Sharoma Starbase 109

Starbase 109

Quick Step & Starbase Cix

A gig I recorded during the 'Playtime' event at the Royal Oak in Chorlton, on February 19th, 2005.

The combination of a simple electronic beat, usually reinforced with a prominent - but artificial - bass drum, and an equally simple overlapping electronic melody, requiring no more computing power than a Casio digital watch (circa-1981), is one phase. Industrial machinery and looped robotic sounds have been used for over thirty years as the genesis of a record or two (Stanlow by OMD is a case in point). A secondary phase, such as a Northern accent (and by North, I mean primarily the ancient counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, or the The M62 Belt of Music, but more on that later), can be added, and if sung in harmony, the result is something tentatively known as Industrial Futurism. I do not care to mention who invented such bombastic sounding genres, but Starbase 109 are definitely the modern progenitors. For seven years I have sat on the sidelines to see this curious, alarmingly quiet and modest duo, rise in prominence as a mocked comedy act before dissolving finally into post-MySpace obscurity.

Cash Machine, you can never get your money out,
Cash Machine, there is always someone there.

Elementary music knowledge and the Early 80s Pantheon of Cool, exemplified and beyond by certain key albums:

The beginning of the decade, and 1980 in particular, appears as towering Corinthian overlord: banishing the guitar-based post-punk evolution of 1977-style-thrash to second place in the commercial-creative media world. From that point on, the '80s, and most importantly, pre-programmed electronics, took over. The requisite skill behind creation of electronic music reduced significantly as soon as Moogs went mass market, or perhaps when, as you know, The Human League could not only survive, but thrive, when they swapped the geeky northern programmers for a couple of birds. Not to disparage them: their 2003 gig at the Manchester Academy was one of the best I saw, despite a dreary cold I had at the time. Yet, the early Human League were a thoroughly different beast to get your teeth into, and definitely the superior band. They fragmented into various offshoots in 1980, the Heaven 17 being the main contender.

Hot, putrid nursing home.
Hot, putrid nursing home.
Stinks to High Heaven.

So where does that leave us? Well, Kraftwerk, you see, were very important. In fact, electronic music belongs to the Germans. Take Can: Even without attempting to solidify it as an actual genre, they helped invent a different way of arriving at a certain soundscape, outside the love of the guitar, which even post-Beatles was incumbent upon the airwaves. Drum machines were made from scratch, and left to loop as the tape recorders began spinning. Neu!, and indeed, Kraftwerk deserve mention. As I said, if you build the mixing boards, drum machines, pressure pads, and wire it all together, and still produce a solid conceptual vision, then you deserve the credit. And whilst the 1980s did eventually overtake Kraftwerk, there was no reason for electronic music not to creep back down and remain in the spirit of the post-industrial times. This is where Starbase 109 come in, and their home town of Prestwich, its record shop 'Endless Records' and the Motorway-62: a fine example of British engineering socialism, married to the eventually destructive effects of Keynesian economics.

The M62 Belt

You're like Manchester, you've got Strangeways.

We must now travel back to the mid-1960s, when the overlooked, but impressive infrastructure project, funded centrally from London via the Department for Transport, was laid down. A bona fide motorway artery across the inhospitable Pennines. Billed to be passable even when winter conditions closed all other roads, the M62 would barrel through the landscape, slicing apart farmlands and ancient communities, from the downtown depravity of a Liverpool in decline, through Manchester, mopping up all the outskirts and linking everything into what became known as "Greater Manchester" - effectively a non-stop urban sprawl of concrete conurbations, motorway, tower blocks and council estates - and on into Yorkshire, linking Leeds (and Bradford), before terminating at Hull. Sheffield sits below this area, and that's where Cabaret Voltaire, New Order, The Human League and Starbase 109 seemed to form a second musical home. Or rather, another base of unemployed youngsters and students with a love of weird music, because I state there is nothing magical about these towns. Infrastructure was key. The vans and coaches, with bands and fans alike, no doubt traversed this motorway many times over. Contrary to an episode of Frasier, there are many acclaimed bands from Manchester, and farther still, along the M62 corridor itself. I do not claim to have invented this theory. The Doves' 'M62 song' and John Shuttleworth's own lamentation of the "Bridge over the M62", referring of course to what was once the longest single-span bridge in Europe, made for the sole use of the hiking community.

A camping trip near the fake Scammonden dam, built with earth excavated from the cutting, recalls my mind to the constant flow of traffic even at night. The utopian vision of the 1960s shows us a gleaming bright motorway, untouched by commuter rubber, offering the promise of the future: a fast, cheap link to any town, and therefore, any event. The race was on: if you could, as I have seen, see a show in Manchester and one in London the next day, then what better purpose for the destruction of landscape than the creation of soundscape? The east-west axis was complete.

