How 'Trainspotting' Made Underworld's "Born Slippy" One of the 90s' Most Iconic Songs
We talk to Underworld's Rick Smith about the creation of the zeitgeist-capturing hit, working on the sequel 'T2 Trainspotting,' and shouting LAGER LAGER LAGER!
Trainspotting arrived in the UK like a juggernaut, ram-raiding theaters. Two years earlier, in 1994, debut director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald, and star Ewan McGregor had caused some cinematic ripples with their comic thriller Shallow Grave, but their follow-up was a revolution. With just one movie this gang seemed to singlehandedly revive the ailing British film industry—it wasn't just alive and kicking, but screaming and shagging and pissing and puking. Trainspotting was the celluloid calling card for Cool Britannia, and it emboldened a generation.
Adapted from Irvine Welsh's ADHD heroin odyssey of the same name, it was as sexy as it was scuzzy, brimming with as much life as death, an ode to youth, sex, friendship—and music. Inseparable from the film was its soundtrack. On screen, sound and vision were indelibly married. Renton running from the cops to Iggy Pop. Diving down a toilet to Brian Eno. Overdosing to Lou Reed. And on CD, this ultimate mixtape, rock, pop, and techno were all slammed together, all with equal prominence, which spoke to what was going on in the clubs and on the streets. In mid-90s Britain, tribes were disappearing, coming together. You didn't have to take sides any more. Everything was open.
Of all the songs though, above and beyond all the big names, Underworld's "Born Slippy. NUXX" soared heroically. Soundtracking the film's climax, an adrenalin rush of freedom and betrayal, it mixed sublime synths with a four to the floor freakout, and represented everything that was going on; it was new. While making Trainspotting, Boyle had used Underworld's album Dubnobasswithmyheadman as a sort of rhythmic guide, but randomly found this 12" remix in a record shop, listened to it, and immediately knew he needed to end the film with it. Trainspotting, he later said, was ostensibly about heroin, but was rhythmically more like ecstasy, and "Born Slippy" provided the perfect crescendo.
Underworld's Karl Hyde had written the lyrics after a night of heavy drinking in London's Soho, stumbling out of The Ship pub and making his way around to Tottenham Court Road station to try to catch his night train home. The song, he has said, was a cry for help—the shouts of "lager lager lager" were self-loathing irony, and as "Born Slippy" exploded after the film's success, he was dismayed at its appropriation as a beery drinking anthem. With time though he came to appreciate that it was making people happy. It wasn't about him any more.
T2 Trainspotting, which reunites not just the cast but that core crew, is about just that—about how time changes us, about who we were, who we are, what we've become, regrets and all, and how we reconcile it all. Overtly echoing the first film, it's a bag of fun, but also a melancholy meditation on age, on relationships, on manhood, and it hurts. This time around, Boyle recruited Underworld's Rick Smith to score the film, providing new music while also revisiting "Born Slippy," looking at it with older eyes, using it to tell a different story. Those chords come and go like ghosts, reflecting not just on the characters and the first film but a time, and a place—and on us.
Noisey: There is darkness in "Born Slippy," but also euphoria. Karl has talked of the influence your positive worldview has on Underworld's music, on the lyrics, and on him. And he said it's no surprise that those beautiful Born Slippy chords are from you because you spent a lot of time going to church when you were growing up.
Rick Smith: That's true, there's stuff that's still very deep in me. Welsh hymns particularly, the type of Welsh hymns that were sung at the time. The simplicity of that harmony. The power of gospel music in all its forms. And when he talks about the juxtaposition I think he's right, because I like the interplay between dark and light. You see light from the dark. And you see the dark from the light. That's definitely a big part of the combination of Karl and I.
Can you hear the church in those chords and sounds?
I think I do, because it's such simple harmony. In "Born Slippy" it's ridiculously so. It's two chords. And the two chords don't run all the time, it doesn't run like a normal song. But the placing of it at the start and end of the vocal seems to say so much, and resonates with people. One of the beautiful things with "NUXX" is its simplicity.
I believe you were both inspired by David Bowie's Low too.
Oh I love that album. There are albums like that where, how it affects one tune or not is not the point, they're so deep that they run rivers through all your music. They're as strong an influence as growing up in a Welsh church.
Karl has said "Born Slippy" is beauty wrapped around darkness. He's said that, regarding the drink issues he had, the lyrics were a cry for help. But you didn't approach it as such, musically.
I hear words differently. And I hear them sometimes as broken up. It's interesting to join up phrases and words and paragraphs and ideas with music and change the way it feels. A word's not just a word when it's sung. When it's part of a piece of poetry and prose. What I felt from the "NUXX" lyrics was this energy of movement, and of time and place. Kind of like an abstract painting. Words coming up rung bells for us. The Ship pub [in Soho], and Tottenham Court Road. It was a narrative that wherever emotionally or spiritually he was coming from, it had different meaning for me.
Do you remember recording "Nuxx"? He said he came in with the lyrics and recorded the vocal in one take.
Yeah I remember. That's accurate, it was very much in one take. There was more vocal used than in the final piece. And musically, although the bones of the groove were there, the heart of it, when we did that first version, there was no structure. And no chords. No 3D journey to the rhythm. It was he and I in writing, ranting mode.
So when did you come up with the chords?
Several months later, I went back to the piece and thought, as happens often, "There's something really exciting in here." It made me want to play, and mould.
In context of the song Karl has said that you were the first person to ask him if maybe he had a drinking problem. And then you encased his vocals in this sublime music. It seems like it might be a touching piece of work about your relationship.
