Stakker Humanoid: how the Future Sound of London won hearts and minds

When, 25 years ago, Bruno Brookes and Pete Waterman championed Stakker Humanoid, it became the first acid house record to break into the mainstream. So what drew these titans of pop to make Humanoid a hit?

"What a fucking tune Stakker Humanoid is! I didn't realise it was them [Future Sound of London] until we were about halfway through recording. Someone mentioned that track halfway through recording and I was like, 'You're fucking joking … shut up … get the fuck out of here!' I had to stop and give them a hug. I used to love that tune!"

Noel Gallagher, 2011

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Twenty-five years ago this month, a record by the name of Stakker Humanoid crashed its way into mainstream UK culture. With the backing of unlikely champions such as Bruno Brookes and Pete Waterman, the record – released by a mysterious artist called Humanoid – became the first truly credible UK acid house record to break into the mainstream. It went on to reach number 17 in the UK charts as the winter of 1988 drew in.

A harsh, uncompromising slab of raw acid house created by a Glasgow-born part-time lecturer at Salford College of Technology, the record broke down barriers between the emerging youth movement and mainstream society.

We start the story with the 23 November 1988 issue of Number One magazine (Smash Hits main rival at the time). Regular readers may have been surprised by Bruno Brookes's recommendation in his column Tips for the Top!

"Londonbeat are well worth watching out for in the future," began the exuberant Radio 1 DJ, "but there are some other good new singles out at the mo. The Humanoid Stacker [sic] single, which I've been playing exclusively on the show is MEGA, and so is George Michael's newie. But it's thumbs down for Rick Astley – I just don't like his voice on his newie."

Mention of an uncompromising, pioneering acid house record created on a shoestring budget by a completely unknown artist in the same breath as some of Britain's most established pop acts must have jarred with Number One's teenage audience. Now, a quarter of a century on, it seems even harder to understand.

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Away from the mainstream, the track was gaining similar plaudits on the dancefloor, something that has surprised its creator, Brian Dougans (who later formed Future Sound of London with Gaz Cobain), to this day. Dougans explains that the original record was created as the result of a collaboration with video artists Stakker Communications. Next came a deal with Westside Records, who paid Dougans £75 for an edited version to appear on a compilation designed to cash in on the fledgling acid house craze. A promotional tape sent to DJs in September 1988 described it as "just one of the tracks from the shoomest acid album ever produced … it's twisted!" Sure enough, when Shoom DJ Colin Faver played the promo for the first time at the legendary London acid house club, "the place just exploded", Dougans recalls.

It wasn't just a hit on underground dancefloors. As Brookes's comment in Number One suggests, he was not only willing to champion Humanoid in print, he made sure to play it regularly on his prime-time Radio 1 show. It was at this point Dougans realised that the record had achieved mainstream acceptance. "I remember walking to my girlfriend's house and she and a couple of her mates came running out saying, 'It's on the radio! Bruno Brookes!'"

Dougans is still unsure why the day-time DJ championed the record. "At that point acid house was brand new. It was beginning to hit newspapers, it was a bit of a sensation – a bit like punk. People were like, 'Wow, what's this scandal?' And here we had Bruno Brookes. I don't know where he was in his career at that point, but possibly he was trying to be something. Radio was slightly different at that point because DJs had a certain amount of choice about what they played. I think it was given to him and he just loved it and played it every day."

Speaking to Brookes today, his familiar dulcet tones grow even warmer when reminiscing about Humanoid. "I still love it," he explains. According to Brookes, he was given a white label of the record and immediately fell under its spell. "It just got to me. I remember listening to it and thinking it was one step ahead of everything techno that was coming out. It wasn't copying anything else; it was just fabulous."

So serious was Brookes's love of the record that he played it twice in one show – a very unusual step for a prime-time radio DJ. "That's quite radical," says Brookes laughing. "I wouldn't recommend it."

Even more radically, the record was then picked up by mainstream TV. Fortunately for Dougans, the release of Stakker coincided with the emergence of a new strain of youth television programming. Operating under the DEF II umbrella, Behind the Beat was one of a fresh batch of programmes documenting the pivotal changes in youth culture at that point in time.

"I've got a feeling what actually made Humanoid a success was that the video was played on Behind the Beat," says Dougans. "They played an exclusive of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal video. And then straight after that, came Humanoid. We had several million people watching suddenly with their heads vibrating, and that was it. The next week, it was in the charts."

With chart success came the ultimate mainstream accolade: an invitation to appear on Top of the Pops. "I hadn't expected any of that," says Dougans. "I'd come through college thinking I was just some engineer, and that I was going to be working in the studio as an engineer. Not a musician, certainly not performing. And that was like, 'Wow! Oh my God'."

