We’re #2! – N-Trance’s “Set You Free”

“Want to stay in your arms forever, only love can set you free.”

Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart, beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.

016] N-Trance – Set You Free

Reached #2: 5th February 1995

Weeks at #2: 1

The thing about dance music on the pop charts is that, paradoxically, by the time a certain movement in that genre manages to crossover into the mainstream, the movement itself is either dead or in the midst of dying.  Even by the standards of the fast-moving evolutionary charge of music overall, dance music is constantly forward-thinking and ever-changing, always looking towards the sound of the future rather than relying on the here and now.  By 1994, rave had managed to crossover to the UK pop charts.  It was also in the process of being mercilessly snuffed out.  The 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which passed through the Commons with the near-unanimous support of both the Conservatives and their opposition New Labour, had sought to officially outlaw unlicensed public gatherings “at which amplified music is played,” here specifically defined as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”

Whipped up predominately by right-wing tabloid scaremongering in a heavy-handed response to the 1992 Castlemorton Common Festival – in which, short reductive version, the local police attempted to close down an unrelated traveller festival, in the process causing thousands of ravers and protestors to descend on the grounds the police had shepherded the planned festival’s attendees to for a week-long rave so populated (estimates started as low as 20,000) that it was impossible to shut down – the bill reflected a contemptuousness towards both youth, working class, and traveller culture which has been pervasive through Conservative British history.  There was outrage spread far and wide.  Autechre, the long-running British electronic duo, even set about crafting a protest EP of songs, the Anti EP, where one track has not a single repeated beat throughout its runtime in a flagrant middle finger to those at Westminster; it charted at #90There were a trio of massive public demonstrations in London throughout 1994, the last of which, in October, turned violent thanks to the authoritarian police.

There was, of course, more to the Act than just outlawing illegal raves, but that became the flash point and endemic of the Act’s many flaws and drawbacks – this was also the Act which allowed police to make inferences from an accused’s silence, as well as greatly increasing stop and search parameters.  Nevertheless, it gained royal ascent on the 4th November and that, plus a series of high-profile police raids designed to show its effectiveness, pretty much killed the illegal rave for good, with the scene largely retreating to the new, fast-rising nightclubs that allowed the public to hear these tunes with other people in capacities which wouldn’t cause them to spend a night in the slammer.  (Much of this is represented and dramatized in the excellent 2019 Scottish dramedy Beats, which I highly recommend even if this scene does nothing for you.)  But perhaps the biggest middle-finger to the Act that the genre could give, occurring whilst dance music as a whole started splitting off into other subgenres which would define the decade and much of the next, was that the death of the rave forced these songs back onto pop radio, slotted next to Boyzone and Céline Dion, for one last time.

Not a whole lot of them crossed over, admittedly, but all of the ones which did had been doing the rounds for several years before they finally took off as purchased records bum-rushing the pop charts.  Baby D’s “Let Me Be Your Fantasy,” for example, was originally released in 1992 but went nowhere with the general record-buying chart-chasing public until London Records re-released the song on 7th November 1994, where it spent two weeks at #1 and became the 18th biggest selling single of the year.  Not a coincidence.  Two months later, another extremely popular white-label from 1992 got its long-overdue run at the pop stream and, although it never managed to top the charts like its most obvious forebearer, it ended up going platinum and laid the seeds for one of the most influential dance subsidiaries of the following decade.  Clubland is the house that N-Trance and “Set You Free” built.

Kevin O’Toole and Dale Longworth met at The Oldham College in, err, Oldham.  Studying sound engineering by day; by night the pair, like so many bored young people living in the Greater Manchester area during the onset of the 90s, would venture down to the legendary Haçienda nightclub to take drugs and rave it up with 1,500 of their new best friends.  O’Toole and Longworth then decided to turn their non-club nights where they and a few other students would mess around with the college’s equipment into an ongoing music project, and so they put together a few demo tapes heavily inspired by the rave music which had soundtracked their nights out.  Their first tape was an unreleased dance remix of the theme tune to 70s cartoon series Roobarb (no doubt inspired by a different music duo called Shaft having done the exact same in 1991 and broken into the UK Top 10 in doing so).  Their second was a sample-heavy track called “Back to the Bass” which launched a minor bidding war that saw the duo sign to Pete Waterman’s 380 Records subsidiary as well as finally settle on the name N-Trance, although clearance issues would mean that the song never saw an official release.

