"The Orb Playing Chess On Top Of The Pops Changed My Life"

Stuart Aitken joins the dots between The Orb, Top of the Pops, Inspector Morse, Danny Boyle, Castlemorton and Robbie Williams to explain how a game of chess shocked a nation.
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Stuart Aitken joins the dots between The Orb, Top of the Pops, Inspector Morse, Danny Boyle, Castlemorton and Robbie Williams to explain how a game of chess shocked a nation.
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23 years ago to the day, Alex Patterson and Kris Weston (Thrash) shocked the nation by playing chess “live” on Top of the Pops. As the Orb prepare to release a new album, Patterson talks to Stuart Aitken about how and why the Top of the Pops performance happened – and discusses the impact it had on a young and impressionable Robbie Williams.

On 18 June 1992 Alex Patterson and Thrash took to the stage at BBC Television Centre for their “live” Top of the Pops performance of The Blue Room. The single was remarkable for the fact that it clocked in at 39 mins 57 seconds – making it the longest single ever to have charted. But their performance that evening was even more remarkable. Screened at 7.30pm on BBC 1 on a Thursday night to an audience of around 8 million viewers, the duo dispensed with any pretence at musical performance, appearing without any instruments at all and instead played a sort of inter-galactic chess game – whilst holding a fluffy toy sheep.

Back in 1992, Tops of the Pops was still struggling to come to terms with the dance music explosion. In the early days of acid house the show had offered a stage to Brian Dougans to perform Stakker Humanoid – the first critically acclaimed acid house single to storm the charts. According to Dougans the producers were completely unprepared for an acid house artist when he performed in December 1988 alongside the Pet Shop Boys and Bros

As Dougans remembers, the producers insisted that if there were any vocals on a track, somebody had to sing them. Hence he was forced to wear a microphone and mouth the words of Humanoid's signature refrain – despite the fact that the vocal was sampled from a computer game. “If you actually look closely, you see me mouthing the words,” recalls Dougans. “They made me do it. The bastards!"

In March 1990, Orbital had appeared on the show, two almost motionless musicians wearing anti-poll-tax T-shirts standing behind equipment that was not even plugged in. This led to the Hartnoll brothers being unofficially banned from the show. It was six years before they returned to the programme.

The tried and tested Top of the Pops format was in trouble. Suddenly with this new music, there were no guitars. Often there were no singers. The very essence of “performance” was in flux. So how was the show to respond?

If the producers were hoping for an easy ride when The Orb turned up at Television Centre in the summer of 1992, they were sadly very much mistaken. Patterson was clearly no shrinking violet at the time. “We were playing music that nobody else had heard at that point,” he explains. “And we had a hit that was forty minutes long – so off we strolled into Top of the Pops.”

First up the already nervous producers had to deal with the duo’s drinking. “We were told at 12 o’clock, ‘Stop drinking brandy or you’ll get thrown off’. So we poured our brandy into coke cans and carried on drinking. It was only because they had strict rules and they weren’t allowed to drink until 5pm.”

Next they had to deal with the rowdy behaviour. “We challenged all the bands who were performing [an odd combination of Utah Saints, Def Leppard and Take That] to a game of football. And we were told that if we carried on like that we’d get thrown off.” Not all the bands were impressed recalls Patterson. “Utah Saints were the only ones that came out and had a game in the corridor.”

So why did they decide to play a game of chess?

“Basically one of the girls in the A&R department at Big Life [The Orb’s record label at the time] said: ‘Why don’t you play chess?’” explains Patterson. “Literally we were just in an A&R meeting discussing what we should do. And I love playing chess so I thought ‘Great. I’m up for that’. And it just went from there.”

Patterson’s love of chess is well documented. “I was a champion chess player when I was little,” he explains. “I got taught by Raymond Keene – he was a British grand master. He passed on a lot of moves to me when I was really young and I used to beat all these older and clever kids at chess and they used to get really annoyed at me at school.”

  And so it was that he got to play chess live on TV.

