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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. 51
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    #48 It’s probably worth pointing out that it WASN’T really an “event” as such here – it was news because Oasis were news, and it got to #1 on the strength of that, but it wasn’t a big boundary-crossing hit: it’s a fanbase number one as much as anything we’ll see over the next few years is. I’ve spent time on it because I like it, and because it seems significant in terms of some of the bigger themes of the blog (‘nostalgia’ etc) – but there wasn’t that much of an ‘event’ context to miss.

  2. 52
    Mark M on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Re 47: Emilia Fox, innit?

  3. 53
    Alex 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.

    +1. This was the moment of discovery for me – that and Black Grape. Then Daft Punk “Da Funk” came out the year after and kicked it up a gear.

    (It was only later I realised I’d been absorbing masses of early 90s classics via radio for years because I knew all the words.)

  4. 54
    Alex on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Has anyone mentioned “Chris” Evans failing to play this on the R1 breakfast show? Well I will.

  5. 55
    Rory on 15 Jan 2014 #

    #51 Ah, that’s helpful. Sorry, I think I was the one who first suggested/supposed it was an event. That’s probably me reading the “UK Number 1s in the 1990s” page countless times and going “don’t know that one, don’t know that one, don’t know that one, THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS, YESSS!” and assuming that the impact of such a track reaching number one must have been considerable.

    On the other hand, it must have been. Five number one albums in a row from here on! An event in hindsight, then.

  6. 56
    weej on 15 Jan 2014 #

    #39 – I’m usually the last person to defend Noel Gallagher, but even I can’t deny that his interest in dance music is sincere. For further evidence look at his favourite music of 2013 – “Disclosure: “Truly fucking amazing.” …describes Daft Punk’s song Get Lucky as “effortless and brilliant” Having said this, his contribution here is not important at all (and we’d see see what happens when the Chems let him truly dominate a song a bit later with the much inferior ‘Let Forever Be’) – the acoustic live cover version at #4 really lays out clearly how much the hook = everything he’s not doing.

    So, a couple of flaws, but I still could not in good conscience give this anything less than a 10. It’s not a question of a moment or a cultural context, it’s simply a shocking, thrilling, life-changing noise – a piece of music that still stands out sonically after nearly 18 years. This seems as plain as the appeal of Breakfast At Tiffany’s seems incomprehensible.

    NB: It’s not my favourite track by them either – that’s (easily) Out Of Control. Star Guitar is in the top five. Pointing this out as there seems to be an element of “the early stuff was better” creeping in and want to respectfully disagree.

    One other thing – were they ever really “big beat”? I’d associate that term much more with another act we’ll see fairly soon, and there seems to be a clear divide between druggy and beery – with The Chems on one side, F***** S*** on the other and The Prodigy and Born Slippy (not really other Underworld) straddling the gap.

  7. 57
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    “Let Forever Be” has one of my favourite videos ever – gimmicky, trippy and nostalgic (for 80s TOTP viewers) at the same time. I also like the song a lot – again, its the riff, not Noel, which is doing a lot of the work, but he’s not bad on it.

    Favourite Chemical Brothers tracks: “The Private Psychedelic Reel”, this one, “Music: Response”, “Galvanize”, “My Elastic Eye”, “Song For The Siren”…. how do I rate the other bunny? Wait and see.

  8. 58
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Their last album (not a #1) got a lot of “return to form” comments, and was a good start-to-finish listen in a ‘mature electronica’ kind of a way but it feels like their pop ear deserted them a while back.

  9. 59
    weej on 15 Jan 2014 #

    “Music: Response” and “Song to the Siren” are the others in my top 5.

  10. 60
    glue_factory on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Do their remixes count…if so I’d have to mention their version of Bomb The Bass’ Bug Powder Dust.

  11. 61
    Rory on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Wikipedia seems to think so, weej @56 – it quotes a certain Mr Cook:

    “The name came from our club, the Big Beat Boutique, which I’m tremendously proud of. I always thought the formula of big beat was the breakbeats of hip-hop, the energy of acid house, and the pop sensibilities of the Beatles, with a little bit of punk sensibility, all rolled into one. People like the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers — we saw it as very similar to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who grew up listening to soul records and blues records and then sold an English version of it back to America.”

