Lo Fidelity Allstars How to Operate with a Blown Mind

Is Lo Fidelity Allstars Style Big Beat Back After 25 Years?

The current resurgence of Britpop could trigger nostalgia for late 1990s big beat like Lo Fidelity Allstars, while trip-hop remains a vital influence.

How to Operate with a Blown Mind
Lo Fidelity Allstars
Skint Records
25 May 1998

Let’s get the issue of authenticity out of the way. Despite the name, Lo Fidelity Allstars were neither truly low-fidelity nor all-stars. Those discrepancies mattered to some people in 1998, when the outfit’s debut recording, How to Operate with a Blown Mind, was released by England’s Skint Records and garnered enough attention to merit mockery. As in: Who do these pretenders think they are?

The now-defunct band’s Wikipedia page refers to “extensive use of lo-fi recording practices”, but their brand of electronica was an English phenomenon called big beat, and the bigness of the beats in the Lo Fidelity Allstars’ music has always signified more substantially than any lowness of fidelity. Layer enough lo-fi stuff, and you can produce a wall of sound, even on slow jams.

Some purveyors of big beat remain in circulation among electronic dance music fans: the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim (now known for collaborating with David Byrne on the musical Here Lies Love). These artists might be considered the true all-stars of the genre, whereas the Lo Fidelity boys are also rans.

On How to Operate with a Blown Mind, the band members were billed pseudonymously: vocalist The Wrekked Train, turntablist and sampler the Albino Priest, bassist A One Man Crowd Called Gentile, drummer the Slammer, keyboardist Sheriff Jon Stone, and engineer and keyboardist the Many Tentacles. If those names make you smile, you may be halfway to checking out this recording, which the band produced collectively.

Perhaps the music’s ties to trip-hop will take you further. Hip-hop had happened in the 1980s, offering new ideas about sonic assemblage. English artists had put their own stripped-down, moody, reggae-and-dub-enhanced, mind-altering spin on that American form. The resulting English genre was dubbed trip-hop, and Lo Fidelity Allstars were among the explorers of this mix. As the title How to Operate with a Blown Mind indicates, Lo Fidelity Allstars offered not just dance grooves (the hop part) but psychedelia (the trip part). On the jewel case of the American CD, on Skint/Columbia, a promotional sticker presents a Spin magazine quote likening How to Operate with a Blown Mind to two trip-hop debuts that became instant classics: Portishead‘s Dummy (1994) and Tricky‘s Maxinquaye (1995).

If those comparisons don’t suffice for you, consider that the Wrekked Train’s lower-class-English, sneery, articulate yet streetwise voice recalls John Lydon’s and Mark E. Smith’s. Put those resemblances together with the Lo Fidelity Allstars’ dub influence, rock attack, and repetition-based drones, and you get a debt to punk/post-punk giants Public Image Ltd. and the Fall. Whether Lo Fidelity Allstars pay off that debt will depend on your perspective.

Some people recall being knocked out by the Allstars’ single “Battle Flag”, written by and featuring the Seattle duo Pigeonhed. Atop a crunching rhythm, the vocalists deliver lines that derive from hip-hop. The track’s concluding keyboard line could be channeling the classic soul instrumentalists Booker T. & the MG’s, who are sampled elsewhere on the full CD.

Not only don’t I remember hearing “Battle Flag” outside How to Operate with a Blown Mind, but I have no idea how or why I acquired the CDTwenty-five years can produce such mental gaps. From afar, this is not the kind of music I gravitate toward. Yet when I hear “Battle Flag” now, I distinctly remember, back in the day, being lulled by its drone, hooked by its sonic collage, amused by lines such as “Gonna launder my karma”, fired up by proto-chants such as “Tell me is it time to get down / On your motherfucking knees.” (The front cover of the CD booklet includes an official, governmental parental advisory for “explicit content”. The content’s not explicit, just profane.)

“Battle Flag” is the collection’s most songlike and straightforwardly propulsive track. Liking it won’t guarantee enjoying anything else here. Liking anything may depend on your willingness to surrender and be enveloped.

While the Wrekked Train is billed as a vocalist, he doesn’t sing as much as contribute sounds to the mix. On the opener, “Warming Up the Brain Farm”, electronic noises burble as The Wrekked Train sets a scene akin to the cut-up sci-fi of William Burroughs: “He dreams of becoming a scorpion and never sweats / I have no choice but to turn to lethal toxins / Allstars taking over-r-r-r-r.” The Wrekked Train’s voice echoes, becoming a sonic buildup before what appears to be a dialogue from a Blaxploitation film leads to music that kicks in and cooks. 

