How the caustic, fucked-up noise of Aphex Twin turned my teenage world inside out

Joe Muggs was 17 and living in small middle England market town Wantage when word of mouth reached him about a frantic new track from then rising electronic artist Aphex Twin. After eventually tracking down a copy, nothing was the same. He explains how the pre-internet age fed the Richard D. James mystery machine, and why he never looked back after his first rush of AFX chaos.

When I first realized how ‘Didgeridoo’ was meant to sound, I was relieved, because I’d been playing my copy at 45rpm until then. I’d read about this “ultimate mental tune” that Aphex Twin used to use to clear the floor at the end of raves, so naturally I assumed that it was really mental. There was no way of knowing at the time how something was meant to sound, after all. Out in the sticks, we might be able to get a crackly signal from Kiss FM in London if we stuck an aerial out of an upstairs window, but bar Coldcut, who never told you what they were playing anyway, the chances of them playing Aphex Twin were pretty slim. Or there was John Peel. That was it.

Without wanting to be all “in my day we had to make do with a hoop, a stick and a lump of mud”, things like YouTube, SoundCloud, Shazam, even blogs and forums, were literally science fiction. There was no information bar NME, Melody Maker, Mixmag and Peel. If the staff of your local record shop didn’t know what speed something was played at – and in this particular case, all they had to say is “I got one of them weirdo tunes for you” – how were you supposed to know?

“The inhumanity was magic”

Anyway. I worked it out eventually, and was very glad I did because playing not only ‘Didgeridoo’ but the other EP tracks at 45 was frankly doing my head in. And the music was quite weird enough at the normal speed. We’d been seduced in by the still-unbelievable bliss of Analogue Bubblebath 1 the year before, but then he turned on us: Didgeridoo EP, Xylem Tube EP, two EPs as Caustic Window, and most terrifying of all his remix of Mescalinum United’s ‘We Have Arrived’ (which scared the living bejeezus out of me one night lying listening to Peel in the dark) all came thick and fast through the year. And though there were blissful moments – the heads-down sweating sound of ‘Didgeridoo’ itself, and the above-the-clouds rocket flight arpeggios of Xylem Tube lead track ‘Isoprophlex’ – it was all more or less harsh and inhuman stuff.

And that inhumanity was the magic. This was the first time I’d ever heard music that sounded really like nothing else on earth. I knew electronic music that was weird (Coil), brutally noisy (Skinny Puppy, Meat Beat Manifesto), and full of preposterous body-trip intensity (untold rave and techno tunes). However, these Aphex tracks not only combined all of the above, but untethered them from any point of reference or representation.

“The drums didn’t sound like drums, the synths didn’t sound like synths”

It was as ragged and jagged as any industrial music but funkier, more organic, less clunkingly obvious in its mechanicalness. The drums didn’t sound like drums, the synths didn’t sound like synths, it all sounded like unimagined natural processes. It was as synaesthesic and glossolallic as his ambient tracks, but almost all the balmy pleasure was replaced with infernal power.

The closest precursor was the perfect abstraction of Phuture, but otherworldly though it was, you could understand its regularity. With Aphex, there was still four-to-the-floor pounding, yes, but also electrofunk and even more offbeat syncopations that were only really being equalled in the very few corners of hardcore that, it would turn out, were gestating jungle.

“Its samples of Julie Andrews and tampon adverts were a lot more interesting than A-levels”

Always, everywhere, surfaces slurped and munged into one another, scale was confusing, textures were fractal, there were melodies that you couldn’t be sure were real: it felt like it was emerging not from some guy just out of his teens’ bedroom, but from some fathomless pit full of old gods and new cyborg entities caught in flagrante. All this and samples of Julie Andrews and tampon adverts. It was a lot more interesting than A-levels.

Of course, Aphex would keep up the prolificness, and would broaden, elaborate and finesse his techniques, giving us untold acid pounders, funky quirk, melodic joy and all the fidgety elaborations that would end up spawning IDM. And it would be good. But there’s a certain sense in which nothing can supplant your formative experiences, and for me and my friends lying wasted in the dark, or pounding around country lanes in transit vans and mates’ mum’s Peugeot 205s looking for a party or just somewhere to hang out, or wandering around with our third generation tapes spooling in Walkmans, that first rush of caustic, raucous, fucked-up Aphex noise taught us head-wrecking lessons about sound and what it could do that we’d never shake off.

Joe Muggs is on Twitter

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