Mark Bell - Life's Frequency Operator

I met Mark Bell through my DJ partner, Huggy, in the early 90s.  He was quiet, thoughtful and serious. These were uncommon traits for the people I was meeting from the emerging electronic music scene in Yorkshire at that time. Mark made an impression by not remotely trying to make one. The news of his death (October 2014) struck a unified chord of disbelief among our local scene that shared a worldwide resonance.  He had a huge impact on people, the scale of which only seemed to become apparent after he was gone.  It felt like we had all known Mark's records individually but no one had really stepped back to see how big the body of work really was. I have read most of the features available online at the time of writing and recommend this excellent piece in the Guardian by Jim Poe that lists 10 of Mark's definitive works. It shows the incredible diversity of the productions and the calibre of artists he produced for; Bjork, Depeche Mode, Radiohead, Deltron 3030 and his own LFO project. There are good pieces about Mark out there already but I wanted to share my own personal experiences of him. I also decided to give something back to the people who collected his music - a track called 'Mash' that Mark produced with Huggy for 2020Vision (which you can find below.)  Up to this point no one knew Mark was behind 'Mash' as he was already in a recording contract with Warp records, that he had the ultimate respect for, so he asked not to be credited on the record. I feel it is a fitting time to give this track back and I am sure Warp would agree.  

Mark was best known for his work with Bjork, which comprised of seven albums spanning fourteen years but it was his work with Gez Varley under the LFO name that he first came to everyone's attention. LFO pioneered the 'Bleep' sound along with Nightmares on Wax,  Sweet Exorcist and on Warp Records. Along with Ital Rockers and Unique Three, who did not release on Warp but were instrumental in the scene.

It is a lesser known fact that there was originally a third member of LFO called Martin Williams and it was Martin who I first met from the group. I have no idea what happened and it's not my intention to pry, so I don't know why Martin left LFO in 1990 but he was an active member when I visited his studio in 1989. The strange thing is that I have absolutely no memory of how I met Martin or ended up getting such a prestigious invitation to his workspace. But I think the connection must have come from Drew Hemment who was the resident DJ at The Twilight Zone, which was an after-hours 'Blues' club on Francis Street in Chapletown that I used to frequent when I first arrived in Leeds. He is another very interesting character that you should check out but I will transgress too far if I go into any more detail at this stage about him. I will only briefly add that I met Drew because of his appearance.  He wore huge baggy black trousers, brothel creepers and had his head totally shaved apart from a lock of hair at the front which he had twisted into a bleached blond question mark like Tintin.  As soon as I saw him walk past me going into the Union building I had to stop and talk to him.  

 Wish I could find a picture of Drew Hemment aka DJ Dru in 1990 but for now Tintin will have to do!

Wish I could find a picture of Drew Hemment aka DJ Dru in 1990 but for now Tintin will have to do!

Anyway I ended up back at Martin Williams studio and he had a DAT machine, which at the time, was the state of the art way to record final mixes onto Digital Audio Tape.  Now I never quite understood how tape could be digital but that is a sure fire way to go off on another tangent. Anyway, in that DAT machine he had the tape of LFO - LFO, which he played me.  It was still early days for me and techno music as I had come into the scene via punk, live bands and more recently hip hop.  But there was just no escaping the sound I was hearing.  I clearly remember Martin laugh as he watched my face show utter disbelief.  It wasn't that I had never heard anything like it before as I had already been listening to Drew drop Unique 3 - 'The Theme' every week at The Twilight Zone and I was familiar with Derrick May's work from Detroit (I think LFO - LFO comes somewhere in between those two sounds) but STILL it was just a jaw dropping piece of music.  

