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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.

9

Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Another footnote: “Almost all of them [took drugs]” is a deliberate exaggeration – actually, even the most popular drug (weed) was probably consumed by well under half of ‘young people’. But as Matthew Collin suggested in 1997′s Altered State, drugs – and E in particular – had infected UK culture root and branch: British youth culture was a drug culture, or at least an intoxication culture, more wholeheartedly than pretty much any time before.

  2. 2
    flahr on 15 Jan 2014 #

    “crunchingly unsubtle”

    You say that like it’s a bad thing!

    “unfettered [...] vicious [...] cacophony”

    You, correctly, say that like it’s a good thing.

    [9]

  3. 3
    Bowiesongs (@bowiesongs) on 15 Jan 2014 #

    “Tomorrow Never Knows is for a world in which few young people take drugs,Setting Sun a world in which almost all do” http://t.co/25eYMWAtZH

  4. 4
    Ned Raggett on 15 Jan 2014 #

    (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.)

    And…here you go. Or not go.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0EdL1_MlFM

  5. 5
    anto on 15 Jan 2014 #

    All things considered the best no.1 Noel Gallagher has ever been involved with – this really is disturbed psychedelia. It’s a clash of several sounds at once and made a striking chart-topper.
    I was never that keen on big beat and much preferred The Chemical Brothers earlier on. The one they did with Tim Burgess – ‘Life is Sweet’ with it’s charming air of summery optimism offers a total contrast to ‘Setting Son’.

  6. 6
    swanstep on 15 Jan 2014 #

    I’d never seen the vid. for this until just now, and feel like ‘*Now* I get it.’ Heard as a track on Did Your Own Hole I always found SS pretty skippable (and not a patch on, e.g., a bunny and ‘Where Do I begin’): abrasive and tuneless enough to be be physically hard to stick with and (as Tom suggests) neither minimal enough to be hypnotic nor aggessive or inventively varied enough to be exciting. The vid., however, solves these problems by adding enough interesting content so that the abrasive sonics aren’t an issue and the whole thing feels interesting and exciting, a monster even. For me, then, given the vid, this is an:
    8

  7. 7
    Billy Hicks on 15 Jan 2014 #

    This was an absolute, definite 10 for years and years for me – I’d always sort-of known it thanks to its quick ubiquity on television commercials, but when I really started to listen to it in the mid-2000s I was astonished at how groundbreaking this sound was, believing that the Chemical Brothers had single-handedly re-invented dance music forever just through this one, completely original handcraft of music.

    The day I first heard ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was a sad one. And indeed since then the amount of songs of my era I’ve found out that blatantly rip-off older music has bruised and battered my love for them, but in this case it still remains strong and like Tom I’d still give this a 9. An example of something that could be released today and *still* sound absolutely spine-chillingly current and gorgeous, and my favourite bit? The moment two minutes in where it goes BEOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWURURURURURUR, for lack of a better word. Transports me somewhere else, for a few brief seconds every time.

    Indeed it transports me to Hyde Park in the summer of 2011, when I finally saw them live for the first time. My drink, unknown to me, had been spiked with MDMA, and so occurred my first – and, to date, only – major high. Both this and the how-the-hell-is-it-not-bunnied ’99 classic ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ soundtracked a feeling of wild, slightly confusing but glorious abandon, dancing more energetically than I ever have before or since and feeling like this day, this moment was the peak of everything the last 22 years had built up to. Then I believe I passed out, but eh, was fun while it lasted. Nothing that would convince me to ever have another try, although had it been 1991 rather than 2011 – and I were born twenty years earlier – I imagine it would have been a different story.

  8. 8
    Kinitawowi on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Maybe I was just too much of a boring shit at the time, maybe sleepy seaside towns in north west Norfolk weren’t conducive to drug culture, maybe I was asleep, but somehow it completely escaped my notice at the time that this even made Number One, which speaks volumes for how little impact it had on me.

    Shorn of drug culture overtones that were completely irrelevant to me, and Beatles references that I’ve never cared about, this is just so much row. Even at 16 I wasn’t interested; at 33 I’m just bored. I guess “almost all young people” had to leave somebody out. 4 at most.

  9. 9
    Ed on 15 Jan 2014 #

    ‘Dig Your Own Hole’, the album on which ‘Setting Sun’ appeared the following year, is an absolute belter: the apotheosis of Big Beat, and a convincing justification for the existence of the genre. And was there an answer, or a bit of a clutching at past glories, in ‘Dig Out Your Soul’, more than a decade later?

    Some of it is bunnied, so I’ll leave that alone, and maybe it is a bit early for the rest of the album, too. But Swanstep’s mention of the video for SS reminded me of this one, which I think is even better, and probably my favourite work of any kind by current Oscar hopeful Spike Jonze.

    ‘Elektrobank’: http://www.mtv.com/videos/the-chemical-brothers/307797/elektrobank.jhtml

  10. 10
    @matoswk75 on 15 Jan 2014 #

    TOTAL FIRE from @tomewing on “Setting Sun.” http://t.co/gTJ0J0NpIn

  11. 11
    taDOW on 15 Jan 2014 #

    maybe my fave work by former oscar hopeful sofia coppola as well. call it postmodernism, call it retromania, call it the return of swinging london but this taps into that fin de siecle ‘hey man remember the 20th century?’ thing that became more and more pronounced as the 90s progressed. big beat never swung enough for me to love it w/o reservation and it’s part of that ‘dance music as another kind of rock music’ a la brostep that’s so so much less appealing to me than ‘dance music as another kind of pop music’ (edm, hip-house) or ‘dance music as another kind of r&b’ (disco disco disco) but for a moment there it was ludicrously fun, the best kind of dumb and obv. 9 for me as well.