At this time, the duo unofficially became a trio when they picked up aspiring singer Kelly Llorenna, supposedly by wandering into her stage school and asking if anyone there knew a singer, and another shift in musicology abounded.  Having tried the early Prodigy novelty-jungle route, then going for a M/A/A/R/S-esque sample collage, O’Toole and Longworth decided to shift a touch poppier for their newer material.  O’Toole had been playing around with an instrumental piano piece (presumably for their course) that Longworth figured they could tease a full song out of, Llorenna and O’Toole penned some lyrics within 20 minutes whilst the former was on the way to audition for the project, and soon enough the trio had a hit on their hands.  It just wasn’t going to be Pete Waterman’s hit; troubles at 380 Records meant that, aside from a limited run of 500 white labels for clubs pressed just after the July 1992 recording session, the song wasn’t issued as a single and N-Trance chose to buy their way out of the deal they’d struck just one year earlier and look elsewhere.  That elsewhere would be an upstart Blackburn dance music label called All Around the World.

Nowadays known as the progenitors of Clubland and its associated roster of acts (a few of whom we’ll actually meet once this series reaches the 2000s), back then the freshly-established label were looking for their first big breakthrough hit.  N-Trance seemed like they were going to give it to them when “Set You Free” was initially issued on vinyl in 1993.  That, obviously did not happen, the song came nowhere near the Top 40, but it did at least set O’Toole, Longworth, and Llorenna on a path touring up and down the country, honing their craft as both songwriters and live musicians.  With this head of steam, AATW had the song remixed into a ghastly “Pop Version” and re-released in early ’94 only for, once again, nothing to come of it; a #39 debut was the best it managed.  Still more touring followed.  A different single, “Turn Up the Power” which featured a different pair of vocalists, showed considerable commercial improvement; this one debuting at #23.  The buzz was preparing to bubble over, “Set You Free” was in high demand, and they’d even shot a music video at long last.  One final time, in January of 1995, two months after the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act had come into law, AATW re-issued the song as it was originally recorded back in July 1992.

I know that I take the long way around when discussing almost all of the songs we cover on We’re #2!, going off about the social history, pop history and the creation of the song & artist for a good thousand or so words before I reach the song itself.  A lot of the time this is because I like all of this history and am hoping we can find something interesting and learn new things about these tracks in ways which illuminate how they do or don’t work.  But in this case, the history and social contexts surrounding “Set You Free” are crucial to explaining why it took so long to become an unadulterated commercial smash.  “Set You Free” is timeless pop excellence, it’s only the second 5 I’ve given across this series so far and it’s perhaps the easiest 5 I’ll be giving out until we hit back-to-back entries in ’96.  But as obvious a mega-hit as it may sound to you and I listening back, not every song that deserves to be a mega pop hit ends up being a mega pop hit.  “Set You Free” could only have gone supernova at a very specific moment in time.

After all, dance music had been a consistent force on the British charts since decades before “Pump Up the Volume,” and Whigfield’s “Saturday Night” had been one of 1994’s biggest singles in the country.  But what sets “Set You Free” apart from such jams, as well as the smash #1 “Fantasy” whose success was undoubtedly another catalyst for this last push, is how emotional the song is.  Much – not all, this is admittedly a very reductionist and generalised take on the wide-ranging spectrum of “dance” music – of the dance music that made big inroads with the pop charts was based around being upbeat and raucous.  Minor keys, for something like “Rhythm is a Dancer,” pop up more as atmosphere rather than as a signifier of lasting feels coming one’s way.  These songs are fun, bouncy, lyrical preoccupations based mostly around moving that body, jacking that body, making the listener sweat, caught up in hot temptations, getting the hots for you boom ba-boom ba-ba-ba-ba-boom, and sexual longing.  That’s all when they’re not just being straight up novelty hits riding fads and one-note jokes.

“Set You Free,” by contrast, is all emotion.  Euphoric emotion akin to those found in almost all the crossover rave and dance hits – tumbling charging beats, skyscraper diva vocals, house-y piano lines, buzzy and maddeningly catchy riffs – is indeed a large part of it.  But there’s also an aching nostalgia and sense of longing inexorably locked to that euphoria which is magnificently communicated by Llorenna’s all-timer of a vocal performance, a combination of powerful strength in her commanding delivery of each and every snarled “only love” with a hint of vulnerability through the “oh, yeah” adlibs, even before you look into the lyrical intent.  O’Toole’s main inspiration for the song was one of those famed Haçienda nights and the fleeting but powerful connections he made whilst raving: “They used to pass round pints of water, and a woman came up to me and I felt her heartbeat through her top… the songs created a diary of what was happening at the time.”  So he’s having Llorenna be literal when she sings of “feel[ing] your heartbeat close to me” and “want[ing] this night to last forever” because she’s singing about the communion of the club, rather than making it a pining romance song (although the latter reading also works phenomenally well).

