What if the most prolific dance music producer in history staged a comeback and nobody noticed?
That appears to be the case with Bobby Orlando, also known as Bobby O, and also known by no less than 50 other aliases, who emerged from a self-imposed hiatus five years ago with a stream of singles and albums that attracted little notice from anyone other than the intense but dwindling army of HiNRG fanatics.
In a perverse way, Bobby O is one of dance music’s unsung legends – for many of the wrong reasons. He pioneered a number of tropes and practices that have become inherited traits in dance music’s DNA. You can even say that Bobby was the ancestor of the Beatport Generation. When today’s young producer fires up his laptop, smashing samples from popular songs into generic, prefabricated tracks, he’s making an unintentional but legitimate homage to Bobby O, the unsung maestro of crap.
A glance at Bobby’s output since his comeback shows that he’s kept up with his accidental disciples and matched them, turd-for-turd. He’s released at least six albums in the last five years and dozens of singles. The artwork is often some bizarre and random detail from a painting or gradient of color, like the covers of those computer-generated books you come across on Amazon. If those books had soundtracks, they too would sound like Bobby O.
“All by himself, Bobby pioneered the global crap factory called dance music, circa 2015 – only he did it in 1985.”
But this is nothing new – if anything, the tempo of Bobby’s release schedule was actually greater in the era of instruments and tape than that of sample libraries and waveforms. It would take the entire roster of special forces cataloguers at Discogs.com years to compile a definitive list or even a rough count of the number of records Bobby has made.
And they’re trying! Today, Discogs attributes an astonishing 991 credits to Bobby – a number which increased by seven in the few days since I began writing this (Edited To Add: In the month since this was written, it’s now up nine more to an even 1000.) Yet these 1000 tracks represent perhaps 1/2 to 3/4ths of his actual output – and possibly less. It may be an argument that Bobby O is one of the most prolific writer/producers not just in dance music but in music history as a whole.
BOBBY VS. THE WORLD
You might think Bobby O had a chip on his shoulder, to release records at that breakneck pace. And you’d be right.
And you might think I’m being mean by calling them “crap,” but Bobby himself called his records much worse than that. “I regard each record I make as worthless and useless just like anybody else’s,” he said in a notorious interview in the late 1980s.
It often appeared that Bobby’s intention was to challenge the major studios in output, all by himself. And he almost did! Bill Gates fantasized about a computer on every desk; Bobby O dreamed of a Bobby O record on every turntable. The main difference is that Bill Gates had Microsoft and a billion dollars; Bobby O had Bobby O and the rather brief peak of the form of dance music commonly called “HiNRG.”
This was a losing battle, obviously, but he gave it a spirited fight. Bobby O’s original material could be wonderful – simple, radio-friendly electro-pop anthems for the kids, you might have said. He fronted bands that never existed, produced artists that were less people than characters, rigged up hokey clones of tons of popular songs and his ultimate dream became a reality some thirty years later in Beatport’s monstrous archive of unloved, disposable tracks.
Being called a “pioneer” or dubbed “ahead of your time” is almost always meant as a compliment, but not here. All by himself, Bobby pioneered the global crap factory called dance music, circa 2015 – only he did it in 1985.
Bobby rarely gives interviews, speaking through his fans (or they speak through him – it’s never quite clear who is who in this hall of mirrors). You can hardly blame him for avoiding the press, after a disastrous feature (frequently posted online whenever his name comes up) in The Face in 1987 painted him as an intolerant, self-absorbed homophobic schmuck. In the interview, he celebrates his new relationship and artistic collaboration with God, mentions his horror of living in an apartment that had previously been occupied by a gay man and states he borrowed his musical aspirations from that of McDonalds: “Over One Billion Served.”
The hundreds of records he had produced by then weren’t just part of God’s plan. To Bobby, God demanded he make those crappy clones of “Call Me” and “Blue Monday”:
I’m a sinner and a scumbag, but that’s where salvation comes in. My real citizenship is in heaven, I’m just an ambassador right now. The Bible clearly states ‘be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth’ and that’s what I do, I’m being fruitful, I’m multiplying. I put out more records than anybody in the world, there’s nobody that puts out more records than me. If a producer has the ability to put out that many records and he doesn’t, then he is disobeying God’s command.
If the interview didn’t outright ruin God’s Humble Co-Producer, it would at least later form the basis of everyone’s lasting impression of the weird wizard of HiNRG. The few later interviews I’ve found skirt some of the explosive statements he made in favor of platitudes (“A smile is HiNRG and a frown is House Music,” he told Troy Matthews in the late 1990s), and the little that has leaked out has shown that Bobby’s weird magic is becoming still more potent. According to AllMusic, at one point he dropped out of the music industry altogether and penned a book called Darwin Destroyed, in which Bobby O took on the Theory of Evolution and, by his own accounting at least, “won.”
