I listened to The Orb’s amazing live album “Live ’93” the other day (after discovering the insipid “History Of The Future” collection on Spotify) and I was amazed at how countercultural and subversive it was. I was listening to this stuff at the age of 14 and now that I’m old enough to be a parent, that makes me a bit uncomfortable. Actually it does nothing of the sort, because it's frigging awesome.
The Orb were pretty anarchic on record but at their live gigs they went the extra mile, dropping in all the stuff that legal teams can’t clear sample-wise (A mash-up of “The Real Slim Shady” and “Toxygene” when I saw them later on in 2005) and just generally made the tunes baggier and looser. When writing about their second album “U.F.Orb” as part of my understated classic series, I tried to review as many versions of each track as I could, because for The Orb a track is more like a bundle of ideas to extrapolate and explore. Today’s bands don’t do this enough in my opinion. Perhaps the decline of physical formats contributes to this, you just don’t get runs of 200 twelve inches anymore.
Consider the version of “Spanish Castles In Space” on “Live ’93”. The sedate and stately album version sounds like they recorded it in an aquarium. It ends with KLF-esque bleating sheep etc. And the live version barely differs, except for adding a long sample of a news report about a “Marijuana Bomb”. A huge bale of weed tossed out by smugglers lands on someone’s caravan one morning. A huge cheer erupts in the crowd as this sample plays. Later there’s a languid repeated chant of “Marijuana, Marijuana, who wants it?”. It’s a pretty mild celebration of drug use, but it’s a fun reference that I was listening to before I could legally buy cigarettes.
Other subversion abounds (in particular the “morphine drip inside his stomach” sample that darkens those “Little Fluffy Clouds”) and I think it’s telling that “Live ’93” has never been reissued in the way that all the other albums have. In fact it’s so crammed full of samples that it’s a wonder that it ever got released in the first place. There’s a spoken word version of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall Part 2” all over “Plateau”. Samples from other Orb tracks are all over the nineteen minute version of “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain… (Loving U)” turning it into a sort of weird megamix. And what about the Koranic chants sampled on “Outlands” together with Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech? (Spoiler alert: it is the ABSOLUTE BEST version of “Outlands” that you will ever hear.)
But drugs and sampling and religious mysticism? So what? I think the actual subversion of The Orb (and a very small select collection of their peers) was to say “look, come and sit in the garden with us, have a cup of tea, and contemplate the life of the mind”. Look at everything else that’s supposedly rebellious, it’s all just bullshit mind control: drink loads of beer (now all the festivals and music venues are sponsored by drinks companies), have loads of sex (create more minions for the capitalist machine to send off on their pointless tabloid wars), smash stuff up (so we can withdraw from the public good and say that no one can have nice things), etc rinse and repeat.
I was changed by “Live ’93” (it was the first full length Orb album that I owned) but it didn’t make me take a sack load of drugs, it just gradually evolved me into the sort of person who knows that inward thought and self-reflection are natural and not somehow counter to the spirit of capitalist endeavour. It taught be to be suspicious of humourlessness and ownership. The fast pace of modern life regards things like “hard work”, spontaneity, and branding as innate and inescapable. It requires the sensationalism that I satirised in this post’s title and shies away from the riotous anarchy of the past: what makes me really uncomfortable is whether fourteen-year-olds me can receive these messages today.