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May 14

JAMIROQUAI – “Deeper Underground”

Popular73 comments • 3,201 views

#796, 25th July 1998

jamzilla Another early 90s press darling scores another late 90s number one – except the reaction isn’t “Wow” this time but “what kept you?”. Within a year or two of turning up, Jamiroquai had moved from The Face’s anointed to a bona fide UK best-seller. By 1996, they’d built a solid global audience and were briefly the toast of MTV for “Virtual Insanity”. They were big. But – plenty of airplay notwithstanding – their singles belied their size. That one tremendous video aside, Jamiroquai were a steady presence in pop, never a dominating one.

Or maybe that was just my myopia. They were more fashionable than Simply Red ever were, but they seemed to tick some very similar boxes: decent voice, commendable influences, social concerns, and singers with a tabloid-friendly lifestyle. Something else in common, too: I didn’t like them much. Was it the stylistic lifts – that studied replication of Stevie Wonder in full finger-clicking ecstasy? Not really – except that it forced me to admit I didn’t enjoy that stuff much either. But maybe the choice of that as an inspiration got closer to what bugged me – Jamiroquai’s songs seemed indulgent and baggy, like they’d taken liberated looseness as a bedrock for structure, not as a break out of it.

But here Jay Kay is, finally riding to the top on the back of a giant lizard, and it suits him. “Deeper Underground” takes his band’s characteristic slackness and applies it to paranoia, coming up with an enjoyably un-specific and timely bit of millenarian pop. “I’m going deeper underground, from all the panic that I found” – a nervy, breath-starved guitar line backs Jay Kay up on his decision. The streets aren’t safe, society’s breaking, the breadheads are in charge – it’s the same themes, half a world and two decades away, that animated Kay’s influences. For the 70s soul men he loved, those social problems were the harshest of worldly issues – you wrestled with them every day with no great hope of resolution in this generation, but no opt-out either.

Here they’re the backdrop to a monster movie, and this is the jauntiest of crises. Just as most romcom themes – “Love Is All Around”, say – would suit almost any romcom, “Deeper Underground” does Godzilla proud but could also fit a lot of Hollywood’s late-90s output. Of course it’s the “New York city streets” under threat – where else could it be? It was a happy moment when devastated cities – and the promise of more – were titillation, a flirtation in the direction of some greater fantasised then averted collapse.

And on the popcorn level, “Deeper Underground” delivers the fun, the thrills, the special effects. There’s a ton to enjoy in the music here – the ridiculous loom of the intro, the gorgeous fuzzy texture of the keyboard lines, the heartbeat bass on the middle eight – and Jay Kay is itchy with energy, lunging at the start of every verse. I always felt Jamiroquai fancied themselves as a band with something to say, but here their social conscience is just another bit of widescreen texture, and frankly it works better.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    flahr on 1 Jun 2014 #

    I can EXCLUSIVELY REPORT that a my Dad once sat next to Jay Kay in a pub. He was wearing a hat and absolutely plastered, and the woman he was with* nicked his wallet and ran off while he was in the loo. Jay Kay, that is, not my dad.

    *not Winona Ryder

  2. 52
    Duffer on 1 