The Orbit – Not Just Another Number
Coming up to a decade after it’s closure in 2003 it’s pretty much impossible to spend an evening out at any half decent techno club in the north of England without the Orbit name being mentioned at least a handful of times, such is it’s legacy. While the mere mention of it’s name now bores many of us to tears, often leading to a very quick exit to the nearest bar, there’s no denying the influence the club has had and continues have to on the northern techno scene.
Andrew “Wags” Watkins memories of this legendary institution, below, should help bring back a few memories for anyone who was ever lucky enough to experience the place in full flow…
20 years ago in Ossett – a small backwater town in West Yorkshire – a musical institution was born.
With the crack down on illegal warehouse raves, promoters had begun to look for licensed premises to hold their parties and one of the most successful of these new legal events was launched in the summer of 1991.
The Orbit began life in my home town. An unassuming place, 3 miles west of Wakefield, 9 miles south of Leeds and right next to the M1, Ossett was an easy town for the ravers of northern England to descend on. Within a month Ossett didn’t know what had hit it as hundreds of young party goers turned up, circular flyers in hand, to lose themselves to the sounds of Shades of Rhythm, Dream Frequency, Sasha, Carl Cox, Micky Finn and DJ Sy.
My first contact with the club had come one day as I walked down into the town centre along Church Street and four lads in a Vauxhall Nova drew up alongside me. Winding down the window, one of the lads wearing white gloves asked “where’s the Orbit held mate?” I gave him the directions, I was only 16 and it wouldn’t be long before I became an Orbit head myself.
So how did the Orbit get to become the techno institution we all remember? Early on in the first 12 months of the club DJ’s like Dave Angel and Joey Beltram, who both recorded for Belgian techno label R&S, graced the decks often playing alongside the likes of rave favourites Grooverider, Nipper and NJoi. The 1st birthday featured Joey and Sonic Solution, an early alias of CJ Bolland. It was becoming apparent that techno was starting to take over from the more rave centred sounds of Easygroove and Slipmatt. By early 1993 the promoters had made the move over to hosting pure techno & trance line ups every week and by the end of 1993 the two scenes had become very much intertwined, both using the deep melodic sound of the 303 and it’s acid squelch.
One other very important event happened during 1991 – the move to The Orbit’s spiritual home, The After Dark club in Morley. Formerly known as The New Pavilion, the venue had previously been a music hall when first opened in 1911, followed by a cinema, and then finally from 1968 it became a bingo hall until it opened as After Dark in 1990. The promoters ran both the Ossett and Morley clubs together for a few months before pulling out of Ossett completely owing to pressure from local residents who didn’t relish having 600+ clubbers queuing up on their doorstep on a weekly basis.
The lay out of The AfterDark was perfect with it’s pit like dance floor, a balcony that encircled the main room, DJ booth perched central just above the dance floor and a small stage to the rear for live acts, finished off with walls adorned in camouflage netting. Lights and projectors fired off insane images to overload the eyes, while the huge sound system pounded your entire body with kick drums and bass. The club’s capacity was around a 1000, though some nights exceeded this
I spoke to DJ and producer Neil Landstrumm about his Orbit experiences and he remembered the venue fondly. “A hexagon shape, flashy metal grids, nooks and crannies, different levels, small stage, a good sweet spot with the sound system and a wee sketchy side entrance to load gear in. A special venue”
This special venue would go on to host a further 10 years of groundbreaking techno and electronic music, with people queuing round the block, week after week, rain or shine to hear the likes of Sven Vath, Laurent Garnier, Westbam and Frank de Wulf. Sven’s sets became the stuff of legend, not only for his seemingly never ending box of tunes but also for his never ending ability to party!
His Harthouse label provided numerous live acts and DJs for The Orbit faithful with favourites including Hardfloor, Oliver Lieb, Resistance D and Marco Zaffarano, whose May 93 set perfectly captured the German techno/trance sound of the time. The club also hosted Sven’s birthday party (see right), several Harthouse label nights and were invited over to Frankfurt to take over his Omen club.
