By the late 1980s, the DIY ethos of punk had infected dance music culture. Helped by cheap, readily available second-hand electronic instruments and, in the Atari-ST, an affordable home computer that boasted in-built MIDI ports, bedrooms and basements were transformed into home studios by a generation of young people inspired by a mixture of transformative Ecstasy experiences, forward-thinking records from the United States, and the up-all-night allure of acid house culture.
As a result, a swathe of important, influential and inspiring records were created at home, often within inner-city neighbourhoods which those within the more affluent suburbs viewed with suspicion – and sometimes outright hostility. In Manchester, former footworker and breakdancer Gerald Simpson recorded oodles of demos – including one for groundbreaking chart smash ‘Voodoo Ray’ – on his mum’s kitchen table, with various drum machines and synthesisers connected to a tiny home mixing desk.
Over the Pennines in Leeds, another nondescript terrace house on Bayswater Mount in Chapeltown was a hive of music-making activity. The house belonged to Martin Williams, a much-loved local DJ who worked two part-time jobs: one behind the counter at Crash Records as their ‘dance buyer’, and another teaching computer skills to unemployed teenagers at the Sidestep training centre, one of many organisations dotted around the country set up to try and give working-class youngsters a leg up during the tail-end of the Thatcher era.
Williams shared his Bayswater Mount home with his girlfriend and baby daughter. In turn, they shared it with a procession of music-mad local young people who came to spend time in Williams’ studio – a converted attic that housed his record collection (the envy of many in the neighbourhood), an Atari-ST, a sampler, drum machine and a small collection of synths.
Lots of music was recorded here in 1988, ’89 and ’90, with a variety of friends and like-minded individuals joining Williams in the cramped attic space – either to work on tracks, listen to what he was up to or simply hang out. This itself isn’t all that extraordinary – bedroom studio spaces, used by groups of friends who pooled equipment, were ten-a-penny during this period – but the property does have a greater case for being awarded a blue plaque than other similar set-ups. For it was here, in the Spring of 1989, that one of British dance music’s most significant and influential records was recorded, LFO’s peerless ‘L.F.O’.
When the track was finally released the following summer, it was almost impossible to escape the growing influence of “Yorkshire bleep”, a style initially pioneered by Bradford outfit Unique 3, but enthusiastically embraced by others in Leeds and Sheffield. Between October 1988 and the summer of 1990, a steady stream of of genuinely innovative records (some of which, such as Unique 3’s ‘Only The Beginning’ and Forgemasters’ ‘Track With No Name’, are covered elsewhere in the Bleepography series) hit record shop shelves and codified the “bleep” blueprint – think skeletal, electro-influenced house rhythms wrapped in sparse but addictive electronic melodies, the glassy-eyed futurism of Detroit techno and the booming low-end pressure of dub reggae. Even the inevitable copycat records that followed – pale imitations for the most part, with the odd notable exception – were more impactful sonically than much that had come before: these were tracks that hit you hard in the head, heart and gut.
As I discuss in Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music, and elsewhere on this website, bleep was a musical revolution the likes of which British dance music had never seen before. It was far-sighted and futuristic, but owed much to dub soundsystem culture, an influence on British dance music that would only grow stronger in the years and decades to come. Crucially, “bleep” cuts were not pale imitations of records from Chicago, Detroit or New York but something uniquely homegrown.
The biggest early bleep records – Unique 3’s ‘The Theme’, Nightmares on Wax’s ‘Dextrous’ and Sweet Exorcist’s ‘Testone’ for example – were inspirational, but their wider cultural impact paled into insignificance compared to LFO’s self-titled debut. When it was finally released in June 1990, the record broke free of its’ northern roots to become an anthem across the globe. It was embraced by DJs in Detroit and New York (Francois Kevorkian, who at that point was focusing on music production, has previously stated that it inspired him to start DJing again), inspired a string of copycat records, and sold in excess of 130,000 copies. By the middle of July 1990, it had risen to number 12 in the charts – a remarkable achievement given its humble roots in the attic of the man known locally as “DJ Martin”.
• • •
The role Martin Williams played in the early LFO story – and the wider Chapeltown bleep scene – is at the heart of my book, Join The Future. There’s not space here to go into detail, but it is worth recalling the part he played not only in bringing LFO’s Mark Bell and Gez Varley together, but also mentoring them and shaping their first release. During his lifetime, Bell repeatedly played down Williams’ role in the LFO story; as I’ve said before, whatever Bell’s reasons for this, it’s time to put the record straight.
