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Jan 14

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS – “Setting Sun”

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#747, 12th October 1996

setting This is a story about the twilight of innovation in British independent music. Oasis in Summer 1996 were impossibly big, big beyond almost all yardsticks of British rock bigness. They had the fanbase and the opportunity to take their audience anywhere the band cared to go – and the motive, too, with critics enthralled by their power but often sniffy about their range. With his hand on the tiller of British rock, with the chance to put anything he wanted at the top of the charts, Gallagher lent his star power to the Chemical Brothers, and made what amounts to a big beat remix of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Stop the clocks, as Oasis later put it.

It’s a harsh story, and perhaps it sounds like a reasonable judgement on the existence of “Setting Sun”, or the motivation behind it. But a story is all it is. It leaves out how the record actually sounds and feels, and it leaves out the world “Setting Sun” exists in.

“Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of those Beatles tracks that’s become a touchstone for inventiveness and originality. Certainly everyone involved with “Setting Sun” revered it. Its invention, though, is there for a purpose. Like a lot of Lennon’s later 60s songs, “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a manual for change. Like “Imagine” specifically, it’s a series of instructions set to music that brings to life what those instructions promise – zen calm and respite in “Imagine”’s case, ego-death and psychic transformation in “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Placed at the end of Revolver, “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounds like a door opening, its phased and looped backing piping the listeners of Britain through into a new world, and not just for pop.

That door, once opened, can’t be re-opened – you can’t just make something psychedelic and say, this is our “Tomorrow Never Knows”. You can match the Beatles’ speed but not their acceleration. But I don’t think that’s what “Setting Sun” is doing. The question the Chemical Brothers are answering here isn’t “How do you make “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a world where “Tomorrow Never Knows” already exists?”. It’s “How do you make “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a world where “Tomorrow Never Knows” worked?”

That’s obviously an oversimplification, in that the world Lennon or the Beatles wished for isn’t at all the world we got. People didn’t become transcendent creatures of total awareness upon hearing Revolver – and I doubt a cantankerous sod like John Lennon would have enjoyed it much if they had. What people did do was start to take drugs in culture-warping quantities. They did this not because of “Tomorrow Never Knows” or any other song – it was the trend the song was surfing, and the Beatles had the talent, imagination and knack for theatre to package it better than almost anybody else. But from the mid-60s onwards, drug-taking became a part of mainstream youth culture, and it’s stayed that way ever since.

There’s your difference. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is built for a world in which very few young people take drugs. “Setting Sun”, its descendent, parallel or perhaps its tulpa, presumes a world in which almost all of them do, with all its unintended consequences.

What makes sense in that world? The Chemical Brothers locate their answer at the moment hedonism shades into chaos. “Setting Sun” might not be the noisiest Number One, but it’s one of the most aggressive and turbulent – great chthonic shudders of bass, a drum loop that seems to be trying to punch a hole in the track, snatches of drone on endless spin cycle, the whole song strafed by feedback squeals then swamped in machine-goblin chatter as soon as the singer tries to communicate. Any attempt by the song to be a song is undercut – the breakdown sounds like an equipment failure and reboot, and Gallagher’s vocals are treated and flattened into irrelevance. (Apparently he performs “Setting Sun” as an actual song live, which is hard to imagine – the lyrics are flotsam and the track’s main weak point is his attempt to corral the noise into a tune.)

We wouldn’t be talking about this song without Noel Gallagher, and he adds resonance to its Beatley overtones, but as a track this isn’t his show. The Chemical Brothers had just supported Oasis at Knebworth, and like that band they were tied up with Britpop but also not completely of it. They were remixers by appointment to the new pop stars, and their sweat-drenched club residencies provided Britpop’s hedonistic soap operatics with an apt backbeat. But by now Britpop is falling apart in a bloody-nosed mess – “Setting Sun” the perfect soundtrack, really – and the Chemical Brothers’ main context is coming to the fore: big beat.

The clue to big beat’s failings is in the name – when you bring a loop that far forward in the mix and get it to dominate proceedings, it tends to sound static, even leaden, over the course of a whole song. It’s just variable enough to not reach hypnotic, just repetitive enough to need a lot of other stuff happening. So a lot of big beat sounded – and was – crunchingly unsubtle next to techno or drum and bass, and far more beery than psychedelic.

“Setting Sun” wanders dangerously close to this trap – and other big beat Number Ones will march gleefully into it – but chaos wins out. The mood of the track is more speedfreak psychosis than a bad trip, but the video makes it clear that something nasty is happening, imagining raving as a kind of demonic possession or manifestation of a second self.

