White Label Wednesday: Underworld, “Underneath the Radar”

Written by Music, White Label

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Or, White Label Wednesday, Before They Were Stars Edition

Underworld would like you believe that they were immaculately conceived in 1994 as the spooky techno band that “debuted” with dubnobasswithmyheadman, with no past or, if pressed, a Jason Bourne case of amnesia about their former life. Ah, but we know better, don’t we? Underworld indeed has a past; they were just hoping that they could pull a Ministry and leave it all behind. The incredible thing is, it worked; almost no one remembers Underworld’s days as a synth-pop band.

But we do.

Underworld formed from the ashes of the band Freur, which scored a minor hit with the Kraftwerk-esque “Doot Doot.” When they disbanded, Freur members Karl Hyde and Rick Smith recruited three more dudes and went whole hog for the brass ring, impressing Seymour Stein enough to hire Rupert Hine – he worked with Howard Jones, man, we’re gonna be huge! – to produce 1988’s Underneath the Radar, the band’s first album for Sire. The album, well, seemed really cool at the time. Hell, even the music supervisors of “Miami Vice” liked them enough to drop the title track into a big bar fight scene. The song cracked Australia’s top ten. In the States, however, it scratched and clawed its way to #74.

Much like Ministry’s album 1983 album With Sympathy has earned its share of ardent supporters, there are people who swear by Underworld’s Sire output as if it were the word of God himself. I, personally, am not one of those people, but I can see both sides of the coin. The album has its good points – and carries a surprising amount of religious imagery for the otherwise godless modern rock scene – but modern rock hadn’t quite yet taken shape when Underneath the Radar hit, and the band wound up in that no-man’s land between hip and commercial; too weird for pop, too mainstream for alt-rock. Sire knew they had to raise the stakes in order for the band to make their mark, so they brought in Shep Pettibone, the most sought-after remixer of the time, to make the song as DJ-friendly as possible.

But here’s the funny part: Shep must have liked the song as it was, because his remix is almost identical to the original. He made the drum track a little more club-friendly, and added an extra mixout, but that’s about it. He kept the song’s 6/8 beat intact, and that time signature, plus a 144 BPM rate, put a low ceiling on the band’s club prospects. Any DJ who’s tried to mix a 4/4 song with a 6/8 song will tell you that it’s damn hard to do, and it was even harder to pull off during a time when nearly every song fell between 100 and 130 beats per minute.

The band quickly circled the wagons the following year and returned with a second album, Change the Weather, but by then it was too late. They had lost whatever buzz they had behind them with the first album and, much like Al Jourgenson does with his pre-Land of Rape and Honey material, the band now dismisses their Sire work as a mistake, when they deign to acknowledge it at all. That may be the cool thing to do, but it’s not terribly honest. Back in 1988, Karl Hyde would have told you that he was extremely proud of “Underneath the Radar,” and back then, he would have had every reason to be proud of it. Underworld were different but accessible – the cornerstone of any Seymour Stein band. There was nothing wrong with who they were or what they were doing.

People also need to remember that in 1988, hipster cred didn’t exist as a valid form of currency the way it does now, so Underworld’s priorities were (rightly) focused on album sales. It’s all about timing, in the end; they did what was the right thing to do at the time, and were fortunate enough to switch gears years later and become one of the most beloved electronic bands of all time, a break that few bands get. But seriously, how awesome would it be for the band to play “Cowgirl” and “Two Months Off” at a concert, and then launch into this? Come on, Karl, you know there’s an Underworld Version 2.0 mix of “Underneath the Radar” bouncing around in your head. Set it free.

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Underworld – Underneath the Radar (Extended Mix)