19
Feb 14

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS – “Block Rockin’ Beats”

Popular48 comments • 6,417 views

#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.

7

Comments

  1. 1
    To Mewing! (@tomewing) on 19 Feb 2014 #

    “Big beat – what was all that about, eh?” http://t.co/YITxMM1V7r [Popular entry]

  2. 2
    To Mewing! (@tomewing) on 19 Feb 2014 #

    “Big beat – what was all that about, eh?” http://t.co/YITxMM1V7r [Popular entry]

  3. 3
    flahr on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Funky cool but, er, suffers a bit from coming directly after “Setting Sun” on the singles comp, meaning I have probably listened to the first ten seconds and then skipped back far more times than I have listened to the full thing.

    It is good though, especially the bit where it goes all screechy just over one and a half minutes in. And it’s a monumentally great title, which I always appreciate.

  4. 4
    Doctor Casino on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Now this is what I call a number one! Guess it makes me an indie disco kid (as if I didn’t already know) but I loved, and still love this. In 1997 it absolutely proclaimed the future of music and probably the death of rock and roll as I knew it. Of course, I was a teenager, ignorant of the long roots of this kind of thing and easily susceptible to magazine hype. Still, “electronica” seemed like pretty good news. In 2014, it still kicks ass, all sharp elbows punching its way in and out of the track, seemingly born to soundtrack particularly vivid and dynamic MP3 visualization plugins, which of course had yet to be invented. Beep bomp, bomp boop, I give this a 7 or an 8 easy.

  5. 5
    lonepilgrim on 19 Feb 2014 #

    this reminded me of ‘Pump up the Volume’ in it’s sense of acceleration – also bits of KLF as well – so plenty of ‘Indie Disco’ signifiers I guess. I like your distinction between that and other more groove based ‘Dance’ music although whether I could be so discerning out on the floor I’m not sure

  6. 6
    mapman132 on 19 Feb 2014 #

    I have a vague memory of my then-window on the UK chart James Masterton openly hating this one (unusual for his chart reviews of the time). This may or may not be reason in itself to like it ;) Although it never made the Hot 100, it did get airplay on US alternative stations. In fact it feels like it I’ve heard it more over the years than I’ve heard “Setting Sun”. That said, I don’t like it quite as much as “Setting Sun”: SS felt more coherent as a song whereas this was more a collection of beats. But I guess that’s the point – it’s right there in the title. What the heck, I’ll give it 6/10.

  7. 7
    Alan Connor on 19 Feb 2014 #

    My primary association with Big Beat is asking the guy in Chalkys Records in Oxford about a 12″* and hearing “Well, I love it but I’m famous for loving anything on the Wall of Sound label. Famous with my girlfriend, that is.”

    * I was a perhaps anomalous indie-h8or who bought enough Big Beat to now have a once-played Bentley Rhythm Ace double-platter knocking around.

  8. 8
    swanstep on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Like Born Slippy (Nuxx), Block-rocking beats was all over ‘modern radio’ formats in the US – the biggest ’90s Chemicals radio hit there by a mile I’d say. For me, the first 90 seconds of the track is a real tonic (and *really* was in 1997 when said radio formats were kind of mired in Bush and sub-par final Soundgarden offerings) but after that it quickly gets dull, enough so that I’m not normally inclined to listen to the end. Still, sometimes a great intro and basic sound palette is enough to make something unforgettable; sometimes half a very good record still gets you a (being generous):
    7

  9. 9
    Ed on 19 Feb 2014 #

    One of my favourite Chems tunes, purely enjoyable for all the reasons Tom identifies.

    They consciously positioned it in indie-dance tradition, too: “sampling” ‘Coup’ by 23 Skidoo the same way ‘Setting Sun’ “samples” ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.

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

  10. 10
    Ed on 19 Feb 2014 #

    The missing link between The Shadows and The Chemical Brothers:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WY-Z6wm6TMQ

  11. 11
    taDOW on 19 Feb 2014 #

    ‘people dancing to, say, house music are responding to the groove; people dancing to indie music are responding to their familiarity with the song.’ – boy is this otm. what strikes me now is how quickly the golden age of hip-hop became canonized and filed away on a book shelf, how quickly something that had seemed ridiculously fresh (lol ‘freesshh’) and revolutionary in 87/88/89 could in ten years appeal to a reactionary impulse. like shadow though i loved the hell out of it and big beat in general anyway though most of it hasn’t aged well for me at all (exceptions tend to be the more psychedelic gazey stuff – ‘setting sun’, ‘private psychedelic reel’, ‘electrobank’, ‘star guitar’ – this might be due to just a personal weakness on my part though), most of the time when i encounter one of the big flashy big beat numbers of yesteryear i’m entranced for the first thirty seconds and then bored stiff by the end. as dance music it was an awful precedent also, rooted in rock instead of r&b, it didn’t swing and tended to promote just the worst actual dancing. this model of dance music seems doomed to the same tedium lightened up by one good LOUD joke – hello skrillex – the kind of ‘fun’ you encounter in michael bay’s transformers movies, and a similar ratio of greatness:whole. if it had a monopoly on what it does well it might be excusable. but it doesn’t. 6.

