I was flying to London for the third time in two months in 1991, to play a show for Kiss FM and to perform on Top Of The Pops. Go, this oddball song that I recorded on a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment, was now a Top 10 hit in the UK.
The record company had sent a car to pick me up from Heathrow. After two hours in traffic, we pulled up to the hotel. Except it wasn’t a hotel. It was a sad grey house on a sad grey road in a defeated part of London.
Eric, my new manager, met me outside the house. He and I had met in New York a year ago and I’d asked him to be my manager, even though he hadn’t ever really managed anyone. He was tall, German, and seemed trustworthy. “Welcome to sunny England!” he said in the drizzle.
“Is this the hotel?” I asked.
“It’s a B&B; my office is nearby. It seemed like a good choice,” he said.
We walked in and I got my key from a woman in the entranceway. She was wearing a worn beige dress and reading the Daily Mirror. “Here’s your key,” she croaked. “Your room’s on the second floor and the bathroom’s down the hall.” She handed me a towel that had clearly been used in the second world war to mop up diseased blood from the basements of infirmaries.
“OK, pop star,” Eric said. “I’ll pick you up at one.”
“OK, I’ll just take a shower,” I said.
“Shower’s 50p for five minutes.”
I was confused. The shower cost money?
“You put 50p in the shower and you get five minutes of water,” she said brusquely.
That evening, Eric and I drove to the Astoria. My dressing room was a small closet with a black plastic chair and two bare lightbulbs over a mirror. “It’s just as depressing as your hotel,” Eric the German comedian said. “You should feel right at home.”
I looked at the running order. “I play for 10 minutes?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Eric said. “You play Go, and then maybe play Go again.”
Eric and I walked up to the stage. The show was in an old, venerable theatre but it felt like a rave. The crowd was waving glow sticks and blowing air horns and whistles. On stage, Dream Frequency were playing their hit Feel So Real. The stage was full of singers, dancers, and keyboard players. The song sounded amazing and I was petrified.
The MC said, “Now from New York, Moby Go!” I had got used to being introduced as “Moby Go”: because of the design of my single’s sleeve many Britons thought “Moby Go” was my name.
I ran on stage. The crowd roared, but I panicked because my keyboard wasn’t plugged in and I didn’t even have a microphone. They didn’t care: 3,000 people were dancing and yelling “Go!” at the top of their lungs. I banged on my unplugged keyboard and yelled “Go!”.
The song ended and the MC returned. “Wicked! Top tune from Moby Go! Next up are Manchester favourites K-Klass!” Some roadies ran on stage, grabbed my keyboard, and rushed it off stage. I stood there, confused. Wasn’t I supposed to play a second song?
“Come on, mate, get off the fucking stage!” one of the roadies barked at me. I scurried off.
“That was great!” Eric said. “They loved it!”
“But my keyboard was unplugged and I didn’t have a microphone and what about my second song?” I asked.
“Oh, they’re running behind schedule so they’re cutting people’s second songs. They told me while you were on.”
I considered that. “The song was OK?” I asked.
“It was amazing! Didn’t you see the crowd?”
“But I wasn’t really doing anything.”
“It doesn’t matter. They loved it.”
I hung out and watched the rest of the show: Orbital, 808 State, the Prodigy. It was like listening to my record collection. After the show, Eric dropped me back at my alleged hotel. It was 1am and I had to be up at 8.30 for Top Of The Pops. Sleeping would be wise, but I was now wide awake. I went for a walk.
I walked for a mile or so before it started to rain. The only shops open were Pakistani grocery stores: little beacons of light on the wide empty streets. I came to an overpass and looked at the railway lines beneath me. Why was this city so quiet? Growing up, I’d imagined London to be like Times Square, with every inch a riot of noise and activity. I thought of a Clash lyric in London’s Burning, “I run through the empty stone because I’m all alone”, and it made sense.
I’d grown up seeing two different Englands on TV. There was the bucolic England with witty university students floating on slow boats on gentle rivers and sunny ponds. Then there was this England, the rainy, cold England that was the background for every movie about defeated people waiting to die in public housing estates. This was the country that gave birth to Joy Division. If Ian Curtis had been born in Palo Alto he’d probably be managing a chain of organic coffee shops and married to a yoga teacher.
My shoes were getting squishy from the rain. I walked for another hour and got back to my hovel. It was 5am and I had to wake up in three hours. There was a thin grey light coming through the curtains. I kept my clothes on, got under the one smallpox-ridden blanket, and willed myself to sleep.
“Pop star! It’s your big day! Wake up!” It was Eric, yelling on the other side of the door. I was already dressed, so I put on my damp sneakers.
When Sally from the record company showed me my dressing room at the BBC I almost started crying with joy. It was small, but it had a radiator and was warm. Most importantly, it had its own bathroom and its own shower.
I took off my stinky travel clothes and stepped into the shower for 10 uninterrupted minutes. The water was hot, and for the first time in days, I was clean. I dried off and lay down on the couch. The rain was pattering against the old windows, the steam heat was clanking in the old radiator, and I felt at peace. I closed my eyes, and there was a knock on the door. “Moby? First run-through in five minutes!”
I climbed on to the tiny stage where I’d be performing. None of the gear was plugged in. “Do they plug in the equipment before the broadcast?” I asked.
“No,” Eric said. “Some people sing live, but everyone mimes their equipment.”
I looked across the room: New Order were rehearsing on their stage. I’d loved Joy Division obsessively and loved New Order just as much. Now they were standing 40 feet away from me. When it was my turn, I stood behind my unplugged equipment and jumped around a bit and yelled “Go” into the unplugged microphone.
Three naps and two rehearsals later, Sally came to my dressing room. “Do you have your clothes ready?” she asked.
I was going to wear a pair of yellow pants that I’d found at a Salvation Army shop and a green T-shirt covered in arrows. I thought it looked cool and futuristic, possibly like something Marinetti would have worn if he’d been a balding techno musician and not an aspiring fascist.
I stepped out of the dressing room and Eric guffawed. “That’s what you’re going to wear?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said defensively. Sally looked concerned.
“The guys from a club called Rush gave you a T-shirt if you want to wear it?”
I took off my futuristic arrows shirt and put on the proffered Rush T-shirt.
“Much better,” Eric said. “You look almost modern.”
We walked into the TV studio for the live broadcast and the energy was completely different from the rehearsals: the lights were flashing, all the musicians were dressed up, and the studio was filled with audience members. My song started. I jumped around, banged on my keyboard, yelled, “Go!” and whacked the Octapad. And in three minutes, before I even knew what was happening, it was done. I was hurried off my little stage by a stagehand and walked down the hallway and back to my dressing room.
A moment later, Eric came in. “How was that?” I asked.
“It looked good, but maybe next time you want to dance a little less?”
“You think so? But what should I do?”
“I don’t know, just play keyboards and hit the drum machine.”
“OK,” I said, slightly chastened.
I took off my futuristic yellow pants and my Rush club shirt and stepped into the shower. The adrenaline left me and I deflated like a balloon. None of this made sense to me. What was I doing here? Living in an abandoned factory in a crack neighbourhood made sense to me. Playing punk rock shows for 10 people in a dingy bar made sense to me. Walking around New York dropping off cassettes at record labels made sense to me. But flying to England and being on TV shows confused me to the core of my soul. Top Of The Pops was New Order’s world. It was Phil Collins’ world. I loved it, maybe too much, but it wasn’t my world.