Acid Over Hollywood: How “Blade” Immortalized a 303 Anthem

February 26, 2019

What is the most recognizably “rave” song of all time? Leave anything verse-chorus-verse at the door in favour of those predominantly instrumental thumpers whose legend have been fortified at legitimately dangerous decibel levels – all smoke and strobes, pills and pints, blood and thunderdome. These are anthems so innately evocative of clubbing that they should scan as an example of the form to someone who has never set foot in a hole in the wall, let alone a Funktion One-rigged hangar.

A first option to mind might be “The Bells” that ring eternal. Nostalgists could credibly draw for the sugary hardcore of Liquid’s “Sweet Harmony.” This side of the millenium, Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400” continues to echo around sports stadiums and Darude’s “Sandstorm” refuses to blow over, though both are whimsical rather than warehouse-pleasers by nature. Yet the one that has arguably hit the most ears over time is one few clubgoers can actually name. But it’s known all the same, thanks to a then-washed-up company by the name of Marvel Studios.

In 1998, just a couple years after full corporate bankruptcy and at a time when the superhero genre was in the doldrums, Marvel bet the farm on a thriller with a black protagonist – half-vampire, half-immortal, all-action Wesley Snipes – clad in black leather. Blade was a lodestar not just for the hit factory that has come to utterly dominate the contemporary era of cinema, but a subgenre of stylish pulse-racers that brought dark clubs into the clear focus of a blockbuster lens, such as The Bourne Supremacy, Swordfish, XXX and The Matrix. It was a risk that paid off thanks in no small part to its bloodbath of an opening.

Down carcass-lined corridors of a meat factory, a door opens to a rave in full flow. A punter bundles through the throng, lured by the promise of action. Disorientation is rife; the air, presumably, is choked with amyl nitrite. Suddenly, a few specks of red land on his face – then, a cascade of claret. Blood sprays from overhead sprinklers as the sucker realizes that he is surrounded by vampires. Propelling the sequence is an acidic air raid siren, a frenzied missile that spirals in intensity until the introduction of Snipes’s character kills the vibe, then the entire club.

For all the cartoonish carnality, the scene depicts rave culture of the time surprisingly accurately. The goatee’d DJ is an uncredited appearance by Bad Boy Bill, a Chicago vet who hustled tapes and put out early DJ Pierre material before moving into hard house. A set of Orbital-esque torch-glasses are strapped to his head for guidance. His peak-time weapon carries a frisson of danger, wide-eyed abandon and nosebleed rush, which nails the relentless pummel of late ’90s club fare. There is barely any dialogue or SFX in the introductory scene. All we get is an untrammeled four minutes of full-blast acid techno, identified in the credits as “Confusion (Pump Panel Reconstruction Mix).”

Blade earned $131 million at the international box office in 1998, a year where a ticket stub averaged $4.70 in the States. Somewhere north of 25 million curious cinemagoers worldwide heard “Confusion,” and thats before factoring in home media consumption and illegal downloads circulating on early peer-to-peer networks. That’s not to mention anyone who has heard its overdriven 303 lead hammered out by a DJ, or any of the multiple knockoffs that circulated in its shadow. The song is both subconsciously familiar and unfamiliar to millions.

The game changing moment arrived when we used an old guitar pedal, custom sprayed with silver paint and with black tape shaped as an X on top. The make? No idea.

Tim Taylor

The genesis of that curdled banger comes from an unlikely source: New Order. In the late summer of 1983, they released “Confusion,” a snappy freestyle jam that owes as much to producer Arthur Baker as the mardy Mancunians. It is a perfectly competent number, though it lives in two enormous overlapping shadows cast by both the preceding single (“Blue Monday”) and album (Power, Corruption & Lies). The band tweaked it in ’87 to fit their first best-of compilation, Substance, but it fell out of their tour setlists that year, save for one final outing at Reading Festival in August 1998 – the same week Blade was let loose to the public.

After the band fell out in 1993, their label London Records fulfilled contractual obligations by cobbling together another two greatest hits packages: (the best of) New Order, featuring new licks of paint applied to old singles; and (the rest of) New Order, with hip hitmakers in the orbit of London’s sister imprint, FFRR, tapped for a fresh batch of remixes. Alongside Armand van Helden, Shep Pettibone and Paul Oakenfold, one of the artists invited to the FFRR offices in the winter of 1994 was a duo consisting of Tim Taylor and Dan Zamani, who went under the production alias of the Pump Panel.