  12. 62
    Cumbrian on 15 Jan 2014 #

    #57: Michel Gondry that video right? It’s a really great seemingly lo-fi kind of kaleidoscope of a video that one. Gondry’s best videos using these sort of building patterns though are, for me, Star Guitar (on first viewing, it took me about a minute to see what was going on and then I wanted to watch it again immediately) and Kylie’s Come Into My World, which is just fantastic.

  13. 63
    weej on 15 Jan 2014 #

    #61 Should have checked there first I suppose! I just associate the two with very different clubbing experiences, I have no ownership over the name of course.

    #62 For some reason I don’t really like the video for Star Guitar though I love the track and have been imagining things going past the window in time to music since I was very young indeed. I’d just like everything to be fitted to the music rather than just the larger things – and I don’t know if the track suits the idea as well as some others would.

  14. 64
    Cumbrian on 15 Jan 2014 #

    It’s not psychedelia updated for the modern age. It’s sci-fi in excelsis, with warp engines brrrr-ing around under it all, starfighters firing lasers at one another in a great squawking, dive-bombing run, shattering something into a millions squiggling shards and Noel Gallagher calling out from the bottom of the enormous gravity well surrounding the supermass of the drums and bass-line. And that’s just the first 45 seconds.

    Later, the drums drop out and the voice comes from across hyperspace, as we realise that since that opening 45 seconds, we’ve been zooming around the edge of the battle before the engines spiral down and the battle restarts, with the lasers laying waste to everything in sight – while all the while the voice intones “I tell you now, it’s just too bad” sympathising with the victims of this crushing onslaught.

    It’s terrifying and thrilling and awe-inspiring and beautiful. Like an explosion. I can’t find fault with it. 10.

  15. 65
    Cumbrian on 15 Jan 2014 #

    63: Hmm. That’s interesting. I always struggled with Star Guitar in seeing the big things lining up as well but could see lots of little things lining up with ease (there’s what looks like a signal switcher or an electricity box right next to the window during the middle when they go through the town for instance). I was trying to work out which elements of the track the hills and the trees in the distance lined up with and I couldn’t quite get it. I think that’s why I love it so much – it’s like a puzzle crossed with a Magic Eye that I think should fit more than it does and i can’t get it quite right. Maddening but something that I always watch intently whenever I see it.

  16. 66
    Izzy on 15 Jan 2014 #

    I adore it, it’s the best. Always felt it was a shame SG was such a niche track, it deserved to be hitched to a worldwide no.1.

    I remember once listening to Madonna (sadly I don’t recall the track), facing backwards on a train, when I experienced a little period of about twenty seconds where pylons, oil tanks, wagons and so on – and a big stadium looming overhead – flicked past in perfect time. It was breathtaking.

  17. 67
    weej on 15 Jan 2014 #

    #66 – In 2001/2002 pills always seemed to be laced with opiates (why I don’t know, momentarily cheaper I suppose) and SG perfectly captures the woozy euphoria I consequently associate that time with. So a niche track sums it up nicely, and I can’t imagine what I’d make of it if it didn’t have that almost physical association.

  18. 68
    Chelovek na lune on 15 Jan 2014 #

    I suspected that I would disagree with Tom about this one, and dissent from the general consensus, too…

    This is a track I’ve tried to love, but love cannot be forced! I can *appreciate * what the track does and I think I have some understanding of where its appeal, to those who like it, lies: the craft, the layering, the influences, the crossovers between big beat, Northern indie, Tomorrow Never Knows….but it leaves me cold. As synthetic cubism generally does, too.

    Maybe it is just because I’ve never heard this is a “dancing context” (that would be living in small, conservative, remote rural town halfway up Scotland at the time for you). I do think the Chemical Brothers created some fine tracks (some rather less fine ones among them too, though): they had great skill – I wonder if the label of a more “grown-up Prodigy” fits: it does seem to me like rave (etc) music for adults, rather than 17 year olds meeting around the M25…

    But…sorry, I find this essentially a fairly horrible wail with unattractive vocals, a few interesting riffs (both of music and voice), but…well, as a few people have suggested, really an album track rather than a single.

    5.

  19. 69
    flahr on 15 Jan 2014 #

    #52 iMDB sez you’re right – I admit I thought it was Sarah M-G.

