In John Niven’s scabrous 2008 novel Kill Your Friends, there is a scene that dramatises the moment in 1997 when Goldie unveiled his second album, Saturnz Return – specifically, its hour-long opening track, Mother – to his expectant record company. Goldie is lightly disguised as a character called Rage. Like Goldie, he has survived an appalling childhood of abandonment, neglect and abuse to become the biggest star in Britain’s burgeoning drum’n’bass scene. Like Goldie, he has a penchant for gold jewellery and grills and, like Goldie, there is a great weight of music-industry expectation around his forthcoming album: expectation that goes up in smoke the minute he presses play.
“People cross and recross their legs, sip their wine and pray for it to end,” offers the novel’s horrendous narrator, Steve Stelfox. “But it doesn’t. As the track approaches the one-hour mark and nothing has emerged that vaguely resembles a hook, or a chorus, or a recognisable melody, it collectively dawns on us that we’re listening to the sonic representation of someone’s mind coming apart. On a positive note, I’m thinking that I must get the number of Rage’s dealer, because the chang he’s on is clearly fucking phenomenal.”
“Rather a good book,” smiles Goldie, when the subject of Niven’s novel and its depiction of Mother’s premiere comes up. Back in the UK from his home in Thailand and seated in a bar in King’s Cross, central London, he is talking, as is his wont, in lengthy, breathless bursts of puns, anecdotes and malapropisms. His answers zig-zag unpredictably between topics, occasionally contradicting something he said earlier, frequently ending up somewhere that has nothing to do with the initial question. He is fantastic company, but I find myself thinking that I am talking to Goldie 2.0 – clean and relatively serene, an adherent of yoga, meditation and the intensive brand of psychotherapy known as the Hoffman Process – and boggling at what he must have been like when he was taking vast quantities of “chang”.
He is in Britain at least partly because Saturnz Return is receiving the kind of 21st anniversary deluxe reissue treatment afforded classic albums, complete with much talk of its brave experimentation and the vindication of Goldie’s unique vision, a turn of events he seems bemused by. As he points out, no one was talking about the bravery of his unique vision in 1998, when the general consensus seemed to be that Saturnz Return offered conclusive proof Goldie had lost his marbles. “I don’t know whether it’s the company trying to recoup the money they lost on it in the first place, or if they genuinely believe in Saturnz Return as an album,” he says. He tried to tell them no, but the label insisted. “They said: ‘No, we genuinely think people should hear it now.’ Oh, whatever then. It’s … bittersweet.”
He says the album’s premiere was pretty much as Kill Your Friends described it. He wouldn’t let the label hear the album while he was making it. Given his stories about the sessions, that was probably for the best. In Goldie’s retelling, the making of Saturnz Return was a chaotic saga of technical meltdowns, rows with uncomprehending collaborators and druggy hedonism. At one juncture, Goldie found himself haunted by his reflection in a mirror, which declined to move when he did, a state of affairs that may have had something to do with the cocktail of cocaine and LSD he had recently ingested.
Still, the fact that Goldie could lock his label out of the studio while making an album on their substantial dime tells you a lot about how famous he was. He seemed to catapult from respected underground drum’n’bass producer to mainstream celebrity overnight, after the music industry decided the former Clifford Price was the guy built to bring the sound to the masses. You could see why they came to that conclusion: drum’n’bass was futuristic, original, experimental, thrilling music, but the people who made it and played it tended to be low-key, anonymous figures.
Goldie, on the other hand, was charismatic. The jewellery and self-designed grills gave him a striking image. He had an extraordinary back story, too: put in care aged three by his mother while his half-brothers remained at home, he shuttled miserably between children’s homes and unsuccessful attempts at fostering, enduring physical and sexual abuse, before running away aged 16 and becoming a successful graffiti artist in the UK and the US, then experiencing a Damascene conversion to dance music after hearing the DJs Fabio and Grooverider playing in a London club. “They thought I was a rock star, because I did a lot of drugs and I was a bit crazy,” he says. “Record companies love that; they want to find another Iggy. There wasn’t any other poster boy for drum’n’bass, let’s face it.”
As he points out, he swiftly became more famous than the music he made. His debut album, Timeless, went gold and spawned a hit single in the brilliant Inner City Life, but judging by his media profile you would have thought he had just released the biggest-selling album in history. He was everywhere: modelling, acting, designing clothes, hanging around with rock aristocracy and supermodels. He dated Naomi Campbell, then he was engaged to Björk. David Bowie started turning up at Metalheadz, the Sunday-night club Goldie ran in pre-gentrification Hoxton, east London, “sitting on the steps, rolling cigarettes – people left him alone”. Madonna wanted him to produce her new album; he declined. “It might have been great, but I’d have ended up banging her, probably, or some shit like that,” he says. “And I would have ended up doing copious amounts of probably harder drugs, trying to search for something that wasn’t there.”
You could see why his record label thought the follow-up to Timeless might capitalise commercially on its author’s fame, but this was a drastic misreading of the situation. Goldie certainly looked like a man thoroughly enjoying himself, but things were not as they seemed. His celebrity, he says, “troubled me incessantly”. Not everyone in drum’n’bass was overjoyed at his new position as the genre’s figurehead. He sighs: “The amount of flak I got from people, going: ‘Yeah, man, you’ve sold out.’” By his own admission, he had terrible anger issues (“I’d get really horrible, use my fists like clubs, regret it later”), not much helped by a gargantuan cocaine habit that regularly necessitated “looking for dealers to get more gear at six in the morning”.
