ROBIN CARMODY on a lost treasure of the early 1990s.
So the hippies came back. After the shoegazing bores and the dregs of Madchester's lumpen-prole ethos, 1992, 1993 and, at a pinch, early 1994 saw a development nobody could have predicted at the start of the decade. The Orb were suddenly the hippest band in Britain, the Megadog club the centre of a significant youth tribe, and the so-called crusty movement (and, it has to be said, its dull guitar-heavy hellspawn The Levellers) was a major talking point, its places of worship, apart from the evergreen Glastonbury, being the massive weekend rave at Castlemorton in May 1992, and the motorway protests at Newbury and Twyford Down. The old guard rode the wave; Steve Hillage suddenly had a career again with System 7, Mike Oldfield rehashed Tubular Bells and found himself back at the top of the charts, and the 20th anniversary of Dark Side Of The Moon saw Pink Floyd return to the Melody Maker cover (a consciously hip inkie, note, not Q or Rolling Stone where that generation of bands had never really gone away). And the Manic Street Preachers cast themselves as keepers of the punk flame, their hippy-bashing rhetoric (especially that of Nicky Wire) sounding like a conscious attempt to defend the post-punk orthodoxy as, 15 years after the fact, it was suddenly called into question.
The Orb made some magnificent records, of course, but the others mentioned above fully deserve their historical fate as also-rans, equivalent in their own scene to Shed Seven in the Oasis-era wave. The most interesting band to be vaguely allied to this movement was Ultramarine, who always seemed decidedly out-of-place, virtually uncategorisable, though Orbital, Future Sound of London and the ruralist side of Saint Etienne, shown on their 1994 album Tiger Bay (arguably the contemporary record closest to United Kingdoms in spirit, and another of the very few albums in the last 10 years that has reignited the past-into-future ethos that briefly flowered in British music circa 1969 / 1970) would seem like good comparison points. Their creative forces of Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond - previously members of 80s avant-funkers A Primary Industry - had actually emerged in 1989 with the EP Wyndham Lewis (which sampled recordings of the writer from 1940, and which I'd be very interested to hear considering my interest in him, largely inspired by Mark E. Smith) followed by Folk in 1990, a record whose title suggested the direction they were about to take.
The strange thing is that, musically, I don't actually rate 1993's United Kingdoms as highly as I might - parts of it, especially during the second half of the album, sound to me rather flabby and overtly jazz-fusionist. Their previous album, 1992's Every Man And Woman Is A Star, seemed like a non-embarrassing update of the "peace and love" ethos (those sampled ranged from the hipster-acceptable end of prog - Soft Machine - to the almost supernaturally unfashionable - Judie Tzuke), and which attempted to rehabilitate the quintessentially unhip 70s AOR-country band America (Cooper & Hammond claimed to admire the "peculiar, organic, woody production" of early America recordings, also an adequate description of their own reinvention of techno). Over time I've come to love Every Man And Woman Is A Star enough for me to endorse the claims from certain informed quarters - Simon Reynolds, for one - that, sonically, the earlier album is their masterpiece. But in terms of its ethos, United Kingdoms is their most interesting record and certainly the one most relevant to the site this piece was originally intended for. While most of their contemporaries who could have been stigmatised as "hippy techno" - the unspeakable Psychick Warriors of Gaia and others of that shameful ilk - caught the disease of self-indulgence and rampant, excessive mysticism from where the mainstream hippy movement ended up, United Kingdoms drew spiritually, if not sonically, on the apparent paradox of the folk-rock movement; music which sounded as though it had been there, in some form, for centuries, but which at the same time travelled buoyantly and joyously into the future. I was disproportionately irritated when this kind of comparison was made back when I was a junior music press reader, but if dance music could be said to have had a fairly close equivalent to Fairport Convention's ever-more significant Liege and Lief, United Kingdoms was it.
It opens with the thrillingly panoramic "Source", which lives up to its title in sounding like the starting point for a journey, the place where new life - and indeed a whole new approach to life - begins. But the next track, "Kingdom", and the fifth track, "Happy Land", are at the heart of United Kingdoms; they are the most explicit links drawn with a deeper tradition of British countryside protest, radicalism and dissent; both rearranged traditional songs written very much from the perspective of the working class, and both wonderfully sung, with a heartbreaking mixture of resignation and defiance, by Robert Wyatt (whose first band Soft Machine, and the late 60s / early 70s "Canterbury scene" more generally, had been a major influence on Ultramarine). They would have seemed mouldy and irrelevant if performed in a "traditional" style, but the dance arrangements, while themselves now sounding very of-their-time, gave them a new resonance and meaning after the long Conservative era, with the new ruling class displaying what came close to a psychological fetish of contempt for the rest of the population, almost a less blatant and less harsh modern equivalent of the same thing. Certainly, the depressing topicality of the endlessly repeated line "We're low, we're low ..." in "Kingdom", and the "Happy land, where 'tis a crime, they tell us, to be poor" line in "Happy Land", in themselves draw connections between eras, and if your natural conclusion - that the self-proclaimed "guardians of the countryside" have never really changed - is harshly cynical, that might just be because it's true. With the past-into-present significance of these songs, and the sadness of the flatness in Wyatt's voice (so unemotional it is emotional) I never tire of hearing either.
These songs are interspersed with three excellent instrumental tracks - "Queen of the Moon" is fast, driven and compelling, suggesting some kind of new ritual, inspired by the young rather than as a piece of heritage culture for the middle-aged, perhaps a maypole dance imbued with the spirit of the first wave of acid house. "Prince Rock" is similarly fizzing and evocative, its title making me imagine a new title or honour in some previously unimagined kind of community. And "Urf" has United Kingdoms's most hypnotic hook by far - the sound of a blacksmith at work leading into an electro riff Herbie Hancock would have killed for in 1983 (the epitome of the album's cultural duality), and then into a fantastic old-school hip-hop beat over which New York circa 1984, and Dorset as it is in an ideal world, meet, and get on perfectly. Rarely, if ever, since 1979 has the past flowed into the future so wonderfully in British music.
The second half of the album, sadly, sees a considerable decline. "English Heritage" is a masterstroke of a title - the organisation of that name was formed in the 80s to repackage a cleaned-up, slickly packaged version of England's history and iconography to Tory-voting yuppies (it was formed out of a musty, stuffy old government department whose name unfortunately escapes me, but it was essentially the equivalent of the glossing-up of the Times and the Telegraph in the 80s and 90s, after they fell out of old British aristocratic money and into the hands of international press barons), and therefore it embodies the opposite approach to our traditions, especially in rural areas, to that which Ultramarine were advocating. Sadly, it's a fairly soporific, ridiculously overlong chill-out track, not really living up to its tantalising title, though the fade back in towards the end does convey an approach to life which can seem outmoded sometimes, but can be reanimated and strengthened anew. But it's disappointly weak, just not enough.
But then we have wonderment. "Instant Kitten" is the most sublime moment on the album without Wyatt's voice - it's euphoria encapsulated, gasping down through a shaft of light at a new society forming, like Castlemorton if it had been free of crusties; it has a feeling of elation that even Paddy Kingsland in 1973 couldn't have equalled. The song it leads into, "The Badger", develops a slightly irritating rhythmic imitation of the creature of its title, and is overlong, but the clarinet and string arrangement stay on just the right side of Galliano / early Jamiroquai dead end street, and they do have a feel of the involvement of nature in a redeveloped, restructured community. "Hooter" is better; menacing, breathing funk, the sound of a slightly threatening late-night walk along the A37.
"Dizzy Fox" suffers from the same problem as "English Heritage" and "The Badger" in that it's at least 2 minutes too long, and it's brought down by those definitively early 90s breaks and hi-hats which now make it sound intensely of-its-time, hard to communicate with us today. No doubt it's meant to evoke a fox drunk on his previously unknown freedoms in this new society, and the flute's pleasant enough, but after eight minutes of this I'm on the verge of falling asleep. But closing track "No Time", thankfully much shorter, is more than enough in compensation; a perfect balance of relaxation and assertion, it's the ideal summary of what we've just heard, and leaves me, at least, distinctively more optimistic for the future.
Especially in the context of 1993 - the year when John Major famously defined Britain and Britishness in the most narrow, backward, ethnically-exclusive terms imaginable - United Kingdoms's utopian vision of how things could be, a perfect coalition of tradition and progressivism, was as positive a change as could be hoped for. A full decade on, for all its faults, it retains that quality; you feel intensely refreshed and uplifted by the experience of hearing it.
Ultramarine themselves never picked up on the threads they left dangling here - their subsequent albums, 1995's Bel Air and 1998's A User's Guide, neither of which I've heard, saw them taking new directions and were largely ignored, though the gorgeous David McAlmont version of "Hymn", a song written for them by Kevin Ayers, picked up some airplay in the spring of 1996. But the real tragedy of this story is what came after United Kingdoms; as dance retreated back to its urban origins, indie-rock mutated into Britpop, refusing the album's vision of Britain as a diverse and pluralistic set of societies which nevertheless had something "whole" connecting them, in favour of a nostalgic 60s idea of a blindly optimistic monolithic Britain and a fatuous idea of metropolitan chic - and discarding Ultramarine's unacknowledged and unspoken lineage in favour of a canon of 60s "greats" which was about as wide in its scope as the playlist of Capital Gold. And that's what makes listening to United Kingdoms such a poignant and piquant experience now; it has the feel of an abandoned manifesto, a discarded agenda for how pop could evolve, which was then harshly dismissed amid a new determination for commercialism and the lowest common denominator, and the dated sound of some of the tracks just adds to that feeling.
Nonetheless, when some of us imagine a Parallel Nineties where everything that went wrong in pop went, somehow, right, it is of United Kingdoms that we think first, and envisage a world where Cooper & Hammond were identified with Wyatt and Ayers far more, and by far more people, than Damon Albarn with Ray Davies or Gallagher with Lennon. The phrase "Cool Britannia" would never have been heard, either. Come to think of it, that's the starting point for a whole other essay ...
Robin Carmody, 9th April 2001
http://www.headrush.net/ch0ke/ultramarine - as close to a complete guide to their work as any website comes. Essential reading, especially when you consider the paucity of other sites.
http://www.allmusic.com/cg/x.dll?p=amg&sql=B27117 - brief and rather glib, US-biased biog from the All Music Guide, who annoyingly spend more time on their ridiculous maps and browsers than they do on the actual music. I refuse to link to their classically ignorant and error-ridden review of United Kingdoms itself.
http://www.strongcomet.com/wyatt/collabor/ultramarine.htm - well-designed piece on United Kingdoms from a Wyatt site, though "Urf" is unfortunately excluded from the tracklisting.
http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~tewing/2000_05_14_singlesa.html#225190 - less euphoric in its praise for the band than some of the above, but in contrast to some of the above, very well-written; Tom Ewing on Kingdom, from the English Tape which remains one of the finest strands ever to run in Tom's blog, New York London Paris Munich. I'm sad enough to remember exactly where I was when chatting with Tom about this review just after he'd written it (in a library in Ely looking at the biggest computer screen I'd ever seen in my life, for my sins).
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ultramarine - and there's even a mailing list, not that much seems to go on there.