Colourbox: Sleepwalkers in Westworld

Baby I love you so!

were sticking out like a sore thumb next to the other bands that made up the 4-AD catalogue and their "corporate sound" of the mid- to late 80s.
Their contribution to the collective This Mortal Coil records were mostly drum-programming and keyboard wizardry, which honestly didn´t date that well in the whole context.

On their own, however, Colourbox were a totally different beast! Infused with dub, hip-hop, mixtapes, reggae, funk and soul, the Young-Brothers and Lorita Grahame were doing what everybody would do a decade later: Sampling and cutting their way through every bit of inspiration they picked up on their way to the studio.

When they arrived on the scene in 1982, Colourbox were hard to pin down. The electro-breakdance craze was still in its early stage, when they released "Breakdown" with its brick-heavy drum beat and its wild cuts.

Colourbox was a bit between all chairs: not italo-disco, not indie-rock, not goths. On top of this, they were publicty shy to the point of autism. They would hide behind their radical sound , baseball hats and innovative use of film-samples. All in all, they were the prototype for every producer-act that would follow a decade later. Even their on and off again integration of female vocalists would set an example for future artists.

Looks like we´re shy one horse/Shoot out!

The "Shotgun"-EP which pictured the fucking horses on its sleeve blew me away when it was released in the end of 1983. Their treatment of the studio, the total radical approach of cutting, editing and manipulating sound, was pretty unheard of back then.

While New-York-mixmasters would use a similar way of splicing sounds to a new ryhthm, Colourbox were like kids left alone in a toy-store. At every moment a piece of an actual song would emerge through the mayhem, they would drench it in more cuts and edits. Adrian Sherwood had nothing on these "idiot savants".

Of course critics would argue that there was nothing behind the wall of sound, but Colourbox were actually trying to write proper pop and funk songs. Maybe they were just too underground and embarrassed to acknowledge this?!

I must say, that I too was not very impressed with their first real album in 1985. Here the kitsch was taking overhand and the edits were hidden on the additional "ltd. ed. bonus album". Beside the great northern-soul pastiche "The Moon is blue", sample-orgy "Just give ´em Whiskey" and the flat out amazing "Manic" there was not much to like for me back then. "You keep me hanging on" and "Arena" were hitting far too close to the contemporary dribble that I would avoid like the plague back then. (It took me some years to appreciate these songs too)

For the next year Colourbox would hit a double whammy with the release of two radically different 12"es on the very same day. "The official Colourbox World Cup Theme" was to be just that! (but I think it was never really, really official?!)
One of the biggest sounding, proto-techno tracks, backed with the ambient "Philip Glass" it is one of the more bizarre singles 4-AD ever released. Looking back on this single in its entirety: it is really a glimpse at the future of british dance-music. Every aspect of these two songs would appear over and over in techno, ambient and house.


The other 12" was a bit more traditional! The Augustus Pablo cover of "Baby I love you so" backed with a vast dub-excursion in cinerama! Once more featuring the great voice of Lorita Grahame (were did she go?) it is one of the best dub-reggae interpretations I have ever heard. Finally, Colourbox had mastered the art of merging superb instrumentation with show-stopping effects, film-samples and great vocals into a tight production. "Shoot out" is like The Orb running out on dope!

Actually this was the last "official" Colourbox release ever. One year later, the Young-Brothers would team up with another 4-AD act, the enigmatic A.R.Kane for another one-off release. As M.A.R.R.S they would alledgedly change the music world forever with "Pump up the Volume". Well, they had done stuff like this before and nobody noticed. The flip side of this A/A sided single "Anitina" is actually the far, far better track. It showed what Colourbox were up to and what they were capable of. For whatever reason the brothers decided to close the Colourbox and their musical career! Apart from very few remixes for other 4-AD artists and a production job for The Christians, they turned their back on music.


Anonymous said...

excellent article, and great to see some photos of the enigma -- as to why they chucked it in: legal troubles over the samples in Pump Up the Volume! it took them years to sort out the mess, and by 1989 they decided to quit the music industry. i remember up till that year, there was an occasional listing of an 'untitled colourbox album' in the to-be-released section of NME. it's a shame it never saw the light of day. colourbox are one of the very few 80s acts whose music i still enjoy on a monthly basis, 20 years on.
regards, tim [amsterdam]

StellaVista said...

Tim, thanks for your comment and additional info.
Oh well, the curse of having a no.1 record!
I seem to recall that they were sued by Stock/Aitken/Waterman for using a piece of "Roadblock"?!
See you, StellaV

robin said...

I am happy to have lived through the Colourbox era collecting all their singles. They had a nice line in updating Motown for the sample era. Methinks Massive Attack owe them a thing or two? But indeed the "Shotgun" EP is their most incredible effort.

"Soon the frontier will be down!"