No other band are quite like Orbital. In the early-90s, at a time when much of dance music was dismissed as ‘faceless bollocks’, the Hartnoll brothers helped legitimise it thanks to a raft of critically-acclaimed albums and live performances. Today, 30-plus years on from their formation, Andrew Harrison finds Paul and Phil in reflective mood, but always with an eye on the future. “The two of us have created something a bit special,” they admit…
Have you got BritBox? It’s not exactly the edgiest of streaming TV services, heavy on vintage 9pm-on-ITV rural murder shows and other comfort viewing for nerve-racked Middle Britain. But down in the depths of their EPG is at least one diamond for the Disco Pogo audience. Here, a little fuzzy round the ages but alive with the electric thrill of a moment that can never be repeated, is the infamous ‘A Trip Round Acid House’ edition of ‘World In Action’ from 1988.
It’s incredibly exciting – and impossible to watch without yearning for a Tardis to take you straight back there. “Saturday night in South London,” says a breathless, plummy-sounding woman over clips of baggied-up youngsters teasing their hair and piling into coaches. “Hundreds of young people are gathering for the latest craze: an ‘acid house’ party in a disused warehouse…”
We meet confused coppers, irate pensioners, old lags of rave in their impudent youth, and the Sunday People’s laughable, grizzled ‘Acid House Correspondent’ Ted Hines. It’s like a lost episode of ‘BrassEye'.
And there, as a police raid of shocking brutality on a house party in Sevenoaks is laid out in alarming detail, is another familiar face. Looking both impossibly young and also mightily affronted that he and his mates have just been battered by the Met for the crime of having a party, is Paul Hartnoll of Orbital.
“Something like that could never happen now, the police would never have got away with it,” Paul recalls today, laughing ruefully over a Zoom from his wood-panelled studio somewhere near Brighton. “Everyone would have been filming on their phones, wouldn’t they, and it’d be all over YouTube. Not back then though…”
More than 30 years on, these life-changing original days of raving are fresh in Orbital’s minds again. They’re about to release a three-decade anniversary compilation entitled ‘30 Something’, a reinvention of the ‘best of’ concept featuring Orbital classics updated for 2022, plus new tunes, rarities and remixes by admirers including Jon Hopkins, Floex, ANNA, Jon Tejada and David Holmes.
“I’m a big fan of time and change and decay, all that kind of thing,” says Paul. “So instead of doing another best of, it was like: ‘OK, what can we do that’s different?’ For me, the interesting thing of 30 years of improvisational dance music is, I wonder how different they are now?”
So ‘Chime’, ‘Satan’, ‘Impact’ and other Orbital favourites appear in newly-recorded versions based on how they’ve evolved over years in Orbital’s live show. “All those mistakes and improvisations, all those little new little bits that happened, they’re all in there.”
To open the album they built a new track around Paul’s glitchy old VHS of his appearance on ‘World In Action’. It’s called ‘Smiley’ and while it’s full of period details (acid swirls, clattering ‘Amen’ breaks) there’s an affecting emotional cadence to it – and it culminates in a passage where, in vocal samples and burgeoning electronics, ‘Smiley’ does with that formative Sevenoaks police raid what a classical piece or a movie soundtrack would. It represents action and emotion and reversals of fortune as pure sonics, so that an act of repression is drowned and defeated by a swell of beauty and good feeling, a euphoria that’s stronger than cruelty.
In its own small way ‘Smiley’ encapsulates what always set Orbital apart from dance music’s more functional providers of bangers-by-the-yard. It’s the factor that took Paul and Phil Hartnoll everywhere from multiple Glastonburies to movie soundtracks to the Paralympics Opening Ceremony with Stephen Hawking, the one that gave Orbital’s albums – from the palette-expanding ‘brown album’ through epics like ‘Snivilisation’ and ‘In Sides’ to 2020’s ‘Monsters Exist’ – a personal meaning to generations of ravers old and new: the emotional heft to make you see the world anew.