Don't drive your car,
And save on petrol.

Starbase sit perfectly in this picture of a creative post-industrial, and entirely manufactured, urban environment, with tarmac and concrete now literally stretching from the polluted beaches of the radiated Irish Sea at Liverpool, where until 1983 the British Government was quite happy to allow all nuclear waste to be barrelled and dumped en masse, to the grey cold wash of the North Sea at Hull. With the Moors bare, and Suffer Little Children, this rowdy working class energy had to turn somewhere, and it turned to music. Prestwich sits one junction along the M62 from Middleton, home of The Chameleons, and in late 2004 I often took the short drive from one to the other, especially to make sure Starbase were promoted via CD-R and posters in the Endless Records shop.

Endlos Endlos

The Jewish-looking man rubbed his hands together, wrapped in those fingerless gloves, and breathed, letting off steam in the coldness. Breath which evaporated once the blast of the gas-fired portable heater caught up with it.

"It's a good job I don't work for a living!"

The other man, the one with some kind of skin condition that covered half of his face, was much more friendlier. No names were ever exchanged, just anecdotes and dusty old vinyl - the very best currency of music. Records that tell a story not just of the band and their musical - and artistic - intentions, but also of the owner. Maybe it was a young boy and you can still see where he used the record as a backing to scrawl swastikas somewhere else. Or maybe a signature. Who knows. But whatever, collections can be expanded in size and scope at unbelievable rates in these places. I was known to the clerk simply as Japan Man. But it was said in a loving and cool way: "Japaaaaan Maaan". Go long on the As.

Though The Fall will always be Prestwich's finest, Starbase aren't far behind. From the joking but subdued clarity of their first album, they have produced in their second a modern masterpiece, bristling with psychological commentary, that has been, predictably, overlooked entirely. Despite the odd burn-related 'popping' errors, the production, particularly when given the OOPS treatment, stands testament to the idea of simplicity so defined by the Colossal Youth of Young Marble Giants. Montag and Krayon harmonize to good effect, and the production values are surprisingly high, and distinctly superior to 2003's effort. The songs were honed over many years, for I remember hearing Future Generation as early as February, 2005.

We are not Humans; we're only machines.

Comments on YouTube have shown that the popularity expected from supporting tours with The Stranglers and Captain Sensible was not forthcoming. A failure to remain in character during a television appearance was, in my opinion, disappointing. Where before, I had sat, often drunken, trying to squeeze conversation out of them, hovering 'The Crackdown' LP affront their eyes, and showing genuine disbelief at their ignorance of this Sheffield electronic band, they now spoke openly of their MySpace site. Fair enough, but surely, as they arrived in their home-made transporter, they desire to remain in character? Alas not. Such arrogance is still the preserve of Kraftwerk, with their teutonic indifference to social norms (The Telephone Call incident).

I like Starbase because they emerged in the early 2000s, that depressing decade of dirge. A scarcity of interesting new bands and a growing obsession with the late '70s and '80s, times which I had always been told were the very epitome of post-Empire decline, and the purposeful impoverishment of the British working classes, as the renewed Roman Empire of the 19th century morphed into the paradigm of the Anglo-American alliance. It is no wonder my life was defined by escapist sounds, and why music is so thoroughly now entrenched in the subconscious of successive generations. Offering a consciousness-expanding experience at least as potent as caffeine and refined sugar, it allows us to define our times, both past and present, within a historical context. Metrolink merely updates the Trans-Europe Express of Kraftwerk. Whilst outwardly comical, their lyrics are dark and wholly unsympathetic. You owe money? Then the bailiffs will take your "video machine" - indeed, since VHS and DVD have both waxed and waned since the birth of digital audio, Starbase were right to omit a format signifier from the lyric. Nursing Home is clearly a commentary on the social alienation of the elderly, who by 2020 will make up half the population. No doubt the excessive temperature inherent in these homes will probably be reduced as the austerity measures come into play. Britain is, after all, a cold place.

Track listings:

Starbase 109 (2003)

  1. Engineering Workshop
  2. Metrolink
  3. You're An Android
  4. Gravedigger
  5. Waxworks Museum
  6. Dialling Tone
  7. Nursing Home
  8. Bailiffs
  9. Submarine
  10. Cosmetic Surgery
  11. Vacuum Cleaner
  12. Radiation Leak

My New Invention (2009)

  1. Phobia
  2. Green Cross Code
  3. Cash Machine
  4. Cigarette
  5. Alien Space Craft
  6. Big Dog
  7. Biology
  8. Luxury Atlantic Liner
  9. Construction Site
  10. Future Generation
  11. Pop Star
  12. My New Invention
  13. Vacuum Cleaner (Dance Version)