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Label manager Matthew Jones provides a guide to On-U Sound.
The first album on the label and a release that very much set the stall out for the cross-genre pollination to come - various members of The Slits, The Pop Group, Flying Lizards, Raincoats and Roots Radics came together to produce an enduring mash-up of post-punk angularity, avant-garde dub production, and even sweet lovers rock.
This was the second album release on the label, but in contrast to the way the New Age Steppers album has been rightly lauded over the years, this one is a somewhat buried gem. Emerging from the wreckage of the first Durutti Column line-up, and featuring one member who went on to help run acclaimed reggae reissue imprint Blood & Fire, this is a great document of Manchester’s fertile early-80s scene. One for fans of Can, Faust, the Messthetics series, and early Factory Records. There’s even a couple of tracks such as “Please Let Go” where they successfully veer into Soft Boys-esque psychedelic whimsy.
Originally licensed to iconic NYC label 99 Records (home to ESG, Liquid Liquid and the Bush Tetras), this 1981 production sees roots reggae heaviness filtered through a raw and non-traditional UK approach to dub. Crack Jamaican vocalists and musicians (as alluded to in the band name!) such as Prince Far I and Bim Sherman are augmented by the spidery guitar lines of Public Image Limited’s Keith Levene, mining the same sonic seam he’d explored on Metal Box.
Whilst a lot of the On-U catalogue can be dark and intensely political in its subject matter, there has also been a rich vein of fun and subtle humour running through proceedings, perhaps best typified by this killer selection of melodica-led dub versions of TV themes and exotica, such as “Man Of Mystery” and “A Taste Of Honey”. The jewel in the crown is the masterful deconstruction of the “Dr. Who” theme, surely the best version of Ron Grainer’s evergreen composition beside the original Delia Derbyshire recording.
Tackhead was a collaboration between Adrian Sherwood and three American musicians (Doug Wimbish, Skip McDonald & Keith LeBlanc) who had previously comprised one of the great studio bands of all-time, the Sugarhill Gang, laying down the backing tracks for hip-hop cornerstones such as “Rapper’s Delight”, “The Message” and “White Lines”. Blending cut-up TV news dialogue, noise, industrial sounds, and programmed drums, they were a huge influence on bands such as Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, both of whom subsequently hired Adrian to help them achieve a similar sound.
African Head Charge is the long-running creative dialogue between Adrian Sherwood and master Jamaican percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah. Inspired by Eno’s “vision of a psychedelic Africa”, their early releases are well worth checking out for out-there studio exploration, but the acknowledged classic in the AHC canon is this 1990 release, in which they added layers of churchical chants to the already potent brew of found sounds and ricocheting rasta hand drums. A gospel record beamed from an alien radio station.
In 1991 Primal Scream released Screamadelica, The Orb released Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, and On-U Sound released this, a cosmic dub opus as well suited to raving in a field off the M25 as spacing out to in a soundsystem dance. The title track in particular is an acknowledged On-U classic and features in Adrian Sherwood DJ sets to this day.
An eccentric punk-poet well known on the Bristol Scene, Fairley was perhaps the closest that On-U had to a John Cooper Clarke figure, albeit with a delivery closer to William S. Burroughs’ gravelly spoken word recordings, and backed with the full force of the Sherwood soundsystem, his proclamations spat out over stuttering beats and warped electronic noises. There’s parallels in the modern day with someone like Chester Giles and his compelling collaboration with Vessel as Asda. Like too many of the On-U crew, Andy Fairley has sadly passed away but this album stands as a testament to his talent and personality.
If you want an entry point to the maze-like On-U Sound catalogue, you could do a lot worse than this excellent selection of classics, unreleased rarities and deep cuts put together by producer and designer Trevor Jackson. Sequenced like a great DJ set, this is a proper journey through the weirdest and most wonderful corners of the label, with a particular fondness for saturated textures and primitive drum machine funk. Highlights include a pre-Massive Attack Shara Nelson laying down a stunningly assured teenage vocal performance on “Aiming At Your Heart”, and possibly the only example of Adrian doing disco with his remix of Atmosfear’s hi-nrg floorfiller “When Tonight Is Over”.
Bringing things bang up to date, this recently released album sees the Japanese instrumental trio process their sprawling motorik jams through Adrian Sherwood’s mixing desk, showcasing his ability to employ FX tricks from the dub reggae world such as parametric EQ and triggered delays across the stereo spectrum to create a wonderfully immersive soundworld full of buried patterns and tiny details that reveal themselves with repeated listens.