“I thought going right back to the beginning would be a lovely way to start,” Paul says about ‘Smiley’. “Because all that was about a year before Orbital started. So, let’s show what it was like. Let’s do a track that’s sonically where our heads are at now but wearing the clothes of the 80s.”
“And let’s illustrate the point,” interjects brother Phil, “about how, you know, in civil rights terms… we all got beaten up by the police for having a party.”
Suburban Britain is where everything comes together, the true melting pot, and in hindsight you can see Orbital’s future musical world assembling itself even when they were kids.
Phil and Paul got the disco bug early. Their mum’s cousins Mick and Ray, who lived on the same estate as
the Hartnolls in Dartford, were DJs who hammered the Tamla Motown and reggae at Christmas parties and birthdays. “We were brought up on that,” says Phil. “Proper mobile disco. I remember going around the house and just being completely amazed about the amount of records that they had.”
He can remember pestering for a Jackson Five record for his eighth birthday – he got ‘Ben’. “I learned how to deal with disappointment from a very early age…”
Into the mix went their father’s movie soundtrack albums and third brother Gary’s collection of prog rock. “I used to be able to go up the stairs at home and choose which way I wanted to go with the two brothers on either side,” says Paul. “I could go one way for Trojan, reggae and David Bowie or the other way for Queen, Led Zeppelin and Godley and Creme. A complete education.”
Then came punk. The first thing Paul noticed when he started at secondary school, a place with a rough reputation and the unbeatable name the Wildernesse School, were two symbols painted on either side of the 1960s central building. He thought it was the Captain Scarlet logo. Instead, it was indomitable vegan punk collective Crass, whose fuck-the-system attitude would shape Orbital’s in years to come. Paul had wanted to get into music since he’d heard The Beat’s version of ‘Tears of a Clown’, but then his mate introduced him to ‘Bloody Revolutions’ by Crass – “and I never looked back. Went full anarcho-punk.”
For Phil the trigger was the Rock Against Racism movement of the late 70s. At school he admits he “wasn’t an angel… I was always joking about, doing moonies and that. Out of control. I mean, dyslexia wasn’t even a word then.” When he was maybe 14, he sneaked into Rock Against Racism’s famous gig in Hackney’s Victoria Park with The Clash and Steel Pulse.
“Punk really did make a difference in my life,” he says. “That day fucking blew my mind. I’d been brought up on Black music, I didn’t understand racism at all, and the anti-Nazi thing made a huge impression on me. It was like, this makes sense.”
By the time he was 16, Paul had left school, was working with his father on his building site subjecting his workmates to Laser FM, the Cocteau Twins, industrial rock and 80s electro, and desperate to get hold of a drum machine.
“I just wanted to know what the fuck made that sound,” he admits. “We got this little Rhythm Box with Latin patterns, terrible mistake really, but we’d shove it through a guitar pedal and sound like Test Department. We loved it.” The big discovery, though, was getting a 4-track. “Now it’s like you’ve got four synthesisers even if you’ve only got one. It’s like: ‘Oh shit, this is fucking power.’ Suddenly you can layer stuff and it sounds fucking immense.”
In a nod to the job that paid for the kit, Paul released his first electronic music under the name D.S. Building Contractors, a brace of acid-era tracks that appeared on an FFRR compilation with the none-more-1988 title ‘The House Sound Of London Vol. IV: The Jackin’ Zone’, put together by LWR house DJ Jazzy M. Phil was now in America, sending back “the most amazing tapes of WBLS and all these hip hop stations”. And years of tinkering were about to pay off for Paul.
“I did ‘Chime’ as just a ridiculous meaningless thing, using six inputs on my 4-track to see if I could do six things at once,” he says. It was a Wednesday night, and his mates were shouting at him to finish up and come to the pub. Paul rushed through the recording and as he pressed STOP he could see one guy sitting on the sofa, nodding appreciatively, telegraphing a simple message: that’s not bad. Maybe it isn’t, he thought.
“And then we played it to Jazzy M,” says Phil. “And Jazzy M went mental.”
