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The former enfant terrible at 50: Revisiting Apex Twin’s Windowlicker

“At self-promotion he’s a master/ Although the midweek’s a disasterThey used to fix things so much easier/ The good old days were fun and sleazier“  — Pet Shop Boys

In honour of the former enfant terrible Aphex Twin, who‘s been celebrating his half century on earth, the groundbreaking Windowlicker two decades on. MTV wouldn’t really spin the video, which was a ten-minute Busby Berkley-meets-David Cronenberg smorgasbord of hip hop bikini butts, gender-bent body horror, and featured more than 100 swear words.

The digital dub extravaganza was promptly criticised as sexist and/or racist. However, two decades later, it’s pretty evident that Windowlicker infected the mainstream nonetheless, with everything from Björk’s Vespertine and Radiohead’s Kid A owing some debt to Aphex Twin. So sit back, take everything with a grain of salt, and hope that you’ll be able to make music like this someday. I insist. 

One of the mainstays in pop music has been the bad boy. Think about it, why did teenagers fall in love with rock n’ rollers? It wasn’t because they were members of the Glee Club in high school. The kids love the rebellion, which is why ghastly guys like Tommy Lee and Axl Rose probably got more action than the entire Honour Roll combined.

So it seems odd to think the electronic music would have the same figures; after all, isn’t electronic music the realm of geeks and kids in baggy pants? But I assure you that’s not the case. Even electronica has had its own bad boys. And I’m not talking about the Prodigy’s piercing pro, Keith Flint. No, I’m thinking of someone more insidious: the Irish-born icon of inventiveness, Richard D. James, aka the Aphex Twin.

“Never heard of him,” you say? “Why should this nobody be labelled as the bad boy of beats’?”

Well, here’s why. If we look 20 years into the future, I think we’ll see three things. One, I’ll still be vaguely single (arf). Two, groups like the Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers and their ilk will be the subject of massive Where Are They Now? specials on VH-1.

Finally, in top secret facilities everywhere, scientists will still be trying to figure out how Aphex Twin managed to create music that was as beautiful as it was twisted, as delicate as it was complex.

That’s the trend from works like Come To Daddy (1997) which is continued on Windowlicker, the three-song single from two years later. The title track sounds like five or six different Aphex Twin songs trying to vie for the listener’s attention, or like a radio trying to pick up 18 different stations at once, before descending into a vicious, distorted spiral.

But get this, it’s incredibly hummable, and even a bit sexy — like a smooth R&B track straight from the cyclotron. The second track, Formula (the actual title is a mathematical formula that probably attempts to describe this song’s rhythmic patterns). Formula also ends about five times, each time picking itself up with a totally new sound that makes me think James let his machines and ego run a little too long.

However, it’s the third track that’s the oddball. The gentle, muted Nannou shows off the childlike naïveté that James so easily infuses in his music. Imagine a Victorian toy shop come to life, playing a symphony on music boxes made of crystal and porcelain. Gentle, soothing, and in direct opposition to the preceding material, twenty-odd years later it still astounds.

But who can explain Aphex Twin? Just sit back, take everything with a grain of salt, and hope that you’ll be able to make music like this someday.

Steve Pafford

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