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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole
Jeremy Allen , July 29th, 2022 09:24

It's easy to be sniffy about the Chems, says Jeremy Allen, but going back to Dig Your Own Hole now shows that they were bang on the money

In April 2019, the Philharmonie de Paris hosted an exhibition called Electro: From Kraftwerk To Daft Punk, a signal from the art establishment, perhaps, that electronic music was ready for mummification. Kraftwerk’s installation was reminiscent of their 3D live experience which has graced several museums and art galleries world wide, while the recently defunct Daft Punk were modelled without their crash helmets in wavy-toned birch plywood by the French artist Xavier Veilhan, and placed in a devil red display brandishing burning axes and dressed by the fashion designer Hedi Slimane.

That same exhibition came to London in 2020, though it had to be readapted to fit the specifications of the Design Museum. One snag was that Daft Punk had decided to pull out. A replacement was found for the UK centred exhibition and the new revised show would be called Electronic: From Kraftwerk To The Chemical Brothers. Having been to the expo in Paris, my gut reaction was that visitors in London were about to be short changed. Daft Punk are famous for their retrofuturist presentational nous, whereas Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons look like two blokes you might meet at 1am at a 24-hour service station buying Monster Munch. Spin once called them “the Beavis and Butt-head of techno”, which is rude, though you can see where they’re coming from.

It ended up being academic anyway because COVID put a stop to all events. After months of agonising by the staff at the Design Museum over whether it would see the light of day Electronic finally opened in late July of that year with a number of restrictions in place. And lo, The Chemical Brothers’ club-like installation far surpassed my expectations. A large dance floor had been constructed in the space by show directors Smith & Lyall — the behind the scenes duo who’ve given The Chemical Brothers a visual identity over the last thirteen years. “We've got as many strobe lights in that room as there are on the main stage at Glastonbury,” Adam Smith told me over Zoom at the time. It turned out to be a far more impressive and visceral experience than I could have anticipated, especially as it was the only place in Britain at that time where you could legally have a dance.

Daft Punk’s contribution had been all about the robots, whereas The Chemical Brothers literally turned the spotlight onto the person experiencing the installation. There may have been some giant sashaying pink creatures projected onto large screens, but overall the experience pulled the focus away from The Chemical Brothers and onto the patron; and no doubt many attendees were startled by being offered the chance to dance in an actual museum, inadvertently made all the more discombobulating by pandemic restrictions. This was a very human installation, simple but surprisingly moving. Moreover, the attention to detail was fastidious in order to create the illusion of simplicity, which could well be an analogy for The Chemical Brothers themselves.

“We’ve read things like, we’ve got a charisma bypass,” Tom Rowlands once told NME. “We are what we are: nice middle-class kids. Quiet and reasonable people.” That perceived lack of personality is instructive in understanding Dig Your Own Hole, an album where the protagonists step out of the way and let the bone-shaking breakbeats do the talking. Their second album is a leviathan of funk and groove, designed almost exclusively to make people dance, even when that dancing might be done alone. With titles like ‘Lost In The K-Hole’, it’s a call to hedonism that offers you the option of solipsism. This is your trip, so Dig Your Own Hole.

That’s not to say that a lot of the songs aren’t designed to be communal and universal. ‘Setting Sun’ took 60s psychedelia and rewired it for the ecstasy generation. And in bringing Noel Gallagher in, turned it into an event. ‘Setting Sun’ had undergone a metamorphosis before it was presented to Gallagher; anecdotally, it might well have been present in some form since The Dust Brothers days, but by 1995 they were definitely looping a few seconds of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ into their sets, the primary inspiration for what would become a no.1 hit. Gallagher, who they’d met backstage at Glastonbury, also brought one he’d prepared earlier.

‘Comin’ On Strong’ was a substandard-’Supersonic’-like demo from the early 90s that hadn't made the grade, and its stream of consciousness lyric lifted and imposed on a souped-up tribute to Revolver-era Beatles with sirens, is a stroke of purest serendipity — a hallucinatory banger that can still take you to someplace else if it catches you the right way. Few if any number ones have been that psychedelic, with a mega drop (long before that became a fixture of modern pop) that embodies the sensation of coming up with a rare clarity and aural perceptiveness; the lysergic rush as eyeballs roll back into heads and are sucked into a tranquil oblivion may be familiar to some of our readers. A record like this on Top Of The Pops was bona fide countercultural subversion, which seems odd now with the inclusion of Gallagher, a man who ran scared from releasing the Amorphous Androgynous collaboration he’d previously not shut up about, and who seems to be slowly shifting from a small ‘c’ to a big 'c' conservative.

