15
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. 26
    @mrleeward on 15 Jan 2014 #

    “You can match the Beatles’ speed but not their acceleration”. Brilliant piece on ‘Setting Sun’ in Popular. http://t.co/Ql209U8g6k

  2. 27
    Erithian on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Nice understatement here on the Beatles Wiki re TNK: “Lennon told George Martin that he wanted the vocals to sound like one hundred chanting Tibetan monks, which was a difficult task for Martin with the equipment available.”

  3. 28
    Rory on 15 Jan 2014 #

    After our discussion of the previous number one I feel my awareness fragmenting, breaking free of the specific moments represented by the time these songs were number one in the UK. We’re now in General-Late-’90s territory, when I heard some songs earlier and some later than they’ll appear here, and it all turned into a mishmash of alt-rock, big beat and electronica. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…

    So it was with the Chemical Brothers. My gateway drug to big beat was the Prodigy, and it was their albums and the Propellerheads’ that defined it for me in the late ’90s. I did pick up the Bros’ Exit Planet Dust in ’98, but it didn’t click for me straight away; it took the I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Bunnied “Hey Boy Hey Girl” (right on, Billy @7) to open the doors of perception, and not until I bought Surrender in 2001, a few months before moving to the UK. From there the rest followed in a glorious rush, peaking with Come With Us, the first of their albums that I personally helped send to number one here. The Chemical Brothers were possibly my favourite band of the 2000s; certainly one of my top three.

    Did I hear “Setting Sun” back in the day, and just not have an ear for it yet? I can’t remember. As far as I’m aware, the single didn’t do much on the Australian charts, but I presume it got some Triple J airplay. Certainly I would have recognised it as an homage to “Tomorrow Never Knows” right away, as by then Revolver was firmly my favourite Beatles album.

    To quote the deathless lyrics of Mr Noel Gallagher, whatever. The point is that for me this was more or less an album track, from an album somewhat overshadowed in my listening by newer releases, and assessed in that context. And in that context, it wasn’t my favourite; the TNK influence wasn’t a problem for me, nor were Gallagher’s vocals (even hearing them a few years after all Oasis illusions had been shattered) – I just preferred a few other album tracks to this one. So from an album I’d give an 8, this is pretty much squarely in the middle… which makes it an 8, I guess.

    I agree with swanstep @6 that the video is excellent, and can see how it would have made the song even more of an event. I’d also add that the cover of the single is similarly excellent, the best we’ve seen on Popular since, let’s see, at least “Country House”.

  4. 29
    Rory on 15 Jan 2014 #

    P.S. Superlative writing in this entry, Tom, especially that “What makes sense” paragraph.

  5. 30
    Simon on 15 Jan 2014 #

    @Tom Is the opening sentence an Adam Curtis tribute/pastiche?

  6. 31
    Alex on 15 Jan 2014 #

    This is a full 10. That rare beast, a No.1 that’s actually interesting.

  7. 32
    Alex on 15 Jan 2014 #

    It’s got to be telling that the public were able to put the Spices, “Ready Or Not”, and this as successive No.1s. I think you can observe periods of greater or lesser variety, and this was one of the most varied and diverse ones.

  8. 33
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    #29 ssssort of a remnant of one, i.e. I considered putting in “But this was a fantasy.” at one point. There is a good history of indie and Britpop to be told through a Curtisian lens – the unintended consequences of ideas and all that. And indeed I had a stab at part of it once: http://pitchfork.com/features/poptimist/7865-poptimist-33/

  9. 34
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    (but also the first sentence is me dicking about and trying to misdirect, whereas w/Curtis it’s usually a fair summary)

  10. 35
    Gavin Wright on 15 Jan 2014 #

    If you’d have asked me in 1996 who my favourite band was, I’d have said the Chemical Brothers, without hesitation. I was 15 and knew next to nothing about dance culture or psychedelia or hip-hop but their music was a route into all of these things and more. When ‘Setting Sun’ came out it felt like they were on a roll following the first album and the ‘Loops of Fury’ EP and I was over the moon when it reached #1 (especially as it replaced ‘BAT’ at the top).

    It’s one of their more abrasive tracks (and it sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time) but it’s those divebombing screeches and thundering drums that provide the pop hooks rather than, as Tom notes, Noel’s vocal melody.