  20. 70
    @DanDigs on 15 Jan 2014 #

    Brilliant, brilliant writing on the life & times of the Chems’ “Setting Sun” –> http://t.co/CrfdsrnX1r via @matoswk75

  21. 71
    Steve Mannion on 15 Jan 2014 #

    I think I managed to hear this just before I heard TNK but both would’ve been new to me at around the same time. I was only a few weeks into my first term at university when this hit the top and luckily had bonded with a DJ and budding producer on my course over a very strong overlap of musical taste and knowledge.

    He mentioned the blatant influence of TNK on SS having been introduced to the former via a Future Sound of London ‘Essential Mix’ the year before. This mix in fact (about 19 mins in, pitched up a bit tho): http://www.mixcloud.com/jahthecat1/future-sound-of-london-essential-mix-04-06-1995/ (broadcast via the miraculous gift of ISDN iirc including Demon-hosted URLs being read out occasionally making it the most mid-90s thing ever perhaps).

    I was delighted by its success as even with the Noel factor it felt more of a surprise than ‘Firestarter’ making #1. And again with a single too fierce for much daytime airplay. And again from another act you would never see on Top Of The Pops. A 9 for me too.

    I strongly disagree with thefatgit @36 re the alleged superiority of the Chems to their co-charting peers however. I think if anything stood them out amongst that crowd was the broader range and nature of influences evident in their sound rather than production craft itself where I do not hear them as more than equal to the others mentioned as album+tour electronic(a) merchants par excellence.

  22. 72
    taDOW on 15 Jan 2014 #

    ‘star guitar’ maybe my fave chem bros now though the video does play a large part. finding out ‘galvanize’ was chem bros was a surprise, they were so far off my (and i thought the world’s) radar it was shocking to find that there profile in the us was higher than ever in a way. casino understates ‘setting sun’s success in the states severely, it drew press attention in ways that virtually no dance tracks had prior (rolling stone spent considerable ink on it) and it was a definite factor along w/ ‘firestarter’ in 1997 being anticipated to be the ‘year of electronica’, it’s profile in the mainstream was comparable to a badmotorfinger single, present definitely but it’s significance lay more as a potential sign of things to come.

  23. 73
    23 Daves on 15 Jan 2014 #

    I’m late to this thread and there’s so little left to add. However, I’m not sure if anyone’s mentioned it already – perhaps it would be stating the obvious – but there were people (me included) who really thought that this potentially heralded Noel Gallagher’s new direction. We thought that “Be Here Now” might be a wild mix of rock classicisms with an updated electronic edge. These things seemed possible in those days. How naive we all were.

    Much as I preferred “Let Forever Be”, this is still a stormingly good single, a fantastic slap around the face. After this, I’d say it’s all downhill for Noel in terms of broader cultural respect, though. He showed us what was possible, then he blew it.

  24. 74
    Tom on 15 Jan 2014 #

    #73 this brings up a question which I’m completely unequipped to answer – how do big Oasis fans rate “Setting Sun”?

  25. 75
    wichitalineman on 16 Jan 2014 #

    The twenty seconds of relief from the Tomorrow Never Knows sample*, beginning at 2.10, is possibly the most avant twenty seconds of any Popular entry to date.

    At the time I was delighted for the Chem Bros that they’d scored a no.1, something unthinkable less than three years earlier when their residency at the Sunday Social, then at the Lord Albany on Great Portland Street, was starting up.

    Tomorrow Never Knows, Jeff Perry’s Love Don’t Come No Stronger and Love Unlimited’s Under The Influence Of Love were the Chems’ three Social end-of-the-nighters, much like Wigan Casino’s I’m On My Way, Time Will Pass You By and Long After Tonight Is All Over. In this respect, Setting Sun (is the title a clue?) felt as if they were saying goodbye to their earlier funnier stuff. Unlike Chemical Beats, the bunnied follow-up, and Hey Boy Hey Girl, I found/find Setting Sun a clear career move** and therefore rather hard to love. Only a 6 for me.

    *not really a Beatles sample, surely. It must have been re-played.

    **they were managed by Heavenly’s accountant, Robert Linnie. Heavenly were convinced they would sign the Chemical Brothers as it seemed their natural home, but Linnie got them a deal with Virgin in ’95. There was never any bad blood between the two camps, just disappointment.

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