A review by Jamie Collinson.

On more than one occasion, I’ve attempted to describe to an ostensibly interested listener how punk’s DNA morphed through acid house and rave into contemporary electronica. The experience was usually exhausting for both parties. Happily, Richard Norris’ Something Strange is Happening captures this DIY musical evolution in glorious, psychedelic colour. In this portrayal of his journey from teenage John Peelite to electronic explorer, he bumps into a dizzying array of famous names. In fact, his book could be considered something of an Any Human Heart of late 20th Century British music. 

Norris started life on a Girl Guides’ campsite in ‘part rural, part suburban’ Hertfordshire. There, he revelled in a free-range childhood, roaming the forest and patiently tracking animals. It’s this early immersion in nature that seems to have formed the first of the intense, elemental experiences he’s sought for most of his life. 

A family move to St Albans saw him surrounded by a different type of fertile territory: that of a self-starting, post-punk set typified by a young Tracey Thorn and local DIY label Waldo’s.

Soon, Norris had heard the call, picking up a guitar and getting his music played on John Peel. Trips to the capital saw him experience punk first hand, and then early electronic parties. Before long, he was off – making music with Genesis P-Orridge, formerly of Throbbing Gristle and then of Psychic TV. He made the move to the capital, and formed the project for which he’s best known: rave outfit The Grid.

Something Strange is Happening (named for one of Norris’ early fanzines, and for the pregnant, psychedelic state he values most highly) is told in the first person present. This can be a tiresome device in memoir, but married to Norris’ lovingly rendered detail of the periods he describes, it creates prose that’s both propulsive and immersive. 

This might be the definitive chronicle of the DIY spirit that infused everything from teen punk through warehouse parties to internet start-ups and Bandcamp releases. The photocopied zines, hand-painted artwork, printed up T-Shirts, musical tribes and their secret spaces are all here – the thrill of the pre-internet musical world captured in full. 

At times, the past is a foreign country: it’s very unlikely now that an indie label boss would throw an orange at an artist of Prince’s stature, while he delivered a speech onstage.

Norris’ journey is from innocence to experience – tracking that of electronic music itself. From creating an imagined acid house and not worrying about money, he’s suddenly signing to major labels and playing a questionable promotional game. He finds himself doing things he never thought he would, simply as they’re next on the itinerary. There are drugs, drink and endless nights. 

Norris’ endless optimism and start-again spirt keep him buoyant though. As one project recedes, another emerges. We meet Axl Rose, the Purple One (or almost,) Joe Strummer, Andrew Weatherall, Tom Jones, Damien Hirst and Timothy Leary. 

There are bittersweet musical misses; with Damon Albarn, and Strummer – but in a book, these become excellent literary moments, recorded for posterity even if we can’t hear them. There are enough lost albums to spark sequels of musical detective tales.

Norris applies the same gusto to packaging up garage rock reissues as he does to generating multi-million-dollar funding packages for Second Life-style internet ventures. He crashes entertainingly through different arenas; mainstream pop, Hollywood, underground transgression; the constant novelty keeping the narrative charging ahead. 

If his optimism and the new projects it engenders can be a little relentless, it never quite becomes wearying to read. Though Norris has an enthusiasm for frazzled former geniuses that might have had a lesser psychedelic explorer running for the door.

Towards the end of the book, the narrative speeds up as Norris’ domestic life slows down. Things come full circle with his work with ’60s garage rock pioneer Sky Saxon. Of special appeal is his highlighting of musical underdogs, and the near greats whose stories have slipped away. ‘And yet,’ Norris writes of artistic potential. ‘And yet…’

Ultimately, Norris finds himself somewhere close to where he started: doing it for himself, packaging up records and shipping them to serious fans; studying the effects of his music in a university rather than during a lost night. 

Strange Things Are Happening is a paean to the powers of creation: I believe in the power of music, Norris writes. I believe in magic. 

After reading his book, I’m reassured that I do too.


‘Strange Things Are Happening’ is published by White Rabbit Books on 21 March. Buy a signed copy from the Heavenly Recordings Bandcamp store.

‘The Rejects: An Alternative History of Popular Musicby Jamie Collinson is published by Constable and out now. Buy a copy from the Heavenly Recordings Bandcamp store.