(First published in Electronic Sound magazine #83, November 2021)
NEVER MIND THE BALKANS
When radio behemoth Mark Radcliffe met beats-obsessed boffin Paul Langley in a Cheshire pub, electro-pop duo UNE were formed. Their third album Spomenik pays homage to the Brutalist war memorials of the former Yugoslavian states, and finds the pair in genially reflective mood
Words: Bob Fischer
“I don’t know if frightening is the right word, but they’re certainly sinister,” says Mark Radcliffe, with a thoughtful frown. “They’re like altars to some strange cult that’s died out. Some of them were almost like churches or cathedrals… they had concrete stools placed around them where children were herded to hear lectures about how great the future was going to be.”
He’s talking about Spomeniks. These striking concrete sculptures are dotted around the countries that once formed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and provide the inspiration (and title) for the new album by UNE, the electronic duo comprising Radcliffe and his musical collaborator Paul Langley. Built in their thousands between the 1940s and the 1990s, the Spomeniks commemorate the brutal oppression of the war years and embody the traumatic geopolitics of these complex Balkan states. Radcliffe has clearly immersed himself in their legacy.
“They’re almost like the war memorials you’ll find in every town in the UK,” he continues. “But on a huge scale and with this bizarre state-encouraged dedication to abstract expressionism. It’s just an extraordinary idea. And, of course, they were trying to distance themselves from the imagery of totalitarianism. It was a definite move away from that, pointing to a brave new beginning. As far as I know, there’s nothing else like them anywhere else in the world.”
Since swapping his life as a producer of 1980s John Peel sessions for the comparative glamour of on-air presenting, Radcliffe has been a mainstay of BBC national radio. His 1990s rise – accompanied by genial former Fall bassist Marc Riley – encompassed a glorious stint on the Radio 1 “graveyard shift”; a spell as tabloid-baffling Breakfast Show successor to Chris Evans, and seven years of surreal majesty (“Frogging with Scoff Crudle”) on the station’s Afternoon Show. Since 2007, he has cultivated an award-winning partnership with fellow Lancashire polymath Stuart Maconie, first on Radio 2 (where he still presents the Folk Show), then at BBC 6 Music. Throughout the decades, his shows have combined Python-esque hilarity with an infectious love of the musically offbeat. I am, it’s fair to say, something of a fan.
It was during a working day at 6 Music that his interest in the Spomeniks was sparked.
“I’d actually heard about them when Stuart Maconie and Elizabeth Alker were talking about them,” he recalls. “And then, in my usual way, I said to Paul ‘I’m thinking about this…’ I’ll often give him an idea and say ‘How does that make you feel, musically?’ And then we set off on our normal modus operandi, which is to work entirely separately. I got my old Yamaha DJX out and started writing. That’s right, isn’t it Paul?”
“That’s exactly how it began,” nods Paul Langley, in the adjacent Zoom window. He’s been listening patiently. “Lockdown was quite liberating for me, because I had loads of free time and I could just lose myself in the evenings instead of going to the pub and moaning about Manchester City. I could swim about in my own creativity. And it happened really quickly – Spomenik was done and dusted within weeks.”
The album is great, I tell them. Icy, brutalist electronica. Lyrics are sparsely direct, and a sense of minimalist bleakness pervades. They seem thrilled.
“When I first read up on the Spomeniks, the first thing I heard was an 808 drum machine,” explains Langley. “It’s like looking at the Angel of the North… I don’t look at it from a distance, I stand beneath it and take in the vastness of it. And that triggers loads of things. When I see birds going past, I actually hear hi-hat patterns. I’m a bit mental, really. I can almost see it. So with the Spomeniks… I could see the patterns in those, too.”
“Weird, innit?” smiles Radcliffe, with clear admiration. “Until now, I didn’t realise it was such a literal thing.”
It’s brilliant, I reply. It’s virtually synaesthesia. There aren’t many composers whose brains forge such a strong link between the visual and the musical.
“We wrote a song called ‘Komorebi’ for the first album, Lost,” continues Langley. “Mark was talking about sunlight coming through the leaves of trees… and again, I could see the hi-hat pattern. I was walking through Knutsford, and I could see it! I said, ‘That’s the pattern I’m after… I can actually see the claps!’ And my dog was looking at me like I was an idiot, going ‘Are you mad…?’”
