19
Feb 14

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS – “Block Rockin’ Beats”

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#763, 5th April 1997

blockrock “Chemical Beats”, “Dust Up Beats”, “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”… “Block Rockin’ Beats” is the latest (and joint last) in a Chemical Brothers naming convention that plays up functionality – a beat is something designed to be used, after all. But used for what? What was “big beat”, anyway?

One thing it wasn’t was hip-hop – where the idea of “a beat” as a hand-tooled studio creation, rather than something a rhythm section puts down in real-time, comes from. Hip-hop beats typically exist to be given to others: a genre that is so often about coping with and beating material circumstances dramatizes that in the most direct way possible, with a rapper proving their mastery over someone’s production choices.

Of course, that isn’t all hip-hop beats do. The Chemical Brothers came to prominence at a time when instrumental hip-hop was getting more attention than it had since the Grandmaster Flash era – most publications had found plenty of room for DJ Shadow in their 1996 round-ups, a man presenting his moody, head-nodding productions as a purifying moral force in hip-hop. But when the Chemical Brothers do moody, they tend to draft in singers – and the smoky, austere loops of trip-hop have nothing to do with “Block Rockin’ Beats”.

So what is it? Club music, music for dancing – but not music built around a particular groove. “Block Rockin’ Beats” is an itchy-footed track – it’s constantly darting this way and that, clattering to halts, throwing hoots and screeches at its listener. The snatch of Schooly D that gives us the title is a false promise – “Block Rockin’ Beats” hardly settles down to being a beat. It’s working by a different set of rules.

Those rules being, roughly, indie disco rules. To make a very broad and obvious generalisation – people dancing to, say, house music are responding to the groove; people dancing to indie music are responding to their familiarity with the song. A rhythmic instrumental track designed to be played to an indie crowd is cut off from the obvious verse-chorus structure that encourages familiarity, but it can fill the gap by packing itself brimful of incident and riding on a big riff. This is what “Block Rockin’ Beats” does, and why it’s such a good time. Every funny noise or breakdown is a big, obvious cue to a crowd used to big, obvious, chorus-shaped cues. You can take the approach too far and end up with a clown car of a track, but it’s a good approach: I’m an indie dancer myself, and can testify that it works.

We’ve been here before, long ago. This same conclusion – sell a rhythmic instrumental track by keeping people distracted – is the same one Jet Harris and Tony Meehan reached back in 1961. “Block Rockin’ Beats” comes out of a different and more raucous world (with a different version of “Apache”, for starters) but obeys the same principles as “Diamonds”. Maybe it is all ‘dance music’, after all.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    mapman132 on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Oops, my comment at #23 was directed at #21, not #20. Too late to edit now I guess.

  2. 27
    admin on 19 Feb 2014 #

    ADMIN point. This issue where people refer to previous comments by number can be scuppered (as likely in mapman’s case here) by the ‘tweetback’ system. It’s inserting tweets it finds linking to the post but puts it in the comment stream based on the time the tweet was made , which can be up to an hour before.

    Should we a) change it so it adds tweetbacks on the end of the current comment stream b) pull them out of the comment stream and treat them more like blog “trackbacks” (as seen on the home page), c) care less?

  3. 28
    Andrew Farrell sent back from the future on 19 Feb 2014 #

    B) in the absence of “cast them into a pit”

  4. 29
    Tom on 19 Feb 2014 #

    I’m not sure they’re working really – mind you I have freakytrigger set up as an alert on twitter anyway, such is my vanity.

  5. 30
    Alan not logged in on 19 Feb 2014 #

    so somewhere between b and c then

  6. 31
    Chelovek na lune on 19 Feb 2014 #

    b)

  7. 32
    thefatgit on 19 Feb 2014 #

    b) sounds fair

  8. 33
    admin on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Right then – they’ll go into the trackback ghetto from now on. We get more via tweets than blog trackbacks so that might have more of a turnover which might be nice

  9. 34
    Cumbrian on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Listening to this a few times over the last few days, I had it all planned out – that as I described Setting Sun as a space battle, this was a more like a foot chase through a near future, dystopian industrial underground, with the screeches and effects mimicking machinery that people are running around and so on. The idea of it being background music fits, but for me more as a soundtrack to events rather than a bed for promoting some new show or car.

    Then Billy pointed out @16 that this is another one where listening on Spotify means you don’t get the single edit and I dutifully went off to Youtube to pick it up. Gutted – all the things that I thought were my ideas are basically lifted from the video. I have no memory of ever watching it – but I feel like I must have done and have thus been primed to think this. It’s either that or I have a very similar view of the song to the director of the video (and I don’t consider myself particularly creative, so I discounted this in favour of my having been primed: on the other hand, the director might not be very good…).

    The single edit stomps all over the longer version by cutting to the chase immediately rather than having that atmospheric section at the front and by getting out in good time, rather than being repetitious as Izzy points out. I can’t imagine dancing to it at all but it’s still good for me as a jumping off point for my mind to take a cinematic wander. That said, it’s nowhere near as good as Setting Sun and I’d probably prefer to listen to Tori Amos/AVH than this. Good enough to vote for at the end of the year but not much more I think.