Alongside the European artists many British DJs and live acts became firm favorites; Andy Weatherall, Justin Robertson, Billy Nasty, Dave Angel and Luke Slater to name just a few, played as regular guests. Local producers Jon Nuccle and Mike Humphries – founders of Leeds’ infamous Microdot parties – played live under various names such as D-Kontrol and Area51. Richard James AKA Aphex Twin also played on a number of occasions, as did David Holmes.
By late 1993 a greater number of US DJs were gracing The Orbit 1210s. Beltram led the way with Richie Hawtin soon to make one of his many appearances at the club, then on 27th November 1993 a true techno godfather made his first appearance – Derrick May. Juan Atkins played his one and only performance just six months on from Derrick with Jeff Mills following two weeks later to make his English debut at the third birthday party (closely beaten to a UK debut by the awesome Pure in Edinburgh). Another famous night saw UR send their ‘tactical assault DJ’ Alan Oldham aka DJ T-1000 over the Atlantic to destroy Yorkshire’s finest club.
It’s fair to say that by 1994 The Orbit was one of, if not the best techno club in Europe.
The Orbit was the first time I ever saw a crowd go ape shit to techno, the crowd was well ahead of it’s time. My best memory was playing after Jeff Mills and his last record was our track Bad boy and at some point towards the end of the record it just kept looping, maybe a glitch on Jeff’s abused record, but it was a perfect loop and he let it play on and on.. Only Jeff could have done that!- Cisco Ferreira, The Advent
Resident DJ Mark Turner cites one of Jeff Mills’ 3 decks & 909 sets as one of the most amazing things he has ever seen. “He was dropping Mentasm and reworking the beats with the 909. It was mind blowing. It was the best night the club ever put on”. Jeff Mills’ Orbit sets are the stuff of legend, his ability to play techno in an almost Hip Hop style often left you open mouthed, shifting from record after record – some played for less than 30 seconds – at amazing speed, while working a 909 to perfection. Almost like Jimi Hendrix on turntables!
The Orbit promoters put on some stunning line ups over the club’s 13 year run and as I sit pouring over flyers, great memories flooding back (though how I remember god only knows) one month stands out. August 1994 saw a truly amazing line up. August 6th Mike Dred followed a week later by Andy Weatherall & David Holmes. The next four dates are true class and few clubs can claim to have had such quality in depth week after week. August 20th Jeff Mills, August 27th +8 records night with Ritche Hawtin, Vapourspace and Hawtin as Plastikman (possibly a UK first). Then two days later on bank holiday Monday 29th August Sven Vath played one of his legendary six plus hour sets, a truely classic Orbit night! The club was eating out of his hands, a true showman with the records to match. Then to finish off, 3rd September saw Westbam play with Oliver Lieb, another pair of crowd pleasers who always rocked the club.
Alongside world class guests, The Orbit always had the finest residents who were more than capable of blowing the lid off the club. John (E-Bloc) Berry, Nigel Walker, Rob Mcgrail, Huggi and Mark Turner were the club’s mainstays. Huggi went on to take up residency at Leeds’ Back to Basics with Mark Turner joining in October 1991 and staying on until the end, whilst Rob, one of the originals, appears to have left by the end of 1992. Quite a few people will remember buying a mix tape from Nigel as they left the club, handing over their last sweat soaked fiver for one of his sets on a C90. Nigel ceased to be a resident in the late 1990s leaving Mark the opportunity to play more often in the main room with Darren Brooke joining the backroom residents.
