Electronic memories between Berlin and Birmingham – Daniele Cassandro

“Soul rebel seeks musical genius”

With this announcement in the British music weekly Melody Maker Billie Ray Martin, a German singer born in Hamburg’s red light district, was hoping to find someone who, like her, loved both classic soul and electronics. We are in the second half of the eighties and Billie finds her four musical geniuses, all from Birmingham: Brian Nordhoff, Joe Stevens, Les Fleming and Roberto Cimarosti. “What united us was that we came from two equally gray, cold and boring cities,” recalls Martin. “I was used to singing and shouting in Berlin clubs but I listened Throbbing Gristle, Kraftwerk e Cabaret Voltaire“. His new fellow travelers are immersed in that English synth pop that was increasingly hybridizing with Chicago house and Detroit techno. In 1988 they form a band, the Electribe 101, and without much success they release a first single, Talking with myself.

Things move slowly and Billie Ray Martin is invited to sing on the S’Express single Hey music lover and finally has a taste of that pop hit that he thought he wanted so much. Hey music lover is a cover of Music lover by Sly & the Family Stone reimagined in a rave key: it’s hilarious, hyperkinetic and full of delusional references to MDMA. The soulful voice of Billie Ray Martin rides this dragon and on the words “I wanna take you higher” (I want to take you higher) it rears up to very high notes. Nobody believed that the singer of Hey music lover she was white, and moreover a German from Hamburg. When Billie finds herself in the television studios having to remake the song in playback dozens of times she realizes that “for a woman used to screaming in Berlin every night” the life of the pop star is not that great.

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But in 1989 for the Electribe 101 things start to move: Tom Watkins, the manager of the Pet Shop Boys, hears their demos and makes him have a great contract with Mercury / Polygram. Billie and her friends from Birmingham get to work on Electribal memories, an album that manages to mix a unique voice, between the Berlin cabaret and the evangelical church of the deep south of the United States, with the pulsating sound of house. Talking with myself is remixed by Frankie Knuckles (the godfather of the Chicago house, who died in 2014 and remembered even by Michelle and Barack Obama) e Tell me when the fever ended by Larry Heard (another dance pioneer of those years).

Electribal memories is a nocturnal album that manages to combine dance with the hallucinated and sensual singer-songwriter of Billie Ray Martin. Even when they cover an old soul-dance hit by Odyssey, Inside out, they manage to make it their own and transform it into a small theatrical psychodrama. When Electribe 101 opened the dates of Depeche Mode’s European tour in the spring of 1990, the way to success seemed cleared for them.

In a short time the toy breaks. Their manager and the record company have very specific ideas about how and what Electribe 101 should play. Billie Ray Martin has an absolutely opposite and opposite opinion and each of the other members of the group express their own. Electribe 101 do not have time to finish the second album (never released) which have already disintegrated. Billie Ray Martin signs a contract with Warner that will lead her to success with one of the most played Eurodance hits of the nineties, Your loving arms, and others will continue to make music under the name of The Groove Corporation. Rob Cimarosti dies in 2019.

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Electribal memories is one of the great lost dance albums of the nineties. Talking with myself it continues to float a bit sadly in all the balearic and chill-out compilations and playlists and is now something of a classic. But listening again Electribal memories today we feel that there is much more inside, there is the spirit of that experimental and unrepeatable era that would soon produce Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead.

Electribe 101
Electribal memories
Mercury/Polygram, 1990

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