- Looking back on the quintessential '90s rave tune.
- Sasha first heard "Papua New Guinea" by The Future Sound Of London at a rave in Starcoast World, the Welsh holiday park formerly known as Butlin's Pwllheli. Pete Tong and Dave Durrell were playing back-to-back, and Sasha was waiting to hit the decks. It was 1991, but he still remembers it clearly.
"It absolutely floored me," he told me over Skype from Hong Kong. "I'd never heard anything like it in my life. Absolutely gobsmacked. In terms of music, it's one of the most powerful things I've ever experienced."
Released in 1991 through the London label Jumpin' & Pumpin', Papua New Guinea, which featured three versions of the title track, was the first release by The Future Sound Of London, making it a contender for the greatest debut of all time. Despite the name, neither member of the duo is from the UK capital—Garry Cobain was born in Bedford, Brian Dougans in Glasgow. They met at university in Manchester in the mid-'80s, though they didn't form FSOL until years later. By that point, Dougans, the older and more tech-savvy member, was looking for something new following the chart success of "Stakker Humanoid," one of the first acid tracks to go mainstream. Cobain, meanwhile, had been hustling to get enough cash to set up his own small studio. When Dougans got back in touch, he was making the best music of his life.
Together, Cobain and Dougans began bashing out killer club 12-inches under names like Candese, Mental Cube and Intelligent Communication. These paid the bills and were popular with DJs, but the pair had grander aspirations, a desire, as they told Sound On Sound in 2006, to "get the balance of Debussi, Cocteau Twins, Cabaret Voltaire and dance music all in the same bag." This became their debut album, Accelerator, whose centrepiece, literally and figuratively, was "Papua New Guinea," a track so popular it hit the UK charts at #22 and earned the duo a major label deal with Virgin.
The album version is longer than any on the EP version of Papua New Guinea, which came out around the same time, but the track it most closely resembles is the "Dali Mix," which later became the "12" Original Mix." This is the dance floor smash. Lush and feverish, it's built from a hodgepodge of samples, including sounds from a nature documentary about Papua New Guinea. Cobain and Dougans nicked the rumbling, proto-jungle bassline from Meat Beat Manifesto. The soaring howl, which enters in a rush of euphoria midway through, was cut from the UK house act Circuit.
The track's other vocal, sombre and wailing, came from Dead Can Dance's "Dawn Of The Iconoclast." It arrived via unlikely source. "My girlfriend had gone and been unfaithful to me in Greece because I'd been unfaithful to her in Balham," Cobain told Sound On Sound. "She was teaching English and she did it with a student, and once she'd paid me back for my unfaithfulness—it was a one-all draw—we got back together, but she continued to receive these rather puppy-doggish tapes of tracks that were lamenting his lost love. Well, on one of them was the Dead Can Dance song ['Dawn Of The Iconoclast']."
But for all the crafty sampling, the record's most powerful sound was created by Dougans. If "Papua New Guinea" is the quintessential '90s rave tune, a spine-tingling tangle of hardcore, ambient and Balearic, then its gated strings are a big reason why. They make the track epic.
"I must have gone in the studio for around ten years trying to recreate that," said Sasha. "And I never got close."
Cobain and Dougans never made another track close to "Papua New Guinea," but neither did they try. Their first and last commercial hit opened the door for them to explore other sounds and concepts. In 1994, they released their second album, Lifeforms, which ditched the dance floor altogether. After that, they never looked back, except, on a couple occasions in the '00s, to revisit and reimagine the track that made them famous.
"'Papua New Guinea' just captured a moment in time," said Sasha. "It's still one of the most powerful pieces of music. I play it every now and then when it feels like the right occasion. So much music from that age hasn't dated that well, but this… Talk about timeless."
A1 Papua New Guinea (Dali Mix)
B1 Papua New Guinea (Dumb Child Of Q)
B2 Papua New Guinea (Qube Mix)