According to Patterson though, the performance was not easy for the producers. “The producers were thinking: ‘Where’s the chorus? Where’s the vocalist? Where do we put the cameras?’” Perhaps unsurprisingly the producers tried very hard to throw the duo off the show. “At the very end they were saying ‘If you move from your chair we’re stopping’.” But somehow they got through it.

If the top brass at Top of the Pops were confused, what about the crowd? What was their reaction?

“I don’t think there was much reaction,” says Patterson. “It was definitely not like ‘get up and dance’. What we were trying to convince them to do was to put cushions out for everyone to sit down.”

And the presenter wasn’t best pleased either. That evening a celebrity had been called in to host – a certain Bob Geldof who made his feelings clear at the end of the performance saying dismissively, “Hmmm…that was incredibly…mind expanding”. Patterson expected as much. “What a twat,” he says. “He totally hated us. And you know what, I didn’t particularly like the Boomtown Rats when they played in my town either.”

By this time, Geldof of course represented the old guard. But his disapproval hinted at a deeper unease – something which makes more sense when put in context.

Perpetual Dawn

The show was broadcast at peak time on BBC1 in June 1992, just as rave culture was infiltrating living rooms across the country, pitting generation against generation as it did so.

Two months prior to The Orb’s Top of the Pops performance (on 15 April 1992), an Inspector Morse episode directed by a young Danny Boyle had been screened on prime time on ITV. Called Cherubim and Seraphim, the show centred on an ecstasy related death, with Morse and Lewis attending a rave which was likened to a “bacchanalial orgy”. In the programme, opera-loving Morse describes the music itself as "magpie music – a bit here, a bit there" – an interesting mirror to The Orb’s description in Little Fluffy Clouds of the technique of "layering different sounds".

Intriguing as it was, the overall effect of the programme was to convince teenagers – and of course their parents - that taking ecstasy could quite possibly lead to suicide.

A few weeks later, rave culture was to crash into living rooms with even greater force as an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people turned up for a party at Castlemorton Common over the May bank holiday – and helicopters beamed live outrage onto TV screens across the country. Exhaustive news coverage of the Castlemorton “rave party” cranked up the fear factor for Middle England.

As Sheryll Garratt noted in Adventures in Wonderland, “the spectacle gave a desperate Tory government a moral crusade to cling to”. Now the full force of the British political and legal system in the shape of the notorious Pay Party Unit was being mobilized to combat the threat of repetitive beats.

Rave culture had infiltrated the UK’s TV screens interrupting dinner times across the land. It had crashed into living rooms in dramas and news broadcasts across Britain. Nothing was safe. Not even Top of the Pops.

Two years later of course in 1994, the menace of repetitive beats was finally dealt with by the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill. In the summer of that year, Orbital took dance music to the safety of the main stage at Glastonbury. Next, we saw the rise of a new, well-regulated industry based around the super club. And Oasis released the beer-soaked Definitely Maybe. Suddenly everything was safe again.

But there were some hangovers from this time. One of the strangest was felt by Robbie Williams…

Close Encounters

During our interview I speculatively ask if Patterson had any interaction with follow performers Take That during the recording of Top of the Pops.

“Are you ready for this? It gets absolutely fucking weird,” he responds. “About three years later I’m sitting in Turnmills Studios and who strolls in? Robbie Williams. And he’s going ‘I want to meet The Orb. I want to meet The Orb. I think they’re amazing’. And he went ‘That Top of the Pops changed my life’.”

As Patterson recollects, Williams was impressed by fact that the band “didn’t give a sausage”. This must have been very different from Gary Barlow’s modus operandi after all. “He thought it was so radical. He’d never seen a band come in and just dictate and piss people off so much and get away with it.”

And bizarrely it led to a musical collaboration.

“It gets better,” says Patterson. “We did a cover version of a Bee Gees tune,” he recalls with obvious glee. “Robbie was asked to do a cover version. Then he just said look ‘I want to do this cover version with you’. I said ‘Can we do a reggae version of it?’ And he said ‘I’d love to’.”

The resulting record was the truly bizarre I Started a Joke by Robbie Williams and The Orb, produced by the late Andy Hughes and recorded in 1997 at a time when Williams was a massive international superstar. It appears on a forgotten Bee Gees tribute album alongside much more traditional cover versions by the likes of Steps, Boyzone and Louise Redknapp. 