You can see “Setting Sun” as a turning point for its makers, a farewell of sorts. The Chemical Brothers are about to become the kind of dance act that gets five No.1 LPs on the trot – they will rarely sound this unfettered or vicious again. And “Setting Sun” – though Noel Gallagher is the only member involved – is the last we’ll see of the early, snarling Oasis. But the record reaches far further back than the early 90s. It’s the second No.1 this year to reference 1966 – and where the Lightning Seeds promised it could be like that again, “Setting Sun” shuts that possibility down. To live in the world 1966 made is not to try and get back there: this thrilling cacophony is the sound of a time machine crashing.

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Comments

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  1. 76
    AMZ1981 on 16 Jan 2014 #

    From a personal point of view I’m finding that while I remember most of the number ones from Autumn 1996 I haven’t heard a lot of them for years including this one. I’ve just revisited it on Youtube and – it left me rather cold first time round but seventeen years on it blew me away.

  2. 77
    hardtogethits on 16 Jan 2014 #

    Tortuous chart facts, back by popular demand:

    The first single in UK chart history to debut at #1 then plummet out of the top 3* in the second week. Huge apologies if I’ve overlooked someone else saying this.

    *Indeed the first single in UK chart history to debut at #1 then plummet out of the top 2 in the second week.

  3. 78
    DanH on 16 Jan 2014 #

    #47:

    Definitely! I heard Galvanize at a bar recently, and had to ShaZam to find out who or what it was. I’d thought it was only NFL pregame/highlights music for the longest time. But it was Chemical Brothers indeed. I was out of the ‘electronica’ loop in ’97, I didn’t hear Firestarter until after the Weird Al parody, so I can’t speak to how successful or unknown CB was in America.

  4. 79

    […] by this brilliant piece I read today on the life and times of the Chems‘ “Setting Sun,” a song that […]

  5. 80
    hardtogethits on 16 Jan 2014 #

    #77 oops. Gary Barlow’s was the first single in UK chart history to debut at #1 and fall to #3. This was the first to fall to #4 in its second week. Thanks to the person who contacted me directly to politely and privately point out my error. Guess where I’m posting next.

  6. 81
    23 Daves on 16 Jan 2014 #

    #74 The ones I knew at the time liked it a lot, but they were all people who failed to stick with the group after the disappointment of “Be Here Now” – I’d imagine the hardcore faithful who still thought they were one of Britain’s greatest bands after that point may have had other thoughts? I can’t speak for any of them, though, as I don’t actually know anyone who fits that category. Clearly they exist in droves, but I can’t remember meeting anyone like that.

    #54 Just spotted this – did Chris Evans really refuse to play this? What was his justification, exactly? Too noisy?

  7. 82
    wichitalineman on 16 Jan 2014 #

    Re 80: Dunno?

  8. 83
    Kat but logged out innit on 16 Jan 2014 #

    Life was so HARD and I had to start doing GCSE COURSEWORK and Adam wouldn’t GO OUT WITH ME and the Spice Girls were still EVERYWHERE and I still never won any SWIMMING RACES and my tracksuit bottoms were too SHORT because of stupid GROWTH SPURTS and I was ANGRY because everything was UNFAIR and my black nail polish had RUN OUT.

    Peak ungrateful sulky teenager! I bought this on CD single (I think it must have been the last #1 I actually purchased?) and played it very loudly and pretended I was Katherine, Destroyer Of Worlds.

  9. 84
    AMZ1981 on 16 Jan 2014 #

    #77 By this same time in 1997 it’s quite a common thing of course. From the point of view of a geeky teenager who listened to the top 40 religiously every Sunday it meant that by the time I got to know a number one record it was at 30 something. Which felt like a shame because with hindsight there are some terrific records topping the charts.

  10. 85

    […] Tom Ewing (via “Setting Sun” | FreakyTrigger) […]

  11. 86
    Alex on 16 Jan 2014 #

    #81: well, this Oasis fan loved it. Bought BHN and saw them at Sheffield Arena on the tour; disappointing and clearly Time to Move On.

    WRT Chris Evans, thought it was noisy and hangover-tickling and not Kula Shaker enough I presume.

  12. 87
    Patrick Mexico on 16 Jan 2014 #

    Hmm. No recollection at the time, far too young.. but probably happy to give a 7. It’s rare that the psychedelic and the powerful make for good bedfellows in a #1, but this does the job with aplomb, like much of the Chemical Brothers’ work, the sound of someone throwing a spanner into the works of a giant robotic arm that would normally make a Ford Fiesta, but now makes a Space Shuttle. Just a shame Noel Gallagher’s vocals are so flat they sound like they’re being crushed by it.

