In advance of the Great Dance, outside the city limits, a smaller but no less significant tribal gathering is taking place in Rode Stewart's back yard, better know as Epping Forest. They came not in droves but they drove in vans from every corner of the globe. Well, from Braintree and Finsbury Park, actually. And in truth there's only four of them. But beneath crop and skin, pointy hat and pink shock-follicle, there throbs a quadrophony of brains that have survived the best more part of a decade of rave wars and techno treachery.
And they share more they just a propensity for the odd killer breakbeat. Both bands emerged from different ends of the underground tunnel at roughly the same time. Fresh of face and baggy of trouser, The Prodigy came from the body-painted, white glove-wearing Essex rave scene. Pizza parlour graduates Orbital's roots lie in the more intimate, hipper-than-thou anarcho-party wing of the dance division. Both had massive hits early on (Orbital with 'Chime' and The Prodigy with 'Charly') and survived their 15 minutes of fame to become Shadow Cabinet Ministers for dance. Sort of.
In one sense they belong to the same exclusive micro-club: The Society For Star Techno Artists Who Are Not Wankers. But in another universe, and particularly when looked at through state-of-dance laser goggles, they are solar systems (and sound systems) apart. Just check the motors. The Prodigy cruise out of London for our appointment with a treescape in muzzled pitbull of a chrome and leather Chevrolet van. It's hired, admittedly, but with tinted windows remote control CD player and speed-burst potential it's still a state-of-mind symbol. It's the sort of van where you take your rubber John Major mask off after you've done over the Corporate Inc bank vault.
Orbital, by contrast, trundle towards Epping Forest in Phil's somewhat long-in-the tooth VW camper van, a vehicle designed with deck chair storage space in mind rather than 180 degree handbrake turns. There is no dippy daisy shakily painted on the side but there should be. It isn't that Liam is averse VW camper vans. He is himself a veteran of a number of VW Bug jams. It's just that with Phil it's a matter of practicality. With Liam it would be a matter of style. Stylistically, there is much distance between the two posses.
"HEY MAN! Your hair rocks!" Keith's hair rocks. Or so he was told by countless Americans on The Prodigy's recent US trip. And they don't mind a bit of rocking, The Prodigy. The Chevrolet ride out to Epping gives Liam the opportunity to nod approvingly to the Stone Temple Pilots, inquire about an obscure Smashing Pumpkins live album and fold his brow into deeper furrows at the Black Dog tape someone had give him. It's not the genre that's important to Liam. It's the thrill.
Beats, band, bikes - they're not fussy. When Liam and Keith were kids they used to come out to Epping Forest on their mountain bikes and go for it. Now Keith sits in the Chevy flicking through Performance Roadster (or something) motorbike mag, recalling how they recently f--ed up they mates from 'mod' band Mantaray to the extent that one of them had to be wheeled out of the Prod dressing room on a trolley.
Liam has the inner calm smile of someone who ended up on a saline drip in a US hospital following a night's boozing after their Brixton show, a transatlantic flight and a day's snowboarding in Colorado. Dehydration they said. Altitude. Not drugs, 'cos the band are off them (true-ish). But Liam still had to stagger around with a tripod coming out of his arm. You've got to laugh. And Prodigy laughter is a sub-species of Prodigy thrill. Both are matters of borderline lunacy.
Keith got up to all sorts at the weekend. But he couldn't possibly tell. Given, however, that Keith is Prod-promo-daredevil-in-chief, it was probably something awful. The word's got out on Keith. Insurance companies won't cover him. Something to do with his proclivity for Wall Of Death bikes and upside-down crowd surfing - an activity which he describes with poetic tears in his eyes. Like Keef Richards, Keith Flint should have a special spelling for his name. Keeeyfffmate. If only the insurance companies knew what a keen gardener he was.
TRAILING IN the wake of the Chevy, Orbital's Phil negotiates his (t)rusty camper along the ALL, while Paul parks himself in the back, wedged between sink and larder, engaging himself in the peaceful rolling activity of a non-herbal nature. The vibes are comfortable, with frilly net curtains. The soundtrack, countesy of the band's press officer, is purely techno; Carl Craig and endless demos from m -ziq's Mike Paradinas.
