Depth First #1: Orbital – “Chime” (1989)

If you want to hear this instead of read this, click here for the podcast link.

Label artwork for original 1989 Orbital “Chime / Deeper” 12″ on Oh’Zone Records (source:

One night in late 1989 under the stairs of their parents’ home in Sevenoaks, England just southeast of London, brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll recorded onto a cassette tape some sounds using a few synthesizers and a sequencer. Under the name Orbital, that recording would become their debut single, “Chime”. They gave a cassette copy to their friend, DJ and dance music mentor Jazzy M (real name, Michael Schiniou.)

Jazzy M is one of a few DJs credited with popularizing house music in the UK. One of the artists he helped and championed was Chicago musician Steve “Silk” Hurley a.k.a. J.M. Silk, who scored a UK #1 hit with “Jack Your Body” in January of 1987. “Jack Your Body”‘s success paved the way for the accelerating popularity of house and techno music in the UK. The Hartnoll brothers had gotten into house and techno around this time, so they were happy to orbit DJ Jazzy M. He had given brutally honest feedback and suggestions to Orbital before.

Paul Hartnoll was able to get a couple of his tracks, under the alias D.S. Building Contractors, onto the 1988 compilation The House Sound of London, Vol. IV – The Jackin’ Zone. The biggest UK hit from The House Sound of London was “We Call it Acieed” by D-Mob featuring Gary Haisman. However, the success of this song didn’t translate to more attention to Paul Hartnoll as D.S. Building Contractors.

It was that time again for Jazzy M to judge Orbital’s new cassette submission, “Chime”. Orbital were surely waiting for the latest lecture. This time, Jazzy M didn’t shake his head in disapproval. Instead, he looked up at Orbital and started smiling. Jazzy M eagerly stated he was starting his own record label, Oh’Zone Records, to release “Chime” on 12″, to Orbital’s utter shock.

Oh’Zone Records pressed 2000 copies of “Chime”, and they all sold out immediately. Within a month or so, Orbital were courted by half a dozen record labels. They signed with FFRR records, a London Records subsidiary dance label founded and run by BBC radio DJ Pete Tong. (FFRR Records were the same label that released The House Sound of London that featured Paul Hartnoll’s earlier work.) FFRR re-released Orbital’s “Chime” 12″ and released a 7″ version for commercial radio airplay. In late March of 1990, “Chime” peaked on the UK Singles Chart at #17. That’s quite a return on investment for a recording that cost Orbital nothing, other than the cassette it was recorded on.

Point Black Music School’s Q&A with Orbital regarding “Chime” in 2013

“Chime” is less of a capital-P pop song and more of a gleaming rhythm template, not unlike Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” or Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” All three of these tracks became DNA to decades of club music that followed. “Chime”‘s minimalist mix of acid house and bell pattern ushers dancers onto the floor, yet the song is always resonant and gentle. Simon Reynolds, in his 1998 book Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (retitled Generation Ecstasy in the U.S.), described “Chime” as pivoting “around a tintinnabulating, crystalline sequence of notes that hop and skip down the octave like a shiver shimmying down your spine.”

The success of “Chime” ushered in a multi-decade career for Orbital. They experimented with unique sounds, melodies and rhythms immediately after that first taste of success, wanting to show they weren’t a one-track wonder. Orbital’s sophomore album from 1993, known as either Orbital 2 or The Brown Album depending on whom you talk to, is among the most acclaimed electronic dance albums of all time, featuring tracks such as “Halcyon”, “Lush 3”, and the environmentally anxious club hit “Impact (The Earth is Burning)”

Orbital’s top billing in the 1994 Glastonbury Festival, combined with the festival’s first major live telecast that year on British network Channel 4, gained Orbital instant crossover fandom. This broadcast garnered new fans many of which never went to a rave or even a dance club.

They are still active and experimenting today. Orbital released a single on October 20, 2022 called “Dirty Rat”, a collaboration with Nottingham political post-punk duo Sleaford Mods. The explicitly angry song’s release day of October 20 is the very day Conservative Liz Truss resigned as Prime Minster of the UK, due to budgetary turmoil and inner Conservative Party turmoil among several other reasons. (Truss is now best known for being, so far anyway, the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British history, at just 44 days.) “Dirty Rat” will appear on Orbital’s upcoming tenth studio album Optical Delusion in early 2023 — their twenty-eighth release if you count their nine studio albums, four soundtracks, three remix collections, two hits collections and nine live releases.

As far as “Chime” itself goes, Orbital have, so far, released at least twenty-six versions of “Chime”, either as remixes or live versions. Orbital have played “Chime” in almost all of their live shows, often as a set ender or encore. No one has been more loyal to “Chime” than Orbital, which is saying a lot, given how many fans consider that song a classic for electronic dance music overall. The Hartnoll brothers could have easily left “Chime” in the rear view mirror months after its chart peak and not have jeopardized their career one bit. Instead, Orbital revere “Chime” like an only child and patron saint.

Why are Orbital so loyal to “Chime” anyway? What was it specifically about “Chime” that entranced UK dance culture at the dawn of the 90s? How was “Chime” able to spark and circulate so easily and quickly, years before virality vectors such as the World Wide Web and social media?

The success of J.M. Silk’s “Jack Your Body” brought house and techno 12″ singles from Chicago and Detroit into the UK mainstream. This and the subsequent rise of acid house played a big part in spawning The Second Summer of Love, a roughly year-long zeitgeist in the UK from 1988 to 1989 that ignited the popularity of dance music and raves, legal and illegal — and yes, the Second Summer popularized the drug MDMA (also know as Ecstasy, E, or Molly.) Euphoria and community were the anthems of The Second Summer of Love. The ensuing moral panic and crackdowns on raves during the latter years of the Thatcher era certainly added rebellion as an anthem, too.