By then, Taylor was already a well-thumbed Rolodex card in the industry. In the late ’80s and early ’90s he had worked as a booking agent and tour manager for the likes of the KLF, Frankie Bones, Womack & Womack, Guru Josh, Jungle Brothers, Ice-T and touring Chicago DJs riding the international popularity of house. He was caught, he says, “in the eye of the perfect rave storm.” Taylor had cut records that did significant club damage, most notably Egyptian Empire’s hardcore hit “The Horn Track.” Yet it was his frenetic, self-ascribed “funky as fuck” work with Zamani under the Pump Panel name, with additional mixdowns and writing chipped in by Synewave founder Damon Wild, that had necks in techno circles craning over to see who the upstarts were.

Their focus “was always on the bassline, the hook, the loop, the mental noise and the crazy vocal refrain” – which seems simple enough, but for the fact 1994’s breakout “Ego Acid” took months of trial-and-error in the studio to match a hummable 303 bassline with the “correct drums and FX to drive the tune forward.” Released simultaneously on Synewave and Taylor’s own Missile Records, close to 100,000 copies of the 12"s were sold, helped along by an inclusion on Carl Cox’s F.A.C.T. mix CD in early 1995. It not only made their name in the underground, but formed a foundation upon which their opus would be built.

The original pitch from FFRR was for the Pump Panel to tackle “Blue Monday.” They passed. As a longstanding fan of the band, improving upon what Taylor cites as a “perfect track” was regarded as an impossible job, so they settled on “Confusion” instead. The “Reconstruction Mix” that the Pump Panel eventually turned in was such a different beast that New Order were not even mentioned during its world premiere on Kiss FM in March of 1995, nor in much of the subsequent press. The label, though, were delighted with the outcome. They even sent a 2" multi-track master tape of Lil Louis’ “French Kiss” for Taylor and Zamani to apply their bombastic chops to. Once again, they wisely declined – but stashed the tape away in their vaults as a keepsake.

If anything, the use of “Reconstruction” in the song’s title sells it short. The links between New Order’s version – the bottom-end of which Taylor compares to having the impact of “a ping pong ball” – and the resulting 10 minutes of apocalyptic carnage are close to nonexistent. Only a solitary vocal chant and flickers of the chorus were retained from the original, and even those were filtered through a vocoder and couched deep in the mix. Though it feels like a tonker version of “Ego Acid,” over 40 different basslines were in fact tested out on their 303. Even then, they couldn’t put their finger on what was missing. That something was dirt.

While furrowing away in Brixton’s Butterfly Studios, Taylor and Zamani started rooting around the “nasty old guitar effect boxes” left behind by Britpop also-rans that shared the space. They were determined to deliver a bomb. “The game changing moment,” Taylor recalls, “arrived when we used an old pedal, custom sprayed with silver paint and with black tape shaped as an X on top.” Countless homemade attempts, patches and online tutorials have sprung from that one moment of divine, distorted intervention. The make and model of pedal in question? “To this day we have no idea.”

The Pump Panel’s take on “Confusion” was a hit, although not a massive one at first. It found special favour on the Los Angeles club circuit, a fixture in the record boxes of staples like Tony B!, Richard “Humpty” Vission and DJ Dan, AKA Daniel Wherrett. One night in 1996, Wherrett, who says that he “ended up buying three copies of the record, because I loved the shit out of it,” was playing one of those copies to a sold-out LA warehouse party. It was there that Wherrett caught sight of Wesley Snipes – recently tapped to replace LL Cool J as the lead in a hip new vampire flick – lurking in attendance.

Snipes took a bunch of friends to check another one of DJ Dan’s shows a month later, at the Martini Lounge in Hollywood, where he introduced himself to Wherrett by the side of the booth. For the second time, “Reconstruction” found its way into the ears of the Demolition Man. This was enough to seal the deal: Snipes got the track ID, went to his production company, Amen-Ra Films, and asked them to license it from FFRR. On a soundtrack that had gone gold by the spring of 1999, also featuring bona fide stars Bizzy Bone, EPMD and Mobb Deep, it was the unknown acid bit that proved the talking point.

By the time Taylor bought a ticket to check out Blade in November 1998, the film had already topped the US box office, but as this was a time before syndicated release dates, and much before advance leaks, he didn’t know the specifics of the song’s prominence. Taking his seat in the theatre, his mind was blown. “My jaw dropped as the acid riff synched with the blood gushing over bodies of frenzied vampires. It was an instantly iconic moment in both cinematic and dance music history.” Blade was that rare thing, a modern-day superhero film without a well-known origin story for anyone other than dedicated comic fans. With no analogue for the majority of viewers, “Confusion” provoked a similar shock of the new. For the masses, that 303 bassline was intrinsically bound to the very notion of raving. In a stroke, it cemented Taylor’s position at the front of a scene he had worked on the sides of for his entire adult life: “To have your music immortalized in such a way is priceless.” But much like the condition of the film’s protagonist, immortality comes with complex and unforeseen caveats.