When he still did interviews, Bobby claimed he became involved in the music industry as a guitar player in a series of rock bands in the 1970s. Like his contemporary Dan Hartman, Bobby seems to have had a preternatural gift of mimicry and a knack for aligning his creative inspirations with his career ambitions. He was swept up in the wave when Disco became Pop and had his first hit by producing, writing and arranging “Dancin'” by Tod Foster. (Nearly every biography attributes this track to “Todd Forester,” which should tell you something about the staying power of a song that fits right in the pocket with the Bee Gees and other commercial Disco acts of the era.)
“Dancin'” lead to a gig as in-house producer for Vanguard Records, the storied Jazz label that, like seemingly everyone with a guitar or bass in 1979, took up the Disco groove. In 1980, Bobby produced Lyn Todd’s self-titled album – a dry run for the coming onslaught. He also had a minor hit with “Just A Gigolo” by Barbie & The Kens – a studio creation and one that owed far more to The Knack (and, uh, others) than to Giorgio Moroder.
In the years that would follow, his records with Roni Griffith – a blonde, glittering goddess of the discotheque, gliding through the frame like Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface – stand out the most from this era, which saw him cycling through the first of dozens of aliases and creating the most successful of his many fake bands, The Flirts. Bobby is often credited with discovering the Pet Shop Boys, (though in weird way, they sort of discovered him) and also produced famous drag performer Divine’s records. In fact, while Divine was infamous for having eaten feces on film, Bobby O would take a figurative shit on the face of the world with their collaboration “Love Reaction,” which sounded much better when New Order originally released it as “Blue Monday.” And even more brazen is that it wasn’t the only time Bobby did this. O Records cloned hits over and over, from Patrick Cowley’s “Menergy” (“Shoot Your Shot,” also with Divine) to Blondie’s “Call Me” (Roni Griffith’s “Hot Lover”).
There was little consistency between aliases and projects as the primary concern was to shove as much crap out the door as quickly as possible. Many were completely random. “Hotline” released “Fantasy,” a classic that had always been one of my favorite Italo-esque tracks with female vocals. The name “Hotline” was also assigned to “Ready Or Not,” a clone of Stacey Q.’s cloying “Two of Hearts.”
WTF Man Why Would You Do That.
Whatever you might say about “Love Reaction,” at least “Blue Monday” was one of the best singles of all time. But now Bobby O’s music machine had gone rampant, like a Eurodance SkyNet that had achieved sentience and made a menacing turn against music and good taste in general. It was powering itself on crap to produce still more crap.
But even as bad as most of the shady clones are, it would be completely unfair – a travesty even – to write off Bobby O entirely. True, he himself called his records “worthless” and “useless,” but some of them had to be good. I don’t think you can ask for a non-cheesy Bobby O record – such a beast just doesn’t exist – but among the gems in his catalog that can motivate a person to keep digging for more are the aforementioned “Fantasy,” “One More Shot” by Oh Romeo and “Frustration” by Lilly & The Pink. Each of these groups were made up almost entirely of Bobby O, often playing everything other than the female vocals, which he treated with an almost aggressive carelessness, cycling through dozens of often nameless, sometimes faceless songbirds over the years.
A book refuting Darwin’s Theory of Evolution wouldn’t be the strangest thing to come out of the ’80s – a decade powered by arbitrage, hostile takeovers and lots of cocaine – but it was a strange diversion for a record producer. Though he worked in several genres, Bobby was and still is chiefly identified with HiNRG, and the decline of the genre’s popularity was reflected by a slump in his own career. He founded Reputation Records in the ’90s but never recaptured the magic, or the mania, of his O Records machine.
THE LONELY COMEBACK
It’s fair to call Bobby O a cult figure at this point, in that he seems to inspire something akin to idol worship by some and the kind of “begrudging admiration/amusement” you might say I have for him. Most of his records were terrible, but many of his records were meant to be.
In the end, he made a broader array of bad records than possibly any man alive. It’s a perverse compliment, but there’s a strange sense of accomplishment in that.
And the array continues to grow through his lonely comeback. It isn’t clear what made Bobby jump back into the business – perhaps the intersection of cheap production technology and inexpensive digital distribution were the signs that awoke the Beatport Generation’s primal ancestor like a HiNRG cthulhu. His torrent of singles and LPs released in the last five years rivals that of any of the producers and “label bosses” that flood Beatport with their unceasing flow of low-rent, largely derivative EPs. Without the need to hide behind the conceit of concept bands, now it’s just a loop of beats, some simple synths and a bassline primed to gallop.
Gone are the vocalists, too, for the most part. In their place is what appears to be Bobby O’s own voice. He had done vocals on records released under his own name in the ’80s, often affecting a faux British accent for the New Wave-sounding tracks (he was far from the only American to do this). Now it rarely raises above a growl or a tight pitched sneer, on track after track, his name in Helvetica pulsing in videos for what appears to be his YouTube channel called “massivedance2010.”
It’s much like his prime, this new world, though it doesn’t seem all that enjoyable this time around. In fact, it reads like a cry for help. For while God’s Co-Producer used to release tracks with hypersuggestive names, Bobby O now entertains the remaining audience for his HiNRG hijinx with euphoric tracks tagged with utterly depressing titles, like “I’m Alone This Christmas” and “When A Man Cries.”
Top detail from Bobby O And His Banana Republic by Hot Productions.