Song To The Siren: An Extract From New Chemical Brothers Book

Paused In Cosmic Reflection is first official book by and on The Chems. Here we offer an exclusive early look at a chapter on their early days in Manchester. Band portrait by Hamish Brown

Now entering their fourth decade as an electronic act, The Chemical Brothers have recently taken stock in the form of writing a new book called, aptly, Paused In Cosmic Reflection. The title, written with long term amanuensis Robin Turner, due out on White Rabbit later next month, looks across the breadth of their history from early raving days in Manchester on to London, the electronic dance music explosion of the 90s, and outwards across the globe.

Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons met in 1989 while at the University Of Manchester and throwing themselves enthusiastically into the city’s acid house culture. The took up DJing together in 1992 playing parties and guesting at midweek night Naked Under Leather, at The Old Steam Brewery on Oxford Road, focusing their sets round techno, house and (mainly) instrumental hip hop b-sides. The pair have since stated it was the difficulty of finding a wide enough range of suitable imported hip hop 12"s that was one inspiration behind them taking their first steps into the world of production.

‘Song To The Siren’ was their first release (as The Dust Brothers). The track was highly unusual for the day, based round a relatively lo-fi sample of This Mortal Coil’s cover of the Tim Buckley track of the same name – it also features a reversed sample of Dead Can Dance’s ‘Song Of Sophia’ – mixed with intense acidic keyboard lines slowed down to a Balearic swagger of about 110bpm mixed with a rigid hip hop-style break, all mixed in an excitingly DIY style on a cheap home stereo.

Here in an exclusive extract, The Chems look back, with some help from Justin Robertson, at how this self-released, counter-intuitive, Davros-strength banger helped change everything for them.

Song To The Siren

A steady, lo-fidelity 111 bpm, ‘Song to the Siren’ might be slower than you remember but it’s all the more powerful for it. Like a crack of thunder, a punch to the gut or a drill aimed straight at your skull, ‘Song to the Siren’ is debut single as manifesto, a blueprint for a vision of the future.

First released on a one-sided green label 12” in 1992, ‘Song to the Siren’ was unlike anything else around. Three decades later, it still stands alone, perfectly capturing the spirit of a punk-rock dancefloor, where an otherworldly, hypnotic voice wrecks unsuspecting souls on the speaker stacks. All that from the duo that Andrew Weatherall would christen the masters of chunk rock (an apt descriptor at that point in their career, but one that sadly didn’t stick around for long).

The Dust Brothers’ self-pressed run of 12”s quickly sold out before being picked up by the Junior Boy’s Own label in the spring of 1993. Andrew Weatherall remixed the track in the early days of his Sabres of Paradise guise.

Tom Rowlands – ‘Song to the Siren’ was very much just us on our own. And it’s a product of a really different age. The track was mixed on the Hitachi hi-fi system I had in my old bedroom back at my parents’ house. It had a record player and two cassette decks that you could record from one to the other, and it had an input which meant you could play an external source straight in and record it. So you could record drums on it, then play the drums on one tape and record another layer on top. Each time you added a layer, the audio degraded slightly. It took ages to make. I’d been playing around with the idea in my bedroom for a long time. In fact, all of those early tracks took a long time. Both that track and ‘Chemical Beats’ were probably made over the space of a year from start to finish.

Ed Simons – ‘Song to the Siren’ was a way of the two of us expressing ourselves musically. It was us doing something just for the fun of it. There wasn’t really any more ambition other than to see what it could do for us that summer. We’d literally just left university and I was living back at home with my mum. If we could have a fun summer and get some DJ gigs as the two of us, that would have been a result.

Tom – The ambition with the track was to create the thing – the sound – that our DJ sets were lacking. That’s always the ambition with making music, to this day. Back then we were always searching out the second track on the instrumental B-side of hip hop imports and there weren’t ever enough records like that to keep us going. We were really into things like ‘In Dub’ by Renegade Soundwave and bands like Meat Beat Manifesto, records that had a slow heaviness to them. I’ve always loved those records that stop the night for a moment, that stop you in your tracks and change the direction of everything. I think it’s one of the reasons why there’s longevity to ‘Song to the Siren’. It’s never really fitted seamlessly into other things. To this day, it has that same effect in the live set. It feels like everything pitches down.

Justin Robertson – I was working in Eastern Bloc and I used to sell them records early on when they started doing their Naked Under Leather nights. When Ed came in with the first 12” copies of ‘Song to the Siren’, it just made total sense. Obviously, it was fucking amazing, but it wasn’t a surprise that the two of them would make music that complete and visionary. All of the records we were listening to back at people’s houses after clubs, all of the records they were painstakingly sourcing in the shop, records they’d told me about, it didn’t surprise me that they’d made that genius record. And although you could hear bits and pieces of other things in there – Depth Charge, Renegade Soundwave, hip-hop instrumentals – it didn’t sound like anything else around. Absolutely new, untameable, it’s all intent. It sounded like nothing else around and it blew everything else to bits. I always used to open my sets with it, which was a good and a bad decision as everything that followed it sounded crap by comparison. It got people’s attention but nothing afterwards sounded anything like as good.

