Ian Crause, Robert Whatley, Paul Wilmott and Daniel Gish (who quickly left to join Bark Psychosis), formed Disco Inferno in Essex in the late 80’s, whilst still teenagers and began to produce a dark, yet melodic isolationist sound, somewhat reminiscent of Joy Division’s though, without the balance of synthesizers, at times they could often sound almost airless, claustrophobic. Their songs, characterised by Whatley’s pummeling drums, Wilmott’s keystone bass and Crause’s spiralling, cyclic guitar riffs perfectly echoed the dank, sulphuric East London streets beneath the railway arches where they were recorded.
Seeing DI live in the early 90’s, was an exhilarating, though often frustrating experience. One occasion, after taking a National Express coach the 127 miles from Nottingham to London with a friend, we were perplexed to find them headlining a six band bill in Rails, a rough, brightly lit pub embedded in Euston bus station. We became increasingly impatient as each of the supports, a mishmash of styles, from country to folk, stretched deep into the night, leaving DI less than half an hour before last orders. Eventually, Crause, visibly seething, jumped onstage and announced to the remains of the audience, less than 10 of us by now, that given the time, they were going to play twice as fast as usual. Which they did. This only amplified the thrill. If you’ve never traveled over a hundred miles to see a band who play for less than 30 minutes at twice their normal speed, you simply haven’t lived.
Disco Inferno were often wished away. There’s a wonderful tail-out to ‘Footprints In The Snow’ on their later ‘D.I. Go Pop’ album, a live recording of the band being prematurely wound down by an East London pub landlady who’s clearly had enough. As they’re unplugged, Crause apologies to the audibly scant audience with, “I’m sorry but some people don’t have the ability or the insight…” at which he’s cut off by the landlord, “There’s no need to be like that…”
Crause’s relationship with those who didn’t “have the ability or the insight” to understand and/or appreciate what he was trying to do has always been his anchor. DI’s relationship with their then-label, Ché was obviously turbulent. Crause has said that he was barely aware that, ‘In Debt,’ a compilation of the band’s singles and EPs to date, had even been released. Worse still, the label didn’t share his enthusiasm for the sampler technology he desperately needed in order to take the band – not least rock music – towards a more thrilling, shining future.
“The tensions in the band were made much worse by our record label and management (same people) who were shit and made no attempt to help us in any way. When we decided to carry on, we approached about 15 labels – none of them were interested, so we signed to Cheree (in what we now realise was a ludicrous deal)…”
That ludicrous deal, however, was shortlived, the only fruit of which being this two track EP, ‘Summer’s Last Sound/Love Stepping Out’ (DI jumped to Rough Trade Records within a year). It’s evident before even pressing play that the curtains have been opened. Those bleak, black and white sleeves of their previous records have been replaced by bright sploshes of oil paints on a stark white canvas. There’s the sun, a blue sky, green trees but wait – what’s this red? Blood?
Likewise, almost every sonic trait that connected them to the nearest pigeonhole (Joy Division) had been cast aside, the husk of a cocoon. For the first minute of ‘Summer’s Last Sound,’ one might think that Wilmott has been left alone to hold the fort, his bass, a cable through a menagerie as the sun goes down. But with time, it becomes apparent that these woodland sounds are at the mercy of a human hand (in this case, played by Crause on his MIDI guitar and Whatley on his drum pads) and slowly, a tune emerges from the treetop hullabaloo.
“My first serious bit of sampling. I had heard The Young Gods in 89/90 and became frantic to get a sampler, realising that it is the only area of virgin territory in music at the moment and true originality is possible. I wanted the sampler to enable me to be a chameleon – to be a songbird, or an army, or a flock of birds – to use the music as a soundtrack to help us visualise or add layers of meaning to the lyrics. I think I succeeded. Nobody cared. Nobody bought it.” – Ian Crause
Even so, the acquisition of a sampler (Crause had purchased a Roland S-750 with his own savings) heralded a bright new dawn for the band. On the single that nobody bought, DI literally sound like they’ve climbed out of a well and into the light for the very first time. The pounding tribal drums of their early work have gone, the rotating electric guitar patterns replaced by shimmering acoustic but the most notable difference is the dizzying array of sounds that can’t clearly be identified as coming from a particular instrument. These “narrative samples” instantly evoke imagery in one’s head. The cascading churchbells on ‘Love Stepping Out,’ put one in mind of a village green in Summer and yet, there’s a strange plasticity to the music, a chiming sequencer accompanied by a synthetic crackling, like the sound you get when you touch a live guitar lead with your fingertip. What was happening?
Without wishing to go too deeply into tech-speak, by fixing a MIDI pick-up to his guitar, Crause was able to trigger samples from his computer, even assigning a different sound to each fret. So, whilst to all intents and purposes, he was playing guitar as he usually would but the sound emanating from the speakers could be birdsong, waves splashing, a camera click. Whatley, likewise, used electronic drum pads to similar effect. Conventional drum sounds were ousted in favour of , well, anything. The possibilities were endless.
“When the guitar was connected to the sampler, it sounded insane. If your equipment sounds mad as fuck just by plugging it in and touching it, you know you’re off to a good start.” – Crause*
Ian’s monotonic Sprechgesang, fixes the song on any and every British council estate in Summer, where the prickle of impending violence mixes with cheap alcohol, weed and the dull thud of techno from passing cars.
“Punching women, kicking men, five on one, one on ten, these fuckers getting all they deserve. It’s just tricks with mirrors, makes them think they’re in the right but who’s to argue on such a lovely night?”
Ah, yes. That blood. For all this talk of Summer and love, there’s a worm in Disco Inferno’s apple that never really ever goes away. Crause’s England is one of cheap nylon Union Jacks sagging in the rain, where immigrants are kicked to death and corruption is rife. Cynical perhaps but also astute. This land may be green but it’s often deeply unpleasant. Therefore, in this respect, why weren’t Disco Inferno the perfect band for our times? Perhaps “nobody cared and nobody bought it” because nobody likes the truth?
Note : ‘Summer’s Last Sound’ and ‘Love Stepping Out’ are included in ‘The 5 EPs,’ a chronological compilation of the band’s singles from 1992 to 1994, released in September 2011. Initial purchases of ‘The 5 EPs’ made through the One Little Indian store were part of the Totem Series (“a series uncovering lost classics, rarities and oddities from the archives of One Little Indian Records and associated labels”) and came with a 7″ record sized collectors booklet featuring an in-depth article by Ned Raggett. The article contained interviews with the band and many other collaborators about the making of the original EPs.
* quote taken from the Ned Raggett interview in ‘The 5 EPs’ booklet.
More on Disco Inferno here soon.