But the real problem, he says, was his childhood. “There was always this sense of schizophrenia, a sense of this voice, which was me as a boy, this whole exchange about how all this stuff is not going to hide the fact that you’re still lamenting for your mother, is it? I had all the money, but …” He shakes his head. “This really weird thing happened. When I was a kid, there was a day when I was playing with a ball, bouncing it down the road, and it rolled off and went underneath this car on a driveway, a [Reliant] Scimitar; beautiful thing. I went to get it, looked up at this house and the curtains were drawn. I thought: ‘It’s a sunny day – if I had that car, I’d be out driving it.’ And then, years later, I’m at home, off my head, there’s the Ferrari, the Porsche, the Cosworth on my driveway, and I look out the window and there’s this kid getting his ball that’s rolled under my Porsche. And I’m inside, in the middle of a fucking week-long bender. I just shook. I thought: ‘I’m that kid. What have I done?’”
And so his second album became about exorcising his demons. “At that time in my life, I had nothing else to give, apart from this voice in my head,” he says. He managed to get an accompanying documentary bankrolled, in which he went in search of his parents. Bowie encouraged his musical endeavours. “He told me: ‘Stick to what you believe in – if you’re going to do it, do it all the way.’” He followed that advice to the letter. The sessions for Saturnz Return, and Mother in particular, became increasingly elaborate: a 30-piece string section, classically trained child singers, the best session musicians money could buy. He says he knew from the start that it was “a recipe for disaster … commercial suicide”, but he is still hugely, infectiously enthusiastic about his hour-long opus.
“It starts with this beautiful piece of music that’s the voice of a child who’s not arrived yet. It’s like looking at your mum’s vagina and knowing: ‘I know this is going to be a very difficult life, but it’s the one life you need to make count.’ And then the mother rips away from him and the whole thing descends, and it’s being cast away, and there’s a sound like a whip, the whip of life, the abuse, the next children’s home and the next one and the next one, all the same. He’s trying to find his way and he becomes a monster, and the beats become really complex and start to grow really fierce, and then it drops all of a sudden into a bell sound, the realisation of life, and, at 48 minutes, we have the solo cello – what would she have said when I did find her? ‘I’m sorry, son, for what I did to you’?” His voice finally trails off. “So, all of that.”
His record company didn’t share his enthusiasm. “They were listening to it, swilling their wine glasses, and it kind of was the end for one [label executive]’s career,” he nods. “They were expecting something like my first album, and what they got was what happens if you have a guy who’s got more money than sense, more cars on the driveway than girlfriends, an ego and copious amounts of Peruvian flake, and this voice in his head saying: ‘This is not you, mate, you need to make this album, with this classical impressionistic piece of music on it called Mother, and you’ll get crucified for doing it.’”
Critics were so perplexed that largely they chose to ignore the rest of the album – no mean feat, given that its guests included Bowie, Noel Gallagher and KRS-One – to concentrate on Mother, wondering aloud what the hell he thought he was doing. Goldie also began to think the documentary about his parents was a mistake. It certainly made for deeply uncomfortable viewing. “Going to America and sitting with my dad: ‘Why did you get with my mum, eh?’ Seeing my mum: ‘Why did you leave me at the fucking post office?’ Chastising them. I think I would have responded better behind closed doors. I don’t think I needed to air my laundry to a world that was never going to understand it in its entirety anyway.”
Goldie soldiered on, DJing, releasing music and fronting two documentary series, Classic Goldie in 2009 and Goldie’s Band By Royal Appointment in 2011. The former saw him learn to write scores for an orchestra and culminated in a performance of his piece Sine Tempore at the Proms. The latter featured him coaching a group of young musicians to perform at Buckingham Palace. In the process, he became something of a national treasure; he was awarded an MBE in 2016. “I always felt it stood for massive bell-end,” he laughs.
He says he didn’t care about Mother’s initial reception, because the song had already served its purpose. He eventually reconciled with his mum. When she was dying, he visited her in hospital and she asked if he would play the track at her funeral. “I said: ‘Mum, it’s too long. By the time it’s finished, even the fucking caretakers will have packed up and gone home.’”
But he went to see her body in the chapel of rest. “They made me a cup of tea and I went to her cubicle and there she was, in the box. Like a little white monkey: her skin looked like marble, stretched over her. I sat down, drank my tea, put my headphones on and I played it. I let the album go after that. That was what it was for. I played it for my mother when she died. Someone wants to put it out, they’re welcome, but it doesn’t bother me; it’s done, I don’t want to financially gain from it. It was for that simple moment.”
Of course, being Goldie, 10 minutes later he is telling me that the track should be performed in full at the Royal Albert Hall by an orchestra and that: “If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, you’d get people going: ‘Oh, we should make Mother into an opera, it’s what he would have wanted.’”
When he leaves – off to a meeting about a forthcoming film called Sine Tempore, based on his childhood – a bus does indeed screech to a halt, although not to avoid him. The driver bellows his name and leans out of the window, wanting to shake his hand. Goldie smiles and gives me a thumbs-up. “You see?” he laughs. “Man of the people!”
Saturnz Return: 21st Anniversary Edition is released on 30 August