BEFORE the 1997 general election, Leftfield received a call from Conservative Central Office: could they use one of the dance duo's tracks as their campaign theme? Paul Daley and Neil Barnes turned them down, with the latter remarking at the time: "Had we let them, they would have won."
Today in London, Barnes is a bit embarrassed. "Did I really say that? How arrogant of me. God knows what I was on. Best not go there."
True, it sounds like an outrageous boast, but maybe we forget how cool Leftfield were. They were cooler than all the other double acts in the field of thunderous beats, including Orbital, Underworld, Basement Jaxx, even the Chemical Brothers – and way cooler than D:Ream, who soundtracked Labour's triumph at the polls. Barnes admits even he had forgotten how good they used to be.
"I hadn't heard our stuff for about six years. When your job is making music the last thing you want to do is listen to it. I'd had 13 years of listening to it and that was enough. But when I played the old albums again I thought, 'Yeah, they're all right, we can get away with this one.'"
By "this one", 49-year-old Barnes means the Rockness festival, but by "we" he means the line-up assembled to compensate for the absence of his old chum Daley, who doesn't want to do the big reunion gig. He says we won't notice that Daley isn't there, just as we wouldn't notice Barnes was missing if it had been Daley leading the charge to the banks of Loch Ness. "The whole reunion thing has been through a few permutations," Barnes explains. "At different times one of us couldn't do it or didn't want to do it. Right now Paul doesn't want to do it. I tried to persuade him but I understand his reluctance. It's a frightening prospect, bloody terrifying.
"What's the risk? Me not doing it very well, obviously. But I've got together a great bunch, including Adam Wren and Cheshire Cat who have worked with us before, and I'm confident we can give the people a really exciting representation of Leftfield. We'll take them on a journey, a weird trip into a mad, messed-up, twisted space."
Representation? That word might scare fans of conventional rock acts about to reform. It might even scare fans of other dance duos who are more recognisable, even just for a pair of specs (Chems, Jaxx) or a baldy heid (Orbital). But Leftfield were never that. The sound's always been the thing, and what a sound it was. At London's Brixton Academy in 1996 the din was the loudest ever recorded, dislodging plaster and sending it crashing to the stage.
Daley used to tell a great story about one of those rare days when he got spotted by an aficionado. "I wrote me car off to your record when the bass kicked in," declared this discerning devotee with pride. "I was six months in hospital. Nearly killed meself. And me girlfriend." As Daley isn't here today, I ask Barnes, who resembles the FE college teacher he used to be, what it's like being a significant player in end-of-century popular culture and yet almost faceless.
"I'm absolutely fine about the fact that no-one knew who I was first time round and will have even less of a Scooby now," he says. "I don't think I've ever been stopped in the street. There isn't a frustrated, flamboyant rock star struggling to get out of me – I never wanted to be in Kiss. I really don't care that nobody knows who I am. In fact, I think that's wicked."
What is not in dispute is that Leftfield's debut album Leftism sold a million copies worldwide and was once voted the best dance record ever, which proves the Tories were on to something in 1997, even if that was compromised later when William Hague stepped out in a baseball cap.
But Barnes admits: "We made some suicidal career decisions. For a long time we refused to play gigs. Then when we said we would, we spent so much on the sound system on the first tour that we only made 67. We missed out on lots of great festivals because we wouldn't play in daylight. We got into film soundtracks only to be sued over The Beach because I forgot to remove an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark sample. And, of course, we took too bloody long between albums."
Assimilating influences from Detroit, Berlin and Jamaica, the duo did create progressive house music. Along the way, dub and Afrobeat got updated, the likes of the Chemicals got a template for their work, and dance music flew out of the clubs into arenas and the home, at the very least through Leftfield's "surfing horses" commercial for Guinness.
Barnes and Daley were conga players when they met, working with DJs in hip London clubs. "I remember how we hit it off right away," says Barnes. "Paul came round my flat and I showed him how I'd made this track Not Forgotten, how you didn't have to be in a studio with an enormous desk and a grumpy engineer telling you not to touch anything."
And he remembers how they split up. "Appropriately it was a horrible day, dark and raining. How did I feel? Very sad. I did wonder about things I'd said. Did I really mean them? The end of the band felt like I'd become estranged from someone in the family. But Leftfield almost killed us both. We struggled to make that second album (Rhythm And Stealth] and worked ourselves to virtual death. It took so much out of us that by the end we were sick of everything."
The duo were perfectionists, toiling five years between first single and first album, another seven for Rhythm And Stealth, and driving themselves mad in the search for the perfect bassline. "Tracks like Phat Planet and Open Up took forever and completely cracked us up." The latter featured one of John Lydon's best-ever vocals, the ex-Sex Pistol being an old friend of Barnes, who went to school with most of Spandau Ballet (who never got the Leftfield call).
Barnes says he and Daley have always identified with perfectionists in other realms, such as film directors Stanley Kubrick (12 years between movies) and Terrence Malick (20). "It's a form of autism isn't it?" says Barnes. "Hell to live with, I'm sure, although while Paul and I had lots of arguments, we never came to blows." And at least Ewan McGregor appreciated their labours, with Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and Rogue Trader all featuring Leftfield on the score.
Barnes has one more funny story to tell about how bad Leftfield were at making business decisions. "Trainspotting had been premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and we were playing at the party. Mick Jagger and Elton John were there, and Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher – we tried to get these two to shake hands. Then I heard the tail-end of a conversation between Noel and Paul, who was saying: 'Nah mate, I don't think that will work.' We found out too late that Noel wanted us to DJ for Oasis at Knebworth. Paul thought he meant spin the decks at a house party so we missed out on two of the biggest gigs ever!"
After Leftfield split, Barnes did what ex-Tory ministers do when the end comes abruptly: he spent more time with his family, even contemplating a return to teaching at the college where his wife Terree still works. Still making music, mostly for adverts, he'd like to work with Daley again. "I don't suppose Paul will turn up at Rockness – he'd hardly need a disguise – but he wished me all the best for the show and I hope I can do us proud."
He also hopes he doesn't embarrass his daughter. Georgia was five when she bounced on stage at T in the Park during Leftfield's pomp. Now making her own music, she's warning: "Whatever you do, Dad, don't dance!" v
Leftfield headline Rockness on 12 June
This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on May 25, 2010