As the Balearic classic gets a 21st Century refix, we get the full story from Woodentops main man Rolo McGinty
The late 80s were a funny old time for music. The arrival of house, hip-hop and cheap samplers helped kickstart a musical revolution that saw the barriers between music genres breaking down like never before. Heavy rockers Aerosmith drafted in rappers Run DMC to help them craft the biggest hit of their career, leather-jacketed grebo bands like Pop Will Eat Itself and Gaye Bykers On Acid started mucking about with sampling, while shaggy-haired Mancunian indie kids went to the Hacienda, gobbled funny little tablets and were filled with an overwhelming urge to make tracks based on the Funky Drummer break.
And over in Ibiza, a new musical style emerged called 'Balearic'.
These days, that term has come, too often, to mean warm, fuzzy lounge/nu-disco and ambient records that all sound remarkably similar. Nothing could have been further from the case in the early days of Balearic, though. Back then, the term referred not to any particular sonic blueprint, but rather to the genre-hopping, 'anything goes' sets played at the likes of Amnesia and Pacha by DJ Alfredo and Piti Urgell.
Nothing summed up this new spirit of eclecticism quite as succinctly as a 1988 compilation entitled Balearic Beats Vol 1, which was compiled by Paul Oakenfold, Pete Tong and Trevor Fung, and released on the FFRR label with sleevenotes by Terry Farley. On that album, you could find model-turned-popstar Mandy Smith rubbing shoulders with industrial pioneers Nitzer Ebb, US avant-rockers The Residents, Belgian new beat heroes Code 61... and a UK indie outfit called The Woodentops.
The Woodentops formed in 1983, and initially found an audience among the cardigan-clad fans of bands like The Smiths and The Wedding Present. But by the late 80s, frontman Rolo McGinty had moved on from the relentless jingle-jangle of C86-style indie-pop, and like many of his contemporaries was starting to experiment with the new possibilities thrown up by a brave new world of samplers and drum machines, not to mention the plethora of rhythms brought to light by the then new-found popularity of 'world music'. And one of the first fruits of those experiments was a track called Why Why Why, which duly featured on the aforesaid Balearic Beats Vol 1.
Wall Of Sound recently re-released Why Why Why with a set of new mixes from the likes of Fabrice, Trevor Fung, Lisbon Kid and Spatial Awareness, and there's a tour coming up next month. We wanted to find out more about the full story behind this landmark track... so who better to ask than the man himself?
The original demo of Why Why Why was produced by Adrian Sherwood. How did you come to hook up with him?
"It was a love of On-U Sound and Tackhead that led us to him. I arranged a meeting through Rough Trade, went over to Southern Studios and straight away I was laying down bass for Barmy Army, for the track Sharp As A Needle. It was 'Hello, how do you do? Can you play bass?' and I became an instant Barmy Army member!
"The Woodentops then invited Tackhead Sound System along on tour with us and recorded with, and indeed had Skip MacDonald join us for a while; Doug Wimbish recorded on the second album and Keith LeBlanc and I wrote a track or two together. It turned out they were near-neighbours in New York where I semi-lived, so I would get into town, go down the street and see if they were in. Great times."
The Woodentops were first known as 80s indie darlings, so it was a bit of a surprise for many of us when Why Why Why became a club hit. But is it fair to say you personally were already well immersed in club culture by that point?
"Yes, it is. It was a natural thing: clubs open later than pubs, especially back then, plus there's a dancefloor. Simon [Mawby, Woodentops guitarist] and I used to go to the Caribbean Club in Oxford and the Dug Out in Bristol, where he was at college, in the early 80s. We were big on Fela Kuti, James Brown, Moroder, Telex, Can and Suicide back then. Pigbag was popular too, I remember.
"In London I used to live with a professional dancer, and dancers work and play hard. So in the evenings after shows, we'd meet and go out in town, and party till the end. London was full of places to go in the early 80s, it was very lively. Batcave, Barracuda, The Wag, Dingwalls, Heaven and The Venue were some. I was in Liverpool and going out with the in-the-know crowd there, too. A big mix of music was developing, which, as a musician, you need to always know about.
"So as The Woodentops we wanted our own music to work with bodies, too. Indie, to me, always just meant 'on an independent record label', which we were - it was the bands that came in just after us that made 'indie' a style of music. We had a few 12-inches out in the early/mid 80s that got a lot of play in clubs - they'd play the extended mixes and people boogied down. I'd be out somewhere, being shown where was cool to go in Berlin or New York, and [1985 Woodentops single] Move Me would come on. We had a bubble of trendiness with that one.