And it works.  It’s direct and simple but there is so much emotion, history and sincerity caught up in those words, conveyed in just three stanzas, that the effect is both celebratory and wistful at the same time.  O’Toole later specified that he and Longworth had set out to make a song that can only work as the close of something.  “When we used to go to the Haçienda, the song you remembered on the way home was always the last one played, and we wanted to create that.”  And they nail that vibe.  You cannot mix into or out of “Set You Free,” in either its truncated four minute Radio Edit or especially its seven minute Original Mix; the intro crackles with storm clouds and hangs beat-less for almost a full minute as if custom-designed to herald the end of the night, whilst the outro cuts out unceremoniously as if the party lights have been shut off and everyone is being forcefully evacuated from the building.  Those titular refrains are forever heading skyward and fading out before the notes themselves are finished being delivered, as if moments lost in time, whilst the cut-up “oh, yeah” adlibs become less cut as the song heads to its climax so the full longing weight of their deliveries can be absorbed.

It’s the last song of the night because it’s the song you’ll wake up the following morning remembering and, after the initial euphoria subsides, having that pang of whether anything will be as good as that night again hit and linger.  Despite otherwise being a flawlessly constructed pop song with a megaton bomb of a chorus and hooks upon hooks barrelling in from all sides – this is the kind of song where ten different people could list ten entirely different parts of the track being the best part and have every one of their choices be objectively correct – I feel like “Set You Free” needed that additional social resonance before it could be canonised and ascend to its deserved perch as one of the greatest songs of the 90s.  Rave had been attempting to respond to its imminent demise via defiance, protest, getting harder and heavier, flouting the law in ill-fated rebellion, and splintering off inconclusively into different subgenres and movements.

“Set You Free” provided, arguably and inadvertently, a more dignified and conclusive end.  A eulogy for a way of life and a culture about to be dead and buried for many members of the public.  A monument and reminder for those who lived it as to why they pushed through the rigamarole of getting to raves, the ten shit nights for every one great night, the shut-downs, the police harassment, the garbage drugs and worse booze.  Because when it was great, when the drugs and the booze and the ravers and the music and a million other variables were just right, it provided an escape from the economic recession and crushing misery of the late-80s and early 90s as a direct result of an uninterrupted decade of Tory attacks on the working class.  It provided a communion, a release, a state of ecstasy, a desire for this amazing night to last forever even though you know that it won’t and tomorrow you have to wake up and live in your societal dead-end once more but fuck it this is better than nothing.  “Set You Free” is at once hopeful, idealistic, fantastical and euphoric whilst also being crushingly realist, wistful, nostalgic for a time already gone and impossible to truly replicate.  It is transcendent and, even with much of that social context having long since faded, its power may live on for decades more to come; which might explain the infrequent retouched re-releases over the years.

It also saved All Around the World’s bacon, pretty much; the label’s initial distributor and main financier, Total, had gone into administration by the time “Set You Free” shifted 500,000 copies in the UK and the song’s mega-success gave AATW the clout to secure new investors and distribution outlets which primed them for their 2000s takeover.  Meanwhile, N-Trance themselves finally had enough clout and songs to put together a full-fledged album, although it wasn’t ready in time for the single’s re-release and would mark a shift in sound far away from the rave scene their massive hit had spawned from.  We will meet them again in this column soon enough.

Bonus Beats: In 2008, venerated Indie label Engine Room Recordings issued the second of their Guilt by Association compilations, in which members of their roster covered self-confessed “guilty pleasure” pop songs in their own indie rock/folk style.  Scottish indie folk heroes Frightened Rabbit took on “Set You Free” and the results, whilst not holding a candle to the original (I personally feel the song is inexorably tied to the rave genre), are warm and affecting.

[Frightened Rabbit scored no UK Top 40 singles.  R.I.P. Scott Hutchison.]

The #1: “Set You Free”’s one week at #2 came about as a result of Céline Dion’s “Think Twice” spending the second of its mammoth seven week run at the summit of the chart.  It’s… fine, I guess.  Deeply weird and disjointed (and also quite long), a blend of three different clashing power ballad styles and lyrics that can’t seem to decide if they’re being accusatory or desperate, but simultaneously inoffensively fine.  It’s a 2.5.

The gaps: An entire month separates “Set You Free” from our prior entry, Boyzone’s “Love Me for a Reason,” during which time the #2 slot was first held down by the aforementioned “Think Twice” (from 8th of January through to the 22nd of January), and then by the descending Rednex with their torturous earworm former #1 “Cotton Eye Joe” on the 29th of January.

A new entry of We’re #2! will be posted every Sunday.

Callie Petch doesn’t want to destroy your tank top.

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