Change the record

The remix - a radical and creative act of musical subversion, or an excuse to ruin a perfectly good song for cash? It all depends on who's twiddling the knobs, says Dorian Lynskey

Sean "Puffy" Combs has made many outlandish claims over the years, but none quite as implausible as the title of his 2002 compilation: We Invented the Remix. Arriving roughly 20 years too late, he might as well have alleged that he had invented helicopters or toast. Given Combs's usual reliance on phoned-in guest raps and crashingly obvious samples, a more apt title might have been We Devalued the Remix, but that doesn't really have the same ring to it.

Depeche Mode didn't invent the remix either, but they can take some credit for nurturing it. The Basildon synth giants' new album, Remixes 81-04, collects 37 diverse revamps: Underworld nail Barrel of a Gun to a steely techno undercarriage; Alison Goldfrapp adds her own vocals to Halo, blurring the line between remix and cover version; German DJ Timo Maas and Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda both tackle the oft-remixed Enjoy the Silence. As an illustration of the remix's potential, Remixes 81-04 is at the opposite end of the creative spectrum to those identikit house versions of pop hits that apparently exist solely to be played in upscale urban gyms.

The remix is music's mutant gene. A remixer can simply beef up a track's dancefloor capability, or they can completely recontextualise it; retain the song's key elements, or create a whole new track in all but name; eclipse the original, or make you beg for its safe return. And a remix can be the most avant-garde art project, or it can be the tackiest cash-in; a virtual collaboration with the artist, or an act of vandalism; alchemy, or travesty.

Remixing originated in 1960s Jamaica, when sound system producers such as Lee Perry and King Tubby stripped reggae songs down to their instrumental skeletons and called them dub versions. "It's weird because it's separate from everything else," says Bill Brewster, dance-music historian and co-author of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. "Early disco remixers wouldn't have been aware of what was going on in the reggae scene. Things happened independently."

For the disco scene, remixing was simply to make tracks more danceable. In 1974, a former model called Tom Moulton produced the first commercially successful disco remix when he doubled the length of BT Express's Do It 'Till You're Satisfied. The band loathed it until it became a massive crossover hit, at which point they brazenly claimed that it was their idea all along.

As the 12-inch single took off in the late 1970s, disco mixes often proved more popular than radio versions. Soon, mainstream acts cottoned on: the Rolling Stones' 1978 hit Miss You came with an eight-minute "extended dance mix". Remixers such as Moulton, Walter Gibbons and François Kevorkian became big names in their own right, while some forward-thinking bands, including Depeche Mode, began taking a scalpel to their own work.

"It was just an experiment," says Depeche Mode's songwriter, Martin Gore. "It wasn't like today, when people put out multiple CDs to get higher chart positions. It was a way to take songs in a different direction."

During the 1980s, remixes became a generic means of padding out 12-inches, whether or not the song demanded it. For every band like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who saw remixes as a forum for ambitious experimentation, there were countless others who regarded them as a box to be ticked: put a bit of echo on the vocals, drop a percussion breakdown in the middle and Bob's your underwhelming uncle.

Usually, remixers left the original song fundamentally intact, but that changed with the arrival of DJ Andrew Weatherall. Commissioned to remix faltering indie band Primal Scream's I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have in 1990, he delivered an instrumental club track so dissimilar that it even had a different name: Loaded. Instantly revitalising Primal Scream's career, it established the cult of the remixer. Fans would buy anything with Weatherall's name on, regardless of the original song's quality, safe in the knowledge that he could make a silk's purse out of any sow's ear.

Following Weatherall, the whole notion of authorship became muddied. The writing credits may name the original composers, but when the whole song has been rebuilt, is it really theirs anymore? Most record buyers who took Armand Van Helden's reinvention of Tori Amos's Professional Widow to number one had never bought an Amos record before and never would again. It was basically a Van Helden track. "Effectively, it's reproduction rather than remixing," says Brewster.

The most extreme practitioner of the slash-and-burn approach was Richard James, aka the Aphex Twin, who gave his collection of radical overhauls the title 26 Mixes for Cash. Legend has it that one day a courier arrived to collect a Lemonheads remix that James had forgotten about, so he just snatched a random instrumental off the shelf. Not that the record company were gullible enough to actually release it.

"You get to the point where you think, what is a remix?," says Gore. "For me, there has to be some reference to the original somewhere. There's one that we vetoed where there wasn't one sound or one word from the original song. It was at a different tempo, in a different key - it was basically a different song." His reaction echoes Gloria Gaynor's nonplussed response, two decades earlier, to Tom Moulton's remix of Never Can Say Goodbye. "I don't sing much," she glumly observed.

A sympathetic remix can transform careers. House versions of Everything But the Girl's Missing and Moloko's Sing It Back, by Todd Terry and Boris Dlugosch respectively, inspired the bands to make club records themselves. In other cases, it's the remixer who benefits most. Ewan Pearson has made more impact with reworks of Goldfrapp, the Chemical Brothers and, most recently, Depeche Mode's Enjoy the Silence, than with his own material.

