Italo house pioneers Black Box made their mark in music history with the chart-topping monster hit ‘Ride On Time’. A number one for five weeks in 1989, it went on to become the biggest selling single of the year in the U.K. There can be no greater irony however, that the guy that put the track together is twenty-four hours late for our interview. Still, when we do eventually catch up with Daniele Davioli, we find the producer in fine spirits. Looking back over thirty years of parent album ‘Dreamlands’, we caught up with Dan for a talk about the just-released reimagined version of the album, and how the last massive hit of the 1980s came to be. Walking right in; Eamon O’Neill.
Hey, how are you doing Daniele?
I’m good, yeah. I’ve been based in London for quite some time. Before, I used to go back and forth between here and Italy - spend some time here, spend some time there – depending on if I was working on projects, but a few years ago I decided it’s a better place to be. We’ve been touring a lot as a band, with Black Box, so being based in London is so much easier for airports and stuff. We’ve been going all over the place!
I saw some great footage from Rewind Festival from a few years ago; the singer you have is amazing!
Celestine [Walcott-Gordon], she’s great, yeah. She lives in Bristol, and we met her through our guitar player. We were working with American Gospel singer Charvoni [Woodson] since 1995, but she kept missing planes and she was complaining about travelling, and we had to give up so many gigs because most of our gigs are in Europe. It was a struggle, so for the third time she missed a gig, and the promotor was not having it, we got in contact with Celestine, and basically, we improvised it; sitting in the car before the show, trying to tell her about this, about that. Obviously, we knew she could do it, but she needed to learn the songs, and she pulled it off. Then after the show we had a conversation, and she said; “if you want me to become part of the band, I’m very interested”. We had a conversation with the American girl. We thought; “this is not going to work”. Then Celestine came on board, and it was love at first sight, really.
‘Ride on Time’ is obviously a difficult one to sing, but Celestine really nails it.
Trust me, they’re all hard to sing live, and Celestine, she’s fully trained – that’s what she does as business. She’s actually part of a drum and bass outfit as well, and she has her own jazz combo so she sings like seven days a week! You can only do it if you’re fully trained. Also, she’s young, so the muscle is strong. With other singers we had before, age would show, because all our songs are at the very top of the range and they are difficult.
We’re here to chat about the release of ‘Dreamlanders’, which is the 30 year celebration of the original ‘Dreamlands’ album.
We looked at each other and thought; “thirty years! Where the time has gone?!” We still have great memories. Everyone thought ‘Ride on Time’ is a DJ track, and like a lot of other people we thought; "you got lucky, and now is the hard task!" [creating an album] To be honest with you, that’s the same conversation we had; we were number one in the charts in the U.K.; that was the middle of October , and the record company wanted an album and we thought; “now what?” We didn’t even know we could write songs, to be honest. Mirko [Limoni] and [Valerio Semplici], they are both fully trained musicians, and they said; “we’ll sit at the piano and throw down a few ideas”. The moment Mirko would start putting his hands on the chords, ideas just started flowing. Then obviously, we made a bit of order, because I was a bit messy. We didn’t speak very good English, but we had a friend who was a writer that translated books, so he had a full knowledge of the English language, and he wrote all the lyrics to our songs. So, there was a lot of luck, honestly, but a lot of courage as well because we could have really embarrassed ourselves.
The original album saw you reimagining some classic tracks, and now ‘Dreamlanders’ sees you doing the same to your own work; it’s like coming full circle, isn’t it?
We always said we’re never going to do that, but then the fans keep asking, and I don’t have a publicist to look after our social media – we do it ourselves - and I try to reply to fans, I try to interact with them as much as I can, and I noticed fans were asking for it. So we had a go with ‘Ride On Time’ two years ago; we thought; “how would we do ‘Ride on Time’ today?” Disco was coming back strong, and we thought disco maybe was the right way to do it, just to give homage to Dan Hartman [writer of ‘Love Sensation’ which the vocals were sampled from for ‘Ride On Time’], because he was the one to give inspiration to do it in the first place. Then we thought; “since disco’s coming back in fashion, there’s only one way to do it; let’s do an album like it would have been done back in 1979”.
The album definitely has that authentic vintage feel.
Valerio is an orchestra conductor so he got together his Bolonga friends, and he got together an orchestra and went down to Italy to record the strings, horn section, and all the live instruments. We did it as was done in the ‘70s, actually.
That sound is prevalent on a track like ‘I Don’t Know Anybody Else’.
Yeah, and obviously, the world has changed and we have aged; we consume and get inspired by music in a completely different way than we did thirty years ago. We don’t have the same energy either. We were in lockdown, and we thought; “now people listen to music on the sofa; they don’t go out clubbing, so how about doing an album to actually listen at home, more than out partying?” We already have the partying version which is ‘Dreamlands’, so obviously there were a couple of tracks that we couldn’t really do easy listening or chill because they were too energetic like ‘I Don’t Know Anybody Else’, ‘Strike it Up, and ‘Ride on Time’. All the others are in a chill mood, and those three we tried to give an angle that would be acceptable within the whole concept, now that we are thirty years older.
