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Single Cell Orchestra – A Better Place (90s – 93)

November 23, 2010

Julian Gough is responsible for turning an interest in electronica, fueled mostly by 80s soundtracks, into an obsession. Gough presented a program called The digital Dream on University Radio Bath. The Digital Dream featured 90’s electronica as it happened. For the first time I connected with a happening thing – a vibrant underground of seemingly unending creativity. The found, I thought, of the future.

To a point, the 90s underground electronic scene was the last great explosion of creative music. Like progressive rock and the punk/post-punk eras, musicians were pushing boundaries to their limits. While music continues to innovate, there has been no scene since which has produced the same sense of newness. The Noughties would rebadged, rebranded or reshaped the past. By contrast Nineties electronica saw technical innovations allow musicians to take the lessons of Kraftwerk, Eno etc and push things further.

Gough was my gatekeeper into this world. Each week he presented the latest in electronic music, ranging from beatless ambient to Aphex Twin-style craziness. In between was squeezed trip-hop, industrial techno, and house not intended for the dance floor. Gough never took his subject too seriously. He would give a nervous giggle about a pretentious moniker (eg The Self-transforming Machine Elves), and would be loose with genre names or categorisations. His wasn’t a world of reverence but of exploration. Here is the music, here are the artist details. It was up to the listener to come up with their own relationship with the music.

Each week, he carefully recorded his four-hour program, so the first 45 minutes of each hour could fit onto a side of a 90 minute cassette. Two tapes became the three-hour program he sent overseas to, at various times, Shenzen, Statton Island and little Armidale, New South Wales.

My first two years of uni, 1996 and 1997, were the last great years of electronica. Thankfully, once I joined 2UNE in 1997, I had access to tapes going back to 1994. Taking the tapes chronologically, I could hear the ideas fan outwards, technology allowing more possibilities, world’s being created.

It was here I first heard many of my favourite artists: Spring Heel Jack, The Future Sound of London, Biosphere, David Toop, Klaus Schulze and Single Cell Orchestra, to name a few. It seemed like a never emptying chalice from which to drink.

But I should of known better. I soon did. In 1997, Gough suddenly pulled the plug on the tapes. Within a year the show, which had run for over 8 years, was finished. Gough moved onto photography and small, fast cars.

Meanwhile, years after The Orb had appeared on Top of The Pops, the industry had finally found a way to commercialise electronica. The successfully Cafe Del Mar series, which were originally packed with intriguing ambient excursions, became commoditised, while copy-cat ambient compilations sprung up everywhere. This gave producers a ready-made template in which to write: ambient washes, acoustic guitar, maybe a little sax or trumpet. This started strangling creativity.

Meanwhile, at the coalface, the search for creativity saw samples cut shorter and shorter, as the logical result of Aphex and Squarepusher become soulless clicks and stings of sound. Glitch, which relied on mere slivers of sound divorced sound from its source, soon ran out of room to innovate. Soon enough the underground electronic explosion had run its course and disappeared as a vibrant scene.

(Of course electronica would continue to be created, and occasionally a new nuance would be discovered – witness reviewers falling over themselves with dubstep. But dubstep was ambient with a different rhythm – brilliant at its best but not much different than what had come before. )

I don’t know whether Gough had read the tea-leaves, or merely felt it was time for a change in interests. But the Digital Dream disappeared. For a couple of years it was the highlight of my week, and for the first time since I discarded pop I felt connected with music.

So in honour of Gough, I nominate Single Cell Orchestra’s A Better Place. I still remember Gough speaking over it’s long lead-in, introducing his program, stopping at the perfect moment when the beats disappear and the synth soars free, before the beats come back to drive the track proper. Now that’s good radio.

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3 comments

  1. Hi there – On a whim I typed “Digital Dream” and “Radio Bath” into Google just a little moment looking back in time to 1996-1997… and this site was one of the few that knew exactly what I meant. I was at UNE through the last couple of DD years and LOVED that radio program to pieces. I made sure I never had anything to do other than be home so I could chill and listen to the music on a sunny afternoon as I studied…I taped as much of each show as I could but eventually the tapes went their own ways in the universe. Thank you so much for putting up a random blog post about this. I have also rediscovered Single Cell Orchestra as a result 🙂 I so wish I remembered more of the artists who Julian Gough mentioned as he back-announced everything…gosh. Flashbacks. 🙂


    • Hi Georgia – thanks for the comment – it’s made my day 🙂

      I was the same – every Sunday afternoon was study and Digital Dream time. I think it was followed by the world music show Radio Babylon.

      The station had a crate of the tapes which Gough sent to us – sadly a lot were pinched and taped over 😦

      I can help you with some of the other artists – they included Scanner, Biosphere, Spring Heel Jack, Woob, Miasma, Future Sound of London, Coldcut, Bionaut, the early Cafe del Mar compilations, Sabres of Paradise, Higher Intelligence Agency, Photek, Funky Porcini, Global Communications, Red Snapper, Autechre, L.A. Synthesis, Bedouin Ascent and many more. A lot of these were hard to track down on CD, It took me years to find a copy of the Single Cell Orchestra album. Thankfully many are tracks are now up on YouTube and similar. 🙂

      It’s sad that info on the Digital Dream has pretty much disappeared on the web: the show’s website with playlists used to be on the Wayback Machine on Archive.org, but they have even disappeared from there. Even Gough’s later photography and car websites have disappeared.


      • There were playlists?! That would have been a great resource. I suppose 1996 was an awfully long time ago, it was probably my wishful thinking that there would be a lot of info out there! I do remember Radio Babylon too, strangely enough, but not as clearly.
        Thanks for adding a few more names to the list in your reply too 🙂 I will most definitely investigate. I can’t believe people taped over the shows … 😦 I mean there is an entire galaxy of electronic stuff out there now isn’t there, it’s not hard to find thanks to Myspace / youtube and any number of internet radio stations.

        I came downstairs to 2UNE once or twice in the months after the show ended to try and find out about the tapes, but I am not sure who I spoke to, terrible with names 🙂

        That show did frame a distinct period in my life and I am sure some of those tracks would still hold their own today, what feels like one frillion years later.

        I wonder what Mr Gough is up to these days then.

        thanks again. Have a good week 🙂



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