  12. 12
    Garry on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Where I was in Oz Big Beat meant the Chemical Brothers and Propellerheads – and I preferred the latter. As a movement I mostly heard of it on an ambient radio show called the Digital Dream as sent over to us from University Radio Bath – but even here it meant the Bros and P-heads.

    How big was the movement if there was a movement? (Not much of the Wall of Sound catalogue seems to come our way.)

  13. 13
    Matt DC on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Rooted in rock instead of R&B is an odd dividing line to draw here when you consider how much dance music (including some that will trouble this blog) is rooted in neither.

  14. 14
    Izzy on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Gosh, I had fond memories of this one, which have been completely dissipated by a single relisten. This is really lame. Some wag described our last Spice Girls number as incidental TV music – well that’s what this has in spades, you just don’t notice because everything’s mixed for maximum impact rather than for inoffense.

    Impact is its only trick, and yet even that effectively comes down to a single tool – volume, compression, shouting, whatever you call those dynamics. Other than the sounds – and I’m counting distortion as a symptom of volume, not a trick of its own – there’s nothing else to hold attention.

    There’s no melody that isn’t immediately repeated, and everything gets repeated in the most predictable way – eight of this, four of that, double it up on the fourth repeat if you must. Change the key, but change it back down four bars later.

    And the length! By 2:30 this track has done everything it can do – shouty sample I, shouty sample II, megavolume breakdown – yet we’ve got 2:30 still to go so I guess we’re doing it all again.

    In short, there are no surprises. The intro to Firestarter, with its shifting beat, is aeons ahead of this. Maybe their dancefloors weren’t made for such subtleties – though imo dancefloors can cope with a lot more – but I’m marking this for listening.

    It’s really poor. A Rattle And Hum of a single. (2)

  15. 15
    Kat but logged out innit on 19 Feb 2014 #

    They’ve been using this a lot in the BBC’s Olympic curling coverage.

  16. 16
    Billy Hicks on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Even the Chemical Brothers were somewhat taken aback when this went to number 1, believing that they’d had their moment in the Sun already. Certainly its chart run of 1-8-20-34-53-67-69 indicates it sold most of its copies in that first week.

    To me this is just as good as their previous, and for those who find it a little repetitive, similar to ‘Breathe’ I’d recommend tracking down the 3:24 radio edit which appears on one of the CD singles, the video and Now 36. Not something I can easily sum up why I like it, in general it’s just three minutes of glorious 90s big-beat awesome. In an ideal world we’d see them again in 1999, 2002 and 2005, but sadly it’s goodbye to the Chems from hereon.

  17. 17
    Mark G on 19 Feb 2014 #

    I’m genuinely surprised people prefer ‘Setting Sun’ to this

  18. 18
    leveret on 19 Feb 2014 #

    I like the idea of this reaching number 1 more than I like the actual record. It has a rather shrill and brittle sound which makes it quite a harsh piece of music to listen to. It is probably the kind of thing that sounds best played loud for maximum impact, mind you. The best bit is probably the frenetic pile-up of looped beats which occurs just after the 3 minute mark on the album version. I would probably give it 6 out of 10.

  19. 19
    @jbc_here on 19 Feb 2014 #

    @ChartUpdate What did you have against Block Rockin’ Beats? See comment 6 here: http://t.co/uznuaxrARv

  20. 20
    anto on 19 Feb 2014 #

    I would suggest that this is head-clearing where ‘Setting Sun’ was head-twisting. I don’t know the first thing about beats technology.

  21. 21
    James Masterton on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Hello Mapman132 at #6. At the time I was in this phase of insularly hating on all dance music. The exact words I wrote were:

    “An instant and perhaps inevitable chart-topper, but only by a whisker. As the release of ‘Setting Sun’ last October proved, the Chemical Brothers now command the kind of following that can propel their singles to the very top of the charts upon release, clearly even without the vocal contribution of Noel Gallagher. Vocals for this single (such as they are) come from Schooly D but by and large the single is a perfect example of the powerful industrial rhythms that for some reason have most journalists falling over their feet to praise them, except this one who finds their records a cacophonous mess, devoid of all musical content. It becomes their second Number One single by a margin of less than 1,000 copies and given the somewhat transient appeal of such a hardcore single, a return to the top for the Spice Girls is by no means out of the question next week.”