‘Ghost Box’ is a great example of one of those chill tracks that you mentioned.
Yeah. People always thought it was a filler, but it wasn’t a filler; we wanted on the original album a track that would break away from the BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! and would give you a trip. I personally was a lot into new age at the time, and we were always inspired by Vangelis - the Greek modern composer - and that track, as you can tell, is kind of new age, Vangelis inspired, and so is ‘Dreamland’. We thought; “let’s put two tracks to break the album and take people on a journey a little bit”.
We have to talk about ‘Ride on Time’, and I was surprised to lean that your original inspiration for the track was Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.
Me and Mirko were both big fans of Ian Gillan, so we wanted to do something with that energy. Obviously, we didn’t have the skills to do anything near Deep Purple. One thing is to be a fan, another thing is actually to make it like that! So we thought; “we can make dance music; how can we get as close as we can to that hard blues?”, and ‘Ride On Time’ came out.
Did you ever think to sample something like ‘Child in Time’?
I used to sing ‘Child in Time’. I was in a cover band when I was fifteen, before I became a DJ, and I used to sing ‘Child in Time’ live. You can only do that when you are fifteen, mate! But we were so inexperienced. Before ‘Ride on Time’, do you remember a track ‘Airport ‘89’ by Wood Allen? Go and check it out. It was a record that we made before ‘Ride On Time’. If you listen to that track, there’s Ian Gillan on a loop, from ‘Lazy’. So, you can tell we were so much into Ian Gillan. It was just a matter of time!
Let’s talk about how ‘Ride on Time’ came together; I love how you changed the pitch of the vocal so it went up and down a scale.
That came about accidentally. In the club, I wanted to use the sampler. It was early days, and the brand new toy in town was the Akai S900, which had about ten seconds sampling mono. So what I used to do, I used to sample a couple of grooves, and so I had a piano loop, and then a loop of drums and a bass line, and then I had a few vocals; I had ‘Get down, get down!”; I had ‘Pump up the volume!”; and then I had ‘WOAH WOAH!’, and ‘cause you’re right on time’. So, because it was a short memory on the sampler, I used to improvise and do different things [with the pitch and timing of the vocals] because there’s only so much you can do in three minutes.
So how did it blossom from a club track, into a song?
Mirko and Valerio came to the club where I was DJing one night, and after my set hey said; “you’re playing something with the vocal that goes absolutely mad screaming; it’s very interesting. What is it?” So the following Monday I came to the studio with all my programmes and I played a few bits, and said; “you tell me which one it is”, because I couldn’t recall. So we went through them, and they said; “oh, that’s the one!”, and I said; “as a matter of fact, I’ve got the record in my bag”. So I took the a capella [vocal 12” single] out, and then Mirko started playing piano chords and said; “these chords would be fantastic”, and the moment he started playing the chords, we thought; “this is great!”
It came together quite quickly then.
Basically, we produced a backing track withing a week – the one you hear on the record. That was quick. But then ‘Love Sensation’ is a very complicated composition, and there’s a lot of material, so we thought; “it has to be simple”, because all the house records had three or four samples, and that was it.
How did you go about choosing what parts of the vocals to use?
We filled the sampler with vocals, trying to figure out which ones would be the best. It took us a month and a half to figure out what samples to use, in what sequence. We knew we had to use ‘right on time’, because it worked really well on the chords, and we knew we had to use the ‘woah’s. That was it. We wanted to make a very high energy track, so we picked all the highest, maddest screams of the track, and deleted everything else, and just tried to figure it out. It was like when you do the Rubik’s cub; we tried a different way, a different way until it worked! It wasn’t easy.
What was it like when you finally heard the finished mix?
We were exhausted. If it wasn’t for the guy that lived next door that came every other day just to check how we were doing… he said; “mate, this is great! This is a bloody hit!” Yeah right, you say that every time we make a record! “No, no, no, this time for real; it’s got legs, man!” So we started playing it around. I played it in the club and it cleared the floor because it was different. I went to a few labels in Italy and nobody wanted it, and I even came to London, and they turned us down! The guy from Discomagic [Records, Italy] said; “don’t worry about it; I’ll tell you what, we’ll press five hundred white labels and see what happens”. He sent like twenty copies to Ibiza, one got in the hands of Alfredo of Amnesia. He played it out, and in the crowd was Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling, they went absolutely crazy and the rest is history! How can you plan something like that?!
What was it like achieving not only a number one that ran for five weeks, but the biggest selling single of that year in the U.K.?