Orbital are currently gearing up for the challenge of following up last year's 'Snivilisation'. Having spent a tedious few months transferring data to a new computer system, they're now looking for fresh inspiration.
"There's not much out there at the moment," laments Paul, gesticulating, for no particular reason, at the cosy urban landscape of downtown Wanstead. Last time round they mainlined the manic jungle clatter between shipping forecasts and the fuzz of police car-radios. This time, who knows?
"A lot of techno seems to have got stuck in a rut," he say. "It's rare that you get something with real originality, like that Wagon Christ album. People seem to have forgotten about the value of a good tune. "
Funny bloke, Paul. Wearing the vaguely quizzical expression of a man who has just been woken from an 18-hour slumber, his roughhouse teddy-bear appearance complete with impressive new, er, hairstyle (He has hair! That's impressive!) conceals an alertness of mind which could, in the wrong hands, be dangerous.
While Phil is remarkably polite and soft-spoken - the sensitive artist down to his self-consciousness in front of a camera - Paul is endearingly brash with a big laugh and a broad smile. It's not hard to guess which one you'd choose to pour your heart out to in a moment of crisis and which is the most likely to ring your doorbell a 3am completely pissed, kebab in hand, singing a Belinda Carlisle song.
TO DRAG The Prodigy into the wilds with Orbital and get them both to openup about the value of the Tribal Gathering and the health of dance culture is a shotgun marriage. Orbital meets Prodigy is electronic auteurs opposite ravecore heroes. It's broadminded intelli-tech anarcho-punck-hippy-liberal Sevenoaks drop-outs clashing with hard-headed aggro-fun Thatcher generation individualist skate-kid Braintree energy merchants. Nice Blokes versus Mad Lads is shorter though.
They use the same studios - The Strong Room - to record (Orbital's room is above that used by The Prodigy but there are no cracks in the floorboards). They have shared experiences of The Obsessive American Techno Fan From Hell (who once persuaded Liam's parents to let her stay at the family home while Liam was away on tour!). But will they agree on the issues of the day?
Like, what would they do if Morrissey threatened to come round their house? Could they ever put a bullet in the brain of John Peel? How much would it really coast the Tory Party to use their music for an advert? And, while we're on a roll, would they pay the ultimate rock'n'roll price - take a permanent vow of abstinence from drink and drugs - in return for the Criminal Justice Act being repealed?
These, admittedly, are not the sort of dilemmas your average techno godhead is likely to encounter during the average working week. But as a guide to what goes on behind the wrap-around mirror shades amidst the complex mental circuitry of Messrs Hartnoll, Howlett and Flint, we learn many strange things. For instance, were La Moz ever to fall on hard times he could count on sofa space round Paul's house, albeit temporarily.
"Yeah, I'd have Morrissey round," admits Paul, with hint of selfdoubt. "Just for a cup of tea and a bun to find out what he's like, you know. It might be interesting. "*
Keith, however, is having none of it.
"I don't need to be depressed with some guy walking round my house with a bunch of flowers in his back pocked," he stresses. "See, the thing is, I'm quite into me shrubbery and me garden. I couldn't afford for it all to disappear into his 50ls. I'd be there going, 'Look, do you want a vase for them, or what?'"
Ok then. Let's cut to the hypothetical quick. Say you three people in front of you and you were forced to shoot one them - your manager.
"Stop there," interrupts Paul, eagerly.
.The Dalai Lama, or John Peel. Which would you choose?
Again, Paul's quick on the draw. "Easy," he boasts. "I'd go for the Dalai Lama every time, because he believes he's going to a better place. Anyway, he'd make the offer to save the others from their gristly deaths because he's that kind of bloke, isn't he? Anyway, our manager needs the time on earth to rectify all the wrongs he's done and make sure he goes to the same place as the Dalai Lama. And shooting John Peel would be like crucifying Winnie The Pooh. "
Liam ponders the matter a moment longer.
