How I survived America’s first-ever rave tour

The next morning the show headed back to New York, where it’d begun just 24 hours earlier. Moby and the other acts would headline Maskarave, a huge Halloween party thrown by New York’s NASA crew, who were also partners on the tour. The party would be held in a Midtown civic arena and was expected to draw thousands.

The arena was as big as an aircraft hangar. In the harsh light of the cold October afternoon it was a grey fluorescent cavern of steel and concrete. As the stage and gigantic speaker stacks were set up for the gig, I wandered about the vast interior, hitting the vego buffet and chatting with my new compatriots. After spending a day and a couple of nights on the go with them, I’d gotten to know them a bit. There was the drummer Rich, my de facto tour buddy, who, though still in his teens, was a music-industry veteran, a great source of help and advice for me.

There were the support acts: Vapourspace, a.k.a. Mark Gage, was a nerdy older guy from Rochester, New York who’d been making some really powerful and original analogue techno for years and was only just now starting to get some attention. (He’d just had a couple of records released on Richie Hawtin’s Probe label.) DJ Tim, one half of the Utah Saints, a major-label electronic-pop act from the UK with some chart success, was the only other person on the tour, along with Moby, who flew instead of riding the bus with us; but he was so lovely and unpretentious no one held it against him. On the decks his style was far from pop – he had great taste in progressive house; and he was more than happy to talk shop with and give a few pointers to a newbie like me.

Also among the UK contingent were three sound guys, veterans of many campaigns, so mild-mannered, unassuming and down-to-earth they reminded me of hobbits. I remember them chilling out in the back of the bus and listening to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

There was the youngish but über-capable and calm tour manager from Toronto, a den mother for distracted, flighty musicians. There was Scotto, co-founder of NASA, who also programmed the light show. There was Steve, an older visual artist from the anarchic New York scene of the ‘80s, whom Moby had hired to do old-school film-loop projections. There were two raver kids who handled the merchandise.

There was the young stage manager, a New Yorker hired by Moby’s management company, who became both guide and nemesis for me. I’ll call him Greg. He was a black-jeans, black-boot, black-hat-clad, hard-partying rocker type who had no use for any of this techno stuff – a smart but acerbic taskmaster who busted my balls a lot for being a clueless rookie. He wore a cast during the entire tour because he’d broken his arm on some caper.

I’ve already written about my impressions of Richard D James on this tour. He had a small entourage made up of his sweet, soft-spoken, tomboyish girlfriend and Paul, his athletic, clean-living dancer, who was also a great designer – he was responsible for Aphex’s iconic boomerang logo. Originally from Leeds, Paul was both very level-headed and very friendly, and became something of a mate for the length of the tour.

Orbital’s Phil and Paul Hartnoll were also amazingly friendly and cool; so much so it was easy to forget they were such a big deal. The 1990 international club smash Chime would be enough to secure their legacy by itself. Earlier that year they’d released the stunning Orbital 2; it would go on to become an all-time classic album, but it had already transformed my outlook on music. And I’d been astounded by their set in DC the night before.

This was just months before their legendary performances at Glastonbury and Woodstock in 1994, and what they played on this tour was essentially a prototype version of the same set. Their repertoire even then contained some of the most elegant and beautiful electronic compositions ever, and it was all played live. (The same was true for Vapourspace and Aphex, of course.)

The hour-long performance was programmed like a DJ set, with crisp, pulsating beats expertly layered, smoothly flowing on from one track to the next, blended with crystalline synth lines on their racks of machines. From within this carefully assembled structure of sound, hyper-melodic masterpieces like Chime and Lush were even more devastating. And the Hartnoll brothers were as deep into it as the punters, nodding their heads, raising their hands, grinning wickedly behind their trademark headlights. Furthermore, the set was always being tweaked, always evolving, from one night to the next. (The great alternate version of Impact, known as Impact USA, now the standard version of the tune, was developed over the course of the tour.) It was, in short, everything Moby’s set wasn’t.

At one point in the afternoon I ended up talking to the Hartnolls in the middle of the arena’s huge main floor. I remember noticing the shorter Phil’s platform sneakers. They borrowed my matches and we all lit cigarettes. There was a funny little moment of affectionate fraternal bickering – they couldn’t agree on whether matches or butane lighters were worse for the environment. This was the kind of conversation you got into on this tour. Everyone seemed to come from a more progressive and civilised place.

An impressive number were vegetarians – not only Moby, but both of the Hartnolls and several of the others. It was also the first time I heard people speaking matter-of-factly about “electronic dance music,” as if they took it for granted as a serious form, or a way of life, and not just something for theme-park kiddie raves. In many ways it felt like the beginning of a movement for me.

But my enthusiasm was darkened when Paul started asking me pointed questions about the keyboards. I could tell he already suspected what was up. He wasn’t trying to get at me personally – he was very polite about it – but he was obviously quite curious why his esteemed colleague was featuring fake keyboards in his show. I didn’t have any good answers for him. It was one of the more humiliating moments of my youth.

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