops by playing chess (as they did with "Blue Room") deserves respect.

But The Orb don't play in the normal sense. They bounce up and down behind a mixing desk and a pair of turntables. Suspend judgement? Thursday's event included a chunk of "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" Despite Orb founder Alex Paterson's excellent record collection, this choice clearly required some temporary suspension of taste. Risks? More of that later.

On Friday night, The Orb's largely pre-programmed music pounded as searchlights swooped and strobes flashed, giving the illusion of pulsing activity to the crowd, with its swaying, out-of-time dancers, oblivious to the help provided by unyielding four-on-the-floor kick-drum samples. At times, the giant screen behind Paterson and multi-tasking Andy Hughes showed dazzling videos with vaguely ecological themes and abstract animations. The effect was of bravura visual improvisation over a low-density backing track.

As the night wore on and I watched more uncoordinated jiggling and swaying, it occurred to me that the lucrative "dance industry" is founded on out- of-time dancing and processed music, in the same way that the "food industry" is based on bland, processed food. Yet out in the foyer, Islington Greenpeace handed out alarming leaflets about genetic engineering and the food giants.

Despite The Orb's video critiques of mass consumption, much of what they dish up is bland, processed music. Greatest hits based on greatest hits (new album - U.F.Off - out now for the Christmas market).

When the spoken sample of "Little Fluffy Clouds" boomed incoherently over the overloaded sound system, people cheered in a kind of "I've got that record at home" way. A multi-coloured doughnut wobbled on the screen while catchy samples filled the cavernous space. The beats stopped to reveal Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint. The crowd cheered this sliver of recreational minimalism. An interesting experience; an "event".

But there were no risks being taken, no sense of the danger or passion that can come from performance. Ultimately, The Orb is more "creative business" than creative music, playing safe and sound.