  10. 35
    iconoclast on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Sorry, but no amount of gushing about “big beats” or “the future of music” is going to make me like this; it’s yet another example of the arrangement of clever-sounding noises which increasingly came to be relied on to hide the lack of imagination everywhere else. I got bored of it after less than a minute, severely annoyed after less than two, and gave up before it finished. THREE.

  11. 36
    Mark M on 19 Feb 2014 #

    For me, this felt like a story that had been interrupted and now resumed – the cut and paste music that had picked up from Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel and had continued during the ’80s with Steinski and then found a British wing with Coldcut, M/A/R/R/S, S’Express and Bomb The Bass, whose Beat Dis is surely the template for much of the Chemical Brothers’ work, and Block Rockin’ Beats in particular. That whole story seemed to have been disrupted by acid house, and the sense that people taking E didn’t want music with so many jagged edges and indeed musical jokes (as opposed to awful, awful drugs puns).

    As for the bigger, rockier beats, I think Rick Rubin’s production for LL Cool J and, as mentioned above, the awesome din of Schoolly D and Code Money’s early stuff, probably has as much to do with it as any direct rock legacy (for the inkie-reading members of the British generation that hit its teens in 1983, big rock drums weren’t necessarily part of the musical background – think of The Jesus And Mary Chain or The Sisters Of Mercy for how little the drummer was respected in certain circles in that era).

    Anyway, so I love Block Rockin’ Beats – I might just be the target audience.

  12. 37
    AMZ1981 on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Firstly Tom’s piece on Setting Sun inspired me to invest in a copy of Dig Your Own Hole, almost seventeen years after the fact. That first single has aged better, something which surprised me.

    The problem with this single, in the context of this blog, is that it doesn’t feel like a number one. The 1-8 fall noted earlier made it the third one week chart topper to plummet straight out of the top five in 1997 but this was the biggest number one fall since Iron Maiden in 1991.

  13. 38
    ciaran on 19 Feb 2014 #

    It’s got Billy Mitchell in the video as a copper! Like Don’t leave me this way in 1986 with the police invading a dance party except its 1997.

    Not much to say about this. It sounded a lot more exciting back then than it does now.Pales in comparison to Setting Sun. Not helped afterwards maybe by being used as music in sporting circles,tv background music, or a sort of soundtrack to computer games. That said still enjoyable in small doses. Like Leave Home one of the more quieter offerings from the group. 7

  14. 39
    Garry on 20 Feb 2014 #

    I never liked it at the time, and I wasn’t sold on the Chemical Brothers until Star Guitar. I was more a drum n bass/ambient/weird end of house person back then. I was a fan of tension between the drone and the beat. People like Spring Heel Jack and Woob and Future Sound of London and so on and so forth.

    The Chemical Brothers build and bash and bang didn’t interest me. Block Rockin’ Beats sounded like one of those cut-and-paste jobs I often heard at the time on albums with the word Dope in the title. I felt a lot of these these tracks (not all) lacked something, or maybe they had too much and this made them drag.

    Star Guitar is all beat versus drone tension and I love it.

  15. 40
    weej on 20 Feb 2014 #

    Some fair points from Tom here about the indie disco, an institution I spent a great deal of time in and which I have much more mixed feelings about. Coming late to the world of proper clubbing, I still hold no nostalgia for indie dancing – it seems like a polite version of a mosh or an awkward version of a club dance.

    I enjoy Block Rockin’ Beats from a distance, but it doesn’t seem to suit either club or home listening, so I rarely listen to it in practice. “Out Of Control” and “It Began In Africa” are much better club tracks than this, and not from much later.

  16. 41
    glue_factory on 20 Feb 2014 #

    A popular drug of choice at the Heavenly Social, where you could find the genesis of this track, was poppers, which may explain the difference in feel to the housier club records we’ve encountered here. In some ways it reminds me of Happy Hardcore, with its endless peaks, troughs and lurches, as if you were on some extreme roller-coaster at Alton Towers.

  17. 42
    Rory on 20 Feb 2014 #

    Part of me was thinking that this must have been like “Breathe”, a much bigger hit in Australia than its predecessor, because this feels more ubiquitous to me; but no, it’s just me. This reached number 28 in Oz and charted for 5 weeks; “Setting Sun” peaked at 27 and charted for 9. Dig Your Own Hole reached number three on our album charts, though, and Come With Us hit number one, so we didn’t mind a bit of Chems.

    “Block Rockin’ Beats” was the key track on DYOH for me, a manifesto of sorts, and as effective an album opener as almost any they’ve made. I say “almost” because I still can’t go past the duo of “Come With Us” and “It Began in Afrika” as my favourite stretch of Chemical Brothers, although “Hey Boy Hey Girl” comes close; any of those would have scored a ten from me.

    This I was going to give nine, but I think I’ve temporarily overdosed on it since we discussed “Setting Sun”, because today it feels like an 8.

  18. 43
    hectorthebat on 20 Feb 2014 #

    Sample watch:

    The bass line is from “The Well’s Gone Dry” by The Crusaders. The drums are from “Changes” by Bernard Purdie and “Got Myself a Good Man” by Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers. Lyrics are from “Gucci Again” by Schooly D. Other bits are from “Live Convention ’82 (Side A)” by DJ Grand Wizard Theodore.

  19. 44
    Patrick Mexico on 20 Feb 2014 #

    It’s just noise. It’s all crash bang wallop. You can’t tell what they’re saying. And is one of them a man or a lady? 4.

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