What’s not disputed is how Varley and Bell first encountered each other. Bramley-based Varley and Bell, who lived across the city in Lofthouse, were both teenage breakdancers. They’d faced off against each other on Saturday afternoons at the Merrion Centre, but it was when they embarked on a photography and graphic design course at Sidestep that they became properly acquainted. They didn’t know it – just yet – but both were already tinkering with music-making hardware and aspired to create house and techno classics of their own.
“I got some money left to me by my grandfather, so I bought a Casio FZ-10 sampler, a Roland TR-808, TB-303 and TR-606,” Varley told me in an interview for Join The Future back in 2018. “Everything was easy to use except the sampler. The manual was so big and dense – I was like, ‘Shit!’ I just wanted to make music’.”
Thankfully, there was someone at Sidestep who could help. When Varley and Bell arrived at the Sweet Street-based training centre for the first time, they were amazed to discover that Sidestep’s “computer skills” tutor was none other than popular Chapeltown DJ Martin Williams.
“We knew Martin before, but I’m not sure that he knew us,” Varley said. “Everybody knew DJ Martin. When we did that course, it was like, ‘I know that guy!’ At that point everybody on the scene knew him because he’d had a few spots at the Warehouse and played in Chapeltown a lot.”
Although Williams made regular appearances at the Warehouse – then the leading venue in Leeds by some distance – it was his connection to the club’s influential resident DJ, Roy Archer, which helped cement his reputation as a growing force on Leeds’ still small club circuit.
“I used to help Roy out – he was an excellent DJ,” Williams told me over coffee in Chapel Allerton a few months before I met Varley. “I used to love standing in the DJ booth and watching him. He started off at the Warehouse as a glass collector and then became the resident DJ on a Saturday. Ian Dewhirst taught him by doing minute mixes: every minute you had to bring in a new record. And Roy could do it.”
Famously, DJ Roy – as he was popularly known in Chapeltown – was one of the first in Leeds (alongside the equally influential Steve Luigi) to champion house music when it started arriving from Chicago. House music was passion shared by Williams. “Unlike most of the DJs in Chapeltown I never played reggae – it was always jazz-funk, soul and house,” Williams explained. “When the house sound started coming in, I was all over that because I thought it was a breath of fresh air. My head was just exploding with the sounds that were coming out of that scene. That’s why I wanted to make music.”
By the time he started talking to Varley and the “shy, quiet” Bell about music at Sidestep in the autumn of ‘88, Williams’ home studio, where he most frequently collaborated with friend (and sometime Ital Rockers soundsystem member) Homer Harriott, was already fully functional. An outward going, enthusiastic and open individual, Williams had no hesitation in inviting his then 17-year-old students to join him in the studio. Over the course of six to eight months, the trio eventually recorded “20 or 30” tracks.
“Going up into Martin’s attic was like entering an Aladdin’s Cave,” Varley laughed when I asked for his memories of the space. “He had thousands of records and all the singles that we’d missed. We were there like four, five days a week. Martin gave us a set of keys to his house so we could let ourselves in while he was working. He had an ace set-up for his soundsystem, with pretty big speakers so we could blast it.”
Interestingly, in our discussions Varley went to great lengths to praise Williams and his role in the making of these tracks. “Without Martin I doubt those early LFO records would have sounded and been finished off the way they were,” he said. “That’s why I always mention Martin in interviews, but for some reason Mark never did. He was always trying to change history.”
Bell, of course, passed away in 2014 so is unfortunately not around to answer the charge, but others who were around the Chapeltown scene at the time have similar memories. “People often knew what they wanted to do but didn’t know to make it – that’s what Martin could do,” Homer Harriot explained in February 2018. “He could turn their ideas into an end product, which is why a lot of things revolved around him. Without Martin, ‘LFO’ wouldn’t have turned out the way it did.”
As the only DJ in the group at that point in time, Williams was LFO’s link to the dancefloor. “I remember we did some early demos and one night Martin was due to play at this ‘blues’ in Chapeltown,” Varley recalled, referring to one of the unlicensed, all-night Jamaican speakeasies that were once an integral part of the music scene in British Afro-Caribbean suburbs. “One night we finished off this track, got in Martin’s car and went up the road to this place in a terraced house. Martin was playing to a packed crowd, dropped this tune and the place went mental. The atmosphere in those blues was great and we got to test out a lot of tunes on heavy reggae soundsystems.”