"I'd shoot the Dalai Lama. " He say, "because he doesn't get me better record deals and he doesn't get me gigs. I would have shot my manager two years ago when he lost me some money on my tour. No. The Dalai Lama. "
"I wouldn't actually shoot anyone because then my karma would be so f--ed up that I'd spend the rest of my life in a right pickle. " Confesses Keith. " Anyway, John Peel's quite cool really. Do you have to give an answer? He's matey with all the Rolls-Royces isn't he, the Dalai Lama? I couldn't do him somehow. "
"You'd do John Peel, wouldn't you?" Liam urges his Prod partner. " You're a little bit more zen than I am. "
"I don't think John Peel's done any particular harm, though. And you can't shoot one of your mates, I suppose if you've got a name with Lame in it you've got to be shot for that really. That's how I'd work it out. Liamas are quite vicious actually. And they spit at you. "
Paul Hartnoll, lateral thinker supreme, is obviously not a reluctant Uzi toter. So let's move on to the tough stuff: The Tories want to attract young voters with a 30-second blip-vert using Prodigy/Orbital music as a 'Jerusalem' -like anthem for their dubious cause. What's it worth, then?
"Getting rid of the Criminal Justice Act," demands Keith. "A straight swap. "
"And I'd have the c--s for, say, ten million," continues Liam. "I'd have it so everyone in the band was sorted. Two million each, that'd do us, wouldn't it?"
Phil, though, is unequivocally adamant.
"Not in a million fucking years," he mutters, shaking his head. "No price, no way"
"I would do it for something in the region of billions," admits the ever-nonchalant Paul. "I could set up my own political party and swallow them up. That's the only condition. OK, so you're prostituting your art but at least it's for a good cause. "
"Still, there's no way I'd do it," Phil insist. "You'd be on your own, mate"
Finally, the ultimate dilemma. The Government agrees to repeal the Criminal Justice Act, if you (yes you) sign a written affidavit stating permanent abstinence from your chosen form of substance abuse. Any takers?
"I'd let Keith do it," says Liam in Sergeant Major tones.
Oh absolutely. Drugs fuck you up anyway," Keith points out.
"I've almost given up anyway," adds Liam. "Are you talking about alcohol as well? That'd be hard. I wouldn't have to write any music anymore, though, I'd be a star just for doing that. "
"But you'd be well respected," say Keith, sagely. "When you actually see how people's lives are changed it'd be worth in. In a few years there'll be people sitting there going, 'Fuck me, it's not worth smoking draw, 'cos whilst I'm stoned I can't do anything apart from sit in my house' "
Phil, meanwhile, is utterly vehement: "I'd do that, no problem. "
"Does that mean that if I didn't do it, the Act could never be repealed?" asks Paul.
Paul points at his brother. "If he could do it rather than me, I'd be happier," he says, before reluctantly conceding the point. "Realistically, it would be a chance that you could never miss. If there was any other way I could do it without having, er, another pint of beep and a Benson & Hendges, then it would be infinitely preferable. "
"And how would you celebrate?" wonders Phil.
"I'd go on a walking holiday in the Lake District," continues Paul, "shouting 'Fuck off every time I came across someone going to a party. You'd find me in the arts and craft field in Glastonbury every year, or overdosing on lard. "
So what do we conclude from this masterful cross-examination? Paul is a smart-thinker and likes his lard, Liam's pursuit of stardom is more enthusiastic than your average faceless techno exponent and Phil has got the moral principles of a school governor. If only he could lay off the ganja.
As for Keith, the man with the precarious karma, he straddles the point between blissed-out hippy and cyberpunk overlord like a veritable colossus. He is also charmingly understated. Ask him what it's like to throw yourself off the lip of a stage and catapult into the rabid horde ten feet below and he'll use the unlikeliest of adjectives.
"Intense," he frowns, er, intensely. "When you're lying on your stomach with your feet up and they're passing you around it's like skydving. One of my favorites is to lie on my back with my head back and my tongue out, watching everyone passing me around. "
"He's mad," mutters Phil, shaking his head again.
Paul, however, is inspired. He turns to Phil and slaps his hands with glee. "Right, that's for me at Tribal Gathering. A bottle of vodka first and then I'm into the crowd. "
His brother shakers his head in disbelief.
TRIBAL GATHERING is Britain's biggest official dance music festival. One nation under five roofs, or tents to be precise, with the biggest DJ line-up in eons. But with all the extra baggage, the Criminal Justice Act, the decline of rave culture and the continuing cultural isolation of dance music, Tribal Gathering is rife with political connotations. So, is it the final nail in the coffin of the 'illegal' party, or a bright new dawn for the legal festival?