The weekly line up however is only half the story. The crowd made the club and gave it its identity. As Cisco from the Advent says “It was the friendliest crowd, always a queue outside hours before it opened” Neil Landstrumm remembers an “excellent passionate crowd and most of all great characters. I liked the respect the crowd gave you if you played well. They were an appreciative and knowledgeable audience”. Techno fans would travel from all over England week in week out, living for the weekend and The Orbit. We would beg, steal or borrow to attend. To say the crowd was hedonistic would be an understatement; people lost themselves completely for six hours on a mix of techno, ecstacy, lasers and smoke. Life long friends were met while leaning over the balconies, maybe even future partners and wives? The Crowd were always left wanting more due to the 2am finish time. Today so many club nights fizzle out at about 4am whilst The Orbit peaked and concluded at the right time of night.
As trance became more mainstream and slowly ran out of ideas, a darker, more industrial & almost metallic techno sound had emerged spearheaded by the likes of Mills, Slater, Hood & Basic Channel, slowing down the BPMs but somehow sounding heavier and funkier than ever before. New stars were born and The Orbit embraced them all; Dave Clarke, The Advent, Cari Lekebusch, DJ Hell and Surgeon made their first appearances whilst a relatively unknown Daft Punk played live alongside Chicago legend Robert Armani in October 1995 when still signed to Scottish techno label Soma. The Americans continued to delight with artists like Mike Dearborn, DJ Skull, Robert Hood, Jay Denham, Woody McBride & Claude Young joining Beltram, Mills and May as techno’s heroes. This darker, heavier sound began to dominate in the mid 90s though every so often the club would bring back Westbam, Sven Vath or CJ Bolland who’s sounds always had a more old school early 90s feel.
The Orbit was well known for booking live acts as well as DJs and many groundbreaking and legendary performances were seen on its small stage perched behind the DJ booth. In June 97, Luke Slater played as Planetary Assault Systems. This performance stands out in my mind as one of the most perfect live techno shows i’ve ever witnessed. The club was treated to classic tracks like Into the Night, Twilight, Booster, Quadfonik and Gated. The dance floor went mental, with even more people hanging bat like from the balconies than usual. Other standout live acts were The Advent, Speedy J, Plastikman, Vapourspace, Ege Bam Yasi, Jon and Mikey in various aliases and Acid Scout.
Undoubtedly The Orbit’s finest nights were held in the 90s and as it moved into the new century the club saw falling attendances and problems with the venue. A number of other techno nights had sprung up over the north of England, all undoubtedly inspired by what The Orbit had created. The club had become a victim of it’s own success and from 2001 the night moved from being held weekly to fortnightly, which in hindsight was probably a wise move that prolonged its life. The quality of the guests however was never sacrificed and the new millennium saw new stars rise alongside the old established ones; Ben Sims, Thomas Krome, Technasia, Paul Damage, Adam Beyer, Umek & Marco Carola all became club favourites
The club finally closed its doors for the last time on 26th July 2003 with a line up of Surgeon, Paul Damage & Regis. It wasn’t billed as the closing party but not long after the news broke that The Orbit was no more. The last track of that last night: Sulfurex – Point Break.
I’d like to say thank you to Cisco, Neil and Mark for your memories and time – your input has been invaluable while writing this piece. Thanks also to Phil and Rachel for your support. I intend to continue working on this piece and build an even more detailed history of The Orbit. If you would like to assist or contribute then please contact me via my author box at the bottom of the page.
Andy “Wags” Watkins (September 2011)
Mark Turners all time top Orbit trax, in no particular order.
Millsart – Step To Enchantement
Vapourspace – Gravitainonal Arch Of Ten
Basic Channel – Phylyps Trak 1
Joey Beltram – Forklift (Luke Slater Remix)
Surgeon – Badger Bite
Fuse – Substance abuse
Tronik House – Uptempo
Luke Slater – Moave Violins
DHS – House Of God
Outlander – The Vamp
Pump Panel – To The Sky
Adam Beyer – Reminipulated (Bens Sims Mix)
Rue East – Birmingham (Ben Sims Mix)
Sonz Of A Loop Da Loop Era – Far Out
Dave Clarke – Red Series
Jackmaster – Bang The Box
Lunatic Asylum – The Meltdown (Pascal Feos Remix)