The Black Dog

The first time I encountered The Black Dog was upon visiting Mike who is now my brother-in-law. It was 1992 and I was a relatively solitary student at Glasgow University. Since schooldays I had followed music closely. Devoted to the music press I'd collected records since 1985 but, like many I'm sure, Acid House and Rave had at first proved difficult to assimilate and follow. My way in was through Dub Reggae and Kraftwerk. You went to raves, club nights and parties but you rarely had a handle on precisely what records were being played. 

Mike, who at that stage was part of a collective called (I think) Wave, sometimes DJ'd the second room at Pure in Edinburgh. Mike is an incredibly charismatic, magnetic character. He has a proper reality distortion field around him. Many people recognised this in him or get sucked into it. For instance, I remember him visiting our house in London once and him wrapping my mother round his little finger. I recall her cooking him breakfast in the middle of the day. He is the kind of individual that you find at the edges of great culture. Like the luminous musicians who never get round to making more that one twelve inch, where that one twelve inch changes everything. Or those people who just create an atmosphere! It's often the most chimeric individuals who are responsible for a scene and the artists are just the worker bees.

Mike had unusually immaculate music taste. I remember my (now) wife Catherine had a cassette he had made her with Neu! on it - back when you literally never had the opportunity to hear their music. So I remember I visited Mike in this flat on Queen Margaret Drive where he was living - and he played me the first A.R.T. EP. He explained the eccentric international nexus of musicians of the post Detroit era - how Carl Craig was hob-nobbing with Dutch and British artists. He alluded to an earlier record by The Black Dog which he explained included a voice saying, "I sit in my room, Imagine the future." That record, which I came to learn was called The Virtual EP, was like recorded music could be in those days, extremely difficult to hear let alone lay your hands on.

FOPP Records on the Byres Road in Glasgow stocked a small selection of new dance music and a few weeks later I discovered The Parallel EP there. Parallel had a funny "Minimalist DANCE" sticker on the cover, and it struck me as a beautifully designed sleeve (props to Richie B). This was before any counter-dialogue about pretentiousness in Techno had sprung up; but the music inside was anything but that. The breakbeats make it an extremely visceral listen; it's powerfully propulsive dance music; got a real wiggle to it; but is simultaneously very opaque and mysterious. There's something about the chords they chose that sounded very acid-drenched, somehow alien. Some radical idea was lurking behind that sound. [We played a lot of Parallel when throwing raves in Senegal later in 1993, Mike particularly liked "Erb" and we had a shot in the final Echo documentary of a crab dancing to it.]

In July 1992 I was back in London for the Summer and this coincided with the release of WARP's "Artificial Intelligence" compilation. WARP's was a nifty bit of conceptual work which tied together lots of the thoughtful post-Detroit Techno music. By this stage I was already on board but really liked the record. Especially the inscrutable track by The Black Dog as one of their alter-egos, I.A.O.'s "The Clan" - something I still return to, its bashful, bruised, busy breakbeats ran counter to the Ambient orthodoxy; withholding its spine-tinglingly delightful four note refrain till the four minute mark. I went to the record's launch night at the Ministry of Sound where The Black Dog played behind a drape. I still have the promotional poster somewhere. I understand it has been reissued recently.

Visiting one of Mike's friends Lloyd in 1993 towards the end of my degree - Lloyd had a copy of Virtual and dubbed it onto a side of a C90 cassette for me. The other tracks were all in that vein of spacey Techno before it had been codified into Intelligent Techno things like Lil' Louis's prototypical "How I Feel", As One's "Your Hand in my Mind" and Nexus 21's remix of Paris Grey's "Don't Lead Me". I listened to the tracks on The Virtual EP pretty much on repeat for a whole year on headphones. I think The Black Dog had really tapped into something much more profound, truly an ur-current which I'm still excavating in my journeys in spirituality. It totally fascinated but also puzzled the hell out of me in the way that the great music is always a riddle.

Moving back to London in 1994 I started smoking a lot more marijuana. Mainly hashish in those days before hydroponic weed took off. I got a job as runner for Ridley Scott's production company and spent a lot of time wandering through Soho listening to music on a SONY Walkman as I made deliveries and collections. I would occasionally find rare early Black Dog records in Soho's record shops. Vir2l (top), the radically remixed versions of Virtual I found at Reckless Records on Berwick Street. Vanttool (middle) somewhere else. The Black Dog Productions "Flux/Otaku" record (bottom) was new from Fat Cat Records in Covent Garden.

Fat Cat was the home of this music in London and grew from a tiny room in the basement when I first would visit to a much bigger shop upstairs where you would bump into people like Bjork and where the walls were covered with the latest releases on Planet E and Plus 8. Atypic's "Otaku" is something I remember particularly from this era. Playing it at maximum volume in the summer at the weekend, high, with the windows wide open, I had a view across the skyline of Battersea.

Working as I was at Ridley Scott's I would daily be summoned to his secretary Julie's office to perform tasks like picking up cigars from Old Compton Street. Once buying a copy of the soundtrack for "Zorba the Greek" for the great man at the now vanished soundtrack record shop on Dean Street. His Bladerunner movie had particular currency at that time. Justin, my fellow runner, had been given the job of tidying the cage in the basement where everything was stored and together we looked at Ridley's beautiful hand-drawn storyboards for that movie.

