LIVE REVIEW: 808 State @ Camden Dingwalls (13/10/23)

Old ravers never die, they just stand at the back. An evening of old skool rave, with 808 State, playing a venue with a pedigree, Camden’s Dingwalls.

I can remember quite clearly the day I bought 808 State’s first album, ‘New Build’. It was late 1988. I bought it off Simon down at Rockaway Records in Newport Market. Although he was famous for selling cutting edge punk rock, he didn’t restrict himself. We had a long chat about this emerging Acid House malarkey. Dean, his glamourous assistant, gave me a load of abuse for buying “poncey dance music”.

When I got home and slapped it on the turntable I was blown away. This was the future. It was the first ‘techno/acid house’ album to be placed on the shelves of my record collection, but by no means the last.

808 State had formed the year before in 1987, taking their name from the Roland TR-808 drum machine. Formed by Graham Massey, Martin Price and Gerald Simpson that debut album, Newbuild, was released in September 1988. As ground-breaking as it was, it didn’t really have any commercial success. That would change the following year when their single ‘Pacific State’ was picked up by BBC Radio 1  and charted for eleven weeks in the UK, peaking at number ten.

Simpson left the group in 1989 to form his own solo project, A Guy Called Gerald, achieving significant success on his own. His track ‘Voodoo Ray’, is considered a seminal classic of the genre.

At this point, the remaining personnel enlisted DJs Andrew Barker and Darren Partington, known as the Spinmasters, and recorded the mini album, ‘Quadrastate’ in July 1989. They signed to ZTT records, and ‘Ninety’ was released in December 1989.

MC Tunes worked with the band on the 1990 album, ‘The North at Its Heights’. The album was a moderate success, reaching number 26 in the UK Albums Chart and also saw a European and Japanese release. It spawned three UK singles, “The Only Rhyme That Bites” – featuring a sample of “The Big Country” performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic – (UK number 10), “Tunes Splits the Atom” (UK number 18) and “Primary Rhyming” (UK number 67). The first two issues credited MC Tunes versus 808 State, whilst the latter was simply MC Tunes. Tunes later returned in 1996 to work on a new track, “Pump”, taken from 808 State’s album Thermo Kings.

The band have continued to slog away, releasing numerous albums over the years, but never repeating the commercial success of those early releases.

Over the years the numbers involved in the band thinned out. In January 2015 Darren Partington received an 18-month jail sentence for dealing heroin and crack cocaine; this ended his tenure with 808 State. From this point Massey and Barker continued as a duo. After a short illness, Andy Barker died on 6 November 2021, leaving Massey as the sole remaining core member of the group.

Tonight they play Dingwalls, a venue I’ve not visited for over thirty years, but one that I remember fondly.

Dingwalls originally opened in 1973 as a dancehall and has had a range of different musical functions throughout its first thirty five year stretch under the original name. Music was first managed by former Hendrix road manager Howard ‘H’ Parker. Following Parker’s death, Dave ‘The Boss’ Goodman, who also doubled as chef and DJ, took over from the mid 1970s to mid 1980s.

The legendary, and now incredibly collectable albums, ‘Greasy Truckers party’ and ‘Greasy Truckers Live at Dingwalls Dance Hall’ were recorded there in 1972 and 73 respectively, featuring the likes of Man, Gong and Hawkwind.

In Deke Leonard’s Autobiography, he tells of how he never got to see Jimmy Hendrix play live, but Jimmy did come and see his band Man play in Dingwalls.

The venue was a large part of Camden’s punk boom with The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Ramones regularly appearing.

When I first went there, in the 1980s, it was one of the best small venues in the country. It was mentioned in the same breath as venues like The Marquee, The 100 Club, Northampton Roadmenders and JBs in Dudley. I saw the likes of The Vibrators, New Model Army and Spear of Destiny play there.

At some point in the 1980s, it ceased to present live shows – the premises taken over by the Lock market.

By the early 1990s the original Dingwalls Dancehall had been converted into a venue for the jazz dance club ‘Talkin Loud and Saying Something’, run by Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge.

The 500-capacity venue was bought by promoter Vince Power in June 2020 and has resumed hosting gigs with contemporary bands. It was renamed and reopened as The PowerHaus after a copyright issue blocked the use of its original name. Power now has use of the name again and it has returned to being Dingwalls. There is also a smaller 100 capacity intimate live music venue in the canal bar which regularly puts on unsigned artists.

Tonight is my first visit since the 1980s and I am hopeful it has retained some of the character it had back then. I’m bracing myself for potential disappointment though, given that back then it was integral to a thriving countercultural Camden Market, which has since been sacrificed on the alter of gentrification and is a pale, plastic imitation of what it once was.

We jump off the Tube at Chalk Farm, thinking the pubs in North Camden would be quieter than the bottom end. They were still quite busy though. We pile into one that looked empty-ish. At £6 for a half pint bottle of cider, we understood why it was empty.

Next stop is the legendary Assembly Rooms, which is busy, but not too busy, when we arrive.  Three pints later it is empty, presumably some of them will have gone upstairs to see whatever live band is playing.

The sold out Dingwalls is full when we rock up, but not mental rammed. It’s a good crowd but at no point do we feel like sardines in a tin.

I can’t really compare it with the old Dingwalls, because time has faded the memory,  but I immediately take a liking to the place. There’s a main dancefloor in front of stage, then several tiers, so even if you’re at the back you are elevated and get a decent view.

The bar staff are efficient and by the time we have a pint in our hands, the band are coming on.

I’m not entirely sure what the studio set up of the band is these days, but Massey is joined by a live drummer, which always helps make a show more interesting than just a guy stood behind a laptop.

They kick off with ‘In Yer Face’, ‘Trinity’ and ‘Technocity’, before a crowd pleasing ‘Pacific State’. It’s not just a recreation of the original tunes though, there’s plenty of improvisation. I suppose you could call it live remixing. There’s no talking between numbers, and all tunes just melt in and out of each other. There’s a cracking laser show throughout that would have been perfect at any of the old school raves. But despite the music, lights and smoke,  it never feels like a rave. It feels like a gig, with people focusing on watching the stage rather than throwing shapes and gurning.

We get occasional live wind instruments and guitars to keep the stage presence interesting and they romp through numbers like ‘Cobra Bora’, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Plan 9’.

The set had been uplifting from the off, but they close the set with a drum ‘n bass version of ‘Cubik’, which is nothing short of phenomenal.

After a short break we get ‘Batagilia’ for an encore then a dj kicks in with a suitability techno theme to his record box. I’m not sure how long the DJ will play, it is after all only half ten, but we head out into the night.

We head towards Camden Town Station, stopping off in the legendary ‘Good Mixer’ for a nightcap or three. The pub was at the heart of the ‘Brit Pop’ scene,  whatever that was, with Damon Alburn and the late Amy Winehouse among past regulars. With such a pedigree the pub was ripe for gentrification,  but I’m pleased to report it is still a down to earth grassroots boozer.  It seems that whilst the market sold its soul to capitalism many years ago, with Dingwalls, The Good Mixer and The Assembly Rooms, Camden after dark, against all odds, has retained an element of authenticity.

And 808 State still ‘rock’.