top of page


With April shows now announced for Underworld, Wind Back Wednesday takes a step away from their euphoric moments to get to the dark pit underneath those early hits with Karl Hyde.

He spoke before their 2003 tour, looking back on a decade of cries for help not so hidden inside bangers.


Normally, when your song has become the kind of hit sung on football terraces and in pubs and clubs around the world, you are pretty happy. Hearing thousands of lathered-up blokes chanting the chorus is meant to give you a thrill.

But for Underworld's lyricist/vocalist Karl Hyde, when that happened with the band's biggest song, the Trainspotting soundtrack-featured Born Slippy - with its hook line of "lager, lager, lager" - it made him even more depressed than he already was.

The thing is, rather than a celebration of laddish culture by a band that for many defined dance music's rave culture, Born Slippy was the starkest revelation of Hyde's long-term alcoholism.

As he said once: "I'd done a pact with myself where I felt I was very ordinary, very middle of the road, and the only way I could contribute anything that was extreme enough was if I got raging drunk, wrote everything down and handed it over to the recovering one [Underworld's co-writer/producer Rick Smith] in the morning. And he put that on the records."

So watching audiences not only misunderstanding the lyrics but in a sense reliving them made for ugly moments. The kind of ugly moments that feed the insecurity and self-loathing of a drunk.

"Yeah, it was a very horrible experience," Hyde says now. "Quite a lot of the words on the early albums were like a cry for help.

"I was describing something and saying, 'Doesn't this sound horrible to you? Wouldn't you get somebody out of this situation?' Well, put two and two together and hello."

Hyde says this in the quiet, relaxed voice of the recovered alcoholic, for he gave up the drink nearly five years ago. He had an epiphany one day sitting on a park bench, seeing not just more of the same but one ugly full stop: death.

You can see the result of that move in last year's Underworld album, A Hundred Days Off. Lyrically and musically it was the most optimistic sound Underworld have ever produced, even though it was less obviously a banging dance record than its predecessor Beaucoup Fish.

"One could quite easily self-obsess on the dark, which is quite an appealing subject for a musician to put into their work," Hyde says. "[But] how long can you safely live in that condition if you're concerned at all about your welfare and in no small measure the welfare and state of mind of those closest to you?

"When I made that move away from [the dark lyrical moods] it was a testing time also because something that had worked was no longer going to be visited. And I didn't know how [focusing on the positive] was going to go over."

Of course, it's not as if Hyde's moods were always so clearly evident: his lyrics could define "elliptical" and deliberately steered away from narrative.

But the one thing that was never in doubt was that you could decipher an emotional direction - it's what differentiated Underworld from its contemporaries in the dance scene.

In essence he was closer to a writer such as playwright Sam Shepherd, who can say a lot with very little.

"I believe we all see the world in a series of fragments and when I wrote it as I heard it or experienced it - which was as a series of fragments coming at me fast: taste, smell, sight, sound, bits of conversation, my emotional impressions - it captured much more accurately the time and space I was in," explains Hyde.

"And when Rick takes it on and works with it, it actually seems to get more distilled, more specific."

The relationship with Smith, which goes back more than 20 years, is just as crucial to the emotional wellspring of the band as Hyde's drinking, or non-drinking; particularly as they lost DJ Darren Emerson after Beaucoup Fish.

It was a loss that some who assumed (erroneously) it was Emerson who brought the one-time rock duo of Hyde and Smith to dance music believed would be fatal.

"It is a quite emotionally-charged relationship," Hyde says. "When the opportunities arise during those emotionally-charged moments to walk away we choose to walk out of the room, make two cups of tea and walk back in to work it out.

"There's a lot of emotion flying around and that finds its way into the music we make, not only the lyrics."

bottom of page