Moby: Replay – His Life and Times by Martin James: Independent Music Press, 2001
I normally leave rock music biographies well alone, knowing that they are usually written by sycophants whose subjects are fairly uninteresting people made interesting by the amount of drugs they consume or money they make by creating ephemera. My bookshelf contains a 1969 edition of Hunter Davies’ The Beatles (they hadn’t even split up yet!), Philip Norman’s 1984 book The Stonesand a signed copy of The Boy Looked At Johnny by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. I keep abreast of interesting bands and biographies through magazines like Uncut or Q and the only book on the subject I’d like would be the Zimmerman brothers’ one of John Lydon – my hero, and, coincidentally, also one of Moby’s. So why read about Moby? Good question, considering I agree with Melody Maker’s review of Moby’s world-wide hit Play: “Bar a few isolated outbreaks of talent, it’s all rubbish.”
My motivation is that Moby is part of a new breed of ‘musician’ whose work seems to be pretty much an audio collage of other people’s toil and original thought. Moby seemed a more serious option to explore the genre than The Prodigy as he has certainly taken it to a new level. His story is not going to be nearly as interesting as, let’s say, Bob Marley, but he has been around for ten years helping to create sounds, beats and dance tracks that are enjoyed by countless thousands. He has worked with, or been asked to work with, some of the major names on the planet and his influences are close to my heart: the aforementioned John Lydon and Pil, Joy Division, even early Roxy Music. No mention of The Cramps though.
His personal life wasn’t as interesting to me as were his studio and working methods. I wish there could have been a bit more in this particular area but understand how it could easily have got bogged down in technical detail, so all in all a good balance is struck. Raised by a hippyish mother (dad died in an accident) he half-revolted against the 60s communes he was dragged to by becoming a Christian, which at first sounds grimly restrictive, but he has his own definition of the word and is very anti the right-wing Christian groups that are currently giving the religion such a bad name. In recent times he has certainly become a bit lapse in his beliefs and is drinking, whereas he was once a teetotaller, and bedding every famous babe around. This is the boon of fame as the scrawny, bald Richard Hall (to give his real name) possibly wouldn’t have a chance in hell, or the nerve, if he hadn’t made it. He is also wonderfully human and makes mistakes, such as once using ALL CAPS on an Internet chat line while defending (correctly in his case) his right to use DAT backing tapes at gigs. The fact he was pissing off the pedants and bores who thought their views on music the only correct ones was something I could certainly appreciate, but the bonus (and added fun) came with the fact that he was accidentally SCREAMING at them in the process. Unfortunately, he later bowed down and apologised.The fool.
The book nicely covers the birth of techno, acid house and the million offshoots and variations that were eventually to lead to all sorts of snob dance-wars. It covers so much ground, in fact, that what this book really needs is two CDs, at least, of the music mentioned. It is very doubtful that many readers have all the Moby tracks and re-mixes, let alone the many tracks that were of influence (Joywho?). And dance music was so fashionable that in just a matter of weeks a hot new sound/beat/song was history. Listening now to early Prodigy, 808 State, et al, you can hear how dated the music is (mind you, so is a lot of Joy Division). It is possibly Moby’s desire to be listened to in two years’ time that has encouraged him to fiddle with music that has survived from as far back as the 20s and 40s (Play). Shoving a beat and soppy strings on old blues/spiritual loops doesn’t cut the mustard for me, but for thousands it does, and this very well-written book – in clear, straightforward prose – is as much an important introduction to the man, his music for the new fans who came with Play as it is a vindication of the fans he has made and lost along the way as he shifts his styles to fit the weather, fashion, and his love of punk. Martin James has done well to give fair coverage to a musician he obviously likes a lot, leaving Moby to come across as a likeable, but somewhat directionless, nonentity; and it’s done in a style that doesn’t treat the reader as a brain-dead ecstasy victim. M.G.S.
© 2001The Barcelona Review