Dance pop duo
When the progressive dance act Leftfield released their debut album Leftism in 1995, the duo of Paul Daley and Neil Barnes completely reinvented British house music. An album that stretched beyond the boundaries of dance music, Leftism, four years later in 1999, was declared the “Greatest Dance Album of All Time” in a poll by the world’s foremost DJs. Even as the years passed, the ground-breaking record, with its timeless mix of shaking dub, imposing techno, and dynamic, motion-inducing splendor, has retained a modern dance sound. Paving the way for future dance/techno music acts like the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy, Leftism is regarded as the album that redrew the genre’s borders by pioneering the hybrid of dub and house music long before the invention of big beat. The album also introduced the use of guest vocalists from a broad spectrum of musical backgrounds—like gothic torch singer and former Curve vocalist Toni Halliday and reggae artist Earl Sixteen—who performed over rhythms borrowed not only from dub, but from reggae and African music as well.
Because Leftism was considered a defining moment in dance music, similar to the influence of Pink Floyd’s
Members include Neil Barnes (raised in London, England; former member of London School of Samba, DJ at the Wag Club, and teacher at Paddington College) and Paul Daley (raised in Margate, England; former member of A Band Called Adam and contributor to the Brand New Heavies).
Formed Leftfield, 1989; released debut single “Not Forgotten,” 1990; formed Hard Hands label, c. 1992; released untimely hit single “Open Up,” 1993; produced soundtrack for Shallow Grave, 1994; released groundbreaking debut album Leftism, 1995; contributed to Trainspotting soundtrack, 1996; released acclaimed Rhythm and Stealth, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York City, NY 10022, (212) 833–5212, website: http://www.sony.com. Publishing company —Hard Hands/Chrysalis Music (ASCAP). Management —Hard Hands, c/o Lisa Horan, London, England. Website —Leftfield Online, http://www.leftfield-online.com.
Dark Side of the Moon on rock, many speculated whether Leftfield could follow with an album of the same magnitude. However, the duo returned in late 1999 with Rhythm and Stealth, an album just as vital and challenging as their debut. But whereas Leftism succeeded upon its larger-than-life sound, Rhythm and Stealth showcased the duo’s more tailored, minimal approach to dance music as they refined their nu-house foundation while experimenting with Jamaican dub, Detroit techno, skewed electronica, and rays of ambient textures. Judging by Leftfield’s more atmospheric tracks on Rhythm and Stealth, wrote Village Voice contributor Frank Kogan, “Leftfield could make a leaking faucet sound dramatic.” He went on to describe the album in its entirety as “rhythm, clang, beauty.”
Daley and Barnes, both of whom dabbled in punk, dub, industrial, and funk before appearing on the emergent house scene, joined forces as Leftfield in 1989. Hinting at a subversive punk attitude, the duo’s goal was to earn themselves a place—alongside acts like Orbital and Sabres of Paradise—in the progressive house camp, a crew of artists who concentrated more intently on reinterpreting musical influences than merely cranking out dance beats. Prior to the formation of Leftfield, Daley, who grew up in Margate, a borough in the southeast of England, worked at a hair salon in London’s Kensington Market and was a former member of A Band Called Adam on the Rhythm King label and contributor to the Brand New Heavies. Meanwhile, Barnes, who spent his childhood in London’s Islington, was a member of Elephant Stampede, played bongos for the London School of Samba, and worked as a DJ at the Wag Club. He also earned a degree in modern history and taught for five years at Paddington College.
The two first met at an acid jazz club called Violets in the late-1980s. “We were both percussionists in different areas,” Barnes, explaining why they decided to start making music together, stated for the duo’s website. “But we both realised that we couldn’t express ourselves properly. You can only take it so far, using live instruments, but samplers and sequences opened up new worlds creatively.” Leftfield debuted in 1990 on Rhythm King with the deeply resonant single “Not Forgotten,” a song inspired by the Mississippi Burning soundtrack. A remix of the track appeared as a B-side of the duo’s second single, “More Than I Know,” released in 1991. However, when both songs broke big in Great Britain, a dispute with the duo’s label ensued, forcing Leftfield to put their recording career on hold.
In the meantime, Daley and Barnes, unable to release new songs because of contractual restraints enforced by Rhythm King, embarked on a career as remixers. Working for acts such as React 2 Rhythm, Ultra Nate, and Inner City, Leftfield were able to maintain a prominent reputation, even in the absence of their own recorded material. Eventually, after legal wranglings with Rhythm King came to an end, Leftfield set up their own imprint, Hard Hands, named after a 1960s hit by percussionist Ray Barretto. In 1992, now free to release their own music, Leftfield returned with two more singles, the reggae-tinted “Release the Pressure” and the trance-based, minor chart hit “Song of Life,” both of which became underground dance classics.
Leftfield especially caught public and critical attention with the 1993 single “Open Up.” Recorded with John Lydon—formerly of the Sex Pistols and PiL—on guest vocals and remixed by Andy Weatherall and the Dust Brothers, “Open Up” was a major crossover success. The song probably would have risen to the top of the British charts had it not been for bad timing. Containing the line “Burn Hollywood! Burn!,” the single was released, by coincidence, during the same week forest fires raged throughout Southern California, affecting many in the Los Angeles area. Radio stations, seeing the line as too provocative, placed a virtual blanket ban on the song. Nevertheless, “Open Up” made enough of an initial impact to reach the British top 20, and the song was widely regarded by the music press as one of the finest records of the year.