Ed Simons – Andy Weatherall, Justin Robertson and Darren Emerson each used to play the track a lot. You’d notice it in their sets because clubs were soundtracked by quite fast techno at that point. It sounded odd. It was an end-of-the-night record at Sabresonic; you’d hear the record that preceded it being pitched down and the siren coming in. And it got played a lot at The Drum Club. We used to religiously go to The Drum Club, it was a brilliant night that took place in the Sound Shaft behind Heaven. Darren played there all the time. He was quite a technical DJ back then; he could cut up records and play them as if they were hip-hop tracks, cutting between two copies, which was incredible to hear.

That original green label pressing of ‘Song to the Siren’ sounds genuinely awesome. It’s so loud. It has terrible BBC Micro computer artwork that I did with a mate from school. We called the label Diamond Records which might have been after a college nickname I had [Eddie Diamond]. The 12” was one-sided and we printed up 900 copies ourselves which we obviously needed to sell.

The marketing on it was a very basic hustle. I used to ring up record shops and say, ‘I’m coming into town. I heard Andy Weatherall playing the other day. There was this record with a big siren on it and a fuck-off beat,’ because it so obviously is the record with the siren and that beat. And then I’d go to the shop later on with a box of twenty and say, ‘I’ve got this record that Andy Weatherall’s been playing out a lot, big siren thing.’ And shops would buy it, because they’d had the Siren Bloke on the phone earlier that day. I’d do a bowl around Central London shops, call in the morning and visit in the afternoon. Flying in Kensington Market bought loads. The 12” had my mum’s phone number on there. I’d get home and she’d have taken a message. ‘A lovely man called Darren Emerson rang. He’d like you to call him back, he left his number.’

Tom Rowlands – Technically, the record was really helped by whoever mastered it; apologies for having forgotten who did that job. It had just been recorded at home straight onto a cassette with no compression, none of things you’d have in a studio to make it sound good. It was just recorded live straight onto a cassette.

Playing a track like ‘Song to the Siren’ out, even if it was fifty of your mates going crazy, it felt like you were doing the right thing for the right reasons. So what if some people in shops said, ‘It’s too slow.’ It didn’t bother me; it’s still one of my favourite things we’ve done.

Ed Simons – ‘We had this mad Siren Bloke on the phone going on about Weatherall, but we think it’s too slow.’

Tom Rowlands – Andy Weatherall playing the record was such a big thing for us as people – as fans – and for the record.

Ed Simons – We owe such a lot to Andy Weatherall. When Junior Boy’s Own came along through Andy, that felt exciting and doable. We had a meeting with him which was a really cool moment. I’d been summoned into the back room of a club. I said we’d sign to JBO if he remixed it. That was all that mattered back then. We used to follow it round, trying to be there for the moment Andy would play the record in his sets.

Tom Rowlands – ‘Fucking hell, not those two again.’

Ed Simons– We definitely heard it at Sabresonics. Then we tried to repeat that moment in different cities wherever he was playing. We went to Nottingham and to Back2Basics in Leeds. Tom had a big Ford Sierra estate in those days that we’d pile into.

Tom Rowlands – The bloke selling it to me said, ‘Good for ram-raiding, that one.’ I’ll obviously bear that in mind, good sir. Probably would have been a very good car for Siren Bloke. I remember we were once in a club that got ram-raided. The Wiggly Worm in Manchester, probably on a night when Justin was DJing. A proper Northern Soul name, that. You couldn’t physically get out of the club because there was a car wedged into the doorway. ‘Best stay down there lads, bit of bother at the door.’

Justin Robertson – When I played, I’d tend to slow things down at the end of the set to play things like One Dove, records that felt very euphoric. ‘Song to the Siren’ goes in the other direction. It takes that old-school, downtempo Balearic shuffle and turbocharges it with the kind of sound that you’d have heard in the techno end of the set, combining them all together, channelling things from the past to make something utterly new. It’s almost like an entire night out condensed into a song.

The interesting thing about that time was it wasn’t year zero for dance music, as acid house had already happened. Electronic music was breaking out of being just about house. People came to the dance music scene from lots of different places, be it soul boys, disco heads, people into shoegaze or industrial music or rock music, and the things that people would end up listening to at afterparties – dub or Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, records that work when the sun is coming up. ‘Song to the Siren’ channels all of those kinds of influences and experiments on them, using them to make new things. I guess that was the spirit of the time. As a track, it’s so much more than a siren and a breakbeat. It’s alchemy, really. Magic.

Paused In Cosmic Reflection is published by White Rabbit on 26 October

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