Sunday, 29 January 2017

Slippery People

It has been hard to escape the makers of T2: Trainspotting this week.
The director (Danny Boyle), the stars (Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle) and the film’s composer (Rick Smith of Underworld) have been on the promotional trail. They have been discussing the original Trainspotting, which came out in 1996, as much as they have the new film. This is not surprising. As well as featuring the same cast, crew and characters as the first film, T2 constantly harks back to it. The new story touches the old one at the edges. This includes the music, which echoes the original soundtrack. Smith has included chords, textures and rhythms from ‘Born Slippy’, the Underworld song that memorably closed the original.

Much of the discussion has been about ‘Born Slippy’ itself. Speaking on the Today programme on Tuesday, Smith was asked how the song came to be in included in Trainspotting. He replied:
It was very serendipitous. Danny [Boyle] was using our album at the time, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, as what you would call the heartbeat or the tool that use to get the rhythm of the film together - without any intention of course of the whole film being about that album and the music - and took a break one day for a lunch, walked across the road, out of Soho, into HMV and saw the vinyl for ‘Born Slippy’ in the racks, bought it, as he tells me, and listened and immediately knew that that was how he wanted to finish the film.
This is a nice story, but it is not true. I know because it was one of my old friends, Neil Williams, who suggested the track for the film. He put the record straight on Friday, writing to Radio 5’s Film Review show, which was featuring Danny Boyle as a guest. Neil’s letter stated:
I was fortunate enough to be one of the assistant editors on the original Trainspotting movie. During the shoot it was my job to synchronise the picture and sound which meant I had the rare privilege of effectively being the first person to see and hear all the footage shot for the film. As these remarkable images and sensational performances came together before my eyes there was this overwhelming realisation that I was at the centre of something truly special. I remember Danny sending a music cassette from the shoot in Glasgow to our cutting rooms in London, which outlined his ideas for source music to soundtrack the film and on it were Bowie, Blondie, Björk, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop. There was also a note suggesting that we try and find dance music similar to the theme produced by Leftfield for Shallow Grave on which I was a trainee. Danny and I shared similar music tastes and we both loved the likes of Leftfield, Orbital and Andy Weatherall. I brought in a collection of CDs with track suggestions written on the cases in white chinagraph pencil, which we used to mark the edits on the film. I had a then little known follow-up single to the album Dubnoheadwithmybassman by Underworld, which was an album I knew Danny liked and I wrote on the CD ‘try track 2’. This was ‘Born Slippy’, a track which was often played at house parties I went to with my friends. There has been no greater moment in my film career than when Masahiro, the editor, told me that Danny had chosen it to be included in the film and showed me the initial edit of the astonishing end sequence. Some weeks later, after picture lock, I got a call from Andrew McDonald asking if I could come out to the sound mix and could I bring the ‘Born Slippy’ CD with me. I travelled out to the mix the same day, was asked if I could leave the CD there so that the sound technicians could transfer it as they didn’t have one. Andrew eventually returned the CD to me at the start of the next project, A Life Less Ordinary, so essentially it’s my CD that bears the now faded chinagraph note that is actually on the soundtrack of the film.
After hearing the letter, Boyle replied: ‘Ah. There you go. I remember Neil’.

Many popular music academics argue against the cult of authorship. They think that it is wrong to look up to musicians and composers and it is particularly remiss to regard them as having some sort of unique genius. These theorists view popular music as an essentially collaborative form and argue that little of it is wholly original.
Nevertheless, as these conflicting stories reveal, the cult of authorship will not go away. If anything, it is proliferating. It is extending beyond songwriting and performance to encompass the sourcing of music for films. The ‘Born Slippy’ saga also illustrates the centralising tendency of authorship. It would seem fitting if it was Boyle who initiated the use of the track. After all, as Smith’s story indicates, ‘Born Slippy’ became the pulse of the film, it was the inspiration for a visionary director. It was also the start of an important collaborative partnership. Smith worked with Boyle on the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics, in addition to working on the sequel film.
            But it was Neil who first chose it. He deserves some credit too. The use of ‘Born Slippy’ helped to make Trainspotting a landmark film, while the film made ‘Born Slippy’ a landmark song. It had been largely ignored when it first came out. There had been a buzz about Underworld, following singles such as ‘Rez’ and ‘Spikee’ and the album Dubnoheadwithmybassman. But ‘Born Slippy’ was something of a flop. I remember discussing it with Neil when it was released, telling him that I found it disappointing. He was the only person I knew who was really into it. He was also the person who said to ignore the instrumental version, which the band original promoted as the main mix of the song. For him it was the ‘Nuxx’ mix that worked. The original single made it to number 57 in the UK charts. A year and a half later, following on from the Trainspotting movie, ‘Born Slippy’ was re-released with the Nuxx mix up front. It made it to number 2. Soon half of Britain was shouting ‘lager, lager, lager, lager’.

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