"Why is Moby so big?" asks cult '50s throwback British comedian Mark Lamarr. "Because he writes music for ads. Hasn't Play been used for something like 237 ads around the world? Surely if a record is that perfect for so many different ads, it can't be much good. Someone in a band--Travis, I think--got asked who's the most famous person they'd met and who's the most unpleasant. They replied, 'Moby and Moby.'"
Flash back to Melbourne, Australia last year, a few short weeks after our arrival there. I've been asked to bring a few records down to the local community radio station. Not having many possessions, I bring down a couple of old Andrew Sisters records (ace wartime British close-harmony trio) alongside the obligatory Dexy's Midnight Runners, Costello, and Cheap Trick. I'm thinking to shock the local hipsters into submission with my eclectic (not to say outdated) musical taste. Instead, I find myself complimented. "Hey, no worries on the rare Moby track cobber," a passing Aussie DJ remarks. "Where d'ya find it?" (No, they don't really speak like that.) Damn. Is nothing new... I mean, old... nowadays?
Flash forward a few months. Moby is coming to town, and we can barely breathe for the claustrophobic weight of our friends' expectations. Cynically, we inquire whether Moby is still trying to fuse heavyweight grunge guitars with sliding techno--or perhaps he's stepped into a parallel world where swing music still holds sway. No response. It's going to take more than a few well-chosen, snide insults to rile our stoic Aussie pals. Indeed, in the rarefied world of the lately-come dance fanatics, accusations of being unfashionable cut no ice. The nastier and less cool the sample, the better for all concerned, it seems. (Both Chris Rea and Queen have recently resurfaced in the Brit Top 10 thanks to a couple of rather dire "rave" remixes.) It's also one more way of separating the new dance-heads from the increasingly self-important and impotent British rock music press--and thus alienating the parents' generation. So Moby sounds old-fashioned and astonishingly commercial? So what?
At least we all know what he looks like. As the NME succinctly put it a while ago, "Baldy dance bloke, vegan Christian, sampled Twin Peaks, went metal, then went back, allegedly big in America." Actually, Moby has been involved in one of the more entertaining turnarounds in recent pop music. From industrial techno metal on the crushingly dull Animal Rights to howling old blues and slow-burning, smoldering soul on Play. Not bad for a man long derided for his fierce, student-like beliefs.
So is he any good live? The answer will depend on how snobbish the person you're asking is. He's been blamed for the cultural pollution of techno upon the masses. He's been contrasted with the Cranberries, Prodigy, and Billy Corgan. This much I can tell you, though: Last time of sighting, everyone's favorite space cadet was sporting a live band (drums, DJ, punk-goddess bassist) and was just as liable to lapse into the odd 20-minute bout of frenetic 350bpm hard house as he was to break out yodeling à la Patsy Cline. This is undoubtedly a Good And Proper Thing if only because he confuses the fuck out of everyone present. All right, so he does steer this side of Big Beat, and likes to strike messianic poses on his keyboard. More than that... I cannot say. But he's definitely not Beck. And for that, we should all be deeply grateful.