The Chemical Brothers

TrackAlbum
Life Is SweetExit Planet Dust
Song To The SirenExit Planet Dust
Block Rockin' BeatsDig Your Own Hole
Hey Boy Hey GirlSurrender
GalvanizePush The Button
The Private Psychedelic ReelDig Your Own Hole
The Sunshine UndergroundSurrender
Star GuitarCome With Us
Out Of ControlSurrender
The State We're InCome With Us

Chemical Brothers photo

Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands

 

Chemical Brothers logo

 

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Chemical Brothers playlist

 

Contributor: Justine Harvey

Back in the day when the ITV chart show ran on a three-week cycle between the specialist charts, Dance, Rock and Indie, it was the latter that I was interested in – 90% of my musical taste being guitar-based, mostly of the jangly variety. I liked Andrew Weatherall’s work on Screamadelica and with the Happy Mondays, and I liked the Orb because they were the modern-day Pink Floyd. But nothing that would really be classed as dance music. Then along came the Chemical Brothers.

For the indie kid (which I very much was) who likes lyrics and guitars there was something familiar about the Chemical Brothers’ work. While a lot of dance music, especially back then, felt cold and impersonal, there was a warmth and character to the Chemical Brothers. Even the artwork on their early records looks more like classic rock than electronic – the cover of Exit Planet Dust reminiscent of Dylan’s Freewheelin’. And the first song of theirs I heard was Life Is Sweet which features the Charlatans’ Tim Burgess on vocals. Hearing it on the radio (probably Steve Lamacq on Radio 1) it was a voice I knew but instead of the Charlatans’ swirling Hammond organ, there were beats behind it. Nothing too scary though – it was still very much recognisable as a song and it wouldn’t be out of place at an indie night.

But then my horizons were broadening – or at least my nights out were. Proper clubs, all nighters, Megadog parties even. I listened to Exit Planet Dust constantly. Song To The Siren was always a favourite – because it turns out, despite my love of guitars, I also really like a siren noise. Deceptively simple with its repeated samples of This Mortal Coil’s version of Song To The Siren and a reverse vocal loop of Dead Can Dance, The Chemical Brothers had listened to the same records as us indie kids (and goths even) but translated it into something new and danceable. Not that anyone stood on the dancefloor playing guess the sample – everyone was dancing.

Electronic music seems particularly susceptible to sounding dated quickly, but re-listening to the early Chemical Brothers’ records for this I was relieved that they have aged well. Much of Big Beat hasn’t – I could happily never hear a Fatboy Slim record again. Block Rockin’ Beats still sounds exciting. Listening to it transports me back to Heavenly nights at Turnmills. Water dripping off the ceiling, Irvine Welsh playing the upstairs room, Dot Allison and Beth Orton dancing on the speakers.

Jumping around in time but sticking with the ‘floor-fillers’, next on the list is Hey Boy Hey Girl with its slightly tongue-in-cheek “superstar DJs here we go” sample. But that is exactly what they were by this point, hugely successful Pied Pipers of dance, manipulating crowds with their music. Around the turn of the century, I saw a lot of the Chemical Brothers, whether playing gigs, festivals or DJ sets. Some of the details are a little hazy but they were always good nights.

While Song To The Siren and Block Rockin’ Beats are the sound of clubs, Galvanize is a great festival tune. Combining a Moroccan string sample with rapping from Q-Tip, it brings together an eclectic mix of styles that somehow work together. It is great on record but even better in a field accompanied by the giant hallucinogenic dancing graphics, enhancing the experience (or severely messing with your brain depending on your frame of mind).

In their live shows the Chemical Brothers often come on to the Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. The Private Psychedelic Reel, which frequently closes their sets, is their equivalent. A nine and a half minute masterpiece of hypnotic meandering. It has the crowds dancing at the end of night by that point thoroughly under the spell the Chems have cast. It features Jonathan Donahue from Mercury Rev, not on vocals but on “Effects [Dub ‘tetix Wave’]” according to the credits. Regardless of what this is, the track is brilliant and pushed the boundaries of the music they’d been making.

My next two picks are in a similar vein – not so much bangers (for want of a better term) but more on the psychedelic, trip out, side of their work. The Sunshine Underground is third album Surrender‘s answer to The Private Psychedelic Reel. Another epic at over eight and a half minutes (this list could also be a guide to getting best value from a jukebox), it has a dreamy quality. Ideal music to watch a lava lamp to, music that wouldn’t have been out of place at the UFO Club alongside Pink Floyd. Star Guitar from their fourth album Come With Us may be more what is described as Balearic. Sunny and blissed out with the repeated lines “You should feel what I feel, You should take what I take”. Watching their 2015 Glastonbury set from the mud-free comfort of my lounge, these were the two tracks that made me wish I was there.

I’m aware there is a bias towards their earlier records here – of their nine albums, I’ve only included tracks from their first five records. It is not that I don’t like their more recent work; there were a few tracks that almost made the list (Saturate from We Are The Night, Wide Open from Born In The Echoes, Catch Me I’m Falling from No Geography) but my emotional connection is with the older stuff. Some of the newer work feels closer to the colder, clinical electronica that never appealed much to me. Perhaps if this list was by more of a dance purist, a fan of that Dance chart, there would be more new tracks, more white label releases or B-sides.

As it is, my remaining selection is very much from where the Chemical Brothers cross over with the other music I love. Out Of Control contains one of the most jarring lyrics I’ve ever heard with the line “maybe you think my moustache is too much” – up there with when Snap rhymed “serious as cancer” with “rhythm is a dancer”. And yet it still merits inclusion. This song ticks a lot of boxes for me – New Order’s Bernard Sumner on vocals and guitar, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie providing breathy backing vocals – it sounds undeniably like New Order in parts but wouldn’t have been out of place on the Scream’s album XTRMNTR (also released around this time), lyrics about hedonism tipping into nihilism.

A clique of musicians I loved, developed in the late 90s. Primal Scream, the Chemical Brothers, Death in Vegas, Andrew Weatherall, Jagz Kooner, Dot Allison, Beth Orton and the Charlatans all working together, whether it was in remixes, turning up on each other’s records or playing gigs together. So I’m ending the list where I began with another favourite collaboration. I love everything Beth Orton and the Chemical Brothers have done together. If my younger self had been compiling this list, it probably would be Where Do I Begin here, its lyrics about mornings after saying far too much to me about my life at a certain time. But now, The State We’re In feels like the best of their work together. A melancholic love(d up) song with Orton’s singing particularly poignant. “Let me show you how, what it feels to be true” – heartbreaking stuff that you want to listen to even when your dancing days are long behind you.

 

Chemical Brothers logo

Chemical Brothers studio albums: Exit Planet Dust (1995), Dig Your Own Hole (1997), Surrender (1999), Come With Us (2002), Push The Button (2005), We Are The Night (2007), Further (2010), Born In The Echoes (2015), No Geography (2019)

 

 

The Chemical Brothers official website

The Chemical Brothers YouTube Channel

The Chemical Brothers biography (Apple Music)

Having written about topics ranging from baby car seats to housing policy, Justine Harvey now mainly writes about theatre buildings for work or her passion for outdoor swimming. Writing about music has made a nice change. She is on Twitter @seatinthestalls and Instagram @justinefharvey

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Happy Mondays, New Order, The Orb, Pink Floyd, Primal Scream

TopperPost #852

1 Comment

  1. Gareth Youngs
    Apr 4, 2020

    Excellent stuff Justine ???

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