‘Chime’ remains one of the true game-changers of British dance music. It’s a bridge between the glacial futurism of Detroit techno and the more rumbunctious DIY ethic of the British free party scene, it’s UK electro pop reconnecting with the Chicago house it inspired… and yet somehow completely different from any of those things. Famously they mastered it straight from the cassette that Paul used to make it.
“That tape got lost forever in Jazzy M’s car boot, never to be seen again,” says Paul. “Good job he’d put it on a DAT so Pete Tong would think we were more professional.” ‘Chime’ became the archetypal hot white label hit, golden DJ currency, a mystery must-have. “Jazzy M was pressing up another thousand before we’d done the first lot,” says Phil, “It was like he was feeding the famine up north.” It would go on to become the climax to countless festivals. For Christmas 2013 Paul replaced the descending melody with festive bells and released it as ‘Christmas Chime’. There’s still nothing that sounds like it.
‘Chime’ also led to one of the most uncooperative yet memorable performances in the history of ‘Top of the Pops’. “We’d been playing live for months so we wanted to do this live as well,” says Paul, “but they only let you do that if you’re New Order.”
So it was that on 22 March 1990, the Hartnolls appeared onstage on the nation’s favourite chart show alongside a baffled and out-of-place BBC-mandated ‘rave’ dancer, both brothers studiously ignoring the camera in T-shirts that said NO and POLL TAX. “We used squiggly writing so the BBC couldn’t spot it,” says Phil. “We were so awkward. We even put the extension cords on top of the keyboards so people would see they weren’t plugged in.”
“This was our anti-establishment training from Crass coming true,” says Paul triumphantly. “No, we’re not going to mime! You can’t make us! We refuse! We were being pig-headed young men. Still,” he says, “You’re not going to turn down Top of the Pops, are you…?”
Playing live, then a heresy for post-house electronic bands, was becoming more of a focus for Orbital. “We’d always thought of it like Cabaret Voltaire or Adrian Sherwood and Tackhead, a proper electronic band with instruments,” says Paul. “But the one we really modelled it on was Tangerine Dream. I just loved the idea that we were nothing to watch. Just two blokes standing there jamming, but here’s some giant mad psychedelic video show behind us.”
The dance music circuit then was based on the PA – get up, mime to a DAT, get off – but Orbital built a bona fide set where everything was to be played live. It stood them in good stead when they were invited over to Northern Ireland by a young DJ called David Holmes.
“We were coming out of a really crazy, super-bleak time back then,” says David Holmes of Belfast in the early-90s. “There was a lot of a subliminal anxiety, fear, paranoia, and stress. There was police checks, your car being ripped apart, shootings… it was part of everyday life so you just got on with it. But that doesn’t mean you’re not carrying it about with you.”
So, Holmes (then a hairdresser) and his equally music-obsessed mate Iain McCready launched an underground night at Conor Hall in Belfast Art College where they played house, acid and techno. Supercharged by the pills then filtering into the city and a legendarily top of the line sound system, Sugar Sweet became a packed-out escape for Belfast youth from both sides of the Troubles. “It wasn’t a normal way to live,” says Holmes, “so when you went out for a night, the roof came off.”
‘Chime’ was the anthem of the time (“if you were lucky enough, you got a copy”) and there was a number on Holmes’ white label. So, he rang it, got Paul Hartnoll, explained about Sugar Sweet and asked if Orbital fancied the trip over? “A lot of people were just frightened to come because it was still quite hardcore,” says Holmes, “but they were just up for it, like Weatherall was. And they had such an amazing time. They were so blown away by their experience.”
On the night the crowd were in raptures and screaming for an encore. Orbital had run out of tunes, so they played ‘Chime’ a second time. “There were people literally crying,” says Holmes, “People from complete opposite ends of the political spectrum having a transformative experience that completely changed their lives. I’ll never forget it until the day God calls me.”
On the way home they left Holmes with a tape of Orbital demos. Weeks later Holmes told them that he and his mates could not stop playing it over and over as they drove around Belfast on acid at night, the music transforming the city. Thus, Orbital’s most beautiful recording, a glowing, optimistic sunrise of a tune which transcends simple notions of comedown/chillout to enter the realm of true emotion, got its name: ‘Belfast’.
