The man in front has his eyes closed now. Bald, in his late thirties, smiling ear-to-ear. He’s dressed like a stockbroker at a barbecue, the kind that might crowd round the meat, his open mouth filled with dip, telling whatever dirty jokes had been emailed round his office that week. His crisp, blue shirt is open to button three and tucked into chinos of thickest, brightest beige. Head back, he launches into a cod-ironic chorus of “ooah-ooah”, which gets a few replies, but mostly elated laughter from us and those nearby. Accoustic baffles cling to the ceiling, facing downward like burst-bellied fish. Their shimmering corpses have risen to the top of the tank; overfed perhaps by hypoallergenic nephews desperate for a pet. Their satellite-dish shape reflects the full force of the music directly back downward and onto the smiling, laughing, dancing crowd.
Whatever our differences, Mr Blueshirt-BBQ-Mouth-Dip-Man and I, we take a brotherly delight in giving thumbs-ups and scrunching our faces for emphasis in that way you do when you meet eyes with strangers in clubs. Only we’re in the Royal Albert Hall, and Where Love Lives is flying out of a 70-piece orchestra who appear as delighted to be there as we do.
We are among 5,000 people attending Prom 16 where, aided by Pete Tong, the Heritage Orchestra are taking the audience on a whistle-stop tour through house music history. Commemorating 20 years of BBC Radio 1’s Ibiza broadcasts, the set-list for the evening was perfectly pitched to those who came of age during the island’s mid-90s heyday; Daft Punk, Stardust, Frankie Knuckles, Faithless, Moby and Fatboy Slim all feature among the evening’s 24 tracks.
On stage, Jules Buckley, a conspicuously youthful conductor with the beard of a kindly, Cbeebies fisherman, leads proceedings with a canny air and a wry smile, conducting from a little stand which boasts a delightfully ornate golden back-rail, as though he is being roped-off, like a statue you’re encouraged not to eat near in a stately home.
Buckley co-founded the Heritage Orchestra with Chris Wheeler in 2004, when he was the ripe and supple age of 25. I have no contemporary accounts of how his beard looked at this time, but suffice to say, while most of his peers were cramming ever more Natasha Bedingfield CDs into the pockets of their combat trousers, or declaring the latest Windows XP update a limited success, Buckley had co-founded a great big fuck-off orchestra. To this day, its composition changes from job to job, and he has to balance it with his ongoing commitment to the Metropole, an orchestra in Amsterdam which he has the nerve to conduct at the same time. In a quiet moment, I think to ask if the pressure of running two huge orchestras gets too much for him sometimes. I consider sharing with him that I’ve only just gotten proficient at texting and walking simultaneously, and even then I still can’t do it on stairs; escalators at a push.
I don't say this in the end but I can tell from his silence that it’s very much the same for him.
I first met Jules some time ago since – full disclosure – he shared a Berlin flat with my brother for 3 years. In that time, I met and got on quite well with him - I refer here to Jules specifically, although my brother and I do indeed get on very well, and have in fact met more frequently during this time - but have to admit to being quite overwhelmed seeing him at work. Authoritative without being bossy or domineering, he was remarkably sanguine throughout the rehearsals I witnessed, during which, I saw first-hand the level of detail necessary to achieve their results. I mingled quite inconspicuously with a few of the musicians, asking insightful questions such as “Can I sit here?” and “where should I sit then?”. In reality, everyone was, of course, very accommodating and more than eager to chat about what they were doing. I was particularly drawn to an object I was subsequently told was called a contrabass flute. Nicknamed “the Beast”, this one in particular was played by much-feted Belfast flautist Gareth McLearnon, and basically looked like a 9-foot section of ruptured scaffolding, or a trademarked bendy straw from a children’s restaurant, crushed in the gripping maw of a giant, malevolent child. It was astonishing to see this unwieldy mass of technicians come together to recreate songs which had, in some cases, been made by a single person in a single bedroom, nearly thirty years ago.
The Heritage's lineup can grow from 30-70 members from gig to gig; “We always look at the music first” says Jules, “discuss the concept and from there assemble a group of musicians we feel suits the concept and output required”. So, parallel to the 40+ strings and dozen or so wind you might expect, the orchestra also has the hard-ass drumming superheroics of Adam Betts, who deserves his own Balaeric island in payment for the shift he put in for 70 minutes and all day each day in rehearsals. Betts was joined by his Three Trapped Tigers bandmate, Matt Calvert, who also smashed it on bass and electronics, alongside Rob Gentry on keys, who made light work of the many tricky synth lines throughout the evening.
