The Orb are an English electronic music group known for spawning the genre of ambient house. Founded in 1988 by Alex Paterson and KLF member Jimmy Cauty, The Orb began as ambient and dub DJs in London. Their early performances were inspired by ambient and electronic artists of the 1970s and 1980s, most notably Brian Eno and Kraftwerk. Because of their “trippy” sound, The Orb developed a cult following among clubbers “coming down” from drug-induced highs. The Orb has maintained their drug-related and science fiction themes despite personnel changes including the departure of Cauty and other Orb members Kris Weston, Andy Falconer, Simon Phillips, and Andy Hughes. Paterson has been the only permanent member, continuing to work as The Orb with the Swiss-German producer Thomas Fehlmann and later with Martin “Youth” Glover and Tim Bran of Dreadzone.
Alex Paterson prides The Orb on manipulating obscure samples beyond recognition in their albums and concerts; however, his unauthorised use of other artists’ works has led to disputes with musicians, most notably with Rickie Lee Jones. During their live shows of the 1990s, The Orb performed using digital audio tape machines optimised for live mixing and sampling before switching to laptops and digital media. Despite changes in their performance method, The Orb have maintained their colourful light shows and psychedelic imagery in concert. These visually intensive performances prompted critics to compare The Orb to Pink Floyd.
The Orb’s critical and commercial success in the UK peaked in the early 1990s with their albums The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and U.F.Orb, which reached #1 on the UK Albums Chart in 1992. This success led to their infamous appearance on Top of the Pops, where they showcased their quirky style by playing chess (an interest of Paterson’s since his early youth) while the group’s single “Blue Room” ran in the background. The Orb’s mid-1990s albums were met with mixed reactions from UK critics; however, their work received praise from American publications such as Rolling Stone. They experimented with vocalists on their next two albums, which critics generally described as bland and uninspired. The Orb then shifted gears to a minimal techno style spearheaded by member Thomas Fehlmann, releasing their new material on the record label Kompakt.
1988–1990: Paterson & Cauty
Alex Paterson began his music career in the early 1980s as a roadie for the post-punk rock band Killing Joke, for whom his childhood friend Martin “Youth” Glover played bass. After leaving Killing Joke in 1986, Paterson met future KLF member Jimmy Cauty and the duo began DJ-ing and producing music together under the name The Orb. Paterson and Cauty’s first release was a 1988 acid house anthem track, “Tripping on Sunshine”, released on the German record compilation Eternity Project One. The following year, The Orb released the Kiss EP, a four-track EP based on samples from New York City’s KISS FM.
It was released on Paterson and Glover’s new record label WAU! Mr. Modo Records, which Paterson and Glover created out of a desire to maintain financial independence from larger record labels. After spending a weekend of making what Paterson described as “really shit drum sounds”, the duo decided to abandon beat-heavy music and instead work on music for after-hours listening by removing the percussion tracks. Paterson and Cauty began DJ-ing in London and landed a deal for The Orb to play the chill out room at London nightclub Heaven. Resident DJ Paul Oakenfold brought in the duo specifically as ambient DJs for his “The Land of Oz” event at Heaven. Though The Orb’s Monday night performances had only several “hard-core” followers initially, their “Chill Out Room” act grew popular over the course of their six month stay to the point that the small room was often packed with around 100 people. The Orb’s performances became most popular among weary DJs and clubbers seeking solace from the loud, rhythmic music of the dancefloor. The Orb would build up melodies using multitrack recordings linked to multiple record decks and a mixer. They incorporated many CDs, cassettes, and BBC sound effects into their act, often accompanied with pieces of popular dance tracks such as “Sueño Latino”. Though they used a variety of samples, they avoided heavy rhythm and drums so as not to disrupt their intended ambient atmosphere. Most often, they played dub reggae and other chill out music which they described as “Ambient house for the E generation”.
Throughout 1989, The Orb, along with Martin Glover, developed the musical genre of ambient house through the use of a diverse array of samples and recordings. The culmination of their musical work came towards the end of the year when The Orb recorded a session for John Peel on BBC Radio 1. The track, then known as “Loving You”, was largely improvisational and featured a wealth of sound effects and samples from science fiction radio plays, nature sounds, and Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You”. For its release as a single on record label Big Life, The Orb changed the title to “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld”. Upon the single’s release, Riperton’s management forced Big Life to remove the unlicensed Riperton sample, ensuring that only the initial first-week release of the single contained the original vocals of Minnie Riperton; subsequent pressings used vocals from a sound-alike. Despite its running time of 22 minutes, the sample-laden single reached #78 on the UK singles chart. Soon thereafter, The Orb was commissioned by Dave Stewart to remix his top 20 single “Lily Was Here”. The Orb obliged and was soon offered several more remix jobs from artists including Erasure and System 7.