[Click on these images to enlarge them]

Going about my daily chores I was also simultaneously drawing comics, printing them on the RSA Films photocopier and leaving them in record shops in Soho - chiefly Ambient Soho. This was at the foot of Berwick Street and was run by a guy called Rocket. One of my most carefully crafted comics was Black Dog Story (above) which told the story of my engagement with their early singles.

Imagine my surprise when one day there were two Black Dog CDs on Julie's desk. As I later discovered Ken's new manager Keir, who was a slick networking type, had sent "Bytes" and their latest "Spanners" through to the RSA office. "Bytes" I knew and loved for tracks like "Merck". Julie, who didn't know what to do with them, gave the discs to me and I reached out to Keir sending him the Black Dog Comic I had made.

At the same time the combination of very draining work with the production company (very long hours - lots of shoots on location - often travelling abroad) and quite a heavy consumption of hashish were taking their toll on me. I asked for a holiday in March 1996 and travelled to Hurghada in Egypt on my own thinking I would learn to scuba dive. It was like a building site. Among my strongest memories was of "Spanners" which I listened to on repeat - sometimes at night wandering around in the desert outside the town. "Spanners" really sunk in very deeply. Especially "Psil-cosyin" which had a strong middle-eastern flavour which somehow felt more authentic than just exotica and was a fitting soundtrack to the Valley of the Kings when I travelled further south. When I got back to London, pretty much in free-fall, I resigned from my job.

Released from daily employment (to my parent's distress) and at this stage planning to make a go of it drawing comics I was, for the time being, without a regular job. I got back to Ken Downie (who had written me a very sweet letter - see above - amazed I still have this...) and visited him at his house. This was a short distance east from where I had just moved to on Old Street - at Yorkton Street off the Hackney Road. As you can imagine this was a very exciting experience for me! I must have been the number one Black Dog fan in the world at this point in time. They had sent me a sent a promo copy of his last WARP LP, which hadn't yet been released, "Music for Adverts (And Short Films)", and had I listened to it a great deal. I loved it. 

Ken didn't disappoint. Then aged 25, I'd already been around some interesting people by this stage of my life, not least by being exposed to extreme characters (masters and boys) at Eton College, but Ken was coming from somewhere else entirely. He alluded to his time working as a radar operator in the Navy (all very top secret), talked about the Crowleyan magic he was into, and the nascent internet of message boards they were a significant presence in. We smoked a lot of hashish together and listened to a lot of music. On that first visit, as I was leaving, Ken disappeared into another room and re-emerged with a copies of the "Virtual EP" and the "Techno Playtime EP" for me. I remember Ken's wife Sheena asking if he was sure he wanted to give them to me. I cherish these copies to this day.

In turn Ken visited me at my place off Old Street where I had my friend Rafs' massive sound-system speakers set up in the basement. We listened to the b-side of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's "Dream House", Drift Study 14 VII 73 9:27:27-10:06:41 PM NYC, and wandered around the room experiencing the pitch changing as we did. And Charlemagne Palestine's "Strumming Music" which had just been reissued.

And then for a few months we saw one another pretty regularly. Smoking. Listening to music. We went to a strange expo which his friend Jimmy Cauty of the KLF had invited Ken to. Jimmy had a tank with this sonic weapon. That was a far-out scene. I remember one evening we went together to see A Guy Called Gerald DJ-ing at a unusual space in Smithfield market. Ken set up a recording session in my basement with a bass-player called James and I ran projections of Super-8 film I had shot in Egypt. Having dinner at a Chinese restaurant I remember Ken started talking about the three of us as being the second incarnation of the group - we were all "air signs" apparently. I suppose he was imagining me as the AV component, they had after all just released a kind of conceptual soundtrack. I also remember supplying a bunch of records for Ken to sample for a Lalo Schiffrin remix that his manager Keir had arranged - I think Ken had written the project off as a bad idea (he was probably right) before I produced some others of the soundtrack composer's stuff. Ken particularly dug a funk cassette I made him.

However, at this point everything really started catching up with me. I had left RSA Films pretty much under a black cloud and had burnt my bridges back to that business quite effectively. I was not really looking after myself as young people are wont, and was smoking a lot of pot. Possibly one of the last times I saw Ken I remember him explaining to me how flying saucers travelled through inner space, and, if I remember rightly, talking about his past-life experiences. These are ideas I'm thoroughly au fait with now after years of reading Jung and studying Eastern Philosophy. But then I remember being thoroughly confused. Maybe even shocked! I was way out of my depth.

I think this experience of dislocation I felt is akin to what a lot of people who have had reasonably conventional Western upbringings undergo when, through the internet, they come across non-western ideas often wrapped up in cults and conspiracy theories. They have no barriers when it comes to processing and assimilating these concepts - no context within which to understand them. They are overpowered. Nowadays, as you can guess, I would have taken it in my stride. But at this point, across a wide front I was losing touch with reality, and I needed to step back from the whole thing. In fact, October 18th 1996 was the last time I ever touched marijuana. Ken and I have remained in touch over the years - he's a beautiful dude, a bonafide original.

It's funny to look back on those days which are nearly thirty years ago. In a significant respect I'm pleased that my preoccupations are, if matured, very similar. My pal Luke Davis has a riff about the importance of being able to confront your teenage self with confidence, having kept faith with those youthful ideals. What will always remain with me is an intense affection for the music Ken, Ed, and Andy made between 1989 and 1996. It's really very unique, profoundly affecting, and eternal.