  12. 12
    Alan not logged in on 15 Jan 2014 #

    flahr @2 said exactly what I wanted to add. Billy @7, i love finding out music is referencing older music! the ‘debt burden’ of imitation that Setting Sun owes (to TNK) is not all that different to incorporating distinctive actual samples, is it? (Maybe it is.) But if not, and you like “Hey Boy, Hey Girl” don’t listen to “The Roof is on Fire” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0ikNY3712g

  13. 13
    Mark M on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Sometime that summer, presumably while I was avoiding working on my MA dissertation, I heard I something very loud coming from the vicinity of Crystal Palace Park just up the road. ‘Is there a gig today,’ I wondered. But it sounded clearer than gigs in either the bowl or the stadium. Then the same song started again. ‘Very loud soundcheck?’ And again… I’m not sure whether I worked it out then, or months later when I actually saw the video. These days, it would’ve taken two seconds on Twitter to know what was going on, and I might have gone up to see whether I could’ve had a glimpse at the video shoot.

    This is not one of my favourite Chemical Brothers’ hits – possibly because of Noel, but maybe just because of its attempt at being a song.

  14. 14
    Alan not logged in on 15 Jan 2014 #

    short compilation of clips (inc Setting Sun) using crystal palace https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4UO5mrT-keU

  15. 15
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    My stag do started at Crystal Palace Park (as some commenters here will remember!). It was not as wild as the video.

  16. 16
    leveret on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Were the Chemical Brothers the originators of the featured rock/indie vocalist on dance tracks? There seemed to be a lot of this in the late 90s, and the first one I can remember is the Tim Burgess-featuring Life Is Sweet, which preceded this.

    This seemed to be a point at which the indie scene adopted a kind of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ attitude to dance music. There were less of the indie-dance hybrids that were common in the early 90s (Jesus Jones, Flowered Up, etc.) and more of an acceptance even by musically conservative acts like Noel Gallagher and Oasis that their fans were quite likely to be into less indie-fied dance music too.

  17. 17
    glue_factory on 15 Jan 2014 #

    My problem with this record is that, even though they’re remaking Tomorrow Never Knows for a world where “almost all” young people take drugs, they’d already done that by playing the Beatles track, in the middle of their sets, surrounded by minimal German techno and Depth Charge records. The context remakes it and always meant this track seemed superfluous to me.

    Or probably that’s just the indie snob in me saying I was there first.

  18. 18
    To Mewing! (@tomewing) on 15 Jan 2014 #

    A morning repost for Popular on the Chemical Brothers’ “Setting Sun” http://t.co/wztx2P1UYT

  19. 19
    Alan not logged in on 15 Jan 2014 #

    @16 Bjork and Barney Sumner feature on 808 State’s Ex:El in 1990/91

  20. 20
    Matt DC on 15 Jan 2014 #

    This still sounds enormous to this day – from this point on the Chemical Brothers went down a path of toytown homage (check Let Forever Be from the next album) but this is just so BIG, and Noel’s voice works in the midst of all the chaos in a way that it never does elsewhere. It would have been best as a glorious one-off, from here on seemingly every dance artist who made an album starting roping in established indie singers but none of them ever made anything as spectacular as this record.

  21. 21
    Izzy on 15 Jan 2014 #

    1: “Almost all of them [took drugs]” is a deliberate exaggeration – actually, even the most popular drug (weed) was probably consumed by well under half of ‘young people’.

    I appreciate the clarification and I know what you’re getting at, but in this case I despise the universalisation of that which isn’t universal. The music press was full of it at the time, and dubious stats like a million people dropping e every weekend. When you’re growing up and you don’t necessarily have many trustworthy windows into young adult life, or at least a young adult life shaped by music, that kind of thing has an effect. At least one young man would’ve made better choices and got to know himself better and earlier without such pernicious chatter.

    16: 808 State using Bjork and Bernard Sumner in 1991 is the first I can think of.

  22. 22
    Alan not logged in on 15 Jan 2014 #

    I think I’m right that people usually attribute Beatles songs as more John or more Paul, and as my Beatles knowledge is very superficial, I don’t know what people say in regard to TNK. Anyone?

  23. 23
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    TNK is almost completely John, as I understand it. My usual reference point (Ian MacDonald) is under a heap of junk in my spare room though.

  24. 24
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    #21 you’re right, even with the footnote the language is still too sloppy. I’ve gone back and amended it to get nearer the point I wanted to make – “has to exist in a world where almost all of them do” is now “presumes a world where almost all of them do” – which hopefully a) better reflects the very real mainstreaming of drug taking and b) allows room for the media exaggeration of that reality.

  25. 25
    @danhancox on 15 Jan 2014 #

    “the sound of a time machine crashing” http://t.co/6zaKX5Ygn7 interesting @tomewing piece on loops and endings, via 1996 and Setting Sun

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