Saturday Night: The techno ice-cream van is on its way

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Indy Lifestyle Online
HE DOES NOT like it, the big-shot music journalist at the bar. In fact, he hates the idea of popular music minus pop stars. Stands to reason, really. The cult of personality is, quite literally, meat and drink to the rock hagiographer. So it comes as a swift kick in his ample, Armani-clad backside to learn that Warhol was wrong. The message is clear: we do not want your 15 minutes of fame, you can shove it.

I mean, here we are in the Brixton Academy, with 3,500 assorted freaks, students, travellers, unreconstructed hippies, crusties, tech-heads and ravers, to bear witness to the coming of 'intelligent techno'. And the leading players - who are all present and correct - are virtually indistinguishable from the crowd.

Not since punk has a burgeoning music scene had such egalitarian ideals, such disarming navety. Already, people are comparing the Midi Circus to the Anarchy In The UK tour of 1976; and you will remember how most music journalists felt about punk's first flowering.

The Midi Circus is a travelling state-of-the-art party, a touring revue featuring acts from the underground techno scene. Theirs is strange and often beautiful music, which might be described as 'demanding'. Its lack of lyrical content means there is no ready-made emotional framework: it does not tell you how to feel, that is up to you.

Some of it is for dancing, some of it for listening. A lot of it serves both functions adequately. Some of it is performed live, some of it is played by DJs, although you would be hard pressed to spot the join.

Collectively, it is an affront to conventional notions of pop - the kind practised by, say, George Michael. You will not hear any warmed-over Tamla Motown licks tonight. No pink Versace jackets or Nuremberg-style singalongs for this crowd. Instead, The Drum Club are joined on stage by a girl called Annabelle who plays a mean didgeridoo, techno's ethnic instrument du jour. But your eye is drawn away, to the coloured strobes of the light show, the psychedelic projections on the overhead banners, the motion of the crowd. People are wearing T-shirts saying 'Feed Your Head' and 'I Think Therefore I Ambient'.

As the MC announces the Aphex Twin - aka Richard James - I turn to Tony Marcus, cultural critic of i-D magazine. 'He usually performs with his eyes shut, kneeling in a junkyard of gaffa-taped Seventies synthesisers,' he says. 'You can see him talking to himself. It looks like he's praying but he's counting the bars, so he knows when to start the next sequence.'

And the sound? 'It's like a skyscraper falling down very slowly.' Tonight's music ranges from bog-standard, trance-inducing pulse to sublime arhythmic sound paintings.

But perhaps most intriguing is the genre's steadily increasing popularity. Most of its principal exponents have sold around 30,000 LPs, a respectable quantity these days. The Orb, the Irresistible Force, the Aphex Twin, Orbital; all of them sell in volume. Yet by conventional media terms they are invisible, and that is how they like it. They are not interested in hype. They communicate quite eloquently with sound alone, thank you.

'Most people in pop music simply want sex, drugs and ego gratification,' says Mixmaster Morris, widely regarded as the UK's foremost ambient DJ and a stalwart of the underground techno scene for the last five years. 'Any of us could have sold out by now, but none of us want that kind of 'success'.

'I could be playing crappy remixes of Lisa Stansfield at the Ministry for big money, but I'd rather nurture this scene. It's mushrooming. There are tens of thousands of people making their own e1ectronic music at home now, and it's growing all the time.'

Digital sampling started it, computer programming and cheap, studio quality, home-recording technology did the rest. Trade magazines and independent record companies say 30 per cent of the demo tapes they receive now are ambient techno, dance music minus the drums, pop stripped to its elemental form, where only the atmosphere remains.

Much of it will be trash, but there is a small yet significant trend away from passive consumerism, and towards self-reliance and improvisation. The Midi Circus is the focus for this trend and, like any good circus, it is luring young runaways.

A crew of around 30 have followed the show on its tour around the UK. 'It's like the techno ice-cream van coming to your neighbourhood,' says Kris Needs, New Musical Express journalist and techno artist. 'Kids just can't resist.'

While Morris and the Orb's Alex Paterson layer the 'chill-out room' with delicate washes of sound-colour, the fire-eaters are busy singeing eyebrows in the foyer and dodging the jugglers and the unicyclist.

Upstairs in the gallery there is not a seat to be had, as the crowd flops exhausted after another high-energy set from techno darlings Orbital. Glenn Barden, freelance journalist for Mixmag, describes them thus: 'It's not exactly ecstasy music, but it has just enough of that old pumping rave vibe to stimulate your central nervous system, and get your body expecting that rush.'

This is how the ambient or intelligent techno scene evolved. The free- thinkers and originators moved on as the 'teds' moved in, encouraged by the media's over-emphasis on the drug angle. They went farther underground, playing a circuit of one-off parties and squats. Then they met up with the travellers and hippies and found an enthusiastic reception for their more experimental ideas. Networks have developed, a form of synergy evolved.

Now, according to Morris, the real test is to avoid making the same mistakes again. 'Over the last five years techno got faster, harder and more macho. I hate that. I want people to make music that is more emotionally engaging, strange and more effective at stimulating minds.

'Look, people don't want to dance all the time. Sometimes they want to stop and listen. I say it's time to lie down and be counted.'

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