After producing the soundtrack for the 1994 British film Shallow Grave, Daley and Barnes released their long-awaited debut album, the acclaimed Leftism. Featuring exploratory moments as well as upbeat numbers, the album proved just as suitable for the front room as the dance floor and featured a range of guest vocalists, from Lydon, Curve vocalist Toni Halliday, and Manchester poet Lemn Sissay to African rap artist Djum Djum and reggae vocalist Earl Sixteen. The song performed by Halliday, “Original,” was released as a single, charted in the United Kingdom at number 18, and occasioned Leftfield’s debut performance on Top of the Pops. Considerable recognition followed, and Leftism climbed into the British top 10.
Within months after the album’s release, Leftfield started remixing for musicians and groups like David Bowie, Renegade Soundwave, and Yothu Yindi, then received Britain’s much-coveted Mercury Prize for their debut album. One year later, in 1996, the duo scooped up a Brit Award for Best Dance Act. And four years past its debut, Mark Sutherland in Melody Maker recalled Leftism as one of 1995’s best releases. “It was funny,” recalled Daley, as quoted by Billboard writer Michael Paoletta. “After we won the awards, our label asked us, ‘So, are you ready to be pop stars?’ And we were like, ‘Uh, no.’ You don’t have to always be in the public eye and be a pop star.”
In spite of wanting to remain underground, Leftfield gained further publicity in April of 1996 after contributing the otherwise unavailable “A Final Hit” to the soundtrack for cult film Trainspotting, based on the best-selling drug culture novel by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh and directed by Danny Boyie. The duo was also featured on the compilation album Wipeout XL for the Astralwerks label. Released in December of 1996, it included some of the world’s most prominent techno/trance acts—Leftfield along with the Future Sound of London, Fluke, the Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Photek, and Orbital—offering some of their best efforts.
Daley and Barnes spent the next three years recording and re-recording their follow-up album, 1999’s Rhythm and Stealth, which was preceded by the CD-5 single “Afrika Shox,” which featured guest vocals by electro pioneer Afrika Bambaatta. “Bambaataa was a very strong influence on my early interest in electronic music,” Barnes told Carol Clerk of Melody Maker. “It was great fun working with him, because he is very open-minded and he keeps in touch with what is happening. He had part of his posse with him, the Zulu Nation, who came down to the studio as well, and the whole thing had a really happy atmosphere.” The shocking video for “Afrika Shox,” directed by Chris Cunningham, known for his work with Madonna, Björk, Portishead, and Aphex Twin, also drew attention. Referring to the single’s video as a “black comedy,” Barnes further explained, “I mean it’s ridiculous, the guy walks around and bits of his body drop off—it’s not to be taken seriously. You could say it was a reflection on society, that nobody is willing to help him until the end, when Afrika Bambaataa says, ‘Do you need a hand?’ and he hasn’t got any. A lot of people don’t think it’s funny, but we do.”
With Rhythm and Stealth, which debuted at number one on the British album chart and included the track “Afrika Shox,” Leftfield created an extraordinarily diverse, yet at the same time totally homogeneous panorama of techno/ambient sounds, maintaining the duo’s solid reputation and penchant for experimentation. Other standout songs, performed with an array of guest vocalists, included “Dusted” with Roots Manuva, “Chant of a Poor Man” featuring Cheshire Cat, “Swords” with Nicole Willis, and “Rino’s Prayer” sung by Rino Della Volpe. “I hope people like it—time will tell,” added Barnes. “It’s a much tougher album than the first one, it’s much rawer and has a more stripped-down sound. It’s not like Leftism at all, it’s a very different album and I’m very proud of it as a record . . . It’s definitely an album of the future, rather than of the past.”
“Quite frankly,” Barnes told Paoletta, “we wanted to go against the musical grain with the new album. When we started working on it, we both knew that we wanted to take it in another direction and develop our sound. In fact, this album was heavily influenced by all that early-’80s electro stuff like Ultravox, Human League, and Visage.” In agreement with his partner’s recollections, Daley added, “We didn’t want to turn into a stadium techno band. It was important for us to keep our feet firmly planted in London’s underground club scene, because there’s a lot going on there.” And despite the duo’s growing popularity, Barnes insisted, “In England, it’s possible to sell lots of records and maintain your credibility. To do that, you just have to make music that keeps you credible. You can’t turn your back on what got you to where you are. These days, hype and imagery have a tendency to overtake the music. With [Rhythm and Stealth], we didn’t want that.”
In addition to making records, Daley and Barnes also develop music for software for computer games, such as for Music 2000. Leftfield’s “Phat Planet,” from their follow-up album also became the theme song for a new Saturday-morning animated show on the Fox network called Beast Machines. The duo also composed the opening musical sequence for the 2000 film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
(Contributor) Shallow Grave (soundtrack), EMI, 1994.
Leftism, Hard Hands/Sony, 1995.
(Contributor) Trainspotting (soundtrack), includes Leftfield’s “A Final Hit,” EMI/Capitol, 1996.
(Contributor) Wipeout XL (compilation), Astralwerks, 1996.
Rhythm and Stealth, Hard Hands/Higher Ground/Columbia, 1999.
Billboard, April 27, 1996; December 7, 1996; May 24, 1997; August 14, 1999; December 11, 1999; December 25, 1999-January 1, 2000.
Melody Maker, December 5, 1992; March 18, 1995; August 28, 1999; September 4, 1999; October 2, 1999; December 1-7, 1999; December 22, 1999-January 4, 2000.
Village Voice, December 14, 1999.
Leftfield Online, http://www.leftfield-online.com (May 31,2000).
Sonicnet.com, http://www.sonicnet.com (May 31, 2000).
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