On “Kool Roc Bass”, over humming fuzz bass, complicated layers, and a film-noir rhythm, the Wrekked Train claims that “what the Allstars feel is the real deal”. This preemptive bid for authenticity sounds better with a Cockney accent than it looks in type, but it also typifies the good-natured goofiness that tempers the band’s cool sheen and sinister shadings. On “Kasparov’s Revenge”—wherein a sound clip explains that “it ain’t about punk, and it ain’t about the scene” because it’s about being on the street, “where it goes down”—the musicians deliver slow, intensely sizzling funk as the Wrekked Train’s slurred vocal suggests smearing massive globs of paint across a canvas. By contrast, when the tempo rises to a disco beat on “Blisters on My Brain”, the Wrekked Train chews his lines into bits.

He could be a Britpop Beat writer drunkenly slurring and yowling as the band plays jazzily swinging rock on “I Used to Fall in Love”, and a soothing synthesizer line rides over the top. On “Laser Sheep Dip Funk”, his chanted vocal is distorted through a vocoder and placed over a charging rhythm that combines dance music, a spy movie soundtrack, and some possibly imaginary 1970s soft soul.

Into the mix elsewhere is very murky dub, porn-film soundtrack (as such music has been described to me), samples from groove precursors including Afrika Bambataa and the Soulsonic Force’s 1982 Planet Rock, and statements such as “man is a monster in his own time”. The standard operating procedure throughout is repetition with variation and invention as the ground shifts or the skyscape transforms. Doing justice to the constructions means following a particular type of sound and discovering another one alongside or layered with it. Sounds emerge and drop out as when throbbing bass bursts into a percolating dub. Those not listening closely will hear only repetition and miss, for example, a ghostly moan, human or electronic or both, that emerges at the end of the title track.

These practices and qualities culminate in the final two pieces, “Vision Incision” and “Nighttime Story”. Surprisingly delicate mélanges of samples, beats, swirling keyboards, and tastefully anchoring bass give the Wrekked Train platforms to deliver spoken words that become sound effects. He refers to “a psychedelic twist”, which could be an aesthetic approach or an existential summation. In the album’s final moments, a woman’s singing (an otherwise lost moment snipped, brilliantly, from the Three Degrees’ seven-minute 1973 epic “If and When”), an organ line, and a man saying “I had no idea it was going to end in such tragedy” indicate that this come-down jam owes a debt to Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon. With its proto-electronica interludes and sound effects, that stoner classic could have been titled “How to Operate with a Blown Mind”.

Lo Fidelity Allstars’ second record sports the unexpectedly disarming title Don’t Be Afraid of Love. As the shift in rhetorical emphasis indicates, this recording is by a different lineup and could be by another band stylistically.

By the time of the sophomore release, 2001, the Wrekked Train had revealed himself as Dave Randall. He’d also departed, as had Sheriff Jon Stone, who turned out to be non-sheriff John Stone. Remaining members Phil Ward (aka The Albino Priest), Andy Dickinson (aka A One Man Crowd Called Gentile), Martin Whiteman (aka the Many Tentacles), and Johnny Machin (aka the Slammer) were joined by new musicians and guest vocalists, including the legendary funk pioneer Bootsy Collins. Instead of the first album’s electronica soundscapes, the revamped Lo Fidelity Allstars played straight-up R&B and so-called neo-soul, sometimes hard, sometimes mellow, not the slightest bit English-sounding, plus a bit of Spiritualized-style space rock.

Authenticity be damned when you have Bootsy Collins fronting. The Lo Fidelity Allstars then vanished. They improbably released a best-of in 2007, then resurfaced with Northern Stomp, a lovely collection of indie rock, dance pop, and some harkenings back to How to Operate with a Blown Mind—in 2009.

Now tell me, is it time to get down and revisit this music? The current resurgence of Britpop could trigger nostalgia for the late 1990s big beat, and trip-hop remains a vital influence. R&B, soul, and funk will outlive us all. But in 2023, there’s no shortage of sonic mixologists to choose from, so “Lo Fidelity Allstars” may remain a misnomer or at least an ironic moniker.