Twenty years ago today, The Orb released one of their finest and most legendary creations, the single Blue Room. It became famous immediately due to its length; at 39’58”, it was tantalisingly close to the durational limit set by Gallup, who ran the UK charts, which classified anything of 40 minutes or more as an album. Not surprisingly, therefore, Blue Room instantly became the longest single in UK chart history, which it remains to this day. But Blue Room deserves to be remembered and celebrated most for its embodiment of The Orb’s unique approach to music-making, seamlessly integrating the ostensibly incongruous and hitherto distant idioms of dub and ambient, garnished with elements of minimalism, house and psychedelia.
The track took five months to create, The Orb’s Alex Paterson and Thrash joined by the renowned Steve Hillage and Jah Wobble, whose guitar and bass contributions sat alongside synth from Miquette Giraudy (Hillage’s partner and bandmate from their days as Gong), and a vocal riff by Aisha, sampled from her 1986 track ‘The Creator’. Combined with the ambient dub electronics of Paterson and Thrash, these were the raw elements from which Blue Room was created. The track’s title, incidentally, is a reference to a hangar located at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which certain conspiracy theorists have convinced themselves houses “extraterrestrial spacecraft and bodies“; this theme would be taken further on The Orb’s second album, U.F.Orb, which includes a drastically shortened version of Blue Room.
Like so much of The Orb’s earlier output (particularly their groundbreaking debut album, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld), Blue Room establishes and inhabits an awkward listening environment. Too pulse-driven and capricious to chill out to, yet too slow and halting to make a dancefloor useful, arguably the best way to respond is neither to dance nor to chill, but simply to listen. Although the twin ambient and dub components are melded together, structurally the track oscillates between them, comprising three ambient episodes and three dub episodes. The ambient music, coming first, establishes much of the basic material: treated guitar-work, drifting chords, the Aisha riff, together with various sirens and even a distorted effect from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Light percussion often underpins these otherwise floating passages, hinting at the beats to come and preserving a sense of continuity as the track continues. The dub music introduces the hard, pounding beat and Jah Wobble’s imposing bassline, and while dynamically these episodes are obviously more strident, the ambient soup that surrounds them ensures that the edges remain soft. Despite the beats and the back and forth between contrasting materials, there’s something very restful about Blue Room, even when unexpected twists occur, such as the point a little over 18 minutes in, when the percussion abruptly stops to reveal a strange clanking toy glockenspiel, glooping water sounds and heavily reverbed speech—a complete musical non sequitur, yet somehow it doesn’t interrupt the overall flow in the slightest. The masterful way that the dub and ambient elements anticipate each other and interpenetrate is sublime to experience, one of many reasons why Blue Room continues to sound almost as fresh and innovative as it did two decades ago.
Sadly, Blue Room has been out of print for many a year and has never been reissued or made available in digital form, so here’s a rip of my own highly treasured copy.