After message boards dissected how to mimic the Pump Panel’s painstakingly developed sound, it became a tool to be drag-and-dropped into various cheesy offshoots in hardstyle, electro-trap and progressive trance.

If you tuned into Radio 1 to catch the UK Singles Chart on December 9th, 2000, you might have guessed there had been a programming error at the BBC. Two pretty much identical songs went out on the airwaves within minutes, first at #9, and then again at #5. One lifted a line from Public Enemy; the other had a hokey spoken word section about “blood coursing through your veins.” But the bassline tasked with doing the heavy lifting on both songs was right there, in the open, completely untampered and completely the same to the untrained ear.

Two years after Blade’s release, Public Domain’s “Operation Blade” and Warp Brothers vs. Aquagen’s “Phatt Bass” met at the upper echelons of the chart. Hard house and trance had overtaken techno as the dominant mainstream dance sound in European clubs, so the rare combination of rowdiness and pupil-dilating euphoria found in the Pump Panel’s “Reconstruction” kept it in rotation even as dancers’ and DJs’ tastes changed. Its ubiquity apparently validated using Taylor and Zamani’s work as open-source material, as if it was a preset built by Roland engineers instead. A third track, Voodoo & Serano’s “Blood Is Pumping,” followed into the UK Top 20 in February 2001, while Public Domain was still lingering in the Top 40. Between them, they sold millions.

“Pathetic efforts and talentless people,” says Taylor of the copycats. The problem extended beyond official releases, however: After online message boards dissected how to mimic the Pump Panel’s painstakingly developed sound with passable accuracy, it became a tool to be drag-and-dropped into various cheesy offshoots in the fields of hardstyle, electro-trap and progressive trance. Arena audiences didn’t appear to mind. Taylor’s attention in the early 2000s was duly split between managing Missile’s stable of acts – including the Hacker, Inigo Kennedy and DJ ESP – and rolling court battles to claim back a percentage of profits generated by the producers who plundered his work for commercial gain. “In the end, the Pump Panel were paid in full. But it took a lot of patience for that to come through.”

This muddying of already blood-splattered waters continues to hamper the recognition of the Pump Panel to this day. It’s hard to codify the fragmented popularity of their “Reconstruction,” let alone all that spawned in its wake. A dozen options taken from YouTube’s landing page, all using identical audio but with wildly divergent names, tally just shy of 40 million plays. Once you wade past options with an carousel of interchangeable tags like “bloodbath remix,” or “vampire dance club” or “blood rave HQ,” the highest correctly titled upload sits on 650,000 plays. Yet that’s less than any of the chart-bothering imitators, and less than the combined count of two uploads crediting 10 minutes of 303 overload, implausibly, to Rammstein.

Taylor harbors no conflicted feelings about the song that should have made their name, but never quite did as intended. His group retained their authenticity and achieved unparalleled exposure without becoming a gimmick: “Our ultimate validation was to have our name prominently featured on the closing credits of Blade. We are satisfied with that.” The contemporary vogue for experiential concept events has lately helped spur a second wave of awareness. In 2015, two “Blood Raves” took place in quick succession, where thousands of ravers willingly subjugated themselves to being sprayed with red corn syrup. Taylor played one of these in Amsterdam but, somewhat fittingly, the lion’s share of public attention went elsewhere, to the show at New York’s Terminal 5. The Crystal Method, who appeared on the soundtrack for Blade II alongside Voodoo & Serano, was booked there instead.

“The impact of our ‘Confusion’ remix seems to be more profound today than in the ’90s,” Taylor reflects. “It’s chartered a unique journey from underground 12" to cult track to subgenre and then to subculture. New generations are constantly discovering this music through the movie, so the whole saga continues to evolve.” Plus, if Snipes ever comes knocking again, “there are still some hidden Pumps waiting for Blade 4.

Even then, the first bite will stay the deepest. Blade worked a Trojan Horse, giving millions an unasked-for, but not unwelcome, first contact to rave culture, as well as the unmistakable wail of a Roland TB-303. Had New Order remained on speaking terms, or LL Cool J committed to his role in Marvel’s comic adaptation after all, the global awareness of acid might be bloody different today.

On a different note