Andrew Barker, who has sadly died after a brief illness, was a long-standing member of one of electronic music’s under-appreciated acts: 808 State. It’s easy to forget, with the passage of time, just how big, how influential and how unconventional they were. At the height of their powers they were pulling in thousands to their sweat-drenched live shows: attracting nearly 15,000 ravers at Manchester's G-Mex in 1991 with Björk in support, or a few years later, playing what they laughably described as a “low key” gig to nearly 9,000 at the nearby Castlefield Arena. Over a 10 year period, they had nine hits, each one different to the last. 808 State made up the rules as they went along.
Andrew was originally a member of The Spinmasters, alongside partner Darren Partington (and Shine MC), whose careers began in Salvation Army discos, where they were blasting out beats, while selling on the side - an entrepreneurial “crisps and Kit-Kat scam” in their own words - which financed their vinyl habit. At the time, Manchester was in the grip of an electro fever, and this precursor to house and techno was the training ground for most of northern England’s young production talent, from A Guy Called Gerald to Nightmares On Wax. “Electro was massive in Manchester,” Darren told Sounds in 1991. “That’s what woke the kids up. Like with any type of dance music that there's a certain dance to, it really takes off. With electro it was body popping. It really put Manchester on the map for the first time.” In the mid '80s, no scrap of lino would have been safe from teenagers attempting headpins to Tricky Tee.
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By the latter part of the decade, energised by the acid house explosion, The Spinmasters were one of the hottest DJ teams in the North, as the residents at the scruffy rave pit that was Thunderdome on Oldham Road, a place where the love and peace of nights like Shoom was not necessarily always evident. “I remember heading over to the Thunderdome on Oldham St. with half a dozen of my mates,” recalls one Lancashire clubber. “808 boys Partington and Barker were on deck duty and the place was a sweatbox of acidic madness.” Their place as a Mancunian Hot Mix 5 was secured by their influential show on Sunset Radio (and, later, KISS).
One of the records they broke there was a then-unnamed track (often called ‘Theme From 808 State’) they played on a tape. “We played it on cassette as the last tune,” Andrew told RA. “Over the space of three weeks you could sense that it was doing something.” ‘Pacific State’, which was broken on BBC Radio 1 by – of all people – “Ooh” Gary Davies, was 808 State's first hit upon signing a deal with Trevor Horn’s ZTT.
When Gerald Simpson split off from the other founders, Graham Massey and Martin Price, they recruited Andrew and Darren to add rhythmic know-how to Massey’s polymathic studio chops, having met in Price’s Eastern Bloc record store, the informal electronic music common room of the era.
While the press seemed to labour under the misapprehension that bands like Happy Mondays and Stone Roses represented dance music in the city, the real heart and soul came from acts like 808 State, alongside Gerald’s output and the Ruthless Rap Assassins — all modernists, yet still steeped in the post-industrial red brickwork of Manchester’s industrial past.
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808 State continued to make music, always evading easy categorisation, frequently with surprising collaborators, from Björk to Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch or UB40, until 2002, when they took a 21st century hiatus. They returned two years ago as duo comprising Graham Massey and Andrew Barker with the excellent, self-released 'Transmission Suite', named after the abandoned old Granada Studio in which it was recorded. “Took me about five years to convince Graham to go back in the studio,” said Andrew. “Then we went in and at one point we had to say we need to stop now because we’ve made that much music.”
“His family and friends asks that people respect their privacy at this time but remember him for the joy he brought through his personality and music,” 808 State announced on their website. “You’ll be sadly missed.” And he will be.
Bill Brewster is a regular contributor to Mixmag. Follow him on Twitter