"As the 80s progressed the rock venues were changing, too. In Spain we were often booked into big outdoor discos, and the mosh pit was becoming more of a dancefloor. So we'd extend the songs. There was a show we did at The Wag that was the beginning of the second bubble of trendiness. The Ibiza plays came right around then."
What were the clubs/DJs/labels/music that won you over back then?
"I like to play rock 'n' roll but I love the funky as well, so pre-house it was people like Norman Jay and Giles Peterson at Dingwalls or Shake 'N' Fingerpop. We'd be off up to Camden and everybody dancing, then all those parties in disused buildings in Kings Cross started. It was fun to be dancing the night away, hanging with friends in 'naughty' places you felt you shouldn't be in.
"I'd also begun to half live in New York and I'd investigate the club culture there with my new friends who were always going out. It was then that I met Justin Strauss who now, all these years later, has a mix on a Woodentops record! I love that. You had Mudd, Tunnel Club, The Ritz, Cat Club, Hurrah, Danceteria... that Arthur Baker sound.
"I sadly never went to Paradise Garage, though I could have. But I distinctly remember being shown inside a big club called The Warehouse in Chicago: I was on tour with The Woodentops and a guy with a huge smile was soundchecking on the decks. That was Frankie Knuckles - my first ear-cop of 'the future'!
"I did think, 'Huh? What is that?' It was a disco beat, but something else was going on. It wasn't high energy, either. I soon found out what it was, of course - house music. I think the first house song that got me was Night Writers' Let The Music Use You, then Sueno Latino put the lid on it. We brought that house sound to the band at the end of the 80s and I hope we added something good to it. I thought we did. There's a short movie called Smokin' The Empire on YouTube - have a look and see if you agree!
"I had many a good time at Shoom and Spectrum, and later on at Feel Real, too - I started going out every night of the week for a bit there! My favourite was Confusion, as it goes. I was having an itsy Kim Kardashian moment in life, people recognised me wherever I went, so going to Confusion and disappearing in the music was great. As was Clink Street. Literally into the smoke, you couldn't see anything or anyone sometimes! Shoom was like that, too. The smoke would clear for a moment and Boy George was right in front of you, then the smoke came back and he was gone!"
All the same, did the record's clubland popularity surprise you?
"Yes, mainly because it was a live version of the track being played among electronic, super-tight records. Before Why Why Why was recorded we danced ourselves stupid to it in our rehearsal room practising it, so it was amazing to get that confirmation that it worked for others, too. People went nuts in the clubs like they did at our concerts when it came on. It's the same now with the new remixes - the place goes ape. I've seen it myself.
"I would say, though, that Woodentops music is good for remixes. The orginal demos always had a beefy steady groove, then we'd make them more human with live drums and guitars, a bit looser for live performance. So these remixes go back to that first hour, the really exciting bit of the song's composition when you're alone, jumping about with the drum machine and banging down parts that feel great straight away, before you begin the trudge to completion!"
THE BREAK-UP - AND THE BIG REUNION
The Woodentops split in 1992 but reunited in 2006. What was the catalyst for getting back together at that point?
"Well, we continued as friends, we just took another view of life because from 1982-1992 it was a bit of a compression. I think the others needed a break more than I. Besides, there was a legal thing going on with the label and we couldn't use our name, so the handbrake was on for a few years.
"Then in 2005 I was sent a desk tape from a stonking gig in Barcelona in 1988. I thought, 'If someone was doing this now they'd go down great!'. The irony of that was too much, so I sent a copy to everyone and said, 'We should be doing this'. The guys said yes, and it took a year to turn that round."
Tell us about the other projects you were involved in, in the interim?
"I had an electronic band called Pluto. Mr C put some of that out on Plink Plonk, and we featured on the Trance Europe Express compilations. A label named ITP put out an album, Pluto Rising, as did Octopus with Demolition Plates.
"I also programmed for Robert Owens, Kid Batchelor, Arnold Jarvis, Mr C, Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk, Chip E and Adonis, to name a few. I'd learned to program with The Woodentops, and further sharpened my skills in at the deep end! It was a paid hobby in a way, and I enjoyed working for other artists for a change. Few of those guys knew I was a singer.
