After an incredible few months and an even more amazing night last Friday, here’s the story of my involvement with the Olympic Opening Ceremony.
At the end of April this year I received a phone call from Rick Smith of Underworld. We had worked together on tracks for the latest Underworld album as well as my own and in doing so had built not just a wonderfully creative working relationship but had become real friends too. During the writing of my album The Agony & The Ecstasy, I had many long phone calls with Rick and Karl, the other half of Underworld, that had been massively inspirational to me and really fed into my creative process. So I was very keen to work with them again. And it just so happened they were cooking up the biggest show on Earth.
They had been appointed as musical directors of the 2012 London Olympics by the director of that show, Danny Boyle, their long time collaborator. Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ was a huge film for me as a teenager and was one of my first exposures to dance music and the clubbing world. So being asked to get involved with the Olympics was a huge honour in itself but for me getting to work with Underworld and Danny was the bigger draw – any project those guys have lined up, I will do anything to be a part of.
At the initial meeting I met Mike Gillespie, Underworld’s manager who was Musical Supervisor for the Opening Ceremony, and Rick, at 3 Mills Studios in Bromley by Bow, a film studio that was acting as the main space for Opening Ceremony planning and rehearsal and just a 15 minute walk from the stadium itself. Before anything else, my manager and label boss Chris Goss and I had to sign NDA’s as the show had to be kept in complete secret. The guys then warned me that it would a lot of hard work, long hours and quite a challenging brief, working in ways I wasn’t used to. But nothing could put me off, they had me at hello.
Underworld had already written the music for the main part of the show and most of that had been recorded. Rick was now having to deal with a lot more logistical/organisational stuff that was getting more and more time consuming but there was still music needed for the non-theatrical part of the show – the Athlete’s Parade. And that’s where I came in. They wanted me to take on that part of the night and bring my uplifting, melodic sound to it. After years of people telling me they listened to my music whilst running or in the gym, it seemed to make perfect sense! But the Athlete’s Parade has been notorious for being traditionally the more dull part of the Opening Ceremony, with so many countries to get through it can become a slog for the audience. Sometimes it has run over 2.5 hours. Rick and Danny were very keen that it run a lot faster and the aim was to make it the best parade yet.
That would involve a real balancing act. The main point was to keep the athletes moving and to keep a positive vibe in the air but without getting too repetitive. So the music needed to be driving but not relentless. Uplifting but not overwhelming. Consistent but not the same throughout. We couldn’t punish the listeners with non stop beats but couldn’t have massive breakdowns as the momentum would be lost. And it had to work not just for the athletes but the 80,000 people in the stadium watching and the billions at home. Hmm.
This also meant that drum and bass was not on the cards. The plan was to keep the music around the 120bpm mark as that felt like it would keep everyone at a pretty pacey walking speed. The fear was that something as fast as drum and bass would make the athletes run around or rave on the spot or worse just stop completely. I had to agree, dnb doesnt feel like something you can just walk to, it demands a more extreme reaction from the body.
A start had already been made in that the entire Underworld back catalogue had been gone through and the most appropriate tracks for the parade had been picked out already. Darren Price, their long time engineer and a big part of their live show (as well as a dj in his own right) had begun work on getting the stems for these tunes out of the archive and ready for manipulation. A lot of their music was around the 140bpm mark so they had to be time stretched or re exported at a slower tempo. I was to have access to all these files and could pick out the ones that jumped out at me and begin trying to rework for them for the parade.
Time was of the essence so thankfully the job I had just been working on, a controversial play in Cardiff called Pornography (which ironically was about London during the announcement of the winning Olympic bid in 2005), had just finished and I was able to just pack up my computer and monitors and move up to London to begin work. My equipment was set up at 3 Mills and I just jumped straight in. It was so cool to have access to whatever tracks I liked from Underworld’s fantastic back catalogue. I also had a few demo tracks that I’d made basic versions of during the writing of The Agony & The Ecstasy as well as a couple of 120bpm versions of dnb tracks from that album that all seemed to have the right vibe for this project.
So at this point the enormity of what I was doing still hadn’t really dawned on me, I was just working on tunes on my iMac as I normally do, in my own little world. It would only be much later when I visited the stadium that it really all hit me.
Part 2 of this story will follow very soon…