Nevertheless, it made perfect sense at the time to have his distorted honking laid all over some Ringo-inspired broken beats played at a jaunty 135 BPM. These rhythmic workouts were not without their detractors, and there’s a case to be made – Gallagher aside – that some of the collaborations The Chemical Brothers have entered into over the years haven’t always aged that well (though none were as misjudged as Crispin Mills on The Fat of the Land by The Prodigy). Indie credibility was well sought after in the 90s, and The Chemical Brothers had their own cred thanks to the patronage of Andrew Weatheralll, which brought them remix work in abundance from Primal Scream, The Charlatans, Spiritualized, and so on. Later excursions with Richard Ashcroft and Kele Okereke on their albums might have missed the mark, but Dig Your Own Hole deploys a deft balance of samples and performances which were representative of the band’s tastes at the time.

Tom’s love of outsider rock is reflected in the choice of Jonathan Donahue from Buffalo’s Mercury Rev to accompany them on the expansive final track ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’, while Ed’s passion for Public Enemy is imbued in the Bomb Squad-style sirens and the hip hop snippets from Kool Keith and Schoolly D.

The accusation that it was all big beat and no trousers does the album a disservice too. Collaborations with the aforementioned Donahue, and with Beth Orton on the filmic, almost uncanny ‘Where Do I Begin?’, bring a depth of texture to the work that shouldn’t be confused with fun time charlies like Bentley Rhythm Ace or Fatboy Slim. Instead they demonstrated a deft ability to switch from hip hop on tracks like ‘Piku’ to folktronica with Orton, before then embarking on the rupturingly euphoric ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’, augmented by the main player on a band who, pre-Deserter’s Songs, were regarded as a recherché avant-psyche oddity. What’s more, there’s an interplay between all of these performances, samples, beats and tracks which creates a compelling unified whole.

As for the breakbeats themselves, which were mostly deployed in the studio at high velocity on the drum kit and then looped, which both helped cement a signature sound and created a stick for them to be beaten with, though the circular grooves are the essence of what makes Dig Your Own Hole great. Tracks like ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ might have been commercial successes, though the repetitions have their roots in the avant garde. ‘It Doesn’t Matter’, for instance, is audaciously mechanical to the point where that phrase, repeated over and over, changes its meaning as it is duplicated within the mind of the listener. Steve Reich and Alvin Lucier were manipulating voice loops in the mid to late 60s to create similar disorientation. On the demo, now available with the 25th anniversary edition, that simple phrase is brought to the fore and is more incessant than on the album version, creating a trance-like sensation that’s at times easy to zone out from, but can become jarring once you notice it again. An added dimension – or even the joke – is the subversion of the meaning of the phrase (as in, if ‘it doesn’t matter’, then why do you keep saying it?) At times it sounds like a malfunctioning Kraftwerk stuck in an eternal dystopian loop, and it’s a shame that that uncompromising approach wasn’t maintained on the final version, because it would have created a fascinating divisiveness. It should be mentioned too that some of the other demos available with the 25th anniversary edition add a raw sonic frisson to the tracks, the dirty rendition of ‘Elektrobank’ in particular, making the extras well worth checking out.

It should also be noted that while The Chemical Brothers never had the meta-sophistication or enigmatic allure of Daft Punk, statistics don’t lie. The French robots were cool, sure – and that clearly led me to make assumptions under a misapprehension. Now you may need to sit down for this: The Chemical Brothers have had six UK number one albums. You read that right, six. That’s as many as Genesis, Pink Floyd and Blur, and just one behind establishment figures like Cliff Richard and Elton John. Add to that two number one singles and nineteen top 40 hits and you have a band who outscore the French comfortably. The Chemical Brothers have fared less well than Daft Punk in mainland Europe, though along with their French counterparts, they changed American perceptions about what dance music could be, sold millions of records there, and, for better or worse, helped precipitate the EDM boom that was to come. The idea that they weren’t a worthy replacement for Daft Punk at the Design Museum was a canard.

Perhaps most importantly, they’ve assisted in overturning the received wisdom that pervaded 25 years ago that guitar music would somehow remain timeless while dance music would date. Timeless is a very long time indeed, but a quarter of a century later, Dig Your Own Hole sounds more vital than any of the big indie albums released in 1997 (I’m looking at you Be Here Now). And despite having the honour of becoming a headline act bestowed upon them by a well respected institution, The Chemical Brothers are definitely not ready to become a museum piece just yet.