|Spellbound: A Guy Called Gerald & Lisa May|
In 1989, 'Voodoo Ray' made A GUY CALLED GERALD a household name. In 1996, he's pulled out all the pins to produce a reworking every bit as good as the original. Ooh ah ah, yeah...
"STRING S OF LIFE", "PROMISED LAND", "BABY WANTS TO Ride", "Altered States", "LFO", "Acid Trax", "Open Our Eyes", "Can You Feel It", "Voodoo Ray"... The list is not quite endless, but it could fill a few pages. And while no two trainspotters would ever totally agree on the definitive moment’s in house music, there are certain records which time and affection have marked out as classics.
Part of this is down to nostalgia, a hankering after those good old days of weekender culture when people stumbled from club to club in varying state of intoxication, not caring whether they listened to techno, house, soul, rap or breakbeat. Part of it stems from a desire to increase stability in a scene where tastes can change almost overnight. Plus, for cash-hungry record labels, it offers a zero investment/instant return on their back catalogues through compilation albums and re-releases. But largely, it speaks for the quality of the music.
Whatever the reasons for such slavish veneration, most would agree that unnecessary tampering with a bona fide classic is the greatest possible sacrilege. Witness those abortive remixes of "Strings Of Life". Or the surplus-to requirements package which recently offered various pointless reworkings of "We Are Phuture". Taking the old "If it ain't broke..." adage as a starting point usually seems to be the best policy. But none of the above seems to have deterred Gerald Simpson, the man we know as A Guy Called Gerald, from taking afresh look at his own classic, "Voodoo Ray".
"Voodoo Ray" is one of the handful of records which marked the dawn of a uniquely British style of dance music. This exuberant mesh of staccato samples, scat vocals and solid 808 drums was the sound everyone had been waiting for back in 1989, the sound of Detroit, Chicago and New York re-routed via smiley T-shirts, Ecstasy and the Hacienda. There would be only records, other fashions and other parties, but "Voodoo Ray" stood alone. There was nothing else quite like it, before or since. Until now.
SITTING beside the Thames in west London, a stone's throw from his Juice Box studio, Gerald is typically nonplussed about the whole affair. "Voodoo Ray" might have haunted him throughout his career but, relaxing in the sunshine with a new superflyafro, he remains a model of easy-going cool.
Beside him is Lisa May, the blonde diva who provides the vocals for the new version of the track. And for somebody not long acquainted with the dance scene, she is acutely aware of the position she has placed herself in.
"All the remixes I've heard are very much based on the original track and so my vocal contribution doesn't really enter into it," notes Lisa. "But on Gerald's new mixes my voice is an integral part, so I will be very interested to see what the reaction is. I'm sure there'll be a few people who will say it's not as good the first one."
But surely that was a danger they faced from the start.
"It's not even a danger, it's inevitable," admits Gerald. "In those days people were saying 'It's just a load of blips and squeaks', whereas now they're all like, ‘Oh, it was better in my day’. To me, the new version sounds like what house music has become. It's a bit more sophisticated, not as sparse, and the vocals are a lot more powerful than they were originally. And that's speaking from the outside! I've lost touch, you know!”
Which is just another way of saying Gerald has always followed his own instincts. He knows that the purists will probably scorn his reworking of "Voodoo Ray", but the challenge of revisiting his most famous moment, of confounding the doubters and arbiters of taste, finally proved too much. Besides, he was released from the usual strictures and the pressure was all off. There were no record companies breathing down his neck. And he had a new vocalist to work with, one who had no preconceptions.
"To be completely honest, I wasn't really all that familiar with 'Voodoo Ray'," confesses Lisa. "And because there are so very few vocals on the original and there's no point in doing the same thing again, I had free rein to go mad. Then I left it to Gerald to make sense of it."
It was now time to contact Gerald's electronic alter-ego Ricky Rouge and play around with the dynamics of house music in a way nobody else would dare. As a result, "Voodoo Ray" 1996-style is a quixotic hybrid of dark strings, tinkling pianos and breathy scat vocals. It has a brooding breakbeat intensity and a blithe, hands-in-the-air euphoria. It may not sound too much like the original, but the old sparks still fly.
"That whole 4/4 thing kind of got to me and I was like, 'Yeah, I'll do a remix, but I'm not going to do your conventional, straight, four-on-the floor. For old time's sake, and for a bit of a laugh, I thought I'd put loads of piano into it. I did the same thing with a recent Ricky Rouge track which was loosely based around 'Promised Land' by Joe Smooth, because that was exactly the kind of stuff I used to listen to when I was into house music. The people doing that kind of thing are few and far between, so I thought, 'Why not do a bit of that? Have a few Italiano pianos in there!'."
Gerald is quite clearly delighted with the new version. There area host of remixes to accompany the package (dark and mysterious from Justin Robertson, upbeat and jazzy from Alex Reece, deep and hypnotic from Francois Kevorkian), but none of them sparkle with quite the verve of Gerald's own reinterpretation. A fact which makes his decision to leave his name off the record (which will be released simply under the name of Lisa May) all the more curious. It's presumably decision he's happy with.
"Yes, most definitely. I did the music, but groups these days focus on the vocalist, which I think is probably only right. I remember years and years ago; I always thought I'd love to be a record producer. I used to follow people like Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Babyface. They're still there, but in the background of all these people you know, people like Janet Jackson. I'm just not really into the limelight business."