Following his split with Take That, Williams had famously embraced a much more hedonistic lifestyle under the tutelage of Liam Gallagher. By 1997 he was coming out of this often bruising friendship with Gallagher and was now fully embracing super stardom. Quite why he chose the psychedelic melancholy of I Started A Joke is anyone’s guess. It’s an odd song in its original form. As Robin Gibb himself explained: “This is a very spiritual song. The listeners have to interpret it themselves, trying to explain it would detract from the song”. In the hands of the unlikely merry pranksters Robbie Williams and The Orb it would become even odder.

Patterson though has fond memories of the recording and praises Williams’ performance. “He could sing any which way,” he says. And it becomes obvious that he likes him as a human being. “He’s a lovely bloke. There’s nothing wrong with him at all, ” says Patterson who is also clearly delighted that after their collaboration, “the next minute he’s out there getting tattoos.”

Sticky End

So what, beyond this bizarre by-product is the legacy of the show? For Patterson the broadcast pitted the new versus the old and forced dance music further into the mainstream.

“People are very, very frightened of change – even youngsters,” he reflects. “It’s part of human nature. So when change comes about they get scared. And if they don’t understand the change they don’t want to change. And that’s what dance music was all about really. But there was too many people enjoying it for them to ignore it any more. Top of the Pops was frightened because this was something new and they didn’t understand it. And they did the old human nature thing – ‘We’re frightened, we don’t understand it, we’re going to drop it and run away’. But they couldn’t because we were on TV that night and they had to put us on TV.”

The Orb – Moonbuilding 2703AD is released on Kompakt on June 22

Top of the Pops vs dance music – 7 key moments

Farley Jackmaster Funk – Love Can’t Turn Around – September 1986

The moment that dance music hit mainstream UK TV as Daryl Pandy, dressed in a sparkly blue top, delivered a unique vocal performance which ended with him lying on the floor singing. Soon after in January 1987 Jack Your Body went to number 1 and the floodgates opened.

D-Mob - We Call it Acieed – October 1988

This wasn’t even a live performance. Rather what caused outrage was Caron Keating’s over-exuberant intro which led to a debate on Points of View and a BBC ban on any records that referenced acid house.

Stakker Humanoid – Humanoid – December 1988

Appearing on the Top of the Pops stage was an exciting but bewildering experience for the young Brian Dougans. Two energetic dancers were roped in – alongside his best friend at the time who leapt around pretending to play bass. Dougans recalls the oddness of the event: "I remember coming off stage and one of the Pet Shop Boys popped up and said, 'That was amazing - I had shivers.' I was like, 'Quick, let's get out of here.'"

808 State - Pacific – November 1989

808 State’s 1989 debut was a truly bizarre display of miming from all four members of the band. Representing what Simon Mayo refers to in his intro as “the underground scene in Manchester”, this performance is now overshadowed by the Top of the Pops of 23 November which featured the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays on the same bill for the first time. However it’s worth remembering that 808 State had beaten them both by a week.

Orbital – Chime – March 1990

The brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll caused havoc by refusing to take part in the charade of miming. Paul Hartnoll explains: "We'd come from a background of performing live. This was important to us. We just didn't want to dance around and pretend." At one point in proceedings a plug can be seen resting on top of a sequencer, making a mockery of the whole charade. This led to an unofficial six-year ban for the duo.

The Orb – Blue Room – June 1992

Playing chess instead of playing instruments infuriates the old guard represented by Bob Geldof. However it inspires one young performer that night as Robbie Williams later claims “that Top of the Pops changed my life”.

The Shamen – Ebeneezer Goode – September 1992

By late 1992 Top of the Pops performers were just having a laugh. For example, the BBC were powerless to prevent The Shamen appearing and chanting “E’s are good” when they performed Ebenezer Goode. They added insult to injury with their nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to “veras” and “salmon”. Best of all though was their “anyone got any underlay?” comment – which Mr C later explained was “a rug reference”. 

@stuart_aitken