Three years ago at the inaugural Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California, fans who gathered around the second stage each night got a taste of the two worlds of commercially viable electronic music.
Moby, the first night’s closer, was at the start of his journey from niche notoriety to household name via his recent full-length effort, Play, which would go on to multi-platinum sales in the United States and similar heights around the world. But on that October evening, he was still on his way rather than having already been there, and he seemed high on his burgeoning success. It was an interesting place to be, both figuratively for Moby and literally for the fans who had gathered to see what the kid could do.
What they got was not Moby the Electronica Superphenomenon, but Moby the Rock Star. The erstwhile DJ and programmer bounced, scurried and pranced around the stage as if trying to purge every ounce of piss and vinegar from his fragile little frame. His band, an odd assortment of sessions players that could have backed Marilyn Manson had they been given more makeup and rubber clothing, tried to play along, but you could tell that they, like much of the audience, were more concerned with the little guy’s safety around all those big bad music machines than they were impressed by his showmanship. Moby was undeterred, however, and he supplemented his physical outbursts with rants about where he got the idea for the next song—and he described a disturbing number of his own songs as the best, fastest or most fill-in-the-blank song ever. Maybe it was droll sarcasm, but by the time Moby perched himself atop his beleaguered keyboard, arms outstretched in a Jesus Christ Superstar pose, most people had long since had enough.
Moby’s rock star alter-ego was not without precedent. After his 1995 full-length debut, Everything is Wrong, got noticed on alternative and college radio, Moby took a band out with him to Lollapalooza’s second stage and became known as the techno guy who rocked. Moby then took it a step further by recording and releasing Animal Rights, a full-on punk rock album, which became notable mainly for being a horrendous failure of Elektra Records’ liberal artistic license policy. The one exception was a passable cover of the Mission of Burma song “That’s When I Reach for my Revolver”, the original of which had, coincidentally, been re-released not long before Animal Rights was recorded.
When Moby returned to his electronic roots for Play, he did it in large part by merging strictly electronic elements with samples from decades-old Alan Lomax field recordings of the Deep South that had, coincidentally, been re-released not long before Play was recorded. With its beat-box drums and sweeping synthesizer flourishes, Play went over better than anyone expected, so Moby took it upon himself to make another run at rock stardom, including an embarrassing display at the Grammy awards, as well as his night at Coachella. Alas, despite repeated rebukes and a follow-up album that has already all but faded away, Moby is still a cat who thinks he’s a dawg.
That sad reality was brought into luminous focus the following evening when Underworld took to the second stage. There was no backup band, the dancing was not punctuated by angst, and no shirts came off. Frontman Karl Hyde did strap on a guitar and provide live renditions of the band’s loopy rhythm and vocals, but he did so with a noted lack of anything to prove. And in so doing he proved himself an entertainer far more worthy of the spotlight than Moby.
Hyde’s confidence onstage melded seamlessly with programmer Rick Smith’s synthetic manipulations and DJ Darren Emerson’s pitch-perfect flow. There was also a hypnotic light and multimedia show that, combined with the music, transported the entire crowd far away from Indio and to a world where only Underworld existed. That surely sounds like a ridiculous way to describe it, but if you’ve ever experienced a concert as good as Underworld sounded that night—a night that Hyde noted sardonically would be “our last of this millennium”—you can relate.
Despite being a dramatically more electronically-tinged set of music, Underworld also rocked a lot harder than Moby. That feat, as well, was not without precedent. Before Hyde reinvented Underworld as a techno group with a sound that could get noticed beyond the dance club circuit, Hyde was the frontman of Underworld the rock band. Indeed, his experience in getting radio airplay for guitar-driven mini-hits like “Underneath the Radar” and “Change the Weather” undoubtedly gave Hyde a distinct advantage of getting beyond the techno world once he decided to step all the way into it. Before Underworld, in the early- to mid-‘80s, Hyde also did time in Freur, which likewise scored mini-hits with “Devil in Darkness” and “Doot Doot”. Neither group was a harbinger of rock posturing, but they seemed to know what it took to get their songs on the air. That Hyde gave up the rock and roll life to make what he felt was better music says a lot about why Underworld, in their prime, have a distinct advantage over the Mobys of the dance world when it comes time to play live: they know how to be DJs, yes, but they’re equally aware how to please a crowd.
As such, you won’t hear any boring background on where a song came from with Hyde, because he knows that’s bullshit posturing. You also won’t see him calling any of his own songs the best ever. Nor will you see him striking poses. You’ll see him dancing, yes, even dancing badly, but you will not see him dancing as if he demands that everyone focus on him. In fact, the music and lights nearly demand that Hyde is that last thing you look at, but you look up front anyway.
At the Hammerstein Ballroom this October, Underworld kept people looking up front with an astounding array of lights that surrounded, engulfed, flew around and bounced off the audience and the stage. A series of metallic, translucent air pillows were draped behind the group, and as the evening started, the words “New York” grew larger and larger on the pillow wall until they no longer fit. It was a sign of the spectacle to come: the two remaining members of Underworld were about the only things that fit onstage—everything else burst off with ballistic force.
The lights repeatedly commanded roars from the crowd as they synched with Underworld’s massive beats. The beats themselves, a signature sound that’s harder and faster than anything else in the techno mainstream, were what got most people there in the first place. The bionic combination of organic reverberation and Moroder-esque precision is, strangely, a rare breed in dance music: beat with a heart. The audience likely knew it before Hyde and Smith hugged to start the set, and if not, they caught on as Hyde repeatedly clutched his earphones (in lieu of monitor speakers—that’s for rock stars) and danced emphatically to his own creations. He’s not a particularly good dancer, but he enjoyed himself just the same.
The one area where the group fell flat was the breaks between songs—not that they were too long or that they spewed pointless banter, but that there were breaks at all. Rather than keeping the beat strong nearly throughout the entire evening, there was almost always a break between each song that gave the group time to reload. Had Darren Emerson still been around, such long breaks would likely not have been tolerated. But it was about the only noticeable loss to Underworld’s live music mastery with Emerson’s departure.
The evening ended a few minutes prematurely when the final encore proved too much for the group’s equipment, which fuzzed out in the middle of a climactic moment of beats, rhythms and lights. The audience roared its approval once again, and it wasn’t until Hyde got a working microphone that anyone knew for sure it was an accident. It just seemed too perfect—for a group that excels at stretching the limits of sound nearly entirely outside of traditional rock band constraints, the weathered rock cliché nevertheless applies: sometimes it really is better to burn out than fade away. Somebody call Moby.