This memoir from Mark Archer, best known for his role as one half of rave pranksters Altern8, is the latest volume from Billy Bunter’s Music Mondays stable. The first book Bunter put out was his own biography, The Love Dove Generation – which was a surprise hit, as essential to ‘getting’ the genre as Simon Reynolds’ Energy Flash. Bunter’s book was a rarity - whilst there have been plenty of authors (myself included) who have told the story of the explosion of UK breakbeat culture from a position of remove, piecing together motives, conversations and decisions from interviews and archive material, Bunter’s was one of the first to convincingly tell that same story from an insider’s standpoint – and an unashamedly mental standpoint at that.
In The Man Behind the Mask, it appears that Bunter has encouraged Mark Archer to emulate the format of Love Dove Generation- as such there are constants between the books; the block quotes from Archer’s peers providing context to the story, a wealth of great photos (that’s something this book does really well – there are 3 sections given over to images, which is pretty essential considering how visual a prospect Altern-8 were), and the same co-writer in Andrew Woods.
Outside of that, Archer’s story is very different to Bunter’s – where the Love Dove Generation is the rambunctious tale of a rave geezer, the young Bunter moving straight from working the markets to working the raves, motormouthing it all the way, Mark Archer is pretty much the polar opposite. His story is, at heart, the tale of a crippling shy kid who overcomes social awkwardness by putting on a rave mask and presiding over mass euphoria.
Archer starts by telling the story of growing up in the Staffordshire countryside. He paints a fairly grim picture of his teenage years; he’s mercilessly bullied in the particularly all-encompassing way that small town Britain excels in, and has almost no friends. This forces him to disappear into music, discovering first hip hop and electro, then house. He’s lucky enough to be supported in his musical endeavours by his dad, and pretty much ends up falling into production by virtue of being one of only a handful of people in his locale who knows anything about dance music- the way he tells it, everyone else was far too busy headbanging to the ‘Maiden.
His subsequent rise to success is typical of many involved in the rave scene in the early 90s; a haphazard series of stabs in the dark, where kids struggled to master unfamiliar technology whilst freely nicking other peoples riffs, somehow creating music the like of which had never been heard in the process. Archer records under a number of pseudonyms with a number of other early-adopters, but it’s only when he links up with Chris Peat that things really fall into place. As Nexus 21 they become pioneers of a British rave sound, putting their own British spin on Detroit techno and quickly drawing the attention of Neil Rushton at the soon-to-be-massive Network Records. From there things spiral at an astonishingly fast pace – Altern8 is created as a throwaway offshoot, the legendary boiler suits and facemasks are only put on because they’re booked for a gig as Nexus 21 and Altern8, and don’t want the crowd to be cheated, and pretty soon they’re flying out to Detroit to learn production tips from Kevin Saunderson, travelling round Brazil with Moby, and pied-pipering kids around England with appearances on Top of the Pops and Dance Energy.
Archer himself never takes drugs; smoking gives him a headache and he never so much as looks at a pill. On the plus side, this means he’s got a pretty good recollection for the events that would usually be a haze, and he has a tone of slight bewilderment as he describes the sweaty eyed gurners (some of whom make up Altern8s dancers) that the band attract, and there are plenty of tales of bizarre rave pranks – particularly enjoyable are the press releases Altern8’s records come with, masterpieces of surreal bollocks that credulous journalists would reproduce verbatim, and Chris Peat’s attempts to stand for election (representing the Altern8tive Hardcore Party) in the 1993 General Election. He lost.
Unfortunately, Peat is completely absent from the book. Altern8 ended in total acrimony, and Archer and Peat are still at odds to this day. This means that the tale of the band is completely one sided. Whilst I can confirm from personal experience that Archer is one of the nicest men in rave, it’s strange reading such a partisan account of a collapse – especially because Archer was also kicked out of the fledgling Bizarre Inc before forming Nexus 21, something which he finds hard to explain. No doubt there’s a whole other side of the story that Peat (who from the evidence of a few bitter forum posts is still raging about the whole affair) could tell – but that side doesn’t get a look in here.
It should be noted that post Altern8, Archer continues to have a career in music, whilst Peat ducked out completely. This leads to the final third of the book, which is, in many ways as fascinating as the glory days of rave. Essentially Archer gets completely fucked for cash. He has no gigs, his inspiration completely dries up, he has no label, he gets hit with a massive tax bill and he ends up selling all his records, flogging his studio equipment, and selling his house. At one point he’s ballooned in size, and is holding down a job in Argos. It’s like Alan Partridge’s wilderness years stripped of comedy, and a depressing reminder of what happens to working class kids who throw their youth into music – particularly after the recession of 2007, where you feel Archer’s complete despair. This is the kind of shit that the current crop of already wealthy stars (step up Mumford & Son) will never, ever have to worry about, and as much about the state of Britain as it is about dance music. It’s only when Bangface start booking him again that Archer starts to pull himself out of a pit of poverty and failed relationships, and the book ends on a redemptive positive note – a genuine rags to riches to rags to (relative) riches story.
If anything, The Man Behind the Mask makes a strong case for the sheer influence of Altern8. At one point they describe themselves as ‘the Slade of rave’ – they could equally well be considered the Sex Pistols of rave; they released one great album, played endless tricks on the press, had questions asked in parliament (for supposed Satanic rituals – another nutty publicity stunt), wound up the police, and provided a dress code for a generation.