This is one of those songs I could never remember the title of even though it is repeated throughout it, only the name of the band, and it was a chance pub conversation about bands that were huge in the UK only virtually to disappear and then to be found to have become huge somewhere else that prompted me to hunt down a tune I hadn’t heard for years.
And what a tune; a dance classic, and possibly one of the most striking melodies ever. All the better that the writers and singer were all from my home town, which has a reasonable but not great track record where popular music is concerned (Barclay James Harvest, Inspiral Carpets, Mark Owen, Puressence, possibly Kiran Leonard in time, as well as N-Trance).
N-Trance was formed at Oldham College in 1989 by Kevin O’Toole and Dale Longworth, who were sound engineering students and who used the laboratory to produce music similar to the rave music that was in the charts at that time. They came to the attention of record companies including Pete Waterman’s 380 Records, which signed them as N-Trance, a change of name from the previous Quartech. Despite some early setbacks they persevered and recruited a college student, 16-year old Kelly Llorenna, as lead vocalist.
‘Set You Free’ was recorded at Revolution Studios in Cheadle Hulme in 1992, and released on just 500 12″ vinyl copies. Problems within their record label meant the song was not released as a single initially. After a year with 380 Records, N-Trance signed to a new label, All Around the World.
The song went through three re-releases, the last one in 1995, when it became a big hit on TV and radio, reaching #2 in the charts and being certified Platinum in the UK, after selling over 600,000 copies and becoming the top-selling dance record of the year. The single was also released in other European countries and Australia. By now, N-Trance had also achieved popularity for their live shows. Later the song was remixed, and re-released yet again, in 2001.
N-Trance had other international hits, such as their next single, a cover of the Bee Gees hit ‘Staying’ Alive,’ which featured a vocalist/writer who would help define N-Trance’s sound in the future, Ricardo da Force, previously rapper with The KLF. They built their own recording studio in Manchester called Deep Blue and recorded their second full-length album ‘Happy Hour‘ there. In 1999 Dale Longworth retired from N-Trance leaving Kevin O’Toole to continue while he decided to retire from performing live. To cut a long story short a ‘best of’ compilation album was released in 2001 and a third studio album in 2009. As with many bands they subsequently re-formed with the original personnel and some new faces.
Kelly Llorenna isn’t one of them, at least now. She has had several solo careers since 1995, interspersed with two returns to N-Trance. Her own singles have been a mix of originals and covers. She has worked with Peter Hook and producers/band Love to Infinity, with which she formed her latest incarnation Freak Asylum in 2010 and continues to perform to this day, popular still in dance clubs but with a punchier pop-punk sound of her own.
Which brings me back to my earlier comment on bands that seem to disappear but then you discover they are huge in some foreign land. I’m sure I recall reading in the now-defunct Oldham Chronicle over 10 years ago that N-Trance had become one of the biggest and best-known bands in Greece. Or was it Turkey? Or was it just Kelly Llorenna? The passage of time plays havoc with the memory.
The song itself came about courtesy of an instrumental piano piece written by Kevin O’Toole. Dale Longworth thought a song could be teased out of it. Presumably, it is the opening piano section of the song here, which recurs throughout it. An additional piece of piano was written to create a bridge between the intro and main riff of the song and the bass line was played on keyboards. I’m not a muso, but I think that opening piano piece, and especially the bridge, around 0:50, is an example of syncopation. Whatever it is, it’s sublime. The lyrics reflect a night out Kevin O’Toole had at the Hacienda in Manchester in 1989 during which an “excited woman” hugged him so hard he could feel her heart beating. Hence the opening line “When I hold you baby, feel your heart beat close to me.”
Apparently, the remaining lyrics were written in 20 minutes as Kelly Llorenna was on her way to audition and this last-minute, just-in-time approach became a regular feature of their writing. A local DJ, Mike Lewis, collected her to record the demo at Kevin O’Toole’s parents’ house. Lewis had championed their earlier demos and had been the first DJ to play them and to arrange bookings at the clubs he appeared at. The rest is history.
The thunderstorm effects were added to mask the crackling endemic to vinyl records after a few plays although there is a suggestion they are supposed to be representative of a rave.
In my opinion, if there was such a category as ‘classic dance,’ something you could listen to on Radio 3 or Classic FM, this song would be played as often as Beethoven and Bach. Simply entrancing, and fully deserving of its ‘legendary’ status.
You can find several versions of ‘Set You Free’ on the internet including the big-selling 1995 one, but this, as far as I know, is the very original, rough and ready and far superior 1992 White Label Mix.