This week, Róisín Murphy’s Crooked Machine is released. It’s a rework of her triumphant Róisín Machine album from last year, with the songs stripped down, dubbed out and reduced to their hypnotic dancefloor essence by the album’s producer Richard Barratt, aka DJ Parrot, or Crooked Man.
Barratt is a classic producer who works like a movie director, steering musicians and studio engineers to create what he wants to hear. “He’s a visionary in a very real sense,” Murphy told us. “He spends most of his time with his eyes closed in the studio. He sees and hears the space in his mind's eye then executes it into reality. I assume he’s building a 3D render in his head, like an architect makes plans, then he leaves the rest to the builders!”
Barratt cuts an unlikely figure for a dance music genius these days. Well over 30 years into his career as a producer, he’s long since retired from any involvement with clubs or DJ-ing – and in rare interviews regards that world (and indeed most things) with mordant sarcasm – yet still makes some of the purest grooves of anyone of any age. And he has maintained that spark seemingly without break throughout a long and circuitous career, working with world class labels like DFA, WARP and Skint along the way.
He began as a DJ in Sheffield, South Yorkshire in the mid-1980s, most famously in the city’s Jive Turkey club alongside Winston Hazel. It was a much beloved spot, and their sets combined hip-hop, electro, house, post-punk, and much more besides, significantly predating the rave explosion. It was on the Sheffield scene that he other met long time friends and collaborators, including studio mentor Mark Brydon (who would found Moloko with Murphy), Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, and later Murphy herself, who moved to Sheffield from her hometown of Dublin, via a teenage sojourn in Manchester.
Barratt’s studio collaborations include some of the first and greatest UK techno records with Sweet Exorcist, some of the more bizarre pop hits of the late Nineties with All Seeing I, but he has just as often operated in the shadows. Many of his records and productions have been highly underappreciated, others hidden behind aliases so thoroughly that fans of one strand of his music might have no idea about his others. But all have continued the experimentalism, the genre agnosticism and the pure groove hypnosis he learned behind the decks of Jive Turkey.
These ten records provide a very brief survey of one of the most quietly distinguished catalogues in modern music – and each one is a sparkling gem in its own right.
The Funky Worm was a short-lived trio comprising Barratt, Carl Munson and singer Julie Stewart, corralled in the studio by Mark Brydon. They had a minor chart hit with “Hustle to the Music” in 1988, but among their few tracks and remixes there was plenty of other fascinating stuff orbiting the sweet spot between street soul, electro and the then-newfangled house music.
“Testone” – Sweet Exorcist (1990)
A duo with Richard H Kirk of Sheffield industrial/experimental pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, Sweet Exorcist were one of the lynchpin early acts for the city’s WARP Records, alongside LFO, Nightmares On Wax and others. Their debut is one of the purest, crispest pieces of techno ever made, still playable to this day—and the video by a young Jarvis Cocker still stands up too.
An extraordinary glimpse into the backrooms of the weirder raves of the early Nineties. Ultramarine was a proto-folktronica band with a tendency to blissful hippie narrations and dreamy acoustic guitars, clarinets and synths. But Sweet Exorcist turned things a little darker, a little more gothic, with their spiky dub that feels like being lost in the woods at night.
Through the early to mid-‘90s, Barratt was prolific in a duo with Nightmares On Wax keyboardist Robin Taylor-Firth, variously calling themselves On, On Productions and Anon. Most of their tracks were essentially house, including this carnivalesque beast, which truly captures the energy of some of the wilder underground clubs of the time.
Barratt and Taylor-Firth could also turn their hand to other rhythms too, as this experiment in the then-novel form of drum ’n’ bass amply demonstrates. Over 13 minutes, their cover of the Ewan Macoll classic, “The Frist Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, drifts through half-tempo rhythms, deeply psychedelic glitchy edits and high-velocity space voyaging. It is remarkably far ahead of its time.
A very brief Sheffield supergroup formed of local serial collaborators Peter Hope, Ross Orton and vocalist Alicia Bostock, White Trash boiled the club sound of electroclash, popular at the time, down to its essence. Trashy, simplistic rhythms, distorted vocals and cynical lyrics should add up to a throwaway track, but in fact, its punk-driven purity has aged impressively well.
“Scum” – Crooked Man (2012)
“Scum” was quite a way to announce the arrival of the Crooked Man guise. An electrifying, sensual piece of deep house, it also features Rachel Edmonson’s brilliantly subtle voice railing against greed and corruption. It was also around this point that the musical relationship with Róisín Murphy was cemented with “Simulation” (though they had first worked together on a cover of Grace Jones’s “Feel Up” around the turn of the millennium). This would form the first seed of Róisín Machine.
“Dust & Ashes (Crooked and...)” – Tooth Faeries (2013)
Barratt’s musical relationships tended to be long running, as demonstrated by this collaboration with old colleague Mark Brydon. Together with vocalist Carmen Squire, they created a dark and eerie musical world on this song, which—in what was becoming a trademark move for the Crooked Man identity—Barratt remixed by inserting himself into three long, very different versions, including this joyously sinister techno epic.
“Feet (Parrot & Cocker Too Remix)” – Fat White Family (2019)
In 2019, Barratt working with old Sheffield comrade Jarvis Cocker would be worth the price of entry just for the pun in their duo name. But there’s way more to it than a bit of fun between mates: this remix they did for hedonistic South London rock band Fat White Family takes the already moody glam rock original and makes it sublime: its string parts soaring vertiginously above the creepy-crawling synth disco framework and Lias Kaci Saoudi’s insinuating vocal.
Another Sheffield veteran in Mick Ward from postpunk heroes Clock DVA, another intriguing singer in Julia Calvo, and another set of epically long Crooked Man mixes makes for an EP that completely envelopes the listener. Just as he accomplished on his multiple EPs of mixes for Murphy, and just as he does on Crooked Machine, Barratt deconstructs, and then reconstructs an already great song in an endless (but never boring) ebb and flow of elements and atmospheres. There are few people out there with such an ability to turn the remix into such grand statements, and for all his self-effacement and wry sardonicism, Richard Barratt is very much at the height of his powers all these years after first falling for dance music.
Cover Credit: DFA
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs