Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 28)
Britian used to be fascinated with their singles charts. To them, the ultimate battle for musical supremacy is fought in those 100 spaces. How a song is trending, how its performing live, what’s tipped to be the next single, which stations have added which song to their playlists, and for the love of god, what is tracking to be the Christmas number one!? During the 90s, the golden rule was if you’re looking to reach the top of the charts, crank the treble. Bass doesn’t work well over radio, especially if you’re trying to get rotation in shopping malls and retail stores. Britain’s singles chart obsession runs to such an extent that a midweek chart is released in order to predict who will be number one by weeks end. Britpop, more than any musical movement to come before or after, was obsessed with the singles chart (See: that Battle of Britpop fiasco for proof). A Britpop band could be signed on Tuesday, have a top 20 single on Wednesday, have their sophomore single miss the top 40 on Thursday, and be dropped on Friday. With Britpop’s dominance peaking in 1997, music was looking treblier than ever. A shrill, one-dimensional blizzard of big ol’ choruses and as many guitar overdubs that the mixing board could handle.
Let us bow before the throne of “Block Rockin’ Beats”.
The Chemical Brother’s earthquake sophomore album Dig Your Own Hole
opens with the sound of the airwaves being rewritten. Some airy static pans from left to right, a man laughs, the static settles into a strobing siren and then, the bass. It’s allowed to carry on almost totally alone, accompanied only by Schooly D informing everyone that the Chems are “Back with another one of those block rockin’ beats”. Then the drums come crashing in and its just pandemonium. Squealing sirens slice like razors while breakbeats rip through speaker cones. It’s an instant power shot, visions of doing ridiculous drifts while firing two guns at once out the windows, sunglasses resting upon face, are inescapable. And under it all, bass, glorious bass, pushing the whole thing into another universe. By all means, it should be the best song The Chemical Brothers ever made. It isn’t even the best song on this album
”Who is this, doing this type of alphabetapsychedelic funkin'?”
On Dig Your Own Hole
, The Chemical Brother gather up a sack of sounds - their corroded basslines, clattering breaks, and a whole library of random sound effects and vocal samples – haul it all down to the junkyard and beat the *** out of them with shovels. The remains are then glued together with turntables and spirit and out comes dance floor meltdown bliss. Electronica was poised to become the next big thing by the end of the 90s. Elements of electronica began to trickle down into strains of rap and alternative rock. The Chemical Brothers laugh in the face of electronica. They pile six layers of samples on top of each other and dare you to figure it out. They start “Piku” off with a stuttery two-step before folding it into an impossibly cool strut and dare Paul Oakenfold to reverse engineer it. They dump 40,000 leagues of bass underneath “It Doesn’t Matter” and smirk at the dubstep scene that hadn’t even surfaced yet.
But if Dig Your Own Hole
was just a collection of tear the roof off rave classics it still wouldn’t make for a very good album. This is The Chemical Brother’s secret weapon, they’re great sequencers. The album’s second half kicks off with the triple attack eyeball poppers “It Doesn’t Matter”, “Don’t Stop the Rock”, and “Get Up On it Like This”, but follows those with the sparse and spacey “Lost in the K-Hole” and the ol’ Sunday morning sooner “Where Do I Begin”. Instead of letting the latter song glide the album to a conclusion it ramps back up in preparation for the epic 9-minute finale “Private Psychedelic Reel”. Similarly, the album starts off with 3 burners then allowing “Piku” to let the album relax a bit before “Setting Sun”.
Noel Gallagher first offered to make a song with The Chemical Brothers during Glastonbury 1995. The two had been acquaintances and mutual fans for a while but the collaboration didn’t occur until a year later. The Chems were working on a song inspired by The Beatles psychedelic ragga opus “Tomorrow Never Knows” when they got the idea to send it off to Noel for vocals. The original version of “Setting Sun” dates back to 1992 where it was first laid to tape as a demo. The original is standard Oasis fare but the finished version is another beast entirely. One of The Chems greatest strengths was that they’ve never been scared of noise. Many of their best songs are filled with squealing sirens and shrieks that could have been exercised for a friendlier listen. Certainly the temptation to do so with “Setting Sun” must have been strong. It was, after all, collaboration with one of the most famous pop stars in the world. Trimming a few of its more abrasive elements would have further guaranteed success. Instead, “Setting Sun” is crammed with radio poison. Swooping guitars battle with dive-bombing screams, subatomic bass hits, and a midsection that sounds like the floor opening up and depositing you into a rave at the end of the world. All of this taken over the top by Noel’s vocals sounding more assured and epic than anything off Be Here Now
Naturally, radio avoided it and lead single “Block Rockin Beats” like the plague. Both hit number on the singles charts. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons had just lit the fuse of revolution and Dig Your Own Hole
is the flame that set it off. It’s a long fuse though. Electronica only had a brief moment in the sun and was quickly brushed aside at the turn of the decade. But that lit fuse burned all through the next decade.