Clearly, a lot of consideration went in since the Proms first approached them about the project, and in my short stint shadowing their preparations at BBC's Maida Vale 3 studio, I saw some casualties hit the cutting room floor, not least the orchestral/dance crossover smash Adagio For Strings. First a hit in 1936 for composer Samuel Barber, then William Orbit and, later still, grinning trance-cheese-Godhead, Tiesto, it has a reputation for being perhaps a little morose, if not fully suicidal. In the end, perhaps predictably, the Orbit version of the track they were hoping to feature was cut for mood and pacing reasons; as Jules put it to the musicians, “do we really want to get them to this euphoric point and then go, ‘how about we do the last scene of Platoon?’”.
A few other considerations came to my mind. Saber of Paradise's Smoke Belch II was probably my favourite track on their setlist going in, and I have to admit that seeing the BBC display the word ‘Belch’ in the iconic Gill Sans of the Proms program gave me the same nerdy thrill I used to get from spotting rude words in the dictionary. By 'spotting' I mean 'specifically looking up'. This led me to wonder if there was a conversation about which titles would make said cut, or if brackets and mix-identifying suffixes were an outright no-no. I wonder if they reckoned the Beeb would balk at displaying (Original Mix) at the end of a track name or, worse still, (Crookers Warrior Cat Rhinoplasty Re-Rub).
Of course, most of the evening’s selection was made for rather more sensible reasons. Curated by the orchestra in tandem with Pete, the selection started off with 50+ tracks, before being winnowed down to around half that. “We chopped it down to make sure we could perform enough tunes to keep the public happy” says Jules, citing a specific example of one that got away. “One we chopped was Born Slippy. Even though it's a huge, huge track we needed to make sure we could pull it off live and sadly we didn't have Carl Hyde to help us”. Sometimes there were more mundane concerns, “asking ‘which track is bigger?"; or the realisation that certain tracks were just a non-starter for style-reasons, “some of the real trance stuff didn't necessarily suit orchestral treatment”.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that so much of what remained did suit the treatment. Even with the loss of Adagio, the event is a great demonstration of how much of an orchestral component already exists in so much house music. The night opened with the soaring string hooks of Right Here, Right Now, itself lifted beautifully from the climax of James Gang’s otherwise mopey and maudlin 1970 track, Ashes, The Rain & I. Similarly, the propulsive horn blast of Lola’s Theme was gobbled from Johnnie Taylor’s What About My Love, repurposed into something more effective and powerful than its original form. Needless to say, its powerhouse introduction reduced the watching crowd to dribbling goons within seconds. And continuing with string parts, the mathematical formula for Moby’s Go is little else but Laura Palmer’s Theme by Angelo Badalamenti +drums +SUM(80“Go”+80“Yeaaa-aah”) .
With such a bankable proportion of the dance music canon being comprised of orchestral sounds, it shouldn’t really surprise that the effect works. Long a cannibalistic enterprise, and fundamentally an instrumental musical form, the use of sampling has left a huge legacy of such sounds within dance music that is ripe for trawling. Rachel’s Song by Vangelis (in its Oakenfold/Perfecto Orchestra incarnation) was done entirely straight as an orchestral piece, perhaps emphasizing that classical tracks have been dropped in to house mixes for reasons of gravitas since time immemorial.
As a set itself, the evening is tight, with the 24 tracks coming in at just over 90 minutes, although with minimal concurrency. For me, the single best mix of the night is in the stretch that spans Music Sounds Better- Strings of Life- Jaguar, which really showed the joy and simplicity of a simple, no-frills match; the vocals to Music continuing on into Strings’ first keyboard roll and violin stabs. From the back, the throaty heroics of Brendan Reilly lift Music Sounds Better – and earlier One More Time - above the realm of cover version to something infinitely more expressive and euphoric. While on the topic of vocals, Vula Malinga, whose rendition of the Alison Limerick classic, Where Love Lives was a highlight of the evening, also deserves a special mention. And should serve as a sterling reminder that a bit of Basement Jaxx would be proper order if they do this again. Meanwhile, Olivia Safe deserves credit for her breathy and ethereal work on Belfast and Rachel’s Song, both very tricky tracks that were bravely chosen and beautifully executed.
