As the bleak 1980s turned to the hopeful 90s, a new sound was taking shape in a handful of shellshocked Yorkshire towns and cities. In makeshift bedroom studios in Bradford, Leeds and, most famously, Sheffield, young producers were crafting a sound that would announce the arrival of Warp Records and change British electronic music forever: bleep.
Although largely forgotten, bleep – sometimes referred to as “Yorkshire bleep and bass” – remains one of Britain’s most thrilling and eccentric musical developments. Personally, I would argue that it was the first example of a truly homegrown British style of dance music. Previously, British house and techno music had largely offered little not provided by the titans of Detroit, Chicago and New York. Even the most famous British house records of the era, for example “Voodoo Ray” or T-Coy’s 1987 Latin-themed “Carino”, sounded like they could have been made by Americans.
Bleep was like nothing the world had heard before. Alien, sub-heavy, otherworldly and unashamedly bassy, it sounded like the party-minded soundtrack to terminal industrial decline. The exact catalyst for this musical revolution remains a point of much discussion – not to mention inter-city rivalry between Leeds and Sheffield – but the genre’s unique aesthetics appear to have risen from the cross-pollination of dub soundsystem culture and contemporary electronic music in both cities’ underground clubs (most notably, perhaps, Occasions and Jive Turkey in Sheffield).
While Bradford natives Unique 3 started it all with their 1988 12” “Only The Beginning” and subsequent hit “The Theme” (1989), the record that would become the blueprint for an entire genre was Forgemasters’ “Track With No Name”. Partly produced by a Sheffield soundsystem builder and studio engineer called Rob Gordon, it sent shockwaves through clubs not just throughout Yorkshire, but worldwide. It also announced the arrival of a label that would become synonymous with bleep, Warp Records.
It wasn’t long before other Yorkshire DJs and producers began to make their own bleep records. There was LFO and Nightmares on Wax from Leeds, and Sheffield’s own supergroup, Sweet Exorcist. Arguably, it was the latter who left the greatest legacy in terms of authentic bleep productions, as RetroActivity, a long-overdue anthology of their productions, attests.
Sweet Exorcist had credentials. It was a collaboration between one of Sheffield’s most visionary and celebrated electronic producers, Cabaret Voltaire man Richard H Kirk, and Jive Turkey resident DJ Parrot (later of the All Seeing I, and soon to release new material on Classic). The fruits of the duo’s first studio session were dynamite: “Testone”. In many ways, the suite of “Test” tracks released in 1990 are the best remaining examples of bleep in its purest form. Raw, spooky, uncompromising and focused on the twin attractions of unfeasibly heavy sub-bass (provided by accidental bleep overlord Rob Gordon) and a simple but devastating melody, “Testone” through “Testsix (Toneapella)” remain powerful and unique dancefloor records. RetroActivity showcases them – alongside an early demo of of “Testone” minus its famous melody – in remastered form. It goes without saying that they sound fantastic.
But Sweet Exorcist didn’t stop there. Over the next year, they released a couple more 12” singles for Warp and an album, C.C.I.D. While the latter – included here in its entirety – largely featured 808-heavy house productions with the duo’s distinct bleep touch, it’s their techno productions that still bristle with clanking industrial intent. Check, for example, “Samba”, “Bonus Samba” or the various versions of the eerily dystopian “Clonk’s Coming”, which recast Xon’s “Midnight Express” (a lesser-known bleep-era collaboration between Kirk and Rob Gordon) as an uneasy fusion of star-gazing futurism and clattering industrial percussion. Whether the empty factories that then dominated Sheffield’s Wicker and Attercliffe districts were an inspiration is unknown; to these ears, at least, it certainly sounds that way.
RetroActivity is a fitting tribute to both Sweet Exorcist, whose star burned all too briefly, and bleep techno – a revolutionary genre whose stark, post-industrial narrative offers a uniquely British story to match that of Detroit’s earliest electronic pioneers. The Attercliffe Two doesn’t have quite the same ring as the Belleville Three, but Kirk and Parrot’s influence on British techno was almost as great.