I had a dream the other week, and that dream has lived with me since, accompanying me in my waking hours, shadowing me, hiding behind bushes and lampposts, emerging when I least expect and want it to. The dream was a simple one. There were no shocks in the dream, and no psycho-spiritual revelations either. It was, in many ways, just a dream like any other dream that drifts in and out of you; an inconsequential set of images and ideas that don't portend to any great truth.
In the dream I find myself browsing the magazines in a branch of Borders and each magazine I pick up looks normal, until I wrest it from the shelf and open it up. Inside, again, things look normal, until I notice that something's not quite right. I hold a page of The Botanical Register close to my eyes and see that every single word on the page is "FREEMASONS." I grab an issue of Curry Club Magazine and instead of recipes for chickpea korma it's just "FREEMASONS" over and over. The same goes for Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Metal Hammer, and Grazia. Wracked with nausea anxiety, I flee the shop. "FREEMASONS," I shout to a group of alarmed looking ladies-who-lunch as they bowl out of Carluccio's, "THEY'RE EVERYWHERE!"
It was just a dream. The Freemasons aren't everywhere. They're not anywhere. Not anymore.
They used to be though. You used to be able to walk into any record shop in the land and find a few of them knocking about. You see, the Freemasons weren't as hidden as they'd like to you believe. Tracking them down was easy enough. They hid in plain sight, utilising a series of codenames—BN3, The Alibi, Walken, Funk Fanatics, and Pegasus—to infiltrate the charts and clubs of Great Britain. They succeeded, too, not that you'd know it. For years these mysterious backroom figures silently rubbed greasy, shadowy brilliance over the biggest acts of the day. Their contribution to society went largely unnoticed, but now, nearly a decade on from their imperial phase, it is time for us to take stock of what Russell Small and James Wiltshire did—for they are the Freemasons we're talking about here—and why they did it.
The "what" is a pretty simple conundrum to solve. As Freemasons, Small and Wiltshire remixed everyone from Jamiroquai to Beyonce, Rihanna to Shakira, Katy Perry to Adele. There was work with George Michael and Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross and Loleatta Holloway. They also tossed off refixes of acts like Herd & Fitz, The Disco Boys, and Steve Mac vs Mosquito (featuring Steve Smith) too, but hey, there's nothing wrong with making a quick buck. As remixers they were closer to Fatboy Slim than DJ Sottofett—commercially-minded chintzy pop-house smashers commissioned by caviar-stuffed executives to be consumed by the sugar-saturated denizens of the nation's high street clubs. Records of a rare kind of honesty, the best of their output—the OTT rush of their take on "Most Precious Love" by Blaze, the fucking TOWERING version of Kelly Rowland's "Work" they turned in, the campy, Christmassy stomp of "I Decided" by Solange—is imbued with the most refreshing lack of artistic pretension imaginable. Admirable artlessness was the aim of the game.
To tell the rest of the Freemasons' story, we need to tell another story; a story of wanton recklessness, hostile markets, youth revolutions and, ultimately, death. That story, which we'll keep brief, is the story of the CD single. You remember singles, don't you? You remember walking into Woolworths with three pounds in your pocket and limitless possibilities? Week in week out there were at least 40 records ready to be taken home and slipped into a portable CD player, whole new worlds available to you at a pocket-money friendly price-point. You'll remember, too, that the main event—"Purple Pills" by D-12 or Bell & Spurling's "Sven, Sven, Sven" for instance—was, in a switcheroo of the traditional boxing format we're so clunkily using as our metaphorical frame here, followed by a few lesser bouts.
B-sides, as they were called, kids, came in a few shapes and sizes. In addition to the undernourished new material and the underwhelming live renditions of the main course, record company executives cottoned onto the fact that remixes were a decent space-filler, even if they probably weren't going to shift units in and of themselves. Taking pressure off their acts—there was no need for Lemar or David Sneddon to squeeze out a talent-level-sapping new ballad for the sake of it—was beneficial for all involved. Particularly the legion of DJs who packed out the clubs of Basingstoke and Burnley on Friday nights.
These remixes, produced in their hundreds by their high-profile acts like Freemasons or Swedish sensation StoneBridge, served their purpose to an exemplary degree. And then that purpose was found dead, its blackened blood dripping down the cracks between the floorboards. The murderer? Digital downloads.
The emergence of digital as the primary means by which the traditional single-buying-audience accessed music, be it through paid-for downloads, the all-you-can-eat-buffet that is the streaming services, or good old fashioned virtual theft, was always going to kill off the CD.
Flimsy and fusty, the CD was never as cherished as vinyl or fetishised as cassette, and as such it was always destined to go the way of the Minidisc. Which it did at a rapid pace. Woolworths went and HMV, by this point the last remaining chain on the nation's endlessly and anodyne high streets, had started stocking more Skullcandy headphones and Russell Brand books than Skullflower albums and Russell Watson singles. The CD was a waste of retail space, a physical obsolescence whose vanishing act was mourned by few. The single buyers seemed happy enough to borrow dad's debit card and blap 79p on the latest Stooshe release, and, frankly, who could blame them?
The album, somewhere along the line, went through a radical transformation too. Surprise releases, digital only bonus tracks, and the fundamentally important realisation that considering the album as the 'best' or most 'important' way of collecting and collating music was at best a romanticism that belonged to a bygone age and at worst a pernicious myth crafted by the labels as an easy way to get an impressionable audience to part with their dwindling disposable income, all added up to create an environment in which our relationship to music as a buyable commodity was irrevocably altered. What comes next, and how both the industry and their paying (or more pertinently not-paying) customers reacts to the seismic shifts, is incredibly difficult to predict. What we can predict, what we can know, and what we can learn from is this: the digital download killed the Freemasons. And it didn't just kill them, either. It killed an industry.
The Freemasons still make remixes, StoneBridge does too, and you only have to spend a cursory second or two on SoundCloud to notice that the anonymous remix hasn't gone anywhere. People are still feeding the day's superstars through FruityLoops and that isn't likely to change any time soon. What has changed, though, and changed forever, is getting labels to pay for these perfunctory bodge-jobs. Sony, EMI, Parlophone—the pinstriped captains of industry—don't have the space to fill anymore, and don't need to PayPal bundles of virtual pounds to fill that space.
Without that need, the remixers find themselves out of pocket, having to gamely fuck about with hi-hat stems for nothing but the presumably immense satisfaction that arises from smashing out a "Bitch Better Have My Money" remix during the course of an episode of Rick Stein's Long Weekends. And we, as music fans, as clubbers, lose out on a previously reliable source of airheaded pleasure. A pleasure we found in the clubs that don't care about cool, or on the radio stations more interested in DJ Jean than Jacques Greene. We've had to say goodbye to the bog-standard house remix of a pop record and that, genuinely, is a huge shame.
I had a dream last week, and in that dream the Freemasons were everywhere.