    As for the Beatles, I liked them at the time but was only familiar with the singles and my mum’s cassettes of Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. When I eventually heard ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ about three years later I was surprised by the similarity but it didn’t really diminish my enjoyment of ‘Setting Sun’ at all – I still think it’s an inspired and distinctively ’90s take on the original idea.

    So this is a (9) for me too – ‘Life Is Sweet’ with Tim Burgess (as mentioned by anto #5) would be a (10), for what it’s worth.

  11. 36
    thefatgit on 15 Jan 2014 #

    I come to one of my favourite #1′s of the ’90s, delighted by the critical consensus of the comments so far.

    What made The Chemical Brothers stand out from Prodigy and Underworld and your F*t B*y Sl*m was the sheer depth of their sonic architecture. Not only this track, but most of “Dig Your Own Hole” was absolutely chock full of wonderful noise. And it wasn’t overloaded or laden down with superfluous bleeps or burps, but interwoven, rich in texture. The way the dischordant parts of “Setting Sun” feel as natural as the dischordant parts of Peter Brotzmann’s “Machine Gun” and as equally disturbing and unnatural as “The Amine β Ring” better known to us as Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”. The constant drone that acts as glue and holds it all together, is the looped sample from “Tomorrow Never Knows”. If Rosie of this parish is present, did you have “Setting Sun” in mind when you asserted more than once on Popular that what we come to know as dance music, post-Jack Your Body, began with TNK?. To some extent I think your assertion is correct, but it feels like you’re using TNK as some sort of straw-man to insist that any dance music post-JYB could never be as good. That’s the point where I tend to disagree.

    And “Setting Sun” wasn’t even the best track on DYOH. That accolade, IMVHO, went to the aforementioned “Elektrobank”. Had that particular track made it to the top, I would be telling anyone who cared to listen that “this goes to 11″ to paraphrase Nigel Tufnel. Why? Not just the Spike Jonze video, which is excellent btw, but the psychnado of bass that sucks the unwary listener off the planet and deposits what’s left of them in an A&E ward somewhere to the left of the Cat’s Eye Nebula.

  12. 37
    lonepilgrim on 15 Jan 2014 #

    the processed vocal and screeching sounds provide a superficial link back to TNK for me but there are more things that are different than similar to my ears (not a bad thing, by the way) such as the insistent moebius strip of the beat and deep bass (one might describe them as…um..big).
    It’s fascinating how every so often the UK public is prepared to put records at Number 1 such as ‘Paint it Black’, ‘Two Tribes’ and this that make flirting with (self) destruction of one kind or another so compelling.

  13. 38
    swanstep on 15 Jan 2014 #

    @24, Tom. I think you’re digging yourself a hole (heh!) by insisting on glossing the normalization of youthful drug experiences statistically (‘almost all’). That then flatly contradicts your footnote explaining that there weren’t majorities even for pot use. Normalization/becoming part of the mainstream is all that you need, i.e., do write ‘“Tomorrow Never Knows” is built for a world in which youthful drug-taking is a fringe activity. “Setting Sun”, its descendent, parallel or perhaps its tulpa, presumes a world in which that activity’s completely normal.’ (Compare gays and lesbians etc. becoming completely mainstream/normal parts of life while still being small minorities.) There’s no reason at all to believe that the relevant notions of normality can be reduced to purely statistical ideas, in addition a battery of (at least) non-negative attitudes of various sorts are crucial: non-disapproval, non-surprise, lack of animus, etc..

  14. 39
    MikeMCSG on 15 Jan 2014 #

    I saw this as a cynical move by Gallagher to sidestep the potentially lethal “dadrock” label. I’d wager there isn’t much dance music on his iPod. Or maybe it was all a misunderstanding and he thought he’d be helping them re-make the Jam’s fourth album ?

    The music ? Absolutely incomprehensible to me. As it was meant to be.

  15. 40
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Not sure that “almost all” is meant statistically any more than Murray Lachlan Young’s* “Simply Everyone’s Taking Cocaine” is.

    *The Million Pound Poet

  16. 41
    Cumbrian on 15 Jan 2014 #

    39: Or, you know, Noel might have been a teenager/twentysomething during the Acid House era and might actually like dance music.

