Mistletoe and Chime: the story of Orbital's acid house

As the duo release a Christmas version of Chime, their seminal first hit, Stuart Aitken talks to Paul Hartnoll about the history of a song that changed the public's perception of dance music

For the Top of the Pops TV audience of 22 March 1990, Orbital's first appearance on the show must have been a surprise. Settling down to enjoy performances from the likes of Big Fun and Snap, they were confronted by two almost motionless musicians wearing anti-poll-tax T-shirts standing behind equipment that was not plugged in – at 1:08 in this performance, a plug can be seen resting on top of a sequencer.

As a recording of their No 17 hit Chime belted out, the two brothers – Paul and Phil Hartnoll – flanked by an energetic Top of the Pops dancer, steadfastly refused to carry on with the charade of miming. Looking back, Paul Hartnoll explains: "We'd come from a background of performing live. This was important to us. We just didn't want to dance around and pretend."

Despite not looking too exuberant, being featured on this TV show was a huge opportunity for the Hartnoll brothers. As Paul Hartnoll explains, Top of the Pops was a long way from their Sevenoaks roots. "A week before I was saying to the boss in the pizza place I was working, 'Ah I've just seen next week's rota. I can't do Wednesday because I'm doing Top of the Pops' … It felt a bit like some kind of elfin quest. Leaving my safe little job was like leaving the shire."

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Paul has fond memories of enjoying "a couple of vodka and oranges" with presenter Gary Davies before the performance – Davies had been an early champion of Chime on his primetime Radio 1 show. "He was great. He gave us a little pep talk and so, half cut, we went out there and did it."

News of the performance made the brothers famous back home. A week later, the Sevenoaks Chronicle ran a news story with the headline, Duo in Orbit, featuring a picture of the Hartnolls in their "home studio". Hartnoll explains: "Under the stairs was a knocked-through stair cupboard that my dad set up as a home office, which I set up my gear in once my parents left home to run a pub. It's where all early Orbital up to and including The Green Album was recorded."

Taking pride of place in the setup was a small silver box that would prove so important to the duo's sound: the Roland TB-303. According to Hartnoll, his brother Phil sourced the 303 from a northern working men's club keyboard player who was living in London. It cost £100. But before Phil could take it away, he had to listen to some of the keyboard player's "best" work. "He'd programmed the whole bass-line arrangement of West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys," explains Hartnoll. "This is exactly what the 303 was intended for, and exactly the wrong use of it. My brother had to stand there and listen to it knowing full well we were going to use it to make acid house."

Armed with the 303 and other similarly priced equipment, the brothers famously created the track in a couple of hours, recording it on a simple tape recorder for what Hartnoll estimates to be a cost of £3.50.

From these humble beginnings, the brothers introduced Chime to the world. The track received its first live airing at a local disco in a venue called the Grasshopper. Next was a gig at the Town and Country 2 in Islington, performing for the first time under the name Orbital. "I was absolutely dumbfounded because we'd come up from Sevenoaks in the Mini Metro and I just assumed nobody knew us," says Hartnoll. "We'd never had a record out – Chime was a white label at that point – but when we played it there was a ripple of recognition through the audience. This was our first proper gig and they knew the record – and were dancing. That was pretty astounding."

From these beginnings, several hits were to follow. But as the duo's fame spread, strangely one outlet remained closed: Top of the Pops. While there was never an official ban following 1990's controversial appearance, Hartnoll remembers the production team saying at the time, "We're not having them back". Sure enough, it was to be another six years until they appeared again on Top of the Pops.

Instead, Orbital focused on live performance, a bold decision given a backdrop of increasing legislation backed up by sensational media reports that sought to rid the country of the menace of acid house. One live performance was to define them forever. Just as the criminal justice bill was being redrafted in an attempt to outlaw dance music, they took repetitive beats to Glastonbury, the biggest live stage of all. And the track that they saved until last was, of course, Chime.

In a performance that has now become Glastonbury folklore, Orbital headlined the NME stage on Saturday 25 June 1994, introducing electronic music to the mainstream and ushering in a new era for the festival and beyond. Dance music had existed on the fringes of Glastonbury for years – largely in the travellers' fields – but this performance was to take it centre stage. As Jay Z brought hip-hop to the forefront of Glastonbury in 2008, Orbital forced dance music to the top of the agenda in 1994.

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For anyone who was there or watched it on TV – crucially, this was the first year to feature intensive TV broadcasting from Glastonbury – it felt like a very big thing. But it was different for Paul Hartnoll. "I don't think it felt like a big moment at the time. It's like when your submarine's sinking and you're saving it – you don't feel like a hero, you feel like a man desperately trying to save a submarine. It was just like, 'Fuck, don't go wrong … what's that … that's gone wrong … that's out of tune … where's that button gone?'"

Of course Hartnoll is now well aware that the performance changed things. "I did know that we were bringing something there that hadn't happened before. I didn't know how much of an impact it would have. Being young myself, I just thought, 'It's about time – of course we should have acid house at Glastonbury'. It used to annoy me. I just used to think it should be happening."

Hartnoll had seen The Orb play the year before – "they played Little Fluffy Clouds and the place went mental, but the ambient stuff wasn't what I wanted to hear at that time". For Hartnoll, "there wasn't anyone just doing pure thumping electronic dance music with lots of 303s and twisted synths."

Orbital did just that. And as the dust settled, things had changed.

Looking back, Michael Eavis explains that 1994 "really was a big year for dance music at Glastonbury". For Eavis, the Orbital gig marked dance music's appearance on the mainstream agenda. "What was previously underground made it on to one of the big stages, and there was no going back from there. As the police and the council made me very well aware, the buzz had been around the raves and the market sound systems and in the travellers' fields for years. But it needed a showcase to make it legal."

According to Eavis, the Orbital gig provided that showcase and opened the way for others such as the Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack and Underworld, who all played high-profile stages in the following years – developments that led to the launch of the festival's Dance Village in 1997.

Going back to that Sevenoaks Chronicle article from 1990, Hartnoll is quoted as saying: "It's ironic that a few months back I was given bad publicity because I was involved in an acid house party, and now I'm getting good publicity for making the charts with an acid house record." Orbital's career was forged during the media war against acid house. Glastonbury 1994 symbolised the duo's vision for a new form of dance-music expression. As a result of Channel 4's coverage of the event, living rooms across the country were able to experience what a rave might look like – and suddenly dance music didn't seem so dangerous. Now, despite the government's best efforts to outlaw "repetitive beats", every indie kid was free to buy an Orbital record.

Now that Chime has had a Christmas overhaul for 2013, Hartnoll has taken another step in humanising and normalising dance music. "I don't hope to get to No 1," he says. "What I would like is for this track to just keep popping its ugly head up every year. Who knows, maybe one day it'll be on Now That's What I Call Christmas."

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Stuart Aitken

The GuardianTramp

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