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Jan 14

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS – “Setting Sun”

Popular107 comments • 7,011 views

#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

  1. 1
    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.

  2. 2
    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.

  3. 3
    Billy Hicks on 31 Jan 2014 #

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

  4. 4
    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.

  5. 5
    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.

  6. 6
    Erithian on 3 Feb 2016 #

    Here’s what I found when I looked for this on YouTube – a good idea well realised, especially the convincing lip-syncing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SN7ASS1l1qs

    Not to everyone’s tastes, but very effective. The next step along from sampling, using the well-known vibe of TNK and creating something new and exciting from it. TNK itself would still have sounded startling in the 1996 chart (and as for the 2016 chart…) and this is one of those number ones that, whether it’s your bag or not, makes you somehow proud that something so leftfield can get to the top of “our” lists.

  7. 7
    Neil C on 24 Apr 2016 #

    Having loved Exit Planet Dust, I remember a sense of anticlimax when I first heard this on the Evening Session, and there’s still some of that 20 years on. I love the *idea* of the Chems (one of “my bands”) getting to Number One – I just wish it had been with a better song. I can enjoy the rush and whoosh of the track but I’d much rather have a bit more of a chord sequence.

    For my money, Life Is Sweet* did the clattery-chaos-with-guest-indie-vocalist far better – that would have been a high 8, whereas with this I can only go to a 6.

    I’d say much the same about Dig Your Own Hole vs Exit Planet Dust – the tunes seemed to be a bit less nimble, more monotonous, and just not as fun as I wanted them to be. Although I do have a big soft spot for Where Do I Begin, the lovely Beth Orton collaboration – that would have made a cracking single.

    * I made sure I got the CD1 single of Life Is Sweet rather than CD2, as Select magazine had made the “Daft Punk remix” sound amazing. Imagine! Life Is Sweet but in a crazy thrash guitar style!
    Then I finally got the single home and, oh dear, “Daft Punk” failed to live up to my expectations. And not for the last t…

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