Andrew Weatherall: lone swordsman who cut new shapes for British music

From producing dub symphonies, or DJing ferocious techno, to never losing his insatiable musical curiosity, Weatherall was a truly inspirational figure

There was a point, quite early on in Andrew Weatherall’s career, when vast commercial success appeared to beckon him. Already an acclaimed DJ and remixer, his production work on Primal Scream’s 1991 album Screamadelica had helped turn a middling indie act whose career had given every appearance of being in its terminal phase, into an award-winning, multi-million selling band suddenly at the cutting edge, the epitome of the fruitful interface between rock music and the post-acid house dance scene.

Others had worked on the album, including the Orb, and veteran Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller, but it was Weatherall who had spotted Primal Scream’s potential to be something more than they were (he had penned an enthusiastic review of the band for the NME under the pseudonym Audrey Witherspoon), turned an overlooked 1989 album track called I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have into Loaded, and propelled the band to Top of the Pops. There were moments when Screamadelica sounded more like his creation than the band’s. If he could do this for Primal Scream, went the not-unreasonable thinking, what other remarkable transformations could he pull off?

But record labels tended to balk when they discovered Weatherall’s working methods. He expected bands to record something, then just leave him to do what he wanted. It was an approach that had paid dividends on Screamadelica, but as he laughingly protested, most musicians “want their record to sound how they want”. Besides, Weatherall wasn’t interested: “a career in any business looks quite tiresome and vexing and like it might involve me having meetings with people I don’t want to have meetings with … call me unambitious, but I was fine as I was,” he reasoned, years later.

Andrew Weatherall DJing in 1994.
Andrew Weatherall DJing in 1994. Photograph: Mick Hutson/Getty Images

Instead, he ventured off down a fascinating, serpentine and entirely uncompromising artistic path, conducted under an often baffling array of aliases, that took in everything from techno to rockabilly to a stint as Faber’s artist in residence. He self-deprecatingly called it all “a series of beautiful, totally futile gestures”, but others begged to differ. His unbending idiosyncrasy earned him the nickname “The Guv’nor”; in recent years, he commanded such a degree of respect that he could curate his own annual festival in Carcassonne, France: it invariably sold out, despite the fact that Weatherall reliably populated it entirely with obscure underground artists.

By his own account, Weatherall was something of a misfit from the start. The ranks of Britain’s acid house pioneers were largely made up of old soulboys, but Weatherall was a fan of dub reggae and industrial music, who’d been booked to play at seminal acid house club Shoom after its founder Danny Rampling heard him playing a Chris & Cosey track at a house party in Islington. “I went from listening to United by Throbbing Gristle to dancing in a field to Josephine by Chris Rea,” he recalled of 1988’s Second Summer of Love, “which gives you some idea what a powerful drug ecstasy is.”

Nevertheless, he quickly became an integral part of the scene, a member of the loose collective of DJs, producers and promoters called Boy’s Own. The Boy’s Own fanzine, which tended to take a wry, witty view of the acid house’s saucer-eyed excesses, had Weatherall’s fingerprints all over it – decades later, he could be relied upon to puncture any rosy-hued remembrances of the era by noting that when Boy’s Own attempted to stage an Ibiza-like foam party, they did it in a cowshed, which resulted in dancers being engulfed with foam flecked with dung – as did the lyrics of Raise, the single he co-authored for the Boy’s Own label under the name Bocca Juniors. Weatherall had briefly been a member of Genesis P-Orridge’s Temple Ov Psychick Youth, which presumably accounted for the quotations from Aleister Crowley.

Screamadelica, meanwhile, allowed him to indulge his musical passions on a grand scale: its centrepiece was his extraordinary reworking of their single Higher Than The Sun as “a dub symphony”, powered by former PiL bassist Jah Wobble. In fact, lengthy dub-inspired remixes became something of a Weatherall speciality in the early 90s, not least his reworkings of Flowered Up’s Weekender and St Etienne’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart. His audacious and brilliant reimagining of My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 single Soon, which augmented the band’s swooning guitars with a beat sampled from the Dynamic Corvettes’ Funky Music Is the Thing, has been acclaimed as one of the greatest remixes of all time (“the young people seem to like it,” was Weatherall’s typically unassuming response to its legendary status).

His next project, Sabres of Paradise, veered between a peculiarly haunting, occasionally eerie take on techno, blissful ambience and reggae; while an acclaimed accompanying club night, Sabresonic, hosted the first live performance from the Chemical Brothers. Weatherall’s support of the duo, then known as the Dust Brothers, was instrumental in getting them a record deal. Sabres of Paradise’s single Smokebelch II, based on an obscure track from LB Bad’s album The True Story of House Music, became a perennial chillout classic that found its way onto umpteen compilation albums and soundtracks, but Weatherall pulled the plug on the project after three albums: not for the first time, it was hard to avoid the impression that he was deliberately short-circuiting something before it became too big.

Andrew Weatherall in 2016.
Andrew Weatherall in 2016. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/the Guardian

From that point on, Weatherall operated almost exclusively on the musical fringes, bemused by the fact that some of his peers had taken a more straightforward path and gone on to become superstar DJs: “I thought DJs? Heroes? Are people really that desperate? I know people need heroes, but seriously, this is ridiculous.” Among a plethora of subsequent projects, he made a series of beautifully understated house records with Keith Tenniswood under the name Two Lone Swordsmen; explored mid-tempo electronica as the Asphodells; compiled an album of early 80s post-punk, Nine O’Clock Drop, that presaged a vast revival of interest in that genre; produced the second album by electronic duo Fuck Buttons to vast acclaim; and formed a drum-machine driven rockabilly band with himself as lead vocalist to widespread bafflement.

Throughout, he continued to run club nights (A Love From Outer Space insisted that no DJ play a record any faster than 122 BPM), helm a succession of independent record labels, and release remixes that displayed an unerring ability to get inside a song, retaining or even amplifying its essence no matter how much he chose to alter the original. The eclectic nature of his own music taste meant that he was as capable of doing this to a track by expansive US psych band Wooden Shjips as he was leftfield pop duo Confidence Man or a deep house artist. As a DJ, he was as at home playing a rapturously-received guest slot at London’s Horse Meat Disco as he was playing what he colourfully termed “absolutely full-knacker, proper panel-beaters-from-Prague-’ere-we-go techno”.

He stayed light on his feet, constantly shifting and changing his approach, never losing an innate curiosity that stretched beyond music into history and literature and visual art, which he thought stemmed from being expelled from school as a teenager: he’d had to teach himself and evidently enjoyed the experience. But his greatest talent was in balancing his diversity with a certain kind of predictability: you never knew quite what Andrew Weatherall was going to do next, but you knew it would be good.

This article was amended on 17 February 2020. In an earlier version, we said Screamadelica’s centrepiece was a reworking of the single Come Together as “a dub symphony”. It was, of course, Higher Than The Sun. This has been corrected.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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