    14 years on I still wouldn’t choose to listen to it, but I’ll cheerfully explain its merits.

  22. 22
    Andy M on 19 Feb 2014 #

    I loved this at the time but now it seems like a halfway house between ‘Setting Son’ and ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’, which is a lot more fun than this but won’t be troubling Popular. Like Flahr said it outstays its welcome on the singles comp.

  23. 23
    mapman132 on 19 Feb 2014 #

    #20 Wasn’t expecting to hear from you directly, but thanks for digging out those old comments – looks like my memory was correct. I was a regular reader of your reviews from the early rec.music.misc days up until well into the 2000’s. It pretty much was my window into the UK charts during those days. Any thoughts to becoming a regular commenter here?

  24. 24
    thefatgit on 19 Feb 2014 #

    It makes me wonder what Tom & Ed began with. Was it the Bernard Purdie drum lift or the 23 Skidoo bass lift? Or was it the Schoolly D lift from “Gucci Again”? If anyone had a call to say they helped shape the big beat sound, it would be Schoolly’s early collaborator, DJ Code Money. His beats on Schoolly’s first 2 albums were the most expansive and all-encompassing in Hip Hop. Listen to “P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?)” or “Gucci Time”, all heavy echoes and laden with effects, with just a simple cymbal sample holding it together. Grittier than Eric B & Rakim, less political than Scott La Rock & K.R.S. One, but still more Gangsta than either of them.

    It’s tempting to imagine both Tom & Ed enjoyed playing with Lego as kids. And their approach to a track like BRB constructed like Lego; this goes here, that goes there and it all clicks into place. It’s not fluid, or if it was fluid, it set like concrete. It feels like a dance track, ie: you can dance to it, but it’s so much more solid, rocky, so much more er, metal (not that this has anything to do with flipping horns or banging your head). It’s loud and in your face, though. It’s tempting also to lump this in with Front Line Assembly, Nitzer Ebb and Coil and call it out-and-out industrial, but BRB lacks that strictness, you’d associate with such acts. Those beats for all their “bigness” are fragile and have to be held together with more abstract noise. The sound effects and scratches and muted explosions reflect urban conflict. Barricades and petrol bombs. The sounds of shards of shrapnel cutting through flesh and bone. It’s music to riot to. It’s apocalyptic. But it doesn’t reflect any tangible threat. It’s not a “Two Tribes”. It’s not reflecting on a generation lost to war. It’s not a “When The Tigers Broke Free”. It’s directionless and anarchic. It’s probably one of the oddest #1 singles of the 90s. I love it.

  25. 25
    Chelovek na lune on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Not really my genre, and I’m not even sure I have the vocabulary to meaningfully discuss it, but I kind of like it. (But yes, I do see the potential role as “incidental TV music” as well as dancefloor thing.) It grabs my pop as well as more indie and dance sensibilities, even if a bit less obviously than the (also pretty decent) “Galvanize”

  26. 26
    mapman132 on 19 Feb 2014 #

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

  27. 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?

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

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

  29. 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.

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

    so somewhere between b and c then

  31. 31
    Chelovek na lune on 19 Feb 2014 #

    b)

  32. 32
    thefatgit on 19 Feb 2014 #

    b) sounds fair

  33. 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

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. 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.

  45. 45
    Chinny Reckon on 1 Apr 2015 #

    @9- ‘Setting Sun’ does not sample ‘Tomorrow never knows’. It was proven in court that they didn’t sample it.

  46. 46
    glue_factory on 1 Apr 2015 #

    @45 – there are quotation marks around the word sample. Comment #9 is agreeing with you

  47. 47
    Chinny Reckon on 16 Dec 2018 #

    @46-

    Well, if comment 9 is agreeing with me, comment 9 makes no sense.

    “They consciously positioned it in indie-dance tradition, too: “sampling” ‘Coup’ by 23 Skidoo the same way ‘Setting Sun’ “samples” ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.”

    So they consciously made ‘Block Rockin..’ and ‘Setting Sun’ as indie dance tracks by not sampling these two records?

    I was under the impression that the quotation marks meant that they interpolated these records (as opposed to a direct sample), but that’s not really true either- in fact the ‘Block Rockin…’ bassline is a Crusaders sample.

  48. 48
    Chinny Reckon on 16 Dec 2018 #

    @44-

    “is one of them a man or a lady?”

    Yes.

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