How I survived America’s first-ever rave tour

20 years ago, newly arrived in New York City, inthemix writer Jim Poe struck up an unexpected friendship with Moby. Here’s how that story unfolded. When Moby signed on for the See The Light tour across North America and Canada, Jim was recruited for his band. Here’s what happened when Moby, Aphex Twin and Orbital set out on a pioneering rave road-trip.

One Friday night in late October of 1993, I found myself on-stage with Moby, in front of a packed house at Washington, DC’s famed 9:30 Club. The audience, made up of hundreds of ravers and club kids, surged excitedly towards us. Brilliant sets from the UK’s Aphex Twin and Orbital had already gotten them amped, and they were ready to let it out on the short, geeky-looking but charismatic Moby, who was armed with a keyboard, a microphone and an octopad. I’d never been on the business end of such a scene before and it was intimidating to say the least. Thankfully the fog pouring over everything, along with my sunglasses, protected me from acute stage fright.

Suddenly, as the swirling synths and pummelling happy-hardcore rhythm of the opening track thundered over the PA, Moby hurled himself into action, rocking out in an aggressive punk style, channelling the music, beating on the octopad, electrifying the kids at the front of the crowd. On my right, Rich, a young studio drummer from Nashville, pounded out a tribal beat like a wild man. To keep from being overcome by this explosion, to keep some semblance of cool, I looked down and focused on my keyboard. Ah, yes, the keyboard. Did I mention the keyboard was fake?

As I detailed in the first part of this story, I befriended Moby shortly after moving to New York to pursue a career as a DJ on the club scene there, and was hired by him as a performer on the first-ever “rave tour” of North America. Our little secret was that I wouldn’t really be playing anything – just tapping at the keyboard, rocking out and “looking cool,” as Moby had expressly demanded. (Thus, the sunnies.)

The music for each performance would primarily be pre-recorded DAT tapes, though Moby incorporated a few live elements – the odd keyboard solo and his cherished octopad. I was more than a little reluctant, but I’d accepted the job because I didn’t have anything else going. My friends insisted it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. No argument there.

The first stop on the ground-breaking See the Light Tour was appropriately enough the nation’s capital. I’d never seen it before – and I wouldn’t see it on this trip either. A quick glimpse of the distant Capitol Dome from the club’s parking lot at sundown was all the sightseeing I found time for. The rigours of the start of the tour, my own inexperience and a bad case of nerves had left me feeling isolated and disoriented; I may as well have been anywhere, or nowhere. After fumbling around while unpacking my keyboard (eventually needing the other crew’s help), I spent a long, anxious evening stalking the empty club, distractedly nibbling at the vegetarian buffet backstage. Time passed, the doors opened, punters began to arrive, and some local DJ began to warm up.

In those days DC was one of the locus points of several huge, overlapping club scenes on the East Coast – a rave megalopolis as it were. Kids from Maine to Virginia, and west into Pennsylvania and Ohio, would regularly travel out of state to attend the sometimes massive one-off parties that took place every week, exchanging ideas, mixtapes and silly fashions. So these fans now filling up the 9:30 Club would have been pretty switched-on and music savvy.

Still, this was something special and altogether different from the largely homegrown and grassroots rave scene. For one thing it was run like a rock tour, with funding from well-established indie label Mute Records, and big-name talent from the UK. This was one of the defining moments at which the electronic-music scene in North America began to act like an industry and move towards the mainstream.

I saw it happen, too, from my vantage point at the back of the stage. I saw Moby raise his hands in a dramatic way, like a Greek god controlling the weather, and the kids in the crowd screamed and yelled and reached out to touch him, while the DAT rolled on.

The set was a mere 35 minutes, and was mostly made up of radio edits of his hyperkinetic hits – Go, Next Is the E, his current single Move. Most songs ended abruptly at the four-minute mark after a few “verses” and “choruses,” and Moby would take a break from his intense routine and engage in some boilerplate between-song banter. As with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, whom he reminded me of a lot, it was hard to tell how much of his act – the awkward shyness, the spooky intensity – was put on. Was he a tortured soul thrust into the spotlight, or a brilliant, calculating performer? Either way the crowd loved it, and he seemed to thrive. They wanted a rock star, and he wanted to be one.

At one point he told them they were about to hear the song that held the Guinness World Record for the fastest ever recorded. They obligingly cheered. As the Gothic chords and eerie vocal sample of Thousand filled the hall with cinematic dread, the pounding industrial kick on the DAT steadily ratcheted up to 1000 BPM, while strobelights matched the gunfire pulse. Moby climbed up onto a speaker and then slowly stretched out into a Jesus Christ pose, holding it as the thudding beat and flashing strobe reached their insane peak. The punters went ape-shit.

It was truly impressive on a sensory level, but it left me feeling empty: techno as sport, or mere theatre. And as Richard Aphex would cynically ask, why stop there? Why not just program it to be a million BPM?

It was like a rave made for primetime – all image and dazzle. Back there, obscured by fog and the matrix of Intellabeams, plugging away on my lifeless keyboard, pretending I was into it, I had an awful sense of disconnect from what I thought the music should be, from anything I believed in. Somehow I’d been beamed into a TV show.

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