"I did something with Orbital - you can hear my Korg analogue synth on Belfast. I did some recording with Arthur Russell, and I used to work a lot with Steve Dub and George Holt at Dada Studios in Clapham. Underworld, Chemical Brothers, Bump, me... we were all in there banging away. I got into breakbeats with Dogs Deluxe, even got an advert or two and a movie soundtrack, Silent Tongues. I DJ'd at fashion shows, extreme sports events and parties, sometimes with Jerry Dammers. And Pluto played with Carl Cox at Q club, Megatripolis, Phoenix festival, V festival... I sometimes regret not carrying on with that, so I'm releasing a new Pluto record soon on Manuscript Records. I did some travelling, too. I went to Africa, which was a big highlight in my life.
"I enjoyed the 90s a lot, but I hardly sang a note. The Woodentops had left my throat mangled and my guitar hand mashed. I hardly ever picked the thing up all through the 90s. All in top shape again now, though!"
The new version of Why Why Why is a new recording made with Trevor Fung, not just a remix. I've read this is because the original masters were lost - can you explain the story behind that?
"Yes... I've now calmed down from that awful moment when I realised my life's work had been lost! It was all in a warehouse in White City, which One Little Indian owned after Rough Trade folded, and nobody can pin down how 80 per cent of it vanished. I told myself it was okay, it meant I was enough of an artist to have all my stuff stolen, because that's something that happens to proper artists. That's how come you find all those Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye tracks you can do mixes of... there's tons of master tapes on the web, stolen when file transfers were done as old tapes began to corrode. It stopped my heart from breaking to think that!
"So when Trevor got in touch and asked about doing a remix, I knew there was nothing to remix. So I asked him what tempo he desired and we shot in the studio for an afternoon, banged it out as we do live and sent off the stems. Then Leo, and later Steve, got in touch and it began to grow. I didn't think the band recording we did would come out, but it's been mixed as a radio version and sounds super. Trevor is very much responsible for Why Why Why's success first time around, by the way, because it was him that put it on Balearic Beats Vol 1."
Talk us through the remixes from Lisbon Kid, Denis The Nights and Spatial Awareness - if you had to review them for iDJ readers, how would you describe them?
"Lisbon Kid, knowing other teams were on it, decided not to use all the bits everyone else probably would. I mean, this is Rui da Silva and Danny De Matos here! I liked Underground Sound of Lisbon a lot, and those Danny Tenaglia mixes too... a great team they are. I adore the mix they've done, it's cinematic, classy, touchy-feely techno, with my voice majorly treated. I always wondered how my voice would sound through effects like that: I am a singing 'bot on their atmospheric and delicious mix.
"Denis's is a great contrast to all the house mixes: it's like The Prodigy, and it reminds me a lot of Benny Staples, our original drummer. That crazy energy. And then Spatial Awareness's mix is deep down and dark. I love the sidechain compression on my vocal, too. The whoomp-whoomp bass going on underground like a tunnel worm from Dune is to my taste."
Do you have a personal favourite of the remixes?
"How can I skip that question - can I throw a sicky?! I'm so blown away by the hard work done by all... Leo Mas, Steve Proctor, Justin, Trevor, Danny and Rui, Tony and Denis all worked long hours on it, so no way can I have a favourite. I'm just grateful to all of them and hope we can sell enough to bung them all some cash one day for the great job they've all done!
Finally, what else are you/The Woodentops up to at the moment, that iDJ readers should know about?
"Well, the Why Why Why project is out on vinyl in two parts, as you know. After that I'm working on a new Woodentops 12-inch which will have a mix by Matt Benjamin, AKA Bushwacka. It's amazing. I've been sitting on it for a year, waiting for the right chance to get it out there - it's very sexy indeed. It may well be that Leo and his co-producer Fabrice do the other side, with something new that Gary Sandford from Joe Jackson's band and I have begun.
"I shall also be touring in late November - that's me solo with an acoustic guitar, and then The Woodentops, all of us, will be playing at the 100 Club in London in January."
Words: Russell Deeks Main pic: Guy Levy
Why Why Why [Remixes] is out now on Wall Of Sound. For details of The Woodentops' upcoming tour, see their website.
Tags: The Woodentops, Rolo McGinty, Balearic, Amnesia, DJ Alfredo, Pete Tong, Paul Oakenfold, Trevor Fung, Shoom, Clink St, Spectrum, acid house, Ibiza, Spatial Awareness, Rui da Silva, Lisbon Kid, Denis The Nights, One Little Indian, Rough Trade, indie-dance, Pluto, Mr C, Plink Plonk, FFRR, Balearic Beats Vol 1, On-U Sound System, Tackhead, Adrian Sherwood, Keith LeBlanc, Doug Wimbish, Skip MacDonald