The next time I heard the track was off the same DAT at the Astoria.  I know the track eventually took the name 'Leeds Warehouse Mix' but I am pretty sure it was busted at The Astoria first. The Astoria was a club on Roundhay Road in Harehills, originally opened in 1929 as a Palais-de-danse. It lasted until 1992 when it was first turned into Amrik's Electrical store then demolished and turned into flats. It had high ceilings and felt a little like our very own Hacienda, even though it was nowhere near as busy. The buzz on the track was just insane, people reacted to it in the same way everywhere. The bass rattled windows and shook the doors in their frames.  In case you didn't know LFO stands for Low Frequency Oscillation and there couldn't have been a more fitting name for the track. Incidently, I first met Huggy outside the Astoria.

"Where you from man ?" Huggy asked.
"London", I said.
"Ah cool man, have you been to those Orbital raves?" 

In discussing this piece and Mark's passing with Huggy he remembered being at that exact same night that LFO was dropped at The Astoria off DAT and the effect it had on him. He went on to work with Mark on two tracks.  The first was Hoth - 'System 1' and the second was on the track 'Mash', I mentioned earlier. 

I was indeed from London and at that stage I was still returning back there a lot. The summer of 1990 was the time 'Bleep' really hit London.  The rave scene had got big by now and I visited 'Mash' on Oxford Street to buy my first pair of dungarees, kickers and pick up the flyers that littered the exit shelves. They colourfully urged me to go to raves with names like Energy, Biology, Sunrise or World Dance, all boasting 20K Turbo sound and the biggest DJs, usually Judge Jules, Kid Batchelor, Evil Eddie Richards, Paul Trouble Anderson, Carl Cox and Trevor Fung. On the airwaves were two pirate radio stations named Sunrise and Dance FM and those stations played the sound of Yorkshire 'Bleep' records. The favourite tracks of the summer were Forgemasters - 'Track with no Name' and 'LFO'.  At home I'd hang out with my brother and drive around in my Mini Metro. If you had a tinny car stereo, as I did, you could only really hear the hi hats and the presenter telling you to 'feel the bass'.  Well, we couldn't even hear the bass but it was still great and we played it as loud as we could.  

LFO hit the main UK charts making it to number 12 that summer.  I remember Steve Wright, who at the time was the hot shot Radio One DJ, totally slagging it off. He had to play it because it was playlisted but he couldn't resist telling the world how much he hated it. You know you're on to something when you provoke that kind of reaction from the mainstream but still end up in their charts.  

I must confess that I didn't pay the first LFO album - 'Frequencies' much attention at the time. Mainly because I was only buying 12s to DJ and album cuts were annoyingly quiet in volume in comparison. So I listened to it again while writing this piece and once again was totally blown away. It is STARTLING good, even over 20 years down the line.  Standout tracks to pick up on again are 'Nurture', 'Freeze' and 'Love is The Message'.  I then listened to 1996's 'Advance' and then finally 2003's 'Sheath'.  All the time checking back on my player to find out the name of a track I'd overlooked.  Bell and Varley's knowledge and use of sounds is just staggering.  

After Gez departed the band LFO output dropped as Mark begun his career as the man behind the songs rather than the artist himself.  He obviously had a special relationship with Bjork and was instrumental in helping to develop her sound and keep it exciting. So much so that he was noticed by the princes of synth pop Depeche Mode and asked to produce their 'Exciter' album. The record put the band back on the map and was also commercially successful. 'Dream On' and 'I Feel Loved' crossed back into the same underground clubs LFO once inhabited with superb remixes.  

The week after the announcement of Mark's death happened to be a back to basics party at The Wire club in Leeds. All week I had seen the reaction to Mark's passing mount and I started to feel less alone in my own sombre reflections.  People from all over the word cared about this unassuming lad from Lofthouse, just outside Leeds.  The only thing I knew about my set that night was that I needed to start, right from the off, with LFO - LFO and take it from there.  So that's exactly what I did.  The night was dedicated to Mark and it was a pleasure to see old faces that knew Mark personally or were there at the beginning mix on the dancefloor with fresh new faces who still knew every section of the record. Just as that record has surpassed a generation of clubbers, Mark Bell's work will surpass for years to come.  I am proud to have just one moment from him on my label 2020Vision, even though nobody knew except us until now.  And here I give it to you to keep as a memento of a truly great artist, producer and person.