Electronic: The 24-hour party people
As refugees from The Smiths and New Order they just wanted to have some fun. James Mcnair reminisces with Electronic
Published: 15 September 2006
Trawl certain US-based websites, and you will routinely see Electronic described as "one of England's supergroups". But while the duo of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and New Order frontman Bernard Sumner would collaborate with The Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant, among others, it was nothing so crass or premeditated.
Talk with Sumner and Marr today, and you are reminded that Electronic, formed in Manchester in 1987, was a happenstance, feel-good, deliberately on-off project that let them recuperate from the less savoury aspects of band politics chez New Order and The Smiths.
"It was, shall I go over there and get hit with a stick, or shall I chill out with Johnny and get inspired?", says Sumner. "A bit of a no-brainer, really." "With The Smiths, I felt stuck in this nostalgic, black and white Coronation Street-type place," adds Marr. "All my mates were turning on to the local acid house scene, and Electronic was my route into that. It felt great to be part of something new."
Marr and Sumner are today lunching at the Royal Institute of British Architects, in London, where we've met to discuss a new Electronic "best of" CD. The vegetarian, teetotal Marr is having the soup; Sumner a roast beef wrap and a glass of chardonnay. Clearly the best of friends, they make each other laugh easily and often.
As Marr suggests, Madchester was indeed a city in musical flux circa 1987. Those clubbers-turned-pop-stars par excellence, The Happy Mondays, would release their debut album that year, but Bernard Sumner, singer with the band that had so inspired them, had itchy feet.
Tired of relentless, hedonistic touring with New Order (he would end up on a drip in a Chicago hospital), Sumner had began writing new songs that he felt weren't right for his band. It was when Marr visited him in San Francisco after a New Order gig, that they decided to form Electronic.
"I thought I could rest up a bit back in Manchester while we got Electronic going," Sumner says, "but with the acid house scene kicking off, it was out of the frying pan into the fire." Thus a typical Friday-night session for Electronic's eponymous 1991 debut saw the duo cook up a track at Marr's home studio before Sumner hit the legendary Hacienda club to enjoy the kind of indulgences depicted in Michael Winterbottom's 2002 film Twenty Four Hour Party People.
"Bernard was like the Pied Piper, but dressed all in white," laughs Marr. "He'd come back to the studio about 4am with an entourage of our friends, and we'd get a chance to road-test our new songs. One time we had "Idiot Country" blaring out and Bez [of Happy Mondays] was talking to my wife. I noticed he wasn't dancing, so I slowed the tempo down until he started to shuffle again. That's when I knew we'd got it right."
Upon working together in earnest, Sumner and Marr were surprised to learn how much their musical tastes overlapped. In interviews from the period, Sumner joked that he'd imagined Marr - one of the few axe-heroes to emerge in the Eighties -would have a house full of guitar-shaped ashtrays, so his considerable knowledge of New York dance music was an unexpected bonus. Similarly, Marr would never have guessed that such an indie music stalwart as Sumner was a fan of Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac.
Initially, the pair had intended to keep things low-key and somewhat leftfield, releasing white-label, 12in acid house singles for the enjoyment of friends and the dance music cognoscenti. "But we couldn't do it," says Sumner. "We're songwriters, so we couldn't hand-in a two-bar instrumental loop and say, 'That's it, finished.'"
It was when Tennant contacted them through the record-sleeve designer and their mutual friend Mark Farrow, that they began to realise that Electronic had chart potential. And sure enough, when Tennant duetted with Sumner on Electronic's debut single, "Getting Away with It", they immediately scored a huge hit.
The way Marr and Sumner tell it, "Getting Away With It"- plus another collaboration with The Pet Shop Boys, entitled "Patience of a Saint" - was knocked up in a few stolen minutes before yet another Hacienda rave-up. But, even allowing for embellishment, it is clear that Electronic's modus operandi was much more relaxed than that of New Order or The Smiths.
"One night, Neil and I had gone out for a walk," says Marr, "and by the time we came back, Chris and Bernard had decided we should accept an invitation to support Depeche Mode at The Dodger stadium in Los Angeles in front of 70,000 people".
The duo wanted their second album, 1996's Raise the Pressure, to further embrace the possibilities of new music technology. And who better to help programme beats, Sumner thought, than Karl Bartos, formerly of Kraftwerk? But despite some stand-outs (witness "Forbidden City") the album failed to impress as much as their debut.
The solution, it seemed, was to write much of 1999's Twisted Tenderness on acoustic guitars. "Both of us had needed a holiday from indie guitars," says Sumner.
What did they learn from being in Electronic? "It taught me that writing a really good song sometimes isn't enough," says Sumner. "A lot of the time it felt like we were fighting against the legacy of New Order and The Smiths, groups that we'd spent the whole of our youths establishing as brand names."
Marr continues: "I didn't know what the hell to do after The Smiths, so Electronic taught me to trust my instincts and make the bullshit part of being in a band secondary." "That's it in a nutshell," agrees Sumner. "Electronic was about sheltering from the bullshit."
'Get The Message: the Best of Electronic' is out next week on Rhino/WEA