    Having said that, though they needn’t have worried it was obligatory, this was a golden opportunity for Oasis to raise their creative game and shift into heavier, more electronic and less trad-rock territory – not wanting to criticise, maybe they never had it in them anyway. We might never know.

    The video’s a corker though – saucer-eyed girls! Freakishly not-yet-over-memed cats! If not my favourite of all time (currently Duran Duran 82-85 and the Going Underground bit where they deface all the Prime Minister photographs in two seconds flat) it’s definitely my favourite containing a bad trip – though oddly, that’s not a very hotly contested field.

  13. 88
    tm on 16 Jan 2014 #

    Not much to add here except to say that I agree with Tom @ 57 that Private Psychedelic Reel is the bollocks, the biggest and baddest drum sound ever, among other delights.

  14. 89
    iconoclast on 16 Jan 2014 #

    I didn’t pay much attention to this at the time, apart from being aware that Noel G took his name off the songwriting credits for some reason. It’s better than I expected, although it’s essentially a noise-splattered ersatz Noel G pastiche of “Tomorrow Never Knows” with none of the panache or finesse. FIVE.

  15. 90
    Alan not logged in on 16 Jan 2014 #

    1996 had been for me the year of Underworld – 2nd Toughest was amazing and stuck in the CD player, and had sent me back to Rez and dubnobas. And of course Trainspotting had thrown Born Slippy (NUXX for the pedantic) into the charts. (Up to number 2 was it and kept off number one by Wannabe?)

    The whole dust brothers/chemical brothers thing was burbling away in the background as something I might care to pay attention to, and when this came along to force my attention, it was yoked to a Gallagher. Yikes. Too self-identified as an Oasis hater, it stopped me caring a great deal. I later enjoyed a New Year’s “DJ” set of theirs (1998/99 at Alexandra Palace) but again that was sidelined by both New Order’s and Underworld’s full sets. I like much of specifically Dig Yr Own Ole, but the Private Psychedelic Reel is still the only Chems track I get a big kick out of.

  16. 91
    Patrick Mexico on 16 Jan 2014 #

    #89 Aye, I’m put off by the Tomorrow Never Knows steal as well. It suggests however leftfield an artist the Gallaghers worked with, however much they tried to raise the bar, they still couldn’t avoid ripping off the Beatles. There must be more to them to that.. I hope, I think, I know? (A genuinely life-affirming and heartbreaking pop song in a desert of delusion – but Oi! We’ll cross that bridge when Marcello comes to it!!)

    The haters on the Don’t Look Back In Anger thread said things like “I can’t stand this as it’s the sound of a million party tossers with acoustic guitars” and it struck a chord with me. (sorry, as I type I realise that pun was genuinely unintentional!!) A central problem with Oasis? Their over-reliance on cod-pretty acoustica, and disdain for the “heavy” and “hard” a band. They were too raw and winningly macho a band to go a long way with, as we’ll see later on Popular

    I remember a FourFourTwo interview a decade ago about the UK’s “great music cities” where one Gallagher said “Not Birmingham for some reason.” I think there’s two key bands fuelling that assertion.. it’s not Steel Pulse and Lolly, but I’m paranoid and might have a communication breakdown about telling you which.

  17. 92
    Fivelongdays on 16 Jan 2014 #

    This is part two in the ‘Dance Music Doesn’t Have To Be Shit’ 1996 trilogy of number ones and, while I’d consider it the weakest, that’d be more down to the quality of the other two.

    Personally, a revelation [more of which in two Popular years] between DLBIA and this meant I’d started to seriously fall out of love with Oasis, but that didn’t impact on how much I liked this. Wild, crazy, intense, insane, and really rather good.

    8.

  18. 93
    Patrick Mexico on 16 Jan 2014 #

    “Dance Music Doesn’t Have To Be Shit?”

    Calm down, Damien McSorley.

  19. 94
    @NikolaTamindzic on 17 Jan 2014 #

    “You can match the Beatles’ speed, but not their acceleration.” http://t.co/kFNYXwHQ4c Also, Paul says hello: http://t.co/P4K5juNUkb

  20. 95
    Rory on 17 Jan 2014 #

    This thread has prompted me to listen more intently to Exit Planet Dust than ever, mainly because it’s one of the two ChemBros albums that has randomly made its way onto my iPod. The sequence from “Song to the Siren” through “Chemical Beats” is about as perfect a distillation of their essence as any, which is not to dismiss the other tracks; “Leave Home” is clearly also essential, and the later coming-down tracks serve their purpose well. The synth stabs at the end of “Life is Sweet” are distracting in 2014, though, seeing how they were ripped off for the theme to Dragon’s Den.

    The other random album on my Pod is Further, which is pretty decent, but its first track is always a barrier for me – those feedback noises are about as headphone-unfriendly as it gets.