One particular dance hit in 1987, “Pump Up The Volume” by M|A|R|R|S — a fluke 4AD Records collaboration gone rogue — was a surprise to everyone involved when it got to #1 in seven countries. “Pump Up The Volume” is a DJ workout and mega-mix more than anything else mentioned here. Stylistically, it has little in common with Orbital’s music or that of most of their peers. But “Pump Up The Volume”‘s dominion over the dance and pop charts worldwide, into 1988, reminded introverted DJs and artists everywhere that even they could have a global hit song. (There may or may not be a future Depth First entry on “Pump Up The Volume.”)

Sure enough, more dance hits from previously unknown artists under strange monikers were cropping up, especially in the UK. For example, Manchester’s Gerald Simpson, who went by and still goes by A Guy Called Gerald, peaked on the UK Singles Chart with his minimal lucid acid house track “Voodoo Ray” in mid July of 1989. And in December of 1989, right around when Orbital were dreaming of making “Chime” a hit, Manchester’s 808 State were peaking on the UK Singles Chart with their acid house chill-out track “Pacific State.” (Incidentally, Gerald Simpson was once a member of 808 State, but he acrimoniously left the group earlier in 1989 due to fallout from other 808 State members finishing the track “Pacific State” without his consent. Thankfully, A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State have since resolved their differences.) The dream of a fluke house & techno hit was very much in the air throughout 1989. The underground dance scenes were growing more popular each year, even as the Second Summer was waning. This setting surely helped Orbital’s “Chime” go viral very quickly.

It’s no surprise that “Chime” has similarities in its beats and bass sounds to that of Kevin Saunderson, a Detroit Techno music pioneer — notably through his group Inner City’s 1988 hit “Big Fun.” It’s also not a shock that the heavenly arpeggiating melody of “Chime” is likely inspired by one of Paul Hartnoll’s beloved musical influences, the Australian experimental electronic group Severed Heads — for example, the bouncy percussive melody from their 1987 track “Jetlag.”

But neither “Big Fun” nor “Jetlag” sound as divine as “Chime.” There are few predecessors to the specific aura of that song. One notable early 80s track that shares that jangling ecstasy is “The Jezebel Spirit”, a song from Brian Eno and David Byrne’s 1981 collaboration album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. And yet, “The Jezebel Spirit”‘s samples of an an evangelist’s supposed exorcism of a poor woman on-stage may serve as unsettling commentary on religion, whereas “Chime” is hovering happily above commentary, with no vocal samples to improve or dampen the mood.

If a melee of bell sounds over a groove is the sound of heaven to many, what could be a better source for that than soca music? Soca is a subgenre of calypso, invented proudly by musician Ras Shorty I, better known as Lord Shorty, real name Garfield Blackman, from Trinidad and Tobago. Lord Shorty released several albums throughout the 70s, featuring primarily uptempo dance numbers with heavy use of congas and timbales. It’s not just the percussion that Orbital’s “Chime” has in common with the music of Lord Shorty and other Caribbean artists. “Chime”‘s primary refrain lends itself to be easily covered in an Afro-Caribbean dance style.

Now it’s time to back out of the musical rabbit hole.

The Hartnoll brothers clearly have numerous musical influences that make the small track list above look quaint. Of course, musicians don’t compose music by culling musical ideas from their entire mental topology, extracting one tiny idea from each neuron in a scenic loop through the brain. The creative process is as respiratory as it is cognitive. Getting ideas onto tape (or digital memory or storage) is quite a subconscious exercise. While it’s fun to guess what musical influences inspired a work, no one outside Orbital truly knows why they made a song a certain way. Certainly, I don’t. Paul Hartnoll admitted in a 2018 interview in The Guardian regarding “Chime”, “I certainly wasn’t trying to make a hit record.”

While working on this entry, my brain kept landing on Orbital’s cheekiest version of “Chime”, out of all twenty-six versions. Released in December of 2013 — “Christmas Chime” was delivered. It’s basically “Chime” wearing a Santa hat. There are a few new notes and Christmas sounds overdubbed on top. I can only guess Orbital were throwing their hat in the ring to get a UK Christmas #1 hit with as little effort as possible. (If you’re unfamiliar with the UK Christmas #1 phenomenon. Chris Molanphy, writer and host of Slate Magazine podcast Hit Parade does an excellent job explaining this during his 2018 episode “Christmas is All Around”.)

If the difference between “Chime” and “Christmas Chime” is just a figurative Santa hat, what does this say about “Chime”? The song title clearly hints that bells are its primary emulated sound. And sure, bells have been used to drive meditation sessions in various religions, particularly Buddhism, for a very long time. Bells are, of course, omnipresent during the holiday season. Anyone who lives in a country that has a sizable Christian population expects sleigh bells and church bells in all forms of media every November into December. The sounds of Christmas provide a warm blanket of nostalgia and security for many who celebrate it or are surrounded by it. And from many accounts, “Chime” was written during the onset of the 1989 holiday season.

Now, I’ve never taken ecstasy (please, don’t all gasp at once), and given the current state of the world, I don’t think I’ll ever start. I obviously won’t discount the connection between Ecstasy and rapturous experiences ravers have today or back in the day. For those who wish to make music in an enhanced state, there must be some other context with which to synergize. When one is surrounded in all forms of consumption by the sounds of sleigh bells and church bells year after year, they can seep below one’s awareness, then germinate in unexpected ways. Just sayin’. Moreover, Orbital’s success with “Chime” certainly brought brighter days and a brighter future to the Hartnoll brothers’ lives.

If you want to hear this instead of read this, click here for the podcast link.

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