More generally, the vocal section demand praise for setting the dance etiquette of the evening. There was an awkward moment early on where the crowd – myself included – were slightly self-conscious about dancing. I don't mean from a technical standpoint; I won't speak for anyone else but I'm a fucking wizard on these stems. Seriously, I'm not even playing. It was more that, being the Albert Hall, I feared there were many people in plain view who might report any dancers to a nearby security man; the kind that look like they fast-forward through the downstairs bits in Downton Abbey, who might bar you for life from whichever county they own. It’s safe to say that without witnessing the ebullient, pace-setting movements of said vocalists, it would have taken a lot longer for people to give it the ol’ stanky leg in the hallowed balconies and alcoves of the Royal Albert Hall. In fact, within ten minutes the entire audience were giving it socks, including those pinch-faced old squares previously mentioned, all swaying together, eyes closed, their crooked, rheumatic hearts emboldened by the rhythms of the modern age.
It should also be added that, since time immemorial, cut-price tickets have been available for Prom events on the floor at the front of stage, the only drawback being that you can’t sit down. At a gig where everyone is standing, those cut price standing tickets at the front of stage effectively become the best in the house, with the best view, accoustics and price of anyone in the entire building. Which all sounds great, but I thought we were getting, like, y'know, super snooty tickets to ourselves, so maybe to make us more special they could make it worse for those guys; like, spray things at them or have a couple of loud dogs running around down there. I mean, they looked like they were enjoying themselves, these are just ideas.
The orchestra were aided on the evening by a couple of guest stars, and I can confirm that it appears medically impossible not to fall a little bit in love with Ella Eyre, whose mammoth shifts on both Good Life and her hearfelt, acoustic version of festival favourite – and Match of the Day Goal of the Month theme - Waiting All Night, were genuinely great. A little later on, John Newman took to the stage with a 50's jacket and kiss curl, jigging around in shiny spats and white socks as he belted out You Got The Love like a rain-drenched Teddy boy coming in from a tough day’s work down t’grease mill. This also led to one of the night’s sweetest moments when the entire orchestra softly sang along with him for the refrain to his hit Feel The Love, and they did so with an un-faked enthusiasm that really was quite touching.
In fact, the attitude on the night was so positive, you could be forgiven for interpreting the whole event as a direct affront to the memory of Cecil the Lion, the noble plains mammal cruelly killed by a dentist, just days previously. In fact, the lack of a direct tribute to the large African cat - barely even cold in the ground - was noted by most in attendance, and all present registered their disapproval by dancing loads and screaming for more tunes. It’s good to remember that, in grief, there are no wrong answers – we must each follow our hearts down that road which makes us better.
Having had such a strong response, rave reviews and been crowned Twitter’s Top Trending Topic for last week, Jules is thrilled, while still appearing cagey about an oft-requested repeat run of the show, “It's difficult to say whether we should tour it, maybe it would lose that magic we had" before adding, "it’s been quite overwhelming. I felt a lot of pressure from Heritage's perspective, as did Chris, so we are glad about that. The only negative feedback we get is from people who say 'they added drums and guitars and singers', which just shows how little they know of our work, as we have always had those guys in our orchestra. They probably still think we're in 1812”.
“I think the stereotype is that classically trained musicians only listen to Brahms" says Jules, "but actually they were all kids and teenagers too so the music of your childhood is unavoidable if you got to go to school. One of our brass members went clubbing every weekend and many of our core string players knew the tunes”.
At the end of the night, Mr Blue Shirt Man is gasping out One More Tune in a hoarse jabber, his voice long ago destroyed by the effort of pelting out the lyrics to two decade’s worth of seminal numbers. We’re not going in the same direction – he's going to fall asleep in a cab and I’m going to a very loud afterparty in a Knightsbridge club that looks like it was set-dressed for a mid-90s ITV sitcom – but in some sense we’ve been on the same journey, he and I. The cheesy old saw that the inclusivity of dance music brings people together has been proven true once more. Or maybe barriers are just falling down to the point that it's no longer surprising or noteworthy that Proms attendees would have anything musically in common with those queuing to get into Pacha or Privilege. Or vice versa. Hopefully this isn't the last taste of it we get here, rather than there. At the very least, the interiors are much nicer.
Watch the entire show WITH SMOKE & LASERS APLENTY below.