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Moby Thought ‘Play’ Would Be a Flop

The producer’s gamechanging 1999 LP would eventually sell more than 12 million copies. But in an excerpt from his new memoir, he recounts why he originally thought it would end his career

"Self Portrait with Some Awards, 2002." Moby's new memoir 'Then It Fell Apart' describes the heady period that followed the release of 'Play.'

Courtesy Moby

This week, Moby will release his second memoir, Then It Fell Apart. Out May 7th, the book picks up where 2016’s Porcelain left off, chronicling the heady, hedonistic period after the release of his 1999 breakthrough, Play, which fused electronica with folk, blues and gospel. Play would go on to sell more than 12 million copies worldwide and rank at number 341 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, but at the time the album came out, the producer already felt like a “has-been.” In this excerpt from the book, he describes his depressing first gig in support of the LP: an in-store at a New York Virgin Megastore that drew only about 30 fans. 

LOWER EAST SIDE AND UNION SQUARE, NEW YORK CITY, 1999

Play had been out for a week and already looked like a failure.

It was early May and surprisingly cold for Manhattan. I was walking up Fourth Avenue from my loft on Mott Street to Union Square, past buildings that 150 years earlier had been New York’s fanciest. On my left was the Colonnade, which once had been a row of townhouses styled to look like the Acropolis, and now was just a few surviving limestone columns, stained grey and black from a century and a half of smoke.

I was wearing my usual uniform of old jeans and black sneakers; my small, cold hands were balled in the pockets of my thrift-shop Army jacket. The late afternoon sun stretched down the crosstown blocks, burnishing the old stone buildings.

I had worked on Play for the last two years. After almost a decade of making records it looked like it would be my last album, a flawed and poorly mixed swan song. I was amazed it had been released at all: a year ago I’d lost my record deal with my American label, and even before the release of Play I’d largely been consigned to the trash heap of has-beens.

Losing my record deal didn’t leave me bitter or surprised, because my previous album, Animal Rights, had failed in almost every way that an album could fail. It sold poorly and received almost exclusively terrible reviews. My former American label, Elektra, was the home of Metallica and other artists who sold millions of albums. Objectively it made perfect sense for them to drop me, as all the evidence indicated that my best years were behind me. In the early 90s, I’d been seen as a techno wunderkind, but as the decade progressed I never lived up to the expectations that led to me being on a major record label.

I was still signed to Mute Records in England — but they had never dropped any of their artists. A new label in New York, V2, had agreed to release Play, a decision that I assumed stemmed from charity or delusion.

I walked past the former location of the Ritz on 11th Street, where I’d witnessed Depeche Mode’s first-ever United States show in 1982, when I was 15 years old. After seeing the band with their synthesizers and new-wave haircuts, I’d dreamed of someday playing my own solo show at the Ritz. But now I was 33. And while the Ritz had held over a thousand people, tonight I was going to play in the basement of a record store for maybe 50 people. I tucked my head down against an unexpectedly cold wind and walked through the shadows.

I’d worked hard on Play for month after month, writing and recording it on old equipment in my small bedroom studio in my loft on Mott Street. Now that the album was released, I realized there was nothing about it that augured success. It was poorly mixed and when it didn’t feature my own thin voice, it used vocals recorded 40 or 50 years earlier by long-dead singers. I assumed that Play would soon be forgotten, as it was 1999 and the age of Britney Spears and N*Sync and Limp Bizkit, huge pop acts who made albums in expensive studios and knew how to write and record songs that sounded huge on the radio.

Not much had worked out for me in the past few years. My mother had died, I’d lost my American record deal, I was battling near-constant panic attacks, I was going broke, and I was guzzling 10 or 15 drinks a night. But today I was happy. I had been allowed to make one final album.

After tonight’s show in the basement of the Virgin Megastore in Union Square, my band and I were scheduled to do a two-week tour of small venues in North America and then a two-week tour of small venues in Europe. Getting drunk after playing small shows and waking up hungover in parking lots wasn’t everyone’s idea of glamour. But I was excited to have one last month on a tour bus. After the tour I could go back to school or figure out what else I could do with the rest of my life.

I’d put together a small band: Scott, a dark, handsome drummer I’d worked with since 1995; Greta, a tall, tattooed bass player with spiky bleached hair; and on keyboards and turntables, Spinbad, a DJ-comedian with a shaved head and a goatee. I was going to sing some of the songs, but most of the sampled and female vocals were going to be on tape, as I couldn’t afford to hire a real singer.

