FEATURE: Record and Rewind: Moby’s Play at Twenty




Record and Rewind

PHOTO CREDIT: Corinne Day  

Moby’s Play at Twenty


AS this year ends with a ‘9’...

 PHOTO CREDIT: Corinne Day  

there are lots of great albums celebrating anniversaries that were released in 1999. In fact, there are a load of wonderful records that have big birthdays. It is always exciting looking back and getting to discuss these influential and hugely memorable works. 1999 was a pivotal year for music and one where some big artists ensured the decade ended with a bang! Beck, Blur and TLC released some stunning albums but it is Moby’s Play that turned my head. On 17th May, 1999 Moby released the incredible Play. There was not a lot of expectation regarding Moby’s fifth album. Play was a change of direction after the rather average and critically-ignored/maligned album of 1996, Animal Rights. Embodying elements of Punk and Hardcore, Animal Rights was a change of real direction for Moby then – the man not quite sure who he was and what sort of music he wanted to produce! There were those who felt Moby was through by 1996. It took three years for the man to bring out any new music but one can understand the reluctance and need to craft something meaningful. By the time Play came along, gone were the Rock vibes and heavier sounds. Rather than bring out this angry and guitar-heavy album, Play is a more natural, ambitious and Electronic-based album that pleased fans and critics. Moby started recording Play in the middle of 1997 and you can see the work and passion in every song.

Moby had gained some respect and standing in the Electronic music scene long before Play was released – but it has been a while since he had any big kudos and reputation. This was a low point of his career (1999) and there was this need to reboot and regain focus. Maybe it was the changes in the music scene at the time – Moby getting away from Alternative and Grunge-type sounds – or a desire to release an album more immersive, positive and uplifting. There are darker tones in Play but, for the most part, one gets something quite warm and enticing. Play would go on to become the biggest Electronica album of all-time and has shifted over twelve-million copies. The fact Play sounds so cohesive and uniform is quite a shock. Moby had to halt recording several times during its creation because of touring commitments. Recording in Moby’s home-studio on Mott Street New York, there was a lot of experimentation and trial. The first mix displeased Moby and Play was then mixed outside his home-studio. Eventually, there was a mix Moby was happy with but a lot of time and money had been spent getting Play to an ideal standard. If a lot of Electronica music pre-1999 was more for the clubs and the underground, Moby made it more accessible. Adding in shades of Gospel, Pop and other genres, Play is a much more eclectic and engaging albums than a lot of the harder-edged and aggressive Electronica albums available.

Play stands out for a number of reasons. One of its biggest aspects is the use of samples and field recordings. Honey brings together Bessie Jones whilst Find My Baby joins Boy Blue to the mix. Elsewhere, we get Vera Hall and Bill Landford and The Landfordairs adding to this bursting and bubbling rainbow of sounds. I am a huge fan of albums that use samples and, whereas a lot of Hip-Hop classics employ scores of samples, Play is more subtle regarding its sourcing. The samples never encroach because of their brevity but they make a big impact. Such economy and clever combinations made Play an instant success and meant that we had this album that spliced African sounds together with Disco and Hip-Hop. Although there are some huge songs on Play, it took a while for the album to reach peak exposure. Critics did rave but it took licensing to get Play to the masses. Rather than rely on radio-play and music T.V. – which did feature some of the songs but did not garner huge reaction – Moby allowed tracks to be played on T.V. and film. Soon enough, momentum began to shift and Play reached new heights. Play’s status and brilliance has grown since 1999 but, whilst some of the early reviews were muted, there was plenty of praise. In 1999, Entertainment Weekly assessed Play thus:

Portions of this techno imp’s best album since 1995’s Everything Is Wrong are built on a simple premise: setting snippets from old blues and gospel recordings to new rhythmic (not always electronic) settings. What could’ve been a condescending gimmick yields some of the year’s most haunting, and haunted, music. Moby’s elegant soundscapes wipe away the mustiness on these decades-old voices and make the singers’ heartache and hope seem fresh again. Although in need of a bit of pruning (notable exception: the gorgeous ”Porcelain,” featuring Moby’s own plaintive vocal), Play is music that truly moves back to the future”.

In a contemporary review, AllMusic paid tribute to Moby’s masterpiece:

The first two tracks, "Honey" and "Find My Baby," weave short blues or gospel vocal samples around rather disinterested breakbeat techno. This version of blues-meets-electronica is undoubtedly intriguing to the all-important NPR crowd, but it is more than just a bit gimmicky to any techno fans who know their Carl Craig from Carl Cox. Fortunately, Moby redeems himself in a big way over the rest of the album with a spate of tracks that return him to the evocative, melancholy techno that's been a specialty since his early days. The tinkly piano line and warped string samples on "Porcelain" frame a meaningful, devastatingly understated vocal from the man himself, while "South Side" is just another pop song by someone who shouldn't be singing -- that is, until the transcendent chorus redeems everything. Surprisingly, many of Moby's vocal tracks are highlights; he has an unerring sense of how to frame his fragile vocals with sympathetic productions. Occasionally, the similarities to contemporary dance superstars like Fatboy Slim and Chemical Brothers are just a bit too close for comfort, as on the stale big-beat anthem "Bodyrock." Still, Moby shows himself back in the groove after a long hiatus, balancing his sublime early sound with the breakbeat techno evolution of the '90s”.