    Favourite ChemBros tracks? The monster 1-2 punch of “Come With Us” and “It Began in Afrika” from Come With Us; “Hey Boy Hey Girl” and “Music: Response” from Surrender; “Star Guitar” (which works just fine even without physical associations; I have indeed used it to soundtrack journeys on the East Coast line); that sequence from Exit Planet Dust; and “Galvanize” and “Believe” from Push the Button. There may be others; I’ll save further Dig Your Own Hole comments for the next ChemBros thread.

    Has anyone picked up the digital-only B-Sides Volume 1 compilation? Is it worth it? (Who am I kidding, now that I know about it I’ll inevitably buy it.)

  21. 96
    @peteashton on 17 Jan 2014 #

    I enjoyed reading: THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS – “Setting Sun” http://t.co/PrqYu3PEGn

  22. 97
    Ed on 17 Jan 2014 #

    Great use of ‘Galvanize’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnPqFq1lIGg

    Truly the best of Britain.

  23. 98
    AMZ1981 on 17 Jan 2014 #

    #90 Born Slippy was held off by Killing Me Softly

  24. 99
    Fivelongdays on 18 Jan 2014 #

    #93 – I refer m’learned friend to my comments in the Firestarter/Dreamer threads.

  25. 100
    Music. | The Yorkshire Ranter on 19 Jan 2014 #

    […] FreakyTrigger recalls the Chemical Brothers’ Setting Sun going No.1. I associate myself entirely with the following sentiments: […]

  26. 101
    ciaran on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Late enough in commenting on this but not much else to say.

    Only revisiting it lately its still a very impressive piece of work. Gallagher out of the Noelrock comfort zone plus a whole load of sonic delights. A tremendous single then and now.

    Could be the closest the 90′s gets to a Telstar, I Feel Love, Pump up The Volume decade defining record that sounded so far ahead of its time.At least a 9 put could go higher!

    Finding it on youtube was interesting as it only appeared to be the 9th/10th option on the list. It hasn’t really been appreciated as much as it should and even though we find ourselves discussing it here its probbaly one of the lesser known chemical brothers tracks.

    More in-depth discussion about that to come of course.

  27. 102
    Chops on 30 Jan 2014 #

    Stork-boy! All I have to say on this review, really, other than it was awesome to read. Great review.

  28. 103
    Billy Hicks on 31 Jan 2014 #

    …wow, well that’s the end of me being (one of?) the youngest Popular commentators then :) Welcome!

  29. 104
    Middlerabbit on 7 Apr 2014 #

    I generally found – and find – Noel Gallagher’s voice a bit on the earnest side for my liking. Unlike Liam’s, it doesn’t appear to have degenerated particularly.

    I particularly enjoyed the comment about nobody being able to match The Beatles’ acceleration. I’d not thought of it in those terms and I think it’s a great description.

    Obviously, it’s Tomorrow Never Knows for the 90s. However, what this record made clear for me (aged 25 when it was released) was the window into the Chemical Brothers’ psyche.

    The first sign, calling yourself The Dust Brothers in tribute to The Dust Brothers always struck me as being really, really strange.

    This, playing ‘tribute’ to TMK by, fundamentally, replicating all of the loops in the original wiped away any possibility of naïveté on the parts of Tom and Ed.

    I was surprised by the number of people who hadn’t heard TMK at this point, post Beatles anthology. There are no obscure Beatles records, surely. My mistake; there must be.

    The release of this record makes me think of telephone marketing companies targeting the elderly or the very young. It’s cynical. I can’t forgive anyone involved because of the previous (Dust brothers).

    Noel is, as many others have noted, an engaging interviewee. I don’t object to anyone appropriating sounds, chord changes, melodies, harmonies, structures, what have you. But it fail to see the point if you’re not going to say something lyrically over the top. Which is why sampling is okay by me. But only if you add something of yourself that affords people a new viewpoint.

    Noel always says that writing lyrics is the bit he finds hardest. I can’t say I’m surprised because the lyrics tend to be the only part that originate from him. He freely admits to wholesale lifting of sounds, riffs, chord patterns, you name it. What he appears to be suggesting is that creativity is something he finds hard.

    Do something else then!

    A cynical re-recording with absolutely nothing to recommend it, musically, spiritually, lyrically or emotionally.

    2.

  30. 105
    Patrick Mexico on 21 Jul 2014 #

    #99 A belated sorry for that slightly dumb comment of mine. You speak the truth. If only “dance music doesn’t have to be shit” could filter through to people who liked Special D – Come With Me, QFX – Freedom and that ghastly happy hardcore take on Danish Eurovision winner Fly on the Wings of Love.

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