I turned onto 14th Street and bought a bottle of Poland Spring, courteously wrapped in a wet napkin, from a sidewalk pretzel vendor. Ten years earlier, when I’d first moved to New York, I’d lived in a green brick tenement two blocks from here, on the corner of 14th and 3rd.

And nine years earlier, in 1990, I’d played my first real show at the Palladium on 14th Street and Irving Place. I’d had odd beginnings on 14th Street in the past — maybe I would be lucky and tonight would be another one.

I walked into the record store with my dripping bottle of Poland Spring and took the escalator down to the basement, where my band and crew had already set up our equipment. Even though I barely had a career I still had three managers. One of them, Marci, was at the bottom of the escalator, badgering the store manager. Marci had exploding curls of red hair; she was short, fierce, and loyal. The store manager was trying to back away from her.

“Hi, Marci,” I said.

“Mo! How are you?”

“Hungover,” I told her. “When do we go on?”

“It was supposed to be 5:30 but I think we can push it back to 6?” she said, smiling at the store manager.

“Okay,” he conceded. “But you guys need to be wrapped up by 6:30.”

“Is that okay, Moby?” Marci asked.

“I guess so,” I said with a shrug. I walked over to my band and road crew.

“Hey, Mo!” said Dan, my lighting designer. “How are you?”

“Hungover.”

Dan was a Brit with a tall green Mohawk. We didn’t actually need a lighting designer to play this show under the fluorescent bulbs of a record store basement, but he had shown up to carry equipment and lend support. He was hanging out with Steve, a disturbingly tall and attractive sound tech, and J.P., an unfailingly friendly sound man from Manchester who’d started out working with the Happy Mondays.

My new tour manager, Sandy, walked over. “Everything okay, Moby” he asked.

Sandy was British, a bit taller than me, and handsome — with a full head of blonde hair that I envied. He’d been a tour manager for successful British indie-rock bands, and I was surprised that he’d been willing to spend a month overseeing a small, unexceptional tour.

“I’m good, Sandy, how are you?’ I asked politely. He was a rock ‘n’ roll tour manager who lived on a series of tour buses, but he seemed professional and erudite; I wanted him to think well of me.

Other than my band and crew, there were only a handful of people in the basement. Some people were wandering around the magazine racks and a few were watching us set up equipment. I walked onto the small stage, picked up my guitar, and started playing “Stairway to Heaven.” The store manager rushed over and remonstrated, “You need to keep it down before you go on.”

I looked at him, and swallowed, embarrassed. “Sure thing,” I said, and turned off my guitar.

This wasn’t glamorous. But it was something. At the end of the Animal Rights tour I’d been playing to 25 people a night. If we drew 50 people tonight it would be a 100% increase.

I put down my guitar and wandered around the store, looking at the racks of CDs and cassettes and music magazines and books. I picked up a copy of the UK weekly Melody Maker to see if they’d reviewed Play. They had. They’d given it two stars out of 10 and mostly used the review as an opportunity to malign me personally. My heart sank.

Marci walked up to me. “What are you reading, Mo?”

Melody Maker review.”

“How is it?”

I shrugged and handed her the review. She read it and shook her head. “Well, at least the Spin review was good!” she said with bright optimism in the face of British journalistic contempt.

“Should we go on now?” I asked.

I gathered my band, walked back onstage, and picked up my guitar. I tapped on the microphone and surveyed the scene. I’d hoped for 50 people to be at our first show, but underneath the bright store lights I could see only 30 people looking down at us from the balcony.

“Hi,” I said cautiously into the mic, “I’m Moby, and this is ‘Natural Blues,'” and we started the first show of the Play tour. I wanted people to watch us playing instruments, and maybe not notice that the female vocals were pre-recorded and nobody was actually singing. When the song ended, a few people clapped and the rest of the shoppers went about their business.

We played “Porcelain” and “South Side” and “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” and “Go” and “Bodyrock” and then ended with “Feeling So Real.” “Go” and “Feeling So Real” had been European hits, and at various points, I’d stood onstage and played them for tens of thousands of people. Now I was in a basement playing them for a smattering of polite applause from few diehard fans and a bunch of commuters looking for Hootie and the Blowfish CDs.

As soon as the show ended, the audience dispersed and the eight people in my band and crew started unplugging microphones and putting guitars in cases. I smiled — this was the next month of my life, and this was enough.

Excerpted from THEN IT FELL APART by Moby. Used with permission of Faber & Faber. Copyright © 2019 by Moby Entertainment. 

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