“It’s because of the beauty of it,” explains Phil. “People don’t expect a track called ‘Belfast’ to sound beautiful, but it was so fitting. For us to have that wonderful experience of Belfast after being indoctrinated by the TV about the Troubles like most English people were… to meet beautiful, beautiful people there…” He starts to run out of words. “It was one of the best experiences we’ve ever had.”
It’s 25 June 1994, a balmy Saturday evening in the middle of one of the hottest Glastonbury festivals of the 90s, and Paul Hartnoll is terrified. He’s watching the look of absolute fear on the faces of the acts going onto the NME Stage before Orbital. There’s M-People’s percussionist Shovel, usually a happy-go-lucky type, his face grey before he goes on. An hour later, looking mortally afraid before curtain up, it’s Björk. “I peeked around the curtain and saw this sea of people, like ‘Lord Of The Rings’,” he says, “and I’m like: ‘Oh my god, what the fuck have we got ourselves into…?’”
Glastonbury 1994 is the major turning point in Orbital’s story, the moment where they don’t just announce themselves to a wider world beyond the raving committed, but they change the very festival itself. Glastonbury had never truly got to grips with the dance music that had transformed Britain. Orbital was a bit of a gamble. So, for this major, make-or-break moment the Hartnolls naturally decide to play mostly tracks from ‘Snivilisation’, their all-encompassing concept album about the spiritual and material disintegration of society – a new record which isn’t out yet, which nobody has heard, and which they’ve barely worked out how to play yet.
“We didn’t understand that a festival set is supposed to be your best of,” admits Paul. “And to be fair, there probably wasn’t even 100 people in all those thousands who knew who we were anyway…” (This is very debatable).
He describes playing a nerve-racking show that felt like a scene in a war movie where they’re desperately trying to keep the submarine afloat: “We’d only played these fucking songs twice before!”
As pre-programmed sections of the tracks rolled on unstoppably the Hartnolls would make panicked changes on the fly. “And then I realized: ‘Oh, fuck’,” says Paul: “’I’ve left everything turned up to maximum.’”
So, on ‘Are We Here?’ – ‘SnivilIsation’’s epic centrepiece where man, God and existential dread come together in an unreal space – some 40,000 Glastonbury people listening to a track they’ve never heard by a band they don’t know are suddenly assaulted by clattering breakbeats and snares all turned up beyond 11.
“And the crowd just went… ‘brilliant!’” says Phil. “It just totally worked. They went mad. There was so much ‘I’m gagging for the electronic sound’ in the air that year and it was fucking magical. Even we didn’t expect it.”
Paul and Phil came offstage capering about like children. Phil: “We did the tish-kaboom dance like we did on bath night when we were little kids, banging our bums together and going ‘tish-kaboom’….” Paul recalls the same deep satisfaction you feel after a really good day’s work. “I was just floating through Glastonbury, up to the King’s Field and drinking real ale at 6am… absolutely brilliant.”
Orbital 1994 was the beginning of Glastonbury as a rave event with rock bands, not a rock festival with a few DJs. The next year they opened the Dance Tent, within five years a Dance Village. And it cemented in the minds of the new, festival-addicted public an image of Orbital that’s defined them ever since. Two shadowy figures onstage, torch-glasses making their heads look slightly too wide, alien even, controlling not just explosively compulsive beats but a spiral of electronic beauty unlike any other. The one thing you absolutely, definitely have to see.
Orbital tend to split up. They’re brothers. Brothers get on one another’s nerves – brothers fight. They first parted ways in 2004, only to reconcile for a tour in 2009 that turned into 2012’s comeback album ‘Wonky’, a built-for-live affair including robust contributions from Brummie MC Lady Leshurr. This particular reunion produced possibly the strangest and yet fitting guest vocalist in Orbital’s cosmically-inclined career when they appeared at the London Paralympics opening ceremony with Professor Stephen Hawking.