In 1990, Paterson and Cauty held several recording sessions at Cauty’s studio, Trancentral. When offered an album deal by Big Life, The Orb found themselves at a crossroads: Cauty preferred that The Orb release their music through his KLF Communications label, whereas Paterson wanted to ensure that The Orb did not become a side-project of The KLF. Due to these issues, Cauty and Paterson split in April 1990, with Paterson keeping the name The Orb. As a result of the break-up, Cauty removed Paterson’s contributions from the in-progress recordings and released the album as Space on KLF Communications. Also out of these sessions came The KLF album Chill Out, on which Paterson appeared in an uncredited role.
Following the split, Paterson began working with Youth on the track “Little Fluffy Clouds”. They incorporated samples from Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint and vocal clips from an interview with Rickie Lee Jones in which she recalls picturesque images from her childhood. While Reich was flattered by The Orb’s use of his work, Jones pursued the issue in the legal system. Big Life chose to settle out of court for an undisclosed sum of money for use of her voice on The Orb’s recording. “Little Fluffy Clouds” reached #87 on the UK singles chart; however, due to Glover’s other production obligations (and subsequently rejoining Killing Joke), he did not become a permanent member of The Orb.
The Orb’s members have drawn from an assortment of influences in their music. The Orb’s central figure, Alex Paterson, had early musical tastes and influences which included King Tubby, Alice Cooper, Prince, Kraftwerk, and T.Rex. Among these, Paterson cites Kraftwerk as one of the most important, claiming they created the foundation from which all modern dance music has been built. While in Brixton with Martin Glover as a teenager, Paterson was also exposed to a large amount of reggae music, such as The Mighty Diamonds, The Abyssinians, and Bob Marley. The reggae influence on Paterson and The Orb can readily be heard in tracks such as the single “Perpetual Dawn” and U.F.Orb’s “Towers of Dub”. The earliest ambient influences of The Orb came in 1979 during Paterson’s roadie days with Killing Joke. While with the band in Neuss, Paterson listened to Brian Eno’s Music for Films while on LSD and watched “the Ruhr steel works explode in the distance”, noting that “[t]he scene seemed to be taking place in the music as well”. That same night, Paterson was also inspired while listening to Cluster’s Grosses Wasser and found that the steel works’ “huge metal arms were crushing molten rocks in time to the music”, which was something he’d “never seen, or heard, anything like it before”. Along with Cluster and Kraftwerk, Paterson was also influenced by other German experimental music from Can and composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Modulations calls Paterson’s music a “maximal” version of Brian Eno’s “minimal” ambience, though according to Paterson, Eno resents Paterson’s use of his music as an influence.
The Orb has often been described as “The Pink Floyd of the Nineties”, however, Paterson has stated that The Orb’s music is more influenced by experimental electronic music more so than progressive rock of the 1970s. He has noted though that the Pink Floyd album Meddle was influential to him as a child in the 1970s. The psychedelic prog-rock similarities have led critics to describe The Orb as hippie revivalists; however, Paterson has strongly rejected the tag, claiming that even as a youth, he was “one of those punks who hated hippies”.
During production of Cydonia and Bicycles & Tricycles, Paterson’s biggest influences were drum and bass and trip hop music, as seen on the tracks “Ghostdancing”, “Thursday’s Keeper”, and “Aftermath”. The Orb’s more recent influences consist largely of German techno producers, such as Triola, who themselves were inspired by The Orb’s earlier work. Paterson cites the music of Kompakt as one of his primary modern influences and claims it to be among the best modern ambient music.
As chill out DJs in the late 1980s, The Orb often played to the needs of “the chemical generation” (ravers of the 1980s and 1990s), making music “to come down from drugs to”. Paterson described The Orb’s original intent as “basically about taking lots of drugs and going clubbing.” Similarly, one of The Orb’s early taglines was “Ambient house for the E generation”. Often during interviews, Alex Paterson will smoke joints, including a 2003 interview with The Guardian, where interviewer Will Hodgkinson noted the assorted “hash-smoking paraphernalia” around Paterson’s Battersea apartment. Drug references often turn up in tracks, such as “72” from Orblivion, which features a clip from Hair proclaiming “the youth of America on LSD!”. Another notable case is on “Little Fluffy Clouds”, which features the odd nasal tonality of Rickie Lee Jones’ influenced voice, though Jones says it was the result of a heavy cold.Imagery