They have the easygoing, piss-taking rapport of lifelong friends, but only met in 2014 when Radcliffe became a welcome new face in Langley’s favourite Cheshire pub.
“We just bonded over shouting at the TV, watching Manchester City,” recalls Langley.
“Yeah,” smiles Radcliffe. “I moved to Knutsford, and asked someone ‘Is there a pub that’s Man City rather than United… and that you can take dogs into?’ And it was the Builder’s Arms. Later, I bumped into Paul walking across the park, and we recognised each other. It just grew from there, really. We probably speak most days don’t we, Paul?”
“Absolutely. My wife says, ‘Have you finished talking to your other wife?’”
“But when Paul said he made music, my heart sank,” admits Radcliffe. Because I love him, he’s a great mate, and I thought he wasn’t the kind of bloke who’d do anything meaningful, musically. You know, ‘God… is this going to ruin a beautiful friendship?’ But then he started playing me these tracks, and my first reaction was ‘Are you sure this is you?’ Of all the people I’d least suspected to have hidden depths, he was one of them. I’d always assumed he had hidden shallows…”
“I hide my creativity beneath a veil of stupidity,” deadpans Langley.
“Yeah, it’s really well-hidden. To the point of invisibility. But when I listen to the things he’s done, I can hear the hours of work that have gone into them. He’s brilliant at what he does.”
Radcliffe’s career, I tell them, is something I know about in probably too much detail. Langley is more mysterious. Is he, I ask, the same Paul Langley who belonged to an outfit called Rack-It? Whose 1995 Have You Had It EP leads with a 13-minute Balearic-flavoured track titled ‘Sex On Acid’?
“Yep,” he nods. “My brother was a DJ at the Haçienda. And I was messing around with some keyboards when Rob Gretton walked past. I said ‘Rob! I’ve done this…” And he went ‘Yeah, s’alright’. Meaning it was a bag of shite.
“But I convinced him that me and my mate could make a record. Martin Walsh from the Inspiral Carpets said ‘You want to make something that people will detest immediately’. So we did… and people actually liked it! That was ‘Sex on Acid’. What was that all about? I’ve never taken a drug in my life, apart from paracetamol.”
I tell him I’ve also found someone on Twitter called Simon Smedley, waxing lyrical about Oldham bands. Particularly: “An old school pal of mine called Paul Langley was in a good band in the ‘80s… but I can’t remember their name.”
He looks agog.
“That was a band called Out Of The Blue,” he admits. “Actually, we were alright. We did a single at [Peter Hook’s studio] Suite 16. Oh, and we hired out – God, this is embarrassing – Middleton Arndale Centre. We did a rooftop gig, for a video. To two people. It was pure comedy… we were all dressed in white, and I had a Korg M1. Which, at the time, cost £1500 and I was earning £27.50 a week on a YTS scheme. You could hear the camera crew laughing thinking it was a big joke, but it was deadly serious. I think the singer went off crying…”
“Why haven’t I heard this?” chuckles a delighted Radcliffe. Langley is visibly cringing. So where, I wonder, did their respective electronic music obsessions begin?
“It’s a boring answer, but it was Kraftwerk,” says Radcliffe. “I liked the primitive rhythms of Trans Europe Express. And I loved the track ‘Europe Endless’… it’s just perfect in every way.
“I just love the idea of them. They were Gilbert and Gilbert and George and George. Playing with the concept of what a pop group could be – these four austere-looking blokes, in suits. I found that fascinating. A band didn’t have to be Led Zeppelin. It could also be four people who looked like they worked in a nuclear power station control room.“And when punk happened, I liked some of the edgy electronica that was around then. People like Robert Rental, and The Normal. And DAF – Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft. I loved that grinding, industrial sound.”
“Gary Numan for me,” says Langley. “I saw him in 1979, when my Mum got me a ticket for my 11th birthday. My first ever concert. You wouldn’t do it now, but she stuck me on the No 24 from Oldham to Manchester, and gave me the number of the bus to catch from the city centre to the Apollo.
“I remember all these blokes wearing make-up getting me to the front, saying ‘Get this lad on your shoulders!’ And when Gary Numan came on… it was the best thing ever. And I’m also a kid from the Afrika Bambaata days – all that early hip-hop. ‘Planet Rock’ and ‘Looking For The Perfect Beat’ are two of my favourite records, they really switched me onto electronica.”
