To trace each and every contour of Underworld’s close to 40 year career would be no small feat. Given the longevity of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith’s musical partnership (not to mention the ten year creative stint of Darren Emerson), the sheer multitude of Underworld’s output – the singles, albums, remixes, extended-plays, advertising jingles, film soundtracks, free digital releases, side projects, guest appearances, and collaborations – is staggering. Underworld are, in a word, prolific. And yes indeed does this make the boiling down of all or even a good part of their body of work to an Essential 10 close to an impossible task.
The decision as to which 10 really matter will ultimately lay within the ear of the beholder, something the notable absences of such classics as ‘Rez’, ‘8 Ball’ and anything from their severely underrated Pearl’s Girl EP in Music Feeds’ own list can more than readily attest. This said, what we have provided here are 10 songs which signpost Underworld’s most significant and career-defining moments.
1. Doot-Doot, Doot-Doot (1983)
Not long after the pair became acquainted, Hyde invited Smith to join his band Screen Gemz. In time the outfit evolved into new wave group Freur (spelt as a squiggle symbol). ‘Doot Doot’ was their first demo and it also ended up as the group’s debut single. As with any good band that never quite makes it, Freur’s story is not one possessed with a happy ending. The future Underworld compadres exited the Freur experience chewed up and spat out by the machinations of a record industry they had quickly grown to despise. Yet despite their setbacks Hyde and Smith were more than ready to give it another shot.
Freur tanked and the first iteration of Underworld (as a funk-rock seven-piece which launched in 1986) didn’t fare much better. At the onset of the 1990s, Hyde and Smith were high, dry and some sixty thousand pounds in debt. But they were little perturbed. Staying in the US following Underworld Mark One’s final tour, Karl spent a few months playing guitar in Blondie and working as a session musician at Prince’s Paisley Park. When Hyde finally returned to the UK, he found that Rick had recruited 17-year-old DJ and gadget freak Darren Emerson. He liked what the pair had been cooking up and in short order, the three began knocking out tracks. The first fruits of this newly founded trio were released under the moniker of Lemon Interrupt.
3. Mmm… Skyscraper I Love You (1993)
Not too long afterword Hyde, Smith and the newly recruited Emerson reverted to the name Underworld. Embracing the progressive house and techno sounds which were seeping up from the UK underground they continued releasing singles. Increasingly they incorporated stream-of-consciousness poetry Hyde had collected during his wanderings in the US and was also drawing from local encounters around the group’s home base in the London satellite town of Romford. The first of these singles, ‘Skyscraper’ become an influential underground record and was later collected on Dubnobasswithmyheadman.
4. Cowgirl, Dubnobasswithmyheadman (1994)
Arriving in ’94, Dubnobasswithmyheadman established that not only was Underworld capable of releasing ground breaking dance singles but could also craft records appealing to the indie crowd. Dubnobass sounded good on the dancefloor but you could blast it in the bedroom too. Feel free to make your own decision as to the album’s choicest pick but besides ‘Skyscraper’, the anthemic ‘Cowgirl’ is frequently cited as a fan favourite.
5. Born Slippy. NUXX, Trainspotting: Music From The Motion Picture (1996)
‘Born Slippy’ never appeared on any album. In fact, the now iconic NUXX version was the B-side to a modestly successful single whose lyrics told of a messy night in London’s Soho with, among others, the comedian Bill Bailey. When the song featured prominently in Danny Boyle’s film adaption of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting this humble mix gave the song a life of its very own as what is now rightly recognised as an era-defining trance epic. To this day fans still accost members of Underworld on the street yelling “Lager, lager, lager!” But if you ever get Hyde on record about it, he will tell you that he doesn’t mind. This song bought him a house.
6. Juanita/Kiteless/To Dream of Love, Second Toughest in the Infants (1996)
Arriving roughly the same time as Trainspotting, Second Toughest in The Infants further cemented Underworld’s reputation as an albums band. Not only were they still appealing to the dance kids and the indie crowd but were now commanding a more conventional rock and pop audience as well. Clocking in at 32-minutes the combination of ‘Juanita, ‘Kiteless, ‘To Dream of Love’, ‘Banstyle’ and ‘Sappys Curry’ forms a medley of tracks which can only beg comparison to the B-side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road but in truth draws inspiration from a mishmash of pirate radio station transmissions the group were so taken with listening to at the time.
7. Push Upstairs, Beaucoup Fish (1999)
It took a while for the three to get around to recording a follow-up. By the time their highly anticipated third album Beaucoup Fish rolled around Karl had forced himself to come to grips with the alcoholism which he had previously celebrated as a fertile source of his lyrical material. Such drinking had started off as a creative muse but after so many years it had become a boring, self-destructive and repetitive pursuit. “There’s much more of a vibe of being in the daylight now, rather than the twilight zone of the first two albums,” he told one music publication at the time of the album’s release.
8. Return, High Life (2014)
Skip forward a few years and Emerson has parted ways with Underworld to focus on solo projects and his record label. Hyde and Smith elect to carry on releasing albums A Hundred Days Off, their three Riverrun compilations, Oblivion with Bells and 2010’s Barking. In 2012 the pair’s longstanding reputation culminates into another career high when Hyde and Smith are nominated to act as musical directors for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. This same year Hyde also realises what is close to every musician’s dream, recording in collaboration with godfather of ambient music Brian Eno. The album which resulted was Someday World. But not only did Karl work with Eno once but twice, again returning to collaborate for High Life in 2014. Still riding along this high some two years later Smith and Hyde dropped Barbara, Barbara We Share A Shining Future, another creative peak. Phew!
9. ‘Bells and Circles’, Teatime Dub Encounters 2018
When it came time for Trainspotting sequel T2, Underworld were again recruited to provide music. In doing so they collaborated with Iggy Pop who lent his dark and gravelly baritone to the atmospheric instrumentals of ‘Bells and Circles’. Pop and Underworld later released the ‘Bells’ along with three additional songs that they had worked on during this period as the EP Teatime Dub Encounters.
10. Listen To Their World, Drift Songs (2019)
They’re still going. In recent months Hyde and Smith have been releasing an item of new or unreleased material each week for 52 weeks. This includes writing and video content but as one might expect the focus of this project is, overwhelmingly, musical. The great experiment will conclude in the collection of all this material as a compilation titled Drift Songs later this year. Underworld’s future remains unwritten and their end it seems far from near.