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Leftfield

Prolific: not quite, essential: definitely yes, London’s LEFTFIELD – the artistic stamping ground for programmer/DJ Neil Barnes and sampler Paul Daley – re-wired the sound of New York nights and Chicago clubs into a form of trippy techno and/or progressive house. At their height served best by a stellar cast of guest singers, from Jamaican EARL SIXTEEN and home-grown punk institution JOHN LYDON, to shoegazer CURVE-girl Toni Halliday and visionary hip-hop pioneer AFRIKA BAMBAATAA (not forgetting reggae rapper ROOTS MANUVA) et al, LEFTFIELD shared a diverse musical landscape with MASSIVE ATTACK, 808 STATE and AUGUSTUS PABLO.
Ex-teacher turned Wag Club DJ, Neil Barnes, and session man Paul Daley (from Balearic housers A Man Called Adam and 70s punks The Rivals) had previously served the Sandals as percussionists, before working together as a writing unit in 1989. LEFTFIELD opened their account with the “Mississippi Burning” movie-sampling `Not Forgotten’ (for independent outlet Outer Rhythm), but when the 12-inch platter became an underground club hit the following spring, contractual problems ensued with music publishers Rhythm King. Undeterred, Barnes and Daley kept a high profile with remix work (for BOWIE, INNER CITY, SUNSCREEM and ULTRA NATE) before a compromise – one thinks – for sophomore 1991 single, `More Than I Know’; Daley was promoted to full-time LEFTFIELD affiliate thereafter.
Contractual foibles ultimately resolved, the pair set up the Hard Hands imprint and cut a couple of singles in 1992: `Release The Pressure’ (featuring the aforementioned EARL SIXTEEN on vocals) and `Song Of Life’, the latter a slow building progressive house epic that further enhanced their dance-floor reputation and nudged them into the lower regions of the pop charts. However, the track that really branded LEFTFIELD into the musical consciousness of the nation was the pounding crossover hit, `Open Up’.
A collaboration with PUBLIC IMAGE LTD’s John Lydon, his blood-curdling wail of “Burn Hollywood Burn” was scarier than MICHAEL BOLTON’s mullet-cut. Spookily enough, the corking LEFTFIELD/LYDON track – example the full vocal mix – was coincidentally unleashed as a spate of Californian fires spread to national news in Britain. This spark was enough to have the glorious video banned from ITV’s chart show, therefore guaranteeing the seminal single a top position of 13.
Their belatedly-issued debut set (one can’t count the “Backlog” compilation of late ’92), LEFTISM {*9} was greeted with critical plaudits galore upon its release in January 1995; reaching the Top 3 and even being nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. An exhilarating cross-fertilisation of musical stylings, the CD/double-LP took pumping techno trance as its base ingredient, interspersing sounds with everything from cerebral sonic tapestries (`Melt’) to dark, foreboding drum ‘n’ bass (`Storm 3000’). It also contained all the aforementioned singles (save the earlier stuff) as well as a vocal-led Top 20 collaboration with ex-shoegazer Toni Halliday on `Original’.
LEFTFIELD enjoyed further chart success with tracks and album re-mixes (`The Afro-Left EP’ – with Djum Djum – and `Release The Pressure’), while contributing material to both the cult Shallow Grave and Trainspotting movie soundtracks. A nationwide tour and a series of legendary festival appearances in ‘96 cemented their position as one of the key players in the new techno vanguard alongside UNDERWORLD, The PRODIGY, ORBITAL et al.
`Phat Planet’ (recognisable from that Guinness Draught TV ad: a la “white horses surfing the waves”) was LEFTFIELD’s first musical/video venture for some time’; the duo finally releasing the excellent breakbeat bass-heavy track on the B-side of another Chris Cunningham-directed Top 10 hit single/promo, `Afrika Shox’ (with of course, the man BAMBAATAA). Around the same time (September ’99), the duo finally unleashed their (chart-topping) second album RHYTHM AND STEALTH {*7}, an enjoyable jaunt through four years of hard toil in the studio. Though not as immediate as their previous effort, the trip-hop element was very apparent on `Dusted’ (with ROOTS MANUVA), while soundscape storms were generated on the collaborative `Swords’ (introducing Nicole Wills), `Chant Of A Poor Man’ (with MC, Cheshire Cat) and the extended curtain call `Rino’s Prayer’ (with Rino). But had their contemporaries beaten them to the prizes? Who knows, but LEFTFIELD went their separate ways in March 2002, hoping to add to their solo CVs.
Absent for several years, the bright lights were turned on again in 2010 when Barnes (but not Daley) performed as LEFTFIELD in Britain and Ireland; Creamfields, RockNess and Electric Picnic festival venues all shared in the resurgence of sorts. Australia was also a destination loved by the man at the mixing decks, and fans were rewarded with a souvenir live double-CD/DVD package, TOURISM (2012) {*6}, recorded a year earlier.
Encircled by a string of rising stars, Barnes/LEFTFIELD ensured the comeback-of-the-year with his/their long-awaited third Top 10 set for Infectious Records: ALTERNATIVE LIGHT SOURCE (2015) {*8}. The stars in question were TV ON THE RADIO’s Tunde Adebimpe (on the opening salvo `Bad Radio’), blue-collar Brit rappers/punk poets SLEAFORD MODS (for the quirky `Head And Shoulders’ – or even “chicken in a basket”), POLICA’s Channy Leanagh (on `Bilocation’ and `Little Fish’), Georgia Barnes (on the head-swirling `Universal Everything’) and the breath-taking Ofei (boosting the end piece `Levitate For You’). Of the other grinding grooves, there were swathes of TANGERINE DREAM and kraut-rock on `Dark Matters’, `Storms End’ and the title track, or even The PRODIGY on the ballroom-bouncing `Shaker Obsession’.
© MC Strong 1996-2005/AS/MCS // rev-up MCS Jun2015

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