Beneath the bonhomie and self-deprecation, they take their music seriously. But still… they are funny blokes. They talk of a mothballed concept album about 1960s cartoon series Bleep And Booster, and fondly recall a recent UNE gig where the 27 audience members were all given free scotch eggs. Radcliffe, to boot, has previous form in spoof bands. His and Riley’s 1990s outfit The Shirehorses mercilessly sent up the bands du jour (“Dick Cave And The Bad Cheese”) and their Afternoon Show character Fat Harry White was a gloriously filthy pastiche of the randiest 1970s soul superstars. Is there a danger, I wonder, of people assuming UNE’s records are similarly tongue-in-cheek? Because they’re really not.
“Two things in answer to that,” says Radcliffe, thoughtfully. “We did our first gig at the Loopallu festival, in Scotland. And I didn’t say anything onstage… because, with all the electronic acts I’d seen, no-one ever did. But then I thought ‘Hang on… the people who come expect me to talk a bit’. So now I do, and I try to have a laugh with the audience and humanise it.
“But I think sometimes people find it hard to take me out of that DJ box. It sounds really grand, but I think a lot of people find it too much of a leap to take me seriously as a musical artist. Even people I know, who have radio shows… I’ll say ‘Do you fancy playing this? But it’s OK if you don’t…’ And they’re still a bit nervous of people saying ‘You’re only playing Mark Radcliffe because he’s a mate of yours’. So I’m not sure it always gets judged on the value of the music.
“Or perhaps it does, and they think it’s shit. Which is fine. But that’s the double answer… I think people know what UNE is now, and I’ve learned to present it more lightly when we do gigs. That makes people a bit more comfortable than me trying to be alien and distant.”
Spomenik is released on the boutique Spun Out Of Control label, and Radcliffe waxes lyrical about the cottage industry nature of their set-up (“It’s back to the days of punk… and that’s brilliant”), while Langley gets endearingly excited about featuring in Electronic Sound. He reaches for what appears to be a substantial collection stashed precariously above his webcam.
“When we appeared in Issue 61, we got sent a copy, and it was like… this magazine is for me!” he enthuses. “When it comes, my wife opens it and smells it. It’s beautiful! I’ve got them all lined up. Spun Out of Control and Electronic Sound complement each other so well. It’s a match made in heaven.”
I’m delighted for them both. Radcliffe in particular has had a rough patch – in 2018, he was diagnosed with head and neck cancer, enduring lengthy treatment. On recovering, he edged away from the folk-rock bands he’d been helming and threw in his lot with Langley. The first UNE album, Lost, was released in 2019. The second, Deux, is barely weeks old, with Spomenik a remarkably swift follow-up. Was illness an epiphany that ignited his restless creativity?
“It made me want to do something new,” he nods. “Not to go back to Galleon Blast or The Family Mahone… all those folk-rock bands. My voice was very fragile too, and those bands were raucous and demanding. So, yeah. It was ‘I’ve not died, let’s do some things I haven’t done before’.”
At this, he holds his phone up to the webcam. “This is the next album,” he says, and shows me two abstract, monochrome figures revolving at incredible speed.
“They’re whirling dervishes,” he explains. “It’s about things that revolve. So there’s a track from the point of view of a tornado, apologising for the destruction it causes. And there’s one about windmills, based on Don Quixote…”
Langley leaps up to some off-camera gizmo, and is suddenly surrounded by crisp beats and a squelching bassline. I’m getting a sneak preview.
“That’s the tornado!” he exclaims. “It’s going to be so apologetic. Apologetic Tornados! And again, when I think about it, I can hear it… tsh tsh tsh… that tempo. I knew straight away it was 123bpm.”
“I’m sure I produced a John Peel session by the Apologetic Tornadoes in 1984,” quips Radcliffe, and our three Zoom windows burst into laughter. It’s happened a lot during the hour we’ve spent together, but don’t be fooled: these are men who take their creativity seriously. And Spomenik – with apologies in advance – is an enduring monument to that.
Spomenik is available here:
Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” –is published monthly, and available here:
Support the Haunted Generation website with a Ko-fi donation… thanks!