THE initial reaction to "Voodoo Ray" in June 1989 was certainly beyond most people's expectations, let alone Gerald's. It reached Number 12 in the UK national charts and prompted a flurry activity among record companies desperate to sign the man who had managed to make British house music such a success. Unfortunately for him, this wasn't a position he expected, or wished to find himself in.
"It was the first track I ever released," recalls Gerald. "So people probably thought I was going to be like Stock, Aitken Ft Waterman or something and do "Voodoo Ray" a million and one times. I know that's what all the record labels thought. I remember going to Chicago with my publishers and they locked me in their studio for two nights thinking they were going to get loads of house music. I wrote ballads! It completely freaked them out.
"It's what you feel at the time. When I wrote 'Voodoo Ray', I was really into the house scene because it was underground. When it started being used in adverts and pop groups began doing house remixes, I was like, 'Uh-oh!’ It was kind of like what they are trying to do now with drum'n'bass. It won't work with drum'n'bass, though. It's far too diverse."
But surely the passage of time has healed most of the wounds. Given that a whole generation of club-goers have fond memories of Gerald's music (even if they have been restricted to one nagging melody), can't he now view it as a classic document of the time in the same context as, say, "Strings Of Life" (a record just as momentous for the far less productive Derrick May)?
"I can't even say what I view it as," laughs Gerald. "No, it's a curse. It definitely is a curse. I have total respect for Derrick May's stuff. It's deep, man. But for me, with Voodoo Ray', everything that happened afterwards was cursed. That's why I was like, 'You do it Lisa!'."
Perhaps part of the curse is that Gerald himself is umbilically attached to the track. Despite the doomy, Phuture-type voice on the new version which intones, "This is the curse of Voodoo Ray'; he has been here before. He revisited the record on his last, predominantly drum 'n' bass-flavoured album, "Black Secret Technology", filtering breaks behind the beat and renaming it as "Voodoo Rage" (this is also a nod to the original genesis of the track, since the initial sample he used said, 'Voodoo rage". It was Gerald who clipped the sample to create "ray"). Whatever the pressures exerted on him by the views and opinions of outsiders, it seems he understands that "Voodoo Ray" forms an integral part of his experiments in black secret technology.
"Yeah, definitely. ‘Voodoo Ray’ was like a precursor to the music I'm doing now. So it's a double edged sword. I wasn't really into parts of it at the time, but once it got beyond people saying to me, 'Oh, that track doesn't sound like Voodoo Ray', do something else,' then I was like, 'Yeah, cool, it's a cool record'. I'm really getting to like it now."
IN a curious twist of fate, the first night on Lisa's tour to promote the single takes her to the Hacienda. Not surprisingly, she seems a little uncertain of the response awaiting her and laughs slightly nervously at the thought of taking the stage before an audience of expectant Gerald fans.
"They will all go, 'Who's she? Get her off! Where's Gerald?'."
"When you go up to Manchester, just wear a Kevlar jacket laminated with titanium or something," grins Gerald with mock reassurance. "Nah, I'm just kidding! Only, I think the last time that I ever performed it live was at the Hacienda." "Weirder and weirder," says Lisa, sounding even more doubtful. "I know they will all be going mad if Gerald isn't actually present." "No, they won't," says Gerald. "I remember one magazine up there listing the 10 best things and the 10 worst things in Manchester. I think I was Number Five in the 10 worst lists. They don't really like me up there!"
He laughs again, a man secure in the knowledge that, love him or loathe him, absolutely nothing is going to touch him now. He's too strong, he's come too far.
He is, after all, the man who wrote "Voodoo Ray".
The `Voodoo Ray' reworking, with remixes from Justin Robertson, Francois Kevorkian, Alex Reece and Gerald himself, is released on Mercury on July 15
BEWITCHED BY `VOODOO RAY'
TONY WILSON (Factory/Hacienda impresario)
"It was a track central to that wonderful period of life and Gerald's a lovely man, to boot. I remember we did a rave at a swimming pool with him which was great. Everyone was in their swimsuits. It really was a wacky night. Very groovy, very, very wacky. It was sometime early in 1989, so it still wasn't quite the done thing. It's strange because Granada are making a film about the famous night The Sex Pistols played at Manchester Free Trade Hall and who was there, but if you think about Gerald and about the whole world of 1988 and who was around back then, it was similarly seminal. And, of course, the lovely thing is that he seemed to disappear for three years and then return as one of the kings of the jungle. Which is just grand."
GRAEME PARK (original Hacienda OJ)
"I played the original version on my radio show about two weeks ago completely oblivious to the fact that it's being reissued! When it came out, I remember it really stuck out as a highly original track. I knew it would be big because it went down really, really well the first time I played it. Mike Pickering and I used to play it at the Hacienda on a Friday night. Mike would pick me up at the train station and straight away we were like, 'So what records have you got this week?', and I remember us both enthusing about 'Voodoo Ray'. The people in the clubs probably didn't realise it was from Manchester, but it really stood out. It was distinctive and over the first three or four weeks everyone was saying, 'Here comes that record again!'. I also remember how word got out that he worked at McDonalds at the time he put it together. We were all very impressed by that."
[Author: Rupert Howe, Pictures: Pav Modelski]