This was one of the first ten or so CDs I ever owned. As I’ve written before, Big Beat was my kind o’ music in the late 90’s, and when I heard “Battleflag” on MTV for the first (and last) time, I immediately peddled down to the CD shop and bought a copy. Thanks, of course, to the clerk who let my 12-year old self buy it in spite of that Parental Advisory sticker (which I later tried to scratch off). Rare to see an electronic album get the label but the Lo-Fis earned it; “Battleflag” hilariously shoehorned “motherfuckin” into every other line. Not as great as the way Fatboy got one on You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, but still amusing. Everything about this album comes hard, from the title, to the cover art, to the names of the members (“The Disco Bison”, “The Albino Priest”, “The Slammer”, among others). Originally the band was seen as some kind of analogue to Fatboy Slim, signed to Fatboy’s Skint Records, and relocating to Brighton. But they were so much more absurd and (unlike Fatboy) I don’t think they really acknowledged it. The critics sure did though, which is why this album was seen as being sort of a mixed bag, something to fill the gaps in between Chemical Brothers albums, though little did they know at the time where the Chems were going. All Big Beat sounds ridiculous in hindsight, so right now I’d say the more over-the-top the better, and the Lo-Fis certainly were that. They were an 7-piece band, which is four more than The Prodigy, a group already high in “what the hell do those guys do?” (see also: Aqua) That’s a bassist, a drummer, a singer, an engineer, a dude on “Decks/Samples”, and three keyboard players.
In a way there’s an analogue here to the Madchester scene, though they certainly had more grit. While Madchester was all about the uppers, the Lo-Fidelity Allstars were about messing yourself up on whatever you can find (Alcohol? Heroin? Bleach?) because your life is an irredeemable shithole. I would guess that this whole attitude comes from their singer, appropriately named “The Wrekked Train”, sounding like Karl Hyde’s drunk-ass Dad, which is funny considering that he’s a good 15 years younger. They probably wanted the kind of sound where the voice is like another instrument but he just isn’t that, instead rambling and slurring and hitting *maybe* three different notes. Not to mention the lyrics, which are utterly insane; not a single sentence in “Warming Up the Brain Farm” makes a lick of sense and quite frankly that’s probably for the best. What does matter: “stick ’em up motherfucker!”, a loud snare rush, and then kaboom! We’re off. In a genre where everything tends to be a minute or two overlong, “Brain Farm” leaves you wanting more.
Instead, you get “Kool Roc Bass”, a banger that could’ve been a single if it weren’t so all over the place – it’s jammed with samples, big drums, a searing bass line, and loud, aggressive record scratching. Between all that and the vocals there’s a lot fighting for your attention, but this is Big Beat incarnate. Maybe take out the scratching and replace shouty guy with yelpy guy and you’d get something that would’ve fit on the DFA label five years later. There’s some dark, dramatic stuff in the middle of the disc (the title track, “I Used to Fall in Love”), but the real meat is when they turn the funk on. Both “Blisters on my Brain” and “Laser Sheep Dip Funk” are pummeling and relentless but damn do they groove – gotta credit those Big Beat guys for knowing how to lay it on thick when they want to.
Then of course you’ve got the single. “Battleflag” is technically an outside remix, and the singer and songwriter (Pigeonhed) doesn’t appear anywhere else. So it’s a cheap shot, but I’m willing to forgive since it’s probably the coolest sounding single the genre ever produced. A decent sized hit and one you still sometimes hear today, but it deserved to be bigger. Maybe all those motherfuckins were holding it back? It’s the best tune on here, but really how can anything else compete? All the hooks are great, and that intro is a killer. For once the tune is badass enough to match the lyrics, and the result is worth the price of the disc by itself. At least, it better be, since the critics didn’t much like the rest of the album, citing the singer, the scattershot arrangements, or the fact that it’s just so much more over-the-top than even The Prodigy were willing to go. Now in retrospect this isn’t really a bad thing – if I’m gonna listen to Big Beat, the bigger and ballsier the better. The worst thing they could do is try to be tasteful – bring on the explosions, bring on the snare rushes, and if you’re gonna hit the dance floor don’t let ’em have a conversation in the meantime.
I played this in the car this week and I was a little shocked at how much I liked it – maybe because it’s great in an isolated spot like that, where you can go mental and no one will see you, or maybe because this unwieldy seven-headed beast was really on to something. Ultimately they didn’t wind up making it very far – Skint pushed ’em hard but they didn’t gain any recognition outside of “Battleflag”, then The Wrekked Train decided to bail (right on the verge of a tour, and before they’d even made it big in America!), and when Big Beat went tits up I figured that was the end of that. But they still went on, even though most of their audience forgot about them. Don’t be Afraid of Love got reviewed in a few publications, though ironically they got dinged for not sounding like they did on Blown Mind, never mind the critics didn’t like that sound either. Northern Stomp basically fell off the face of the planet and I’m guessing it’ll probably be their last album, which is sad because I really do think all three of ’em are quite good. Still, no doubt that losing The Wrekked Train caused the band to lose a lot of their identity, and How to Operate With a Blown Mind remains a great and demented album that just may be the best thing to come out of the whole scene.