They’d been asked to provide music for a segue into Hawking discussing the Large Hadron Collider and thought that the ‘Wonky’ track ‘Where Is It Going?’ seemed to fit the theme of spinning particles. “A really euphoric track would be perfect for that moment,” says Paul, “And then we thought, what if we make Stephen Hawking sing? Pitch his voice up and down, and tune it?” They met Hawking and gave him a copy of the ‘Wonky’ album, expecting not much feedback. But he liked it. To their amazement, the Director of Research at the Cambridge Centre for Theoretical Cosmology agreed to step into the shoes of Alison Goldfrapp, David Gray and Zola Jesus, and lend his voice to Orbital.
“It was the most bonkers event,” says Paul. “I’m backstage drinking champagne with Ian McKellan, fucking Gandalf himself. Here’s Stephen Hawking wearing our torch glasses. And we’re getting ready to play to 11 million people viewing it around the world.” He got lost on the way back from the toilet, Spinal Tap-style, and almost missed his performance.
“And the thing about Stephen Hawking,” says Phil, “is he was so funny. His character was fantastic – he agreed to wear the torch glasses, which he really didn’t have to do. We weren’t even supposed to talk to him on the night…” After the show they sent Hawking an edit of the track. “He emailed me back right away saying: ‘This is fantastic, when are we going to release it?’ He was really enthusiastic.” The Hawking mix of ‘Where Is It Going?’ did not see the light of day at the time but it’s on ‘30 Something’.
“It’s sad that he’s not here to see it,” says Phil, “but we got there in the end. It’s just so brilliant to have this mad moment of history preserved.”
When Orbital split again in 2014 it was supposedly forever. Phil DJ’d across the Far East. Paul went deeper into his dream of working on soundtracks with ‘Peaky Blinders’ and ‘American Ultra’ and made solo records including ‘8:58’ – featuring spoken word from Cillian Murphy and very much the lost Orbital record to investigate – and an entertaining collaboration of electro rave with Vince Clarke of Erasure called ‘2Square’. But they always come back together.
“I personally have realised that this is probably what I’m meant to do,” says Paul. “I love doing soundtracks, I love working away on lots of different things, but when it’s Orbital it just announces itself as something big, something that means a lot to a huge number of people. After a few years of not doing Orbital we realised that the two of us have created something a bit special here, and we should remember that.”
“OK, this is cheesy,” says Phil, “But I can’t get over the love and affection we get from our fans. I’ve lost count of the times we’ve split up and yet they’re so forgiving. We’ve got people bringing their kids to our shows now. I mean,” he winces a little, “You don’t want to say we couldn’t have done it without them – but it’s true.”
Meanwhile something new and possibly bigger than ever now appears in Orbital’s world. Always the most cinematic of the British electronic acts, they’ve just released their biggest soundtrack yet – the score for ‘The Pentaverate’, a Netflix conspiracy comedy in the vein of ‘The Prisoner’. Creator Mike Myers of ‘Austin Powers’ fame plays five different characters in the story of a secretive cabal who’ve influenced world events and protected the human race since the 1300s. Ironically, Orbital got the job because of their own homage to the Lalo Schifrin-style tension and drama of 60s and 70s TV shows, ‘The Box’ from 1997.
“The directors were sitting around in Mike Myers’ place in New York going through loads of different tracks that might fit the mood,” says Paul, “and one of the writers suggested ‘The Box’. Apparently, Mike Myers jumped on it and said, That’s the track we want, that’s it.” When director Tim Kirby came to see Orbital in Brighton, Paul thought he just wanted rights to ‘The Box’ and was ready to make a tentative pitch for the whole score – only for the director to offer it to them anyway.
“As soon as I read the script, it was like: ‘Right, OK, this is so us,’” says Paul. “It’s ‘Logan’s Run’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘The Persuaders’… right up our street.” Orbital have filled the soundtrack with ominous analogue sounds, grand Wendy Carlos strings, bits of 70s adverts and the sounds of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. “I was spitting tea out of my mouth that some of the cultural references that young people might not get, but why not use them?”
