Here’s a very lazy new series, inspired by the fact that I was struggling for inspiration for new ideas for 2019.
Twenty years ago, we were on the cusp of a new millennium. It’s a period which already feels like a lifetime ago but, when you turn to the music, seems to have been just the day before yesterday.
This new series celebrates those circumstances by delving into the archives to re-post a review from the period, to be followed by some thoughts of my own a full two decades on.
#1 : SURRENDER by THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS (Q Magazine, July 1999 – Ian Gittins)
So it’s 1999 and the best music around, both chart and credible, is being made by hedonistic studio wizards and pop alchemists with nary a guitar or rhythm section in sight. Unsurprisingly, given their magic digits, they are also the most in-demand remixers currently extant. Their names are The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim and they are our indubitably perfect pre-millennial pop stars.
The Chemical Brothers are ace remixers because – as Manic Street Preachers, Prodigy, Primal Scream and Charlatans may testify – they bring the best out of everyone they work with. Now Surrender, their third album, sees them bringing the best out of themselves.
It’s a move away from the big beat frenzy and amyl nitrate-soaked party monster anthems of 1997’s thunderous Dig Your Own Hole towards more considered terrain. Amiable DJ/rave boffins Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands have woken up, shaken bleary heads, and realised there’s more to life than block rockin’ beats. Where most of Dig Your Own Hole evoked lager’n’pills messiness down the Heavenly Social, much of Surrender belongs in a chill-out room.
The piledriving, Kraftwerkian opener Music: Response shows they can still churn out big beat floorfillers by the yard, but the pair truly shine when they introduce poignancy and nuance to the mix, as on Out Of Control, which features Bernard Sumner, Bobby Gillespie, and a vintage disingenuous idiot savant Sumner lyric: “It could be that I’m losing my touch/Or do you think my moustache is too much?”
Noel Gallagher happens along to wonder aloud – somewhat ungrammatically – “How does it feel like to wake up in the sun?” on Let Forever Be, essentially an update on their joint 1996 Number 1 single Setting Sun, but then they hit comedown mode. The Sunshine Underground is melancholic and sparse, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval lends spectral vocals to the haunting Asleep From Day and the broken lullaby Dream On, featuring Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, is unspeakably lovely. Only the jaunty single Hey Boy Hey Girl reverts to their usual hi-energy jollity.
Surrender is The Chemical Brothers’ quantum leap into the wild blue yonder, away from their trademark slapstick delirium. It looks like there is life after big beat, after all.
Dig Your Own Hole had brought the duo to much wider attention. As is often the case, many of those who had been fans from the outset felt ‘betrayed’ by the move towards a more commercial sound but their numbers had been dwarfed by those whose first contact with The Chemical Brothers was thanks to a guest vocal by Noel Gallagher. There was a fair bit of intrigue as to which way things would go with the third album.
As the above review indicates, Surrender was no simple re-tread of Dig Your Own Hole as can be seen from the fact that the singles lifted from it reached #3. #9 and #21 respectively, as opposed to the two #1s and #17 hits from the previous album. Despite this, the sales of Surrender in the UK were double that of Dig Your Own Hole, which perhaps reflects that many radio DJs were playing a number of the album tracks on the basis of them sounding commercial enough for non-twilight shows. It wasn’t as if album sales were boosted by some sort of sensational and memorable Festival appearance which had been broadcast to the nation –The Chemical Brothers at Glastonbury in 1999 restricted themselves to a DJ-only set in the Dance Tent that year – so what you got was a dance album of immense appeal to many people who wouldn’t normally buy anything associated with the genre.
I’m happy to lump myself in with that description, but thinking back to 1999 I can also recall enjoying and buying albums by Fatboy Slim, Underworld and Basement Jaxx as well as a couple of compilations at the end of the year on the basis of having, at a late stage in my life, gone on a boys-only golf holiday to southern Spain for the first ever time and where I found myself falling head over heels for the beats I was hearing in night clubs. It was a time when Primal Scream had gone full-on with the hard hitting beats and even The Fall, with Touch Sensitive, were making dance music of sorts. But being in my mid-30s, my energy levels were such that I needed as much comedown music as I did the higher energy stuff, and so what Surrender offered seemed perfect being part of a wider landscape which I was thoroughly enjoying and in which The Chemical Brothers were masters of their art.
It’s still a piece of work that, 20 years on, I’m very happy to listen to from start to end without use of the skip button. In summary, it’s a late 20th century masterpiece.