Every week we had a call from the record company; “you’re still number one”. I was calling the record company from a phone box! Every Sunday at seven o’clock, I used to go there with Mirko to the phone box. To be honest, it was so surreal that we didn’t really realise what was going on. It actually hit us six months later when they released ‘Everybody Everybody’ in America, and we went to promote it for three months solid, touring America. It was then we realised this is big business, and it became number one in America – but not ‘Ride on Time’; it was never released in America.
Do you still own the original 12” single of ‘Love Sensation’ which was sampled for ‘Ride On Time’?
Yeah. It’s at my parents. It’s on a black label with my DJ logo on it. It didn’t even have a cover on it; it was a generic black label with my stamp on it, and that was it.
There’s such an infectious bass line in the song.
That was Mirko’s idea. It actually came out accidentally because we already had the piano and the strings, so he was trying to figure out the right space between the piano not to interfere with the groove. He’s a composer, so for him it came natural. He said to me; “how about something like that?” and within five minutes it was done. I couldn’t believe how quickly things got into place on that record.
So ‘Ride On Time’ becomes a massive hit, and then the lawsuits begin.
The moment that Deconstruction / RCA signed us, they asked us; “listen, have you cleared the sample?” It meant we had to give away some of our royalties to the original master owners, and I thought; “okay, fair enough”. So they got in touch with the label Salsoul in America, and they did their own business and agreed the percentage and all that, drafted the papers, sent the papers, and that was it. Then Dan Hartman got in touch with us before the release saying; “I’ve been reading that you guys have made a record that is going to be very popular; I suggest that we share / split between us as nice friends, because what you did, I think is actually great, and I’m a big supporter of what you did. It’s unprecedented, and I don’t want to ruin your party, so give me my fair share, and then I’ll let you get on with your business!” Se we gave him a share of the writers’ percentage, and that was a gentleman’s agreement straight away, done.
What was it like chatting to Dan Hartman?
He was the guy that also wrote ‘Relight My Fire’; a big, big writer and producer. He used to produce Tina Turner, so he was a top guy. He was rich, he was popular, and he called us and said; “what you guys did is amazing”, and I would never have thought that would have been possible. Dan Hartman was the easy bit. Within a couple of weeks we signed agreements; job done. We reregistered the track with his name on it, and in fact, only the original Italian 500 copies have just me, Mirko and Valerio on it. The English release already had Dan Hartman on it from the first day.
The trouble came from Salsoul Records.
RCA / Deconstruction dealt with the sampling Salsoul Records, and we were on Top of the Pops, number one in the charts, and a phone call arrives from America to the BBC saying; “you’re not allowed to put that band on stage because that record includes a sample that is unauthorised”. So, the director of the BBC called RCA and said; “what’s going on!?”, and they said; “nothing’s going on; these people are talking rubbish!” So we recorded our Top of the Pops appearance, but the boss of RCA checked with the legal department, and they said; “we did pay the advance, we did send them the papers, but they never sent it back”. Basically, they blackmailed us. They made them believe we had the authorisation, then waited to see if the buzz was real. If we were number one in the charts, then they could ask for much more money, and that was the litigation, for a very long time.
It went on for quite a while.
RCA didn’t want to pay because they said; “this is blackmailing”, and in the end we found an agreement which was not very favourable anyway. They were very known in the industry to be gangsters, and basically RCA, the legal department were incompetent.
Loleatta Holloway, whose voice you sampled wasn’t very happy with how things went down in the end.
I wasn’t sure about what was going on, but apparently Loleatta Holloway was upset because she never got paid. The problem is, RCA cannot play Lolaetta Holloway directly; RCA has to pay the master owner, which is Salsoul Records, then Salsoul have to pay Loleatta Halloway. So the business between Salsoul Records and Loleatta Holloway; it’s not RCA business. I know RCA paid Salsoul, because they took it off my money, a lot of it.
Bring things back to the present day, what are your hopes for the new album?
Well, the fans seem to be pleased, and one thing we’ve noticed which hasn’t happened for a very long time, is a lot of musicians and a lot of people in the industry are calling us to congratulate us, and that is a very, very nice reward for us more than anything. You’re talking about top musicians, and when they come and say; “you did something amazing”, it’s very rewarding. Obviously, the public will never know this because this is one to one conversation, but for us, it was already worth doing.
Are you intending on hitting the road anytime soon in support of 'Dreamlanders'?
Yes, the next gig we have lined up is at the end of this month in Blackpool with Hacienda Classical, with the orchestra, so we’re going to play with them. After that we’ve got a few more gigs in the U.K. At the moment because of travel restrictions, we’re only taking gigs in the U.K. All the abroad gigs are all for next year, in the hope that things move on.
Finally, do you still have all your gold discs from back in 1989 / the early 1990s?
I still have them in my garage somewhere in Italy. I don’t put them on the wall. On my wall is a copy of a Pollock. I like art; I don’t like gold records!
Like this interview? Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for regular updates & more of the same.
'Dreamlanders' is available now. For more on Black Box, visit the band's official site.