The pandemic gave them a head start to write music before filming instead of afterwards as usual. Myers took finished pieces of music and played them loud onset to get the actors in the right headspace. “That is really rare and really exciting,” says Paul. “He’s a brilliant collaborator, he’s into all the same stuff as us, the old tropes and nostalgia. He knows what he wants but if you disagree, he’ll listen to you and try it your way.”
The irony, he thinks, is stupendous. He wrote ‘The Box’ on a Sunday afternoon in the mid-90s as an affectionate spoof of 60s-70s TV, looking for the sound of ‘The Avengers’ or ‘UFO’, rediscovering the things he loved as a kid.
“Now 25 years later, it’s found exactly its place with Mike Myers, in a programme that pays homage to the very same thing as me. It’s just not believable, is it?”
Or perhaps it is. With Orbital, with music, with certain notions of spacetime itself, there is the idea that past and future are part of the same thing. There is the theory of the Möbius. Where time becomes a loop.
P&P Music Factory
Selected highlights from 30-plus years of Orbital
‘Chime’ comes out on Jazzy M’s Oh’Zone Records. An “already eagerly sought modest twittery shuffling acidic instrumental” according to James Hamilton’s Disco Page in Record Mirror.
7 Jan 1991
‘Belfast’ is released on the ‘III’ EP. In heavy contrast the lead track is the grinding techno-metal track ‘Satan’. “It was our supportive message after Judas Priest got sued for backwards satanic messages,” says Paul. “Why can’t you have forwards satanic messages?” As a result, Orbital are picketed by Catholic mothers in Poland. Phil: “That was a proud moment.”
Orbital tour the USA with Meat Beat Manifesto. At a New York shop called Star Magic Space Age Gifts on Broadway they spot a set of head-mounted torches for handymen. “We thought that’s good, you can check your record box when you DJ,” explains Phil. “So, we gave it a go and next thing, we’re the band with the torches on their heads.”
25 June 1994
Orbital headline Glastonbury’s NME Stage for the first time, winning over a crowd of 40,000 and pleasurably traumatising the psychologically vulnerable with new track ‘Are We Here?’’s deafening voice sample: “What Does God Say?”
“I got all those samples about Jesus from a weird religious record I found in a charity shop,” says Paul. “The picture on the front is a split screen with a bunch of nuclear weapons on one side and a stained glass window on the other. I thought, I’ve got to own that record…”
Orbital realise a long-cherished ambition with a film soundtrack, Paul W.S. Anderson’s space horror picture ‘Event Horizon’. They co-create it with composer Michael Kamen. “He did the score to ‘Brazil’, my all-time favourite film,” says Paul. “I said to him, I can’t read music, is that going to be a problem? And he goes: ‘Well I don’t do electronic so we’re gonna get on just fine…’”
31 Dec 1999
At Cream’s massive event at Liverpool’s Pier Head, Orbital see in the 21st Century with a special version of ‘Chime’ – with extra bongs.
Orbital split for the first time. Phil concentrates on his DJing and Paul releases a solo album, ‘The Ideal Condition’, with guest vocals from Robert Smith.
The Hartnolls reform to headline The Big Chill and record the ‘Wonky’ album.
27 June 2010
Eleventh Doctor Who Matt Smith joins Orbital onstage to close the 40th Glastonbury with the ‘Who’ theme. Smith of course wears the obligatory torch glasses.
29 August 2012
The Paralympics Opening Ceremony – Orbital perform a medley of ‘Where Is It Going?’ and Ian Dury’s ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ with Prof Stephen Hawking and the Graeae Theatre Company. Some 11 million people are watching.
Orbital split again, after 25 years together, saying: “Nothing lasts forever and it’s time to stop.” Paul scores Season 2 of ‘Peaky Blinders’ after collaborating with Cillian Murphy on his solo album ‘8:58’.
Orbital reunite again, to play live and release the album ‘Monsters Exist’ featuring Brian Cox. “The real joy for me,” Phil tells the website Music Radar, “is I’ve got my brother back.”
Orbital are playing Bugged Out! & Disco Pogo @ Drumsheds on 21 October. Get your tickets here