The birth of our underground brand Factory 93 not only brought on an adrenaline rush reminiscent of the renegade warehouse era of raving—on which Insomniac was founded—but it also had us thinking back to all the people, places and parties that made this whole operation possible. And with that came a burning desire to crack open our collection and dust off the classic records we couldn’t live without. Through our From the Crate series, we’ll be breaking out both seminal and obscure cuts alike, imparting some knowledge in the process.
Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” is probably one of the most influential electronic singles of the 1990s, and a lot of its power comes from the high-concept, music video “auteur” treatment by Chris Cunningham, with which the song is now inextricable. Aphex Twin is the dark prince of twisted synthesizer music, described as everything from IDM (“intelligent dance music”) to braindance, and is still broadly considered one of the most important, cryptic, and mischievous producers who’s still at it today.
Whether you love him, hate him, or find his recent spate of releases pretentious or boring, there’s no denying his effect on the culture at large. And “Windowlicker” was the peak moment of the commercial side of his career and showcasing his skills at the dark art of self-branding (before that was a common term).
Before delving into how “Windowlicker” the video came to be such an iconic piece of pop culture history, though, let’s take a look about how this bizarre tune came about in the first place. If you haven’t heard it before, take a moment to give it a spin.
It’s an odd one, right?—even for Aphex Twin, an artist whose ridiculous lore is topped only by his proclivity for weirdness and prolific output. Richard D. James, or RDJ or AFX or whatever handle you happen to catch him under, was already akin to some sort of folk hero in techno by the time“Windowlicker” was first released as a single in 1999.
“Putting aside the deeply problematic politics of the video, the song itself is pretty remarkable and difficult to describe in any sort of shorthand.”
His Selected Ambient Works 1985–1992 was a cult critical darling (as it should be—it’s one of the best synthesizer-led albums ever, full stop). It’s overflowing with subtle and beautiful soundscapes, showcasing his softer side. But while he became a master at super soft and sublime music, his more challenging, glitchier tracks seemed to be pulling in a completely opposite direction, like acid goa trance in “Digeridoo” and his dubbier-leaning work as the Tuss. And he would often veer into truly bizarre, uncategorizable territory. For example, check out his collaboration with Mike Paradinas, called “Expert Knob Twiddlers.” Like, you’ll probably ask yourself many times while consuming the work of Richard D. James, “Is this a joke?” I don’t know.
Putting aside the deeply problematic politics of the video (we will get to that bit later), the song itself is pretty remarkable and difficult to describe in any sort of shorthand. It opens with a simple melody. Then, a deeply funky and intricate drum pattern kicks in, followed by the “vocals” of the song. The wobbly, modulated vocals by James, which run layered throughout the track, feel either feminine or androgynous, depending on whom you ask. The song bangs around with an off-kilter swagger as sexual moans are draped and layered over James’ indiscernible coos, creating a disturbingly sexual sense of nausea (which the video would later go on to make literal, in sort of an overkill way).
Then, dark, distorted pads come in and fill most of the rest of the track—in between slapstick-y breakdowns—with a sense of casual dread. The drill-like drums and the vocals all squish together to make something that was certainly unique and would be the producer’s highest single to chart in his native UK. He even threw in a cheeky spectrogram on the record in a couple places—images you can see when visualizing the sound waves. It’s a super nerdy thing; of course he would do it, and his fans would eat it up.
When it came time to shoot the video, James went again with British scion Chris Cunningham. They had worked together on 1997’s “Come to Daddy,” to which “Windowlicker” is a sort of spiritual sequel. Cunningham was part of that Directors Label cadre of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and other high-concept music video artists who were quite popular in many ways in the late ‘90s, despite the fact that none of them would go on to mature into interesting longer-form storytellers. But in the late ‘90s, this sort of approach to treating smaller label artists’ videos like festival short films was very much en vogue. “Come to Daddy” featured Richard James’ face cast in plaster and put on little children and little people dressed as schoolgirls in an over-the-top, apocalyptic apartment tenement.
“Windowlicker” was the Cunningham-James reunion, and for this treatment, Cunningham wanted to do an homage to hip-hop videos. At the time, commercial hip-hop and the accompanying videos in a post-Biggie, Puff Daddy–driven world, by directors like Hype Williams, were almost already in self-parody mode: Lavish budgets, car shots, ass shot, and all the accompanying tropes of that style were what this video was trying to invoke. Cunningham insists it’s a loving nod to rap, but is that what’s really going on here? Check it out up at the top.
The video starts with a hip-hop interpretation of “Windowlicker” and James comically scratching over it as two L.A. dudes try to pick up some women on the side of the road. It devolves into a weird, psychosexual dance party on the beach, a series of surreal and comic images.
The video’s opening clearly feels insulting, misogynistic and racist, seeing as all the principal creatives behind it were straight white dudes from the UK (who, incidentally, probably aren’t well equipped for a nuanced race or class critique, even if that was the goal of this). The number of times the characters use the N-word would probably make Tarantino blush. It’s one of those things that is almost so underthought and foolish that you feel sorry for the people who made it. Here’s what Cunningham had to say about it years later for his book:
“Come to Daddy” was played quite a lot late at night in England on MTV. There was a guy who would champion the video and play it all the time, and he sent me tapes of this show called The Party Zone, because I didn’t have MTV. One day, I watched it and I saw the “Come to Daddy” video amongst all these hip-hop videos and I thought, “That’s ridiculous.” It looks so out of place and it looks so wrong. So, I wanted to make an Aphex video that fit amongst the hip-hop videos. That’s not the primary reason, but it had a big bearing on it. When Richard did this track that sounded summery and sunny, I thought, “Fuck. We should do it in L.A. in that style.” I still don’t think it looks like a hip-hop video—I tried but I fucked it up. I knew if I used wide-angle lenses, it would look like Hype Williams right away. It’s kind of a cheap hip-hop video [laughs].
I don’t really like it very much because it’s me working in a slightly different area. It was fun, though, because it was just done in the spirit of trying to have a crack, I’m too much of a hip-hop fan to want to take the piss out of hip-hop.
My theory is that Cunningham—and the directors in his ilk—just like “shit that looks cool,” and any meaning from their work is largely incidental. He said his approach was, “Can you just come up with some really immature and perverted takes of Buzz [sic] Berkeley’s movies?” Not to condone it, but the recklessness of their symbols is a product of laziness more than intentionality.
The politics of the video aside, it is one of these weird nightmare things that did weasel its way into a generation or two’s subconscious. It almost feels like something Kanye would make now.
Regardless, the video was an underground hit in the US, as it wouldn’t get much play on MTV or mainstream outlets. And it helped solidify James as this perverted mastermind. Soon after, he would more or less drop off the face of the earth for a dozen years or so before returning with Syro, his “comeback album,” and a new phase or releasing old material.
In the press tour for Syro, James said something that I think was an accidental slip, revealing his whole approach to things—especially tracks like “Windowlicker” and the goofy video forever linked with it. When asked what the word “syro” means, he said, “I don’t know what it means… but it means something. And it sounds cool. That’s it, basically.”