This was nothing compared to the reaction that awaited their greatest early production, “LFO”. It was reportedly produced in “a few hours” one night, using a surprisingly sparse amount of hardware – namely Williams’ Atari ST running Cubase, the Casio FZ-10 sampler and a Kawai K1 synthesizer that had been acquired midway through the trio’s working relationship for a little over £50.
“It had this amazing preset, and I thought we had to use it,” Varley enthused. “I recently played around with that preset to see what I could come up with and you know what? I couldn’t get it to sound any better than the original preset. That’s why we didn’t change it, because it was just perfect.”
The “preset” in question turned up in the famous sweeping, spacey chord sequence that gives ‘LFO’ its’ spine-tingling start. “You could have got a load of monkeys from Leeds University, given them some beers and it wouldn’t have taken them long to find that preset,” Williams said, with a chuckle. “There were some other flukes in the production process as well. When you’re putting a sequence into that rack-mounted Casio sampler and stick in more than eight notes, something drops out, so the later part takes priority. There was a lot more stuff that was meant to be in the track but fell out, because of the limitations of the equipment.”
The track’s famous earth-shaking bassline was created by sampling two different bass notes – one “high” note inspired by Rhythim is Rhythim’s Detroit techno slammer “The Dance” and the other the heaviest sub-bass tone they could find – then playing the now familiar low-end motif. For the finishing touch, Varley suggested utilising the Texas Instruments “speak and spell” machine that Williams had recently bought for his six-month-old daughter.
“Martin and Mark both thought it was a great idea,” Varley remembered. “I thought that it would help people remember the track in clubs and who we were. It totally worked, because when the track started being played out more people would go into record shops in Leeds and ask for that track that goes ‘L-F-O’. It was all about recognition.”
Exactly where the track was played out for the first time is open to debate, as all involved have different memories. It’s certainly true that there were also multiple mix-downs and alternative takes, with Williams tweaking the arrangement on the back of regular club plays.
“We had a small, limited desk that was pretty crap,” Williams told me. “It was about getting the sounds right at source and then using the gains – a bit like using the EQs on a DJ mixer. We’d fill the sound spectrum with the bass. When they recorded the bass sound on ‘LFO’ it took a long time to get it right because it kept dropping out of the mix.”
It was immediately clear that they’d made something very special, though. “Oh, we definitely knew it was big – the reaction in the clubs was always mental,” Varley said “We did the track pretty quickly and Martin said if we couldn’t get a record deal we’d find a way to get it out ourselves, either by getting a bank loan or credit card. Then we bumped into Robert Gordon, who was then doing a lot of the A&R for this new label in Sheffield, Warp, that he’d founded with Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell with input from his mate Winston Hazel.”
Gordon, a former soundsystem builder who also worked as the in-house engineer at Sheffield studio FON, just happened to be at Sunset Boulevard in Huddersfield for a weekly Monday night session hosted by Sheffield DJ John Charles, and featuring his good friend Winston Hazel as one of the guests. These regular Sunset Boulevard sessions were seen as Hazel and Charles as a way of bringing together different DJs and their crews from throughout Yorkshire. Most of those who would play a big role in the formative phase of bleep played there at various points, including Nightmares on Wax and Unique 3. All brought down their latest tracks on cassette to play them over a system, hoping to get a better response from dancers than the tunes created by their Yorkshire rivals.
On the occasion Gordon accompanied Hazel – something he rarely did – Williams was one of the guest DJs. Loitering to the side were two teenage white guys (the crowd, which featured a lot of local dance crews, was predominantly black). When Williams dropped ‘LFO’, Gordon was flabbergasted by what he heard. Once Williams had finished his set, he asked if could hear more.
“We sat in Martin’s car outside this club going through them one by one,” Varley recalled. “As we went through, Robert was like, ‘We’ll sign this one and this one and we’ll have that as well, but it’s more like a B-side’. He said he’d definitely sign us but that he couldn’t offer much money’.”
Gordon was as good as his word. His fellow Warp founders Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett travelled up to Leeds shortly afterwards and presented Bell, Varley and Williams with a contract that was eventually signed in a car park close to the Warehouse. Varley claims that Warp’s eventual pressing and distribution deal with Rhythm King offshoot Outer Rhythm – one that was later ripped up after Mitchell and Beckett pleaded with Mute’s Daniel Miller to intervene – was sealed by the signing of ‘LFO’, though I’ve not been able to verify this.