Liam takes an optimistic stance on things. "I think it's a positive move," he asserts, "because it's more of a festival and that's what we're into. So the way I look at it is if more people who are into dance music can get their heads round festivals and if the promoters can get around the idea of putting dance acts on, that can only be a good thing really"
"It's a far cry from the sort of parties I used to go to before the police clamped down," Paul interjects. From these weird warehouse parties in town to hippy traveller sort of events. There was a totally nice atmosphere, people were friendly and open, Torpedo Town Festival and things like that... All these little get-togethers from all over the country have just been completely fucked over by the Criminal Justice Act, even before then. All that is, is putting onto paper what the police have been doing fore years anyway.
"It was really spoilt before that, though, when people started organising big raves at little festivals. Instead of having a small party at a festival, you'd get big sound systems coming along, pissing people off. We've got this obsession in Britain with making events the biggest, rather that the best. "
"That's what ruined the rave thing really," adds Keith. "But the kids who are just starring going to parties and listening to music don't want to know about that. I'm sure that people going to Tribal Gathering as their first festival experience will still feel just as excited as we did when we started going out five years ago. "
"True," concurs Paul. "You go to Woodstock II and everybody's trying to make it like the first Woodstock, but in really I don't think anyone knows exactly what it was really like. People talk about Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock saying, 'Wow, man, it was incredible', and others say he played on a Sunday afternoon and there were only about 350 people watching him. "
What was Woodstock II really like?
"McWoodstock?" Paul grins, in recollection. "Well, it was very pizza and Pepsi cola, very hi-tech round the back with all these little electronic carts ferrying everybody around from place to place. It was very stadium rock, I dunno, it reminded me of what a baseball game would be like. We weren't really there long enough to tell, but our side of things was very good. In did seem a bit strange wandering around compared to what I know as a festival. Quite strange. "
An air of cautious optimism about Tribal Gathering is understandable. Last year two major UK dance festivals were cancelled at the 11th hour following licence wrangles with local authorities. If you're looking for a reason why it's taken this long for anyone to get it together when club and dance culture is the overwhelmingly dominant musical force in Britain, ask your local councillor. CJA or no CJA, dance music still spells trouble.
Another distraction from the honourable intentions of the organisers is the way that UK festivals have been run to now. The dance music community has been forced to turn to the Mean Fiddler group- organisers of both Reading and Phoenix festivals - to co-promote the Tribal Gathering, fuelling worries of the company's Murdoch-style monopoly over open-air events.
For a fairly representative demonstration of how it can go horribly wrong, turn back the clock two years and remember the Phoenix riot, with heavyhanded security staff trying to enforce a totally unrealistic curfew.
But in this era of CJA comedown, where the searchlights are trained on anyone with a barbecue in their garden and a beatbox in their bedroom (and that means YOU TOO, grandma), Tribal Gathering shines like a post-apocalyptic beacon.
All-nighters are rare enough in most of Britain, but to see Orbital, The Prodigy, Plastikman, Moby, Bandulu and The Chemical Brothers; to hear the likes of Laurent Garnier, Darren Emerson, Danny Tenaglia, Paul Oakenfold and LTJ Bukem Djing - well, it sounds good enough to break the law for. Except this time you don't have to.
And for Orbital and The Prodigy, this weekend is their biggest payback yet, a final confirmation of their status as techno godheads. But they're twinned here not just because they're the two headline acts at the one major rave-based festival to have survived last year's carpet bombing legislation. Having pioneered electronic music's move from the studio to the live arena, broadening dance music's appeal way beyond the club-set and the bedroom-techno fraternity, they've raised a pair of wiggling fingers at everyone who'd ever mentioned the word 'bollocks' in connection with techno.
"The important thing about Tribal Gathering," concludes Liam, is that it's the chance to start off something new. It's not about reviving the rave scene or kicking off a fresh Summer Of Love.
"It's got to be different and people have got to go there expecting to play their part in it. At the very least it should be the start of regular festivals for dance music and, maybe, it'll be the starting point for something bigger. "
And with a deep growl, a flash of steel and a could of dust, the Chevy is gone, leaving the VW pottering in its wake. We learned a lot today. Now let the party begin.