There will be a lot of celebration and focus when the album’s twentieth occurs on 17th May. Back in 2009, Rolling Stone ran about Play and Moby talked about the album’s success and struggles.

As slow as slow-burners get, Play didn’t pick up steam until the following year. “Almost a year after it came out in 2000 I was opening up for Bush on an MTV Campus Invasion Tour,” says Moby. “It was degrading for the most part…

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Their audience had less than no interest in me. February in 2000, I was in Minnesota, I was depressed and my manager called me to tell me that Play was Number One in the U.K., and had beat out Santana’s Supernatural. I was like, ‘But the record came out 10 months ago.’ That’s when I knew, all of a sudden, that things were different. Then it was Number One in France, in Australia, in Germany — it just kept piling on.

“The week Play was released, it sold, worldwide around 6,000 copies. Eleven months after Play was released, it was selling 150,000 copies a week. I was on tour constantly, drunk pretty much the entire time and it was just a blur. And then all of a sudden movie stars started coming to my concerts and I started getting invited to fancy parties and suddenly the journalists who wouldn’t return my publicist’s calls were talking about doing cover stories. It was a really odd phenomenon.”.

Moby discussed all the tracks on Play but he had a great story about one of the album’s biggest hits, Porcelain:

“Strangely enough, that’s probably the most signature song on the record, and I actually had to be talked into including it. When I first recorded it, I thought it was average. I didn’t like the way I produced it, I thought it sounded mushy, I thought my vocals sounded really weak. I couldn’t imagine anyone else wanting to listen to it. When the tour for Play started, “Porcelain” was the song during the set where most people would get a drink. But then Danny Boyle put it in the movie The Beach with Leo DiCaprio. It was Leo DiCaprio’s first film since Titanic and everyone went to go see it. He used the music so well in the movie. I think that’s when a lot of people became aware of the record”.

I remember snapping up Play not long before leaving high-school and I was not that familiar with Moby at that point. It was not T.V. visibility or film licensing that brought Play to my attention: instead, word-of-mouth and excited chatter at school compelled me to buy the album. I – like my friends – was listening to a lot of British music and Rock; a lot of the same Pop and was starting to discover great Electronic music.

After listening to the album once, Play embedded in my mind and introduced me to this new world. It is this fantastic and eye-opening experience that takes you somewhere special. Before singing things off, I wanted to highlight a BBC programme that involves Moby talking about Play’s track and its hard life. Have a listen to the show but, as is told, the modest start of Play did not indicate future success and worldwide acclaim:  

Without major label support or funding, Moby was left to his own devices, and he recorded Play “on second-hand equipment” in his bedroom. At a time when expertly-produced, shiny pop songs made by the likes of Britney Spears and *NSYNC were topping charts, the idea of a do-it-yourself electronic album achieving the same looked inconceivable.

Moby wanted a vocal-led record, but he couldn’t sing well enough, so he relied on samples lifted from CDs gifted by his friends Dimitri and Gregor Ehrlich.

The only exception was Porcelain, which Moby contributes the vocals for. “I grew up listening to a lot of post-punk, which was not about virtuoso vocal performances. I found that kind of empowering”.

When speaking with BBC Radio 2, Moby confessed that he is shocked by Play’s major success and how influential it has become:

Maybe this is a bad thing to say, but I still don’t think the music on Play is better or worse than the other records I’ve made. Obviously I’m mistaken. I don’t know why any of these songs connected with people,” he admits…

“If I had to possibly [guess], it’s because there’s a vulnerable, emotional quality to a lot of the music. And it was released at a time when there was not a lot of vulnerable emotion in music… I made this record in my bedroom, with broken equipment, after my mum died; so I think there was an inherent vulnerability in every aspect of the creation.”

Moby also believes he was fortunate in terms of when Play came out; a time he considers to be more carefree than the noughties. “Think about what the world was like in ’99 and 2000. We were innocent. The Soviet Union had ended. Bill Clinton was President. Tony Blair was Prime Minister and hadn’t disgraced himself by being a friend of George Bush yet. 9/11 hadn’t happened. Social media hadn’t happened. The world felt benign and innocent. When someone hears the music from Play, or other albums from that period, it’s their own youth and innocence.”

Play’s mellow, oddly uplifting electronic sound spoke to casual listeners and dance-obsessives too. “Along comes me and Air and Portishead and Massive Attack. It’s still dance-inspired electronic music. There wasn’t a cabal of electronic musicians who decided to make music you could play at a dinner party. But unintentionally that’s what we all ended up doing”.

As I said earlier, there are a lot of great albums from 1999 that will be marked and covered very soon. Moby went on to create great albums post-Play - but nothing that matched the invention and wonderful of his 1999 benchmark. Who knows whether he has another album like this in him but, considered the effort and time it took to record Play, he might not be in a rush to repeat the experience! There are so many brilliant songs on Play and each of us will have our favourites. Play is an album that seems to grow richer and more engaging with each passing year! As we are about to mark its twentieth anniversary, it is a great excuse to get the album out and understand why it is regarded as groundbreaking. I cannot wait to celebrate other big albums released in 1999 but none of them have quite the same story, legacy and magic…


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

AS Moby’s Play.