Songs In The Key Of… Orbital


Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll: “Music was my greatest solace growing up. First listening to it, then making it.”

Paul Hartnoll shares a playlist of songs that inspired him and Phil to form the electronic duo and leave home – to escape a small “non-chocolate box village” in Kent

I grew up in the village of Dunton Green, Kent that clings to the market town of Sevenoaks. The only non-chocolate box village on its circumference, it’s a strip village grown along the main road out of town towards London. It used to have a leper colony in its lower parts by the river back in the day. It was a village half dedicated to houses, half to industry, a village dissected by a motorway that went straight through Home Woods, demolishing (along with the wildlife habitat) the witch’s house that was reputed to be somewhere in its centre. Not that anyone I know had ever seen it. Still, they left the lane to Broughton Manor House alone so we could all remain cautious of the headless horseman – the reputed ghost of a highwayman whose head was said to have been presented to his lover, the daughter of the lord of the manor.

Across the railway next to our house was a massive estate of industrial freezer warehouse units. It was only when I moved to London and then came back to visit that I noticed we all lived with the sound of a low hum, like a fridge hanging over the area. The other main factory was Hodder & Stoughton where many of the village folk worked, bringing back the seconds of Asterix books for us kids. Asterix was our greatest export, we were all quietly proud of the fact that for a time all the books had ‘printed in Dunton Green’ on the first page.

Music was my greatest solace growing up. First listening to it, then making it. I think so much melancholy yearning music comes out of small-town England and the suburbs, purely down to having to make your own entertainment, from watching the TV and feeling like the world is passing you by. Being one of those guilty of doing so, I totally understand why.

Here’s some of the music that shaped the course of my escape from Dunton Green. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a soft spot for the place and its footpaths with abandoned shopping trollies full of rubble, and new housing estates where the factories used to be. I still can’t decide which I prefer. It’s swapped coal men and factory workers shuffling about in the morning for joggers and cappuccino drinkers, nowadays.


My parents had a collection of rock’n’roll ’78s that I used to explore when I was around 10. I loved the raw noisy sound of these recordings but my firm favourite was Peggy Sue by Buddy Holly. Rough and ready, with a real heartfelt vocal performance. The sound of the drums on this always got to me – nothing in contemporary pop at the time seemed this stripped back and pounding.


We grew up listening to Trojan reggae via our mum’s cousins Mick and Ray. I especially loved Israelites by Desmond Decker, the first UK reggae No 1 and sung in Jamaican patois. It has such a haunting and ethereal quality while being a dance floor smasher at the same time. Surely one of the all-time best pop records!


This was a real coming-of-age song for me aged 12. I was in the bath listening to the UK chart rundown on a Sunday evening and this came on. It grabbed me by the proverbial shirt collars and made me want to go forward into teenage pursuits of dressing sharp and talking to girls. I can’t really explain its powerful effect but it was a real eureka moment. It switched a part of my brain on that I didn’t know was there and at that moment I decided I wanted to do what these guys were doing and make music. I just had no idea how to do it. As an aside, I still don’t really like the Smokey Robinson original!


From my first Kraftwerk album Computer World. Both my older brothers had all the others but neither of them bought this one, so I decided it was about time I got one for myself. I got it home hoping for more of the same as The Man-Machine but this one was spikier and colder in its approach. Initially, I was disappointed, until I got to the track Numbers. It was so icy and stark, with a beat that was simply the most compelling rhythm I’d ever heard, so modern I felt like I was listening to the future. Turns out I was right!

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Orbital. Photo: Brian Rasic

Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll: “I was getting a worldview that wasn’t present with the adults in my village of Dunton Green: anti-war, feminism, vegetarianism.” Photo: Brian Rasic


I next got into early 80s punk – some great bands like The Dead Kennedys, some not-so-great like the Anti-Nowhere League (morally, anyway) – but when I first heard Crass, and all the things they stood for, it exploded in my head. I was getting a worldview that wasn’t present with the adults in my village of Dunton Green: anti-war, feminism, vegetarianism. Crass, along with all the great bands they put out on their label, were a great moral compass for which I will always be grateful. The Penis Envy album has always been my favourite, and Bata Motel my fave track. Feminism was the hardest concept for my post-pubescent mind to grasp in my small-town England, Carry On film, Benny Hill world that was all I’d ever known, and this track was a massive key slowly turning in my head. I’m not even sure if it’s even finished its travel to the unlocked position. I think it has, but I’m never fully sure… How can I be? I’m a man!


When I was 16, I made great friends with Phil, my elder brother by four years. He’d been living in London and would bring back all these amazing underground electronic records. Sensoria was the first Cabaret Voltaire track I heard. I loved its tight soupy sound, so unlike pop electronic of the time. Produced by the great Flood, the dark lord of production.


This was another one I first heard that belonged to one of Phil’s friends, Jeremy. I had never heard such dirty, abstract yet hauntingly beautiful electronic music. I listened to the album Since The Accident and when Dead Eyes Open came on I was an instant lifelong fan. Severed Heads are one of those bands that seem to be able to express the dark but benign corners of existence. the un-photogenic parts of the world where most of life is played out. Like Dunton Green. They may have been making their music in Sydney, Australia but it felt like they were writing it in my corner of Kent!


We first got into electro while listening to John Peel one night. The next day, me and Phil rushed out in our lunch break to buy a Street Sounds Electro album each. We went to our own rooms and played side one simultaneously. We met on the stairs after side one and gave our critical review – they were fantastic! Shannon’s Let The Music Play was a stand-out track from that evening and has really stood the test of time. Unknowingly to us, it was probably the first time we’d ever heard a Roland 303 bassline machine, a machine that would be very important to our future lives.

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Orbital. Photo: Martyn Goodacre

Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll: “I’m partial to a bit of melancholy (in case you hadn’t noticed).” Photo: Martyn Goodacre


I’d loved the sound and idea of sampling. I remember seeing Midge Ure demo one on a school programme in my later years at school. Trevor Horn and the Art Of Noise brought it to the next level making it the USP of the band. Beat Box was the first song of theirs that I heard, its magical sound using samples of the seemingly random and surreal for the wrong parts was just so right. It was time to get my own sampler…


If Art Of Noise were the cartoon fun side of sampling, Tackhead with Adrian Sherwood as their producer were the Ken Loach of the art. So funky, industrial, political – they seemed to be the bridge between punk and funk. Mind At The End of The Tether is my stand-out track – it has all of the above in spades. Adrian’s label On U Sound in general was a massive influence on where I wanted to go musically.


I love Front 242. Their industrial funk was just so compelling. Don’t Crash really stood out for me with its stereo bass funky throb and yearning wobbling synth leads – so upbeat yet melancholy. I went to see them in London as their seminal Official Version album came out. It was the most intense gig I’d ever been to, the military theatrics they put on had me convinced they were tear-gassing us at one point. I probably shouldn’t have smoked a joint before I went in!


I fell In love with Scott’s music on a trip to Australia, my first real departure from Dunton Green into the wider world for any length of time – I was there for seven weeks. My mate Jim was living there at the time and he played me a compilation of Scott Walker’s music. and he’s a grand master of the art. For me, It’s Raining Today is one of the pinnacles of his craft – so brooding, with its strange atonal undercurrent running alongside such a beautifully haunting song that encompasses so much of human regret and humdrum existence. I’ve got a lump in my throat just thinking about it now.

A reissue of Orbital’s 1991 debut The Green Album is out now, and the Hartnoll brothers are on tour through April and May. Find out more at

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