When it came to mastering the track for release, Gordon headed down to London with Williams, Bell and Varley to make sure that the record sounded as heavy as it could possibly be. “I recently spoke to the engineer that did the cut again and he said it was his first introduction to heavy bass,” Varley said. “Without Robert Gordon’s input they couldn’t have cut it. They just weren’t used to that kind of sub-bass.”
Like Unique 3’s ‘The Theme’, which Varley happily admits was a key inspiration for ‘LFO’, the trio’s “Yorkshire bleep” masterpiece soon became famous for blowing speakers in clubs across the UK (this, of course, may be an urban legend). When Warp finally began to send out promo copies to DJs in early 1990, it soon became clear that it was far more powerful than almost anything that had come before.
“I remember my friend Neil Macey ringing me up to tell me that there was this track coming out with ridiculous bass,” Altern8’s Mark Archer told me in an interview for Join The Future. “The next time I went over to the Network Records office, where Neil worked, I asked him to stick it on. When the sub-bass kicked in, the whole building shook. The following weekend Neil played it in his set at this wine bar in Burntwood. The sub-bass absolutely annihilated the bar’s glass collection.”
The success of ‘LFO’ was partly enabled by support from a surprising source, too. “I remember John Peel playing it on Radio 1,” Varley reminisced. “I grew up listening to his show – it was appointment listening for the whole family. I remember one night my dad shouting up to me: ‘Gerard, get down here – John Peel is playing your song on Radio 1!’ Ace, man.”
When the single eventually found its way into record stores, the incredible ‘Leeds Warehouse Mix’ of ‘LFO’, it was accompanied by two strong tracks recorded during the same sessions: ‘Track 4’, a creepier chunk of purist bleep marked out by rumbling bass, a jaunty lead line and suspenseful chords, and the clanking, Motor City-influenced ‘Probe (The Cuba Edit)’. The latter’s title references one of the key weekly club nights of the early bleep era, Sheffield institution ‘Cuba’. In one interview, Cuba resident DJ Parrot recalled the track being played for the first time – Williams had driven Bell and Varley down to the party, as he had on plenty of other occasions before – and Bell standing there motionless as the crowd went wild.
A second 12” single was also released to help ‘LFO’ charge towards the charts. In my opinion, this was musically less successful; while B-sides ‘Mentok 1’ – a fiendish, full-throttle techno banger – and rushing piano house number ‘Quijard’ still stand up, the band’s own A-side remix of ‘LFO’ is not a patch on the peerless ‘Leeds Warehouse Mix’, in part because it dispenses with a lot of what made that version so good.
If you look hard enough at the credits, a reason leaps out: Williams had nothing to do with it. For reasons that have never been fully explained, Bell and Varley cut off contact with their erstwhile mentor sometime in early 1990 and chose to go it alone. Of course, the pair’s own production and mixing skills improved and by the summer of 1991 they’d delivered a debut album, Frequencies. In my opinion, this remains their best work – and one of the finest British techno sets of all time.
“We just wanted different things,” Williams told me when I asked about the split. “I didn’t want to be involved in anything commercial. I cringed at the thought of being a pop star and that kind of thing. It’s just not me. I’d much rather be in the background.”
Williams continued to do that, joining forces with the owners of Crash Records in Leeds to set up the BASS-IC Records label and studio. Over the 12 months that followed, he helped craft similarly weighty and ground-breaking “bleep and bass” records with the likes of Ability II, Juno and Ital Rockers (now Iration Steppas). Alongside Homer Harriott, who also worked on those records, Williams also delivered a couple of killer remixes of Man Machine’s ‘Animal’ for Outer Rhythm, a track you’ll find on the Join The Future compilation on Cease & Desist.
Williams quit DJing and music production sometime in 1992, staying away until the period following our interviews (I was naturally delighted when he played at the book launch party we did at Outlaws in Leeds in November 2019 – it meant a lot to me, and plenty of others in the city, that he did).
As for Bell and Varley, before unleashing Frequencies they hit back it the growing band of ‘LFO’ imitators (Fantasy UFO, Mind of Kane, TTO, D-M-S and Belgian producer Lhasa all released records that sampled or were obviously inspired by the record) and their critics in Chapeltown (Williams was much-loved, and many locals thought he had been betrayed)with the clonking, distorted heaviness of ‘We Are Back’ (whose aggressive, robotic vocals angrily proclaimed that they were “the creators”).