Maybe. It's not for me to interpret that, in a way. There are complex things that happen when you make work. And also it can boil down to just if it makes somebody feel good. But it was a rich time. There was energy firing off all over the place. Sometimes things come out of really drab places. There was beauty in debris and deconstruction and rawness. And I think that's all part of that piece.
You were hesitant about giving Danny any music for the first Trainspotting.
Absolutely, yeah. It was simple, around that time we had frequent requests for use of music in film and TV and it was invariably for the scene which was dark/drug/club/gang warfare, a scene of mayhem. And at the time for us, the experience of playing our music, and playing in clubs, was so the complete opposite of that, it was such a positive uplifting experience, for us and the audience. So it was a straight no, invariably. But Danny was wise and said "Come in and see a bit of the film." We saw about 15 minutes and then was completely, "You can do what you want mate. Have what you want." I was really struck by his sensitivity.
The song then blew up, everywhere. It straddled worlds. Karl said that moment in time, that combination of that film and its soundtrack, was a bit like the UK's Woodstock.
It was a moment in time. These things that happen, these bits of art on our lives, they're punctuation, aren't they. One of the wonderful things about music is how much it comes to mean to us because of its place in time. Things that are fresh and new are fantastic, but there are pieces that mean so much to us, to me. I don't care about their relevance to anyone else, it presents a memory feeling and I love that about music, about the life of its own that it has. And how it touches people. It's curious because as music makers we go on and make music completely unaware of the effect that it has on people's lives. Sometimes in a non-egotistical way it's good to get a reminder that what you're doing has some purpose for somebody.
Were you ever at clubs and a DJ put that song on?
A couple of times. But the weirdest experience I had was when it came on the breakfast show on [BBC] Radio 1. I couldn't believe it! It just seemed so out of context. "This song, on breakfast radio?!" It was such a shock, "What?! When did the world change that this belongs here?" Mad. It didn't make sense, and not in an unpleasant way. I thought, music is moving, culture is moving, it's spreading. It's meaning things outside of just the context of on an amazing sound system in a club or on a PA system in a student hall. It was very nice! It's been a remarkable piece of music for us. It feels like it almost came from somewhere else.
So, 20 years later… Did Danny send you the script to T2 before you worked on it?
Yeah. I was just knocked out. Moved to tears by some of it.
It was the subject matter—lives lived, and frustration. A beautiful melancholy, is what I got from it. The original film meant a lot to people. It's more than just the film or the music, it said something about a particular time of life that people anchor things around. Getting married, falling in love, having babies. Leaving university, whatever. And that's a fantastic thing to be able to play with 20 years on, in the way that Danny and the team did. But also a little bit frightening.
Did it make you reflect on yourself, and that time?
Yeah. It did, in a very personal way. People I've spoken to who have seen it feel the same way. You almost can't talk about it because it marks so many personal journeys through life, with family and loved ones, and all that incredible rich fabric. There are nice things about getting older. There's plenty that isn't, mostly to do with the body, and how it functions. But it's great to be grateful and count your blessings.
Did Danny say he wanted you to revisit "Born Slippy" or did that come from you?
He talked about the issues with revisiting. Even that word. Some of them were big red and white sticks of "We're not gonna do this, we can't." I said, "We can't pretend to be where we were. So how do we express where we are, and who we are now?" Quite philosophical things. And then we didn't have a lot of conversation for a long time. I just got on with it and sent him things, for about three months while they were shooting. Trying to send him things that were sometimes just mild provocation.
Those "Born Slippy" chords come and go throughout the film, to eerie effect.
Yeah. That was never a given, it was an exploration that kind of worked and didn't work for a little while. This was a really challenging film for me. To try and tell the story in the way that Danny needed it to be told. Way back when we were doing Frankenstein [Boyle's theatre production], Danny said to me, very quietly, 'We have to lose ourselves in the story, don't we.' I think he knew how much that resonated with me. I kind of like to disappear. It's like how our senses work – we see things and we hear things, and what we hear affects what we see. Film is a very literal, simple articulation of that, of how our lives are. What started to happen was those echoes of the past and from the previous film—and Born Slippy wasn't the only one—the interpreting of them came to have great value in the storytelling.
Danny has said your "rethinking" of "Born Slippy" for T2 was extraordinary, and that when you hear those chords you have a heart memory of the original, an emotional muscle.
Yeah. That rhythmic version, "Slow Slippy," it got ridiculously heavy, as you stretched time. I got lucky finding a particular bit of software. It wasn't even expensive and it made this sound that I loved. The chords were stretched in a different way, time just elongated.
How was this whole experience for you, emotionally? Coming back after 20 years and revisiting the past to make something new?
Challenging. I needed to make a lot of work. I based myself at the edit suite for a long time. I'd never done that before. Being at the heart of it like that when things are moving quickly, and you can respond quickly, was challenging. I'd finish a day, travel home, and my mind would be so active that I'd end up back in the studio. It was physically demanding. I couldn't stop. I was turned on, stimulated. And also, just trying to keep up with all the talent that was all around me. I thought, "You might be younger, and faster and fitter. But I'm Welsh! And Stubborn!"
And on it goes. When Underworld played "Born Slippy" at the end of your Alexandra Palace gig last Friday night it was so celebratory, exultant even.
Absolutely. It feels like that. It's a tune we're still doing at every concert. I often get asked if I'm tired of it, and it's really weird, but absolutely not. Because of this relationship that the audience have with the music, and their energy. I feel like we're almost travel guides! Just coaching it along and presenting it as best we can! It's a lovely feeling. It's great to be there.
T2 Trainspotting is out in theaters now.
.Corey Feldman once threatened to sue Alex Godfrey via Twitter.