One of the most important dance music acts of all time, 808 State played a major role in popularizing acid house in the U.K. at the end of the 1980s, and have remained a primary influence on several generations of techno, IDM, and alternative dance artists. Initially associated with the Madchester scene, which otherwise consisted of dance-friendly rock bands descended from post-punk and psychedelia, they were among the first groups to put a British spin on Detroit techno and Chicago house, producing electronic tracks that were complex and experimental yet melodic and accessible. Debuting with the free-flowing acid tracks of 1988′s Newbuild, the group scored a major hit with the lush, summery 1989 single “Pacific,” which hit the U.K. Top Ten and remains one of the most beloved tunes of the rave era. Throughout the 1990s, the band routinely reached the British pop charts and received worldwide club play with energetic singles such as “Cübik,” “In Yer Face,” and “Bombadin,” in addition to releasing acclaimed albums such as ex:el (1991) and Gorgeous (1993). From the beginning, the group’s output has largely consisted of rich, tuneful instrumentals, but they’ve notably collaborated with guest vocalists such as Björk, Bernard Sumner, Ian McCulloch, and Lou Rhodes. While less prolific since the dawn of the 21st century, the group’s members have remained active as DJs and live performers, and the first 808 State album in nearly two decades, Transmission Suite, appeared in 2019.
808 State began in Manchester in 1987, when Graham Massey (then a member of Factory-affiliated experimental post-punk band Biting Tongues) and Gerald Simpson began making music with Martin Price, owner of a record shop called Eastern Bloc. The trio briefly made cut-and-paste hip-hop as part of Hit Squad MCR, but quickly started producing acid house, naming themselves 808 State after the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Debut album Newbuild was recorded on tape discarded from the BBC’s Manchester studios, and was released by Price’s Creed Records in September 1988. This was soon followed by non-album single “Let Yourself Go,” as well as a 1989 one-off single for WAU! Mr. Modo Recordings, credited to the pseudonym Lounge Jays. By this point, Simpson had kick-started a successful solo career as A Guy Called Gerald with the classic single “Voodoo Ray,” and he left 808 State; Andrew Barker and Darren Partington joined the group around this time.
The band issued the Quadrastate EP in July 1989, including lead track “Pacific State,” which had already been a favorite of Manchester’s legendary Haçienda nightclub for several months. After Gary Davies heard the song in Ibiza, he started playing it on BBC Radio 1 during the daytime. The group signed a long-term deal with Trevor Horn’s ZTT Records, and the track was re-released as “Pacific,” eventually hitting number ten on the U.K. singles chart. However, Simpson claimed that he wasn’t properly credited for writing the track before he left the group. (He later reused the song’s familiar chords in a B-side called “Specific Hate.“) Full-length 90 was released in December, eventually going gold in the U.K. Vanessa Daou guested on “Magical Dream,” the group’s first track with vocals. 808 signed with Tommy Boy Records in the United States, where “Pacific” hit Billboard’s Dance charts, and 90 was repackaged as Utd. State 90, including several bonus tracks.
In 1990, 808 State produced The North at Its Heights, the debut album by Mancunian rapper MC Tunes (Nicky Lockett), which included the Top Ten single “The Only Rhyme That Bites.” The group also remixed Jon Hassell’s “Voiceprint” into a Latin-tinged house track. Another Top Ten hit, the brash, siren-heavy “Cübik,” preceded the band’s second major-label album, ex:el. Released in March 1991, the record included “In Yer Face” (the band’s highest-charting U.K. hit, reaching number nine) as well as collaborations with Björk, then still a member of the Sugarcubes, and New Order’s Bernard Sumner. The group remixed songs by a surprising array of mainstream artists, including David Bowie, Quincy Jones, and Yes. Price left 808 State by the end of 1991, as he wasn’t interested in participating in the band’s U.S. tour, and he continued to produce dance tracks, later working with U.K. rap crew Kaliphz.
Continuing as a trio, 808 State released Gorgeous in 1993. The album included a Top 20-charting rework of UB40′s early hit “One in Ten,” as well a collaboration with Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch. The remix collection Forecast was released in Japan, and fan-club exclusive Statetostate appeared in 1994. Two non-album singles, “Bombadin” and the promo-only “Insane Lover,” also surfaced that year, but the proper follow-up to Gorgeous didn’t arrive until 1996. Don Solaris flirted with trip-hop and jungle, and included guest vocals by Soul Coughing’s Mike Doughty, Lamb’s Lou Rhodes, and Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield (U.K. Top 20 hit “Lopez,” which was remixed by Brian Eno). The album was quickly followed by another remix collection, Thermo Kings.
Celebrating the band’s first decade, 808 State issued the well-received compilation 808:88:98, which included the previously unreleased “Crash” as well as updated versions of “Pacific” and “Cübik.” In 1999, the band released a split 7″ single with Jega and an aggressive, breakbeat-heavy single titled “Invader.” The long out-of-print Newbuild was also reissued by Rephlex, the label run by enthusiastic 808 fan Aphex Twin. A DVD titled Opti Buk appeared in early 2002, containing all of the band’s ZTT-era music videos as well as the CD State to State, Vol. 2. Sixth full-length Outpost Transmission appeared on Circus Records in 2002; guests included Guy Garvey (Elbow), Simian, and Alabama 3. In 2004, Rephlex released a 12” of 808 State’s 1988 mixes of New Order’s “Blue Monday” and “Confusion,” which were thought to be long-lost until Massey found them in his archives. The label also issued Prebuild, a collection of rare and unreleased early 808 tracks, including the Lounge Jays single.
Massey released Subtracks, his debut full-length as Massonix, in 2006, and subsequently toured with Autechre. Rephlex issued an expanded Quadrastate in 2008, and ZTT released deluxe two-CD editions of the group’s four albums for the label soon afterward. Japanese compilation Blueprint and digital release State to State 3 both appeared in 2011. Partington left the band in 2015, following a drug-related arrest. Massey and Barker continued to DJ and perform as 808 State, and they toured a 30th anniversary live set at the end of 2018. The self-released full-length Transmission Suite arrived in 2019. Andrew Barker died on November 6, 2021, after a brief illness; he was 53 years old. ~ Paul Simpson