    Here’s a quote:

    “Every night from ’87 until the band formed in ’91, I was there [at The Haçienda]. That was my life and I loved it.”

    Here’s another:

    “One of the best nights I’ve had out recently was at Coachella. We were up till seven o’clock in the morning, listening to those classic house tunes, going, ‘Why did music have to change? Why couldn’t it have stayed like this?’ Then someone said, It’s because of you! And I was, ‘Yeah, sorry about that’.”

    It is possible for people to like stuff that they don’t or can’t (or don’t feel they have the skills to) produce properly – see Primal Scream’s most successful records. At this point in his career, Noel could do anything – teaming up with the best people he could find to continue his ripping off of The Beatles is not about evading Dadrock, imo. He’s doing something he wants to do in an environment that will make it successful artistically and calling back to stuff that he loved as a kid. The idea that he only listened to The Beatles, The Stones, The Jam, The Smiths and The Pistols is a fairly selective reading – and pretty unfair. I’d wager there is plenty of house music on his iPod, just like there’s a load of stuff on my iPod that I liked when I was a teenager (in fact, almost certainly like the majority of people with an iPod/music collection have lots of music they listened to in their formative years). This is one of the attractions of Noel – he’s a person that behaves much of the time like I imagine loads of people do. He actually is an everyman.

    I don’t know what to say about this record at the minute. I need to order my thoughts on it first I think. I err on the high side of the mark scheme though.

  17. 42
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    From my dim memories Liam is the dance-music hating Gallagher.

  18. 43
    Mark M on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Re 38 etc What’s I remember is that a lot of the people who took drugs were absolutely convinced that everyone in their (my) generation were doing the same. But I suspect that doesn’t make them that unusual – a lot of people seem to believe that everyone else is basically like/doing the same thing as them.

  19. 44
    James BC on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Liam has featured on dance tracks as well, Death In Vegas being one example. That doesn’t mean he didn’t dismiss it in interviews, of course.

  20. 45
    Cumbrian on 15 Jan 2014 #

    43: Ha. Fits very well with my comment on something totally different #41. Of course, I could be talking rubbish there about what people have on their iPods – but it feels intuitively right, whereas I never really bought into the idea that everyone was doing drugs when I was a teenager.

  21. 46
    Cumbrian on 15 Jan 2014 #

    44: The Liam DiV track warrants listening to in that case, because, to my ear, Scorpio Rising sounds more like latter day Oasis than anything that could be played in a dance nightclub.

  22. 47
    mapman132 on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Wonderfully bizarre and wonderfully disturbing at the same time, I’d give this 8/10. It’s worth noting that this is one of those songs that I don’t know that I’ve ever heard outside of the context of its video. I wonder if it would have the same effect without the visuals.

    BTW, anyone know who the girl in the video is? Is it just me, or do Chemical Brothers videos tend to have female protagonists?

    This was the CB’s only Hot 100 hit, peaking at #80. Not that their later music has been completely ignored over here, however. Their remaining bunny got radio play and I’ve seen at least 3 or 4 of their later videos on MTV and other channels. The CB track most Americans would recognize, even if they don’t realize it, would have to be “Galvanize” due to its use in beer commercials and NFL promos.

  23. 48
    Doctor Casino on 15 Jan 2014 #

    An interesting read, this thread. This song never went anywhere in the US – dance music of this sort was fringier, and Oasis didn’t have anywhere near the star power required to push this to the fore. I heard it once or twice on alt-rock radio and that was it. I think I heard “Let Forever Be” more than this!

    So, in a world where it’s not an “event” or a generational landmark, does it do anything? Well, it is compellingly energetic and noisy, and there are some super cool sounds that do linger in the ear a bit. The guest vocal is lousy, the video is cool. I’d probably give it a 4 or 5 – listenable and interesting, just doesn’t stick with me.

  24. 49
    Doctor Casino on 15 Jan 2014 #

    (Oh – but their next one, that registered! Bunny ahoy.)

  25. 50
    MikeMCSG on 15 Jan 2014 #

    #41 He wasn’t keen on Jay-Z doing Glastonbury was he ? But yeah it’s a good point that people usually have broader tastes than their normal output suggests. That was just my ( biased – I never liked Oasis ) take at the time.

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