Depeche Mode fans will know Rico Conning’s name best from the Blind Mix of “Strangelove” or the Black Tulip Mix of “A Question of Time.” Nick Cash will come to mind first as Fad Gadget’s drummer. Jo Forty’s name is less bound up with the heroes of early electronic music; but, together with Conning, Cash and ex-Alternative TV guitarist Mick Linehan, he formed the core of The Lines, a celebrated post-post incubator.
Founded in London in the immediate wake of punk and its DIY culture, The Lines came together when Conning and Forty met on an English literature course. As Conning tells the story:
We both had a strong interest in music. For me, music was probably a stronger interest than English literature. I found the study of music very boring. I didn’t like to study it; just to play it. We decided to start a band. This was around ’76, and a lot of other people in London were focused on the same thing about the same time. It took us a couple of years to get to where we thought we were good enough to put a record out, and we put out “White Night” in 1978.
“White Night” had a long shelf life: besides The Lines’ original, it was covered by both Torch Song and Adult Net. Although Laurie Mayer, the third member of Torch Song, together with Conning and William Orbit, sang the version that appeared on their album, a version also exists with Sarah Blackwood of Dubstar and Client. Adult Net, the band launched by Brix Smith after she left The Fall, took a more indie route with its version.
Although major success proved elusive, The Lines or its members crossed paths with many of the key players in the city’s independent music scene. Recording at Blackwing Studios, they returned one time to find Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet concluding the first Yazoo single, “Only You.” The band had been drawn to Blackwing by the sound of Dome, the Lewis-Gilbert side project, and Conning went on to work with all of Wire as a mixing engineer for “Eardrum Buzz.” That was only one of many assignments given by Daniel Miller to Conning, who became one of Mute Records’ house studio gurus, recording or mixing Depeche Mode, Erasure, Laibach, Renegade Soundwave and Frank Tovey.
I had known Daniel, anyway, from the late 1970s, and The Lines were gigging at about the same time, and our drummer was in Fad Gadget’s band. I did know Daniel vaguely, and one day he turned up at Guerilla, where I worked, to mix some Depeche Mode live tapes. He asked me to do a few of the mixes by myself. He asked me to do “Black Celebration.” After that, he asked me to do “A Question of Time.” They were both good mixes, and then the one I did with Daniel after that was a really good mix which I think actually affected the career of the band – the Blind Mix of “Strangelove” – was a pretty important mix for them. It was the main single out here in the States.
It was another Mute favourite, John Fryer, who did a lot of the studio work on The Lines’ first two full-length albums, Therapy and Ultramarine, together with studio boss Eric Radcliffe. Fryer, one of two permanent members of This Mortal Coil, had developed a reputation as an experimental engineer, and his ability to cope with reel-to-reel tape loops, wrapped around the studio premises, was one of the attractions for the band. Like Dome, The Lines played the studio as an instrument, and their sound owes a lot to the creative setting in Southwark.
After those albums, the band went on hiatus. It was never officially dissolved, but the band members all went in different directions: Conning assumed a job as engineer at William Orbit‘s Guerilla Studios and as a member of Torch Song (just listen to his work on S-Express’ glorious “Mantra for a State of Mind” with Orbit to see where he was going); Cash had his Fad Gadget responsibilities; and Forty and Linehan each went on Eastern travels. Although tracks were in demand for compilations and a retrospective was issued in 2008, it seemed a remote prospect that new material would be forthcoming from The Lines.
Fast forward to 2016, then, and one of the surprises of the year is the release of hull down, the third album from The Lines. Although the original demos had been recorded in 1982-3, and some attempt had been made to improve the recordings in 1987 for a potential release through IRS, the material had to be parked until 2004. That’s when Conning digitised the tracks and started to play with them in Pro Tools; blending the versions to create something new and potent.
We tracked down Conning at his Los Angeles base to learn something about the story of the album. He told us:
This is an attempt to realise what we were trying to realise back then, with the benefit of hindsight. All I did, on some of the tracks, was blend very early demos with much later, much more polished, 8-track versions. When I did that, it was a bit of a revelation. In a couple of cases, particularly – I would say “Flat Feet” and “Archway” – I had no idea what to do with those two until I blended the earliest demo with the later thing. With a couple of others – “Raffle” and “Haberdasher” – it was a similar thing, but in those cases the demo starts and finishes the track and the later development is in the middle.
Although the product of work that began in the 1980s, the sound of hull down remains fresh. “Flat Feet,” the lead track, is rhythmically vigorous and filled with enough authentically snappy analogue sounds to stump even the most jaded hipster. “Single Engine Duster” could be a later-era Wire track, albeit with trombone, Linn drum and Chakk-like funk in the mix. “Nicky Boy’s Groove” features Cash’s TB-303 actually playing a bass line – its sound sitting on the cusp of acid house while guitars and synths drift around in dark, apocalyptic swirls.
Proceedings enter ACR territory with “Zoko Am3,” a track based on a live jam. Conning describes his contribution as a duet with a Watkins Copicat echo unit, and the lines-out soar with a prog-like effect, comparable to the early material from Nash the Slash or Steve Hillage. The use of effects continues with “Where Is the World,” a track that was originally laid down to test out various new gear, including the then-current TR-808. Come “Raffle” and the sound is not a million miles from the Guerilla template: arpeggiators glistening over brilliant, dancefloor-friendly bass lines, while Conning’s vocals come and go as needed.
The pace slows down again for “Archway,” which incorporates Cash’s vibraphone and a Hammond organ in a tribute to the road running under Suicide Bridge. It doesn’t lift for the run-out track, “Haberdashers,” but the sound is much more easily located in its time, using Laurie Mayer’s Juno 60 for arpeggiation. The experimentation at the heart of the The Lines is in the clearest relief here, and it is remarkable that IRS didn’t go for it as part of their No Speak series of instrumental albums.
Three decades after the original tracks were laid down to tape, hull down is partly a sign of what could have been for The Lines, but it also contains traces of what has been for its members. More than an artifact, the album is a document for the present, and it’s dense with rich, experimental music that is even better suited to our time.
Rico’s Reel blog
Buy hull down at Carpark Records