Unexpected as it may have been, Dougans found himself appearing on the 1 December 1988 edition of Top of the Pops alongside the Pet Shop Boys and Bros in a show presented by – of course – Bruno Brookes.

What made Dougans's appearance even more surprising was that the BBC had all but banned any records that referenced acid house. The embargo had been brought in following the 20 October 1988 show opened by Caron Keating and a smiley face T-shirted Steve Wright when they introduced the video for D Mob's We Call It Acieed in a manner that was deemed out of step with the tabloid outrage over 'evil acid house baron' and the threat to the nation's youth.

However, Dougans was allowed to perform. What's more, he appeared "live" in the studio.

"It was a bit of a crazy day out," he remembers, not least because the programme was completely unprepared for an acid house artist. According to Dougans, the producers insisted that if there were any vocals on a track, somebody had to sing them. "I was like, 'It's a fucking computer, man'," says Dougans, referring to Humanoid's signature refrain sampled from the arcade game Berzerk. "But somebody had to be singing the words, hence why I had a little microphone. If you actually look closely, you see me mouthing the words. They made me do it. The bastards!"

Appearing alongside Dougans were two energetic dancers supplied by the show's producers, and Jon Goslan, Dougans's best friend at the time, who leapt around pretending to play bass. "The only reason he is in there is because I was staying at his squat and didn't really know anyone else in London," says Dougans. "I was travelling from Manchester to London weekly. He seemed like a good candidate to make up the numbers."

The disconnect, between Dougans's growing fame and his living arrangements, was not lost on him. "I remember afterwards," he explains. "We went up to the cafe, had a quick drink and then we were off home – which was back to the squat, which of course had no lights, no electricity. I was thinking, 'My God, I've just done Top of the Pops and I'm living in a squat? What the fuck?'"

While appearances on Top of the Pops highlighted the fact that Dougans enjoyed the mainstream's acknowledgement, he was not always comfortable with the surrounding environment. "I remember coming off stage and one of the Pet Shop Boys popped up and said, 'That was amazing - I had shivers.' I was like, 'Quick, let's get out of here.'"

Cutting-edge BBC youth programmes and Top of the Pops were not the only TV shows to champion the record. Over on ITV, Pete Waterman had just launched another new programme with a simple yet effective format.

The Hitman and Her is now legendary with people of a certain age. Fronted by Waterman and a young Michela Strachan, the show would travel to seemingly random northern nightclubs and film local revellers dancing to the hits of teh day, with the roughly edited footage broadcast shortly afterwards.

Not surprisingly, there are some classic moments on YouTube. Perhaps the pick of the bunch, though, is a clip from an episode towards the end of 1988 where Waterman introduces Stakker by Humanoid, backed by a crowd of scantily clad dancers.

It's a bizarre moment, as a kilted Waterman, known at that point for producing huge pop acts such as Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, introduces the track with the words: "We played it first. This week's No 1 dance record on the British chart." What's striking – beyond the dancers, the kilt and the terrible lighting – is that Waterman appears to really like the track.

This is borne out when, over the phone, I explain that I'm keen to talk to him about Humanoid. "I remember it well!" he says enthusiastically. More remarkably ,he remembers the specifics of the YouTube clip. "It was Flicks nightclub in Brechin. I'd been in a distillery for quite some time beforehand," he laughs.

So why did someone who produced manufactured pop music champion Humanoid? "It was one of those records that captured what we were up to at that point," explains Waterman. "It was just different. The moment you heard it you knew what it was. I must have played it for a good three months. It's one of those tunes that we call 'a Hitman and Her tune'. It was so us."

Warming to the theme, Waterman continues: "I loved acid house and trance. I just absolutely adored it. For me it was like a breath of fresh air. Because I also loved punk which everybody forgets. I just loved the freshness of it."

According to the producer, the Hitman and Her's dalliance with acid house turned sour soon afterwards when "the drugs took over" and the scene took on "some sinister darkness". For acid house, then, there was a relatively small window of opportunity before the mainstream realised they were actually scared of this new music. And Dougans pushed it as far open as he could.

So why did Humanoid succeed where others had failed? Even today, Dougans himself isn't sure. "Not everything you do sounds good. You can record a lot of things and you never quite know what's really going to explode. I have to say, when I did Humanoid I remember sitting back and going, 'Wow - fucking hell!' There was definitely a feeling that this was a good one. It's very rare that tracks do that."

Dougans was 23 at the time. Since then he has produced hugely acclaimed records as part of Future Sound of London and describes their breakthrough hit, Papua New Guinea, as a "similar moment" to Stakker. "Sometimes they just appear," he says. "But they're hard to find. It's a moment of magic."

Stuart Aitken

The GuardianTramp

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