"It's the best job in the world," he says. "It's like being given a Lego set for Christmas. You get sent the parts for a great record, you're left on your own to do what you like and, provided you meet the brief in some way, everybody's happy."

Tom Rowlands of the Chemical Brothers, whose early remixes helped make their name, agrees: "It was a brilliant time. One week we'd do Method Man, another week we'd do Primal Scream. The pressure's not on. You get an idea from someone else and use it as a starting point. It isn't a long, protracted thing like making an album."

Some prolific remixers, notably Austria's Kruder & Dorfmeister, have licensed back their work and successfully released it under their own name, but there's always the risk of overkill. "Most people on the remix treadmill find it's very hard to keep reinventing themselves when they're doing them every week and the money is so seductive," says Brewster. "It helps you financially in the short term but drains your creative energy in the long term. It can destroy people's careers."

This almost happened to Trevor Jackson, who has a new remix collection under his Playgroup alias. During the 1990s, he traded as Underdog, and recorded 80 remixes, including ones for U2 and Massive Attack. Lucrative and educational at first, the job eventually lost its appeal. "In retrospect, it stopped me making my own music," he says. "Every time I did a mix I was proud of, I felt like I was giving away a piece of myself. I did it for love of the music, and I began to hate being part of the marketing game."

Pearson faced a similar quandary when his stock suddenly skyrocketed last year. "I got asked to remix about 70 records and I did four. Sometimes it's just useful marketing to have your name on a record, and that's flattering - but weird. I try my hardest to make a living while maintaining some kind of integrity."

Rowlands has a simple rule of thumb. "You have to like the records but you can't like them too much. We got asked to remix New Order and, even though it was a great honour, we thought, what's the point?"

Acts commissioning remixes have to be equally shrewd. Some, including Depeche Mode, U2 and Manic Street Preachers, have consistently released high-quality mixes, but others treat them as lazy, often misguided, marketing tools. Although record label remix budgets have shrunk since the mid-90s dance boom, there is still much more dross than gold.

These days, many of the most exciting remixes are never officially released: they appear on the internet as unlicensed bootlegs. Easily available software has democratised the remix, giving every bedroom producer the opportunity to create a dialogue with their favourite records. According to one Depeche Mode remix site, there are no fewer than 345 versions of their 2001 single, I Feel Loved, and the number of unofficial remixes of Eminem or Missy Elliott runs into the thousands. In remix culture, an original song isn't necessarily the definitive version: it's just one of myriad alternatives. But sometimes, the most tantalising possibilities go unrealised.

"Last summer, at the height of the franticness, I was offered a remix of a new indie band that I passed on," says a rueful Ewan Pearson. "Found the CD the other day. It was Franz Ferdinand - Take Me Out. Bugger."

Top 10 remixes

Donna Summer - I Feel Love (Patrick Cowley mega mix, 1982)

San Francisco DJ Cowley, who died of AIDS later that year, stretched Summer's Hi-NRG anthem over a dizzying 20 minutes.

New Order - Bizarre Love Triangle (Shep Pettibone Extended Dance mix, 1986)

The go-to guy of the 1980s remix scene (Madonna, Pet Shop Boys, Run-DMC) gave New Order one of their biggest US hits.

Eric B & Rakim - Paid in Full (Coldcut's Seven Minutes of Madness mix, 1988)

A benchmark remix, incorporating both Israeli singer Ofra Haza and 1950s British radio star Geoffrey Sumner. Only Eric B was unimpressed, deeming it "girly disco music".

My Bloody Valentine - Soon (Andrew Weatherall mix, 1990)

One of Weatherall's earliest and best remixes wrapped My Bloody Valentine's psychedelic slur around a monolithic hip-hop beat.

Mory Kanté - Yeke Yeke (Hardfloor mix, 1994)

West African pop meets Düsseldorf acid house. Oddly enough, Nigella Lawson chose it as a Desert Island Disc.

Depeche Mode - Useless (The Kruder + Dorfmeister Session, 1997)

One of Martin Gore's favourite Depeche Mode remixes, this nine-minute head-nodder became a chillout favourite.

Cornershop - Brimful of Asha (Norman Cook Full Length remix, 1998)

Under its own steam, Brimful of Asha reached number 60. After the Fatboy Slim treatment it topped the charts, briefly making Cornershop Britain's grumpiest pop stars.

Blur - Tender (Cornelius remix, 1999)

Adding a spine-shivering guitar part and a flurry of drum'n'bass, Japanese eccentric Cornelius made the gospel-rock album version sound plodding.

Tori Amos - Professional Widow (Armand's Star Trunk Funkin' mix, 1996)

Van Helden foregrounded his own monstrous bassline, while reducing Amos's contribution to snippets of breathy innuendo ("It's gotta be big!").

Azzido da Bass - Dooms Night (Timo Maas remix, 2000)

Maas's eardrum-scouring reinvention was so effective that eventually the remix got remixed while the original was forgotten.

· Remixes 81-04 by Depeche Mode is released by Mute on October 25. Enjoy the Silence, featuring Ewan Pearson's remix, is released on Monday. Reproduction by Playgroup is released by Peacefrog on October 25.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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