In the late-1980s, when acid house was the craze in Detroit and, later, Northern England, I was wallowing in elementary school. I never got to go to a warehouse rave, but I have read about them, and I can still listen to the music. That’s hardly a substitute, I know. But maybe the best I can hope for are neatly packaged, conveniently organized documents of the past that offer glimpses into the original era.
The members of 808 State, seminal figures in the emergence and hysteria surrounding acid house in Manchester in 1988’s summer of love, have dusted off and released a bunch of recordings from the vaults. Prebuild is a collection of recordings pre-dating their 1988 debut, Newbuild. If nothing more, it offers a fascinating document of the group on the cusp and in the center of the drastic change occurring in British music. Much more than a historical document, Prebuild is an entirely listenable, challenging and original interpretation on the sounds that were emanating from the American Midwest.
After the dissolution of his post-punk band Biting Tongues, Graham Massey was learning sound engineering at a local studio and simultaneously discovering American techno. Martin Price owned one of the two shops in town that imported those records. Gerald Simpson was a customer. The three got together in 1988 because they each had different pieces of electronic equipment, and 808 State was born.
Massey, the group’s only consistent member, sums up perfectly in the liner notes the inherent limitations of working within the genre’s confines: “I always saw the acid stuff as an imitative first step toward finding an identity in electronic music.” What is truly surprising about Prebuild is that its ten tracks sound more innovative than imitative. The group furthers — beyond recognition — the standard random squelching 303 bass over a simple 808 beat that comprises most acid tracks. A raw urgency defines “Automatic”; an ominous live bass loop and creepy vocal sample give “Ride” an unexpected dark edge; the similarly dark “Clonezone” sounds more EBM than acid. Fascinating as well are the three bedroom recordings made by Simpson, who split ways with Massey and Price after Newbuild was released to record solo as A Guy Called Gerald.
It seems like 808 State has put out Prebuild to say, “We were there, we did it, we moved on,” but that just sells the album short. The collection is musically solid and stands the test of time because the trio did not adhere to the confines of a genre. They experimented with a new sound, and the enthusiasm with which it was done pours over every track. From the group that would go on to release the classics “Pacific State” and “Cubik,” Prebuild is a worthwhile addition to understanding 808 State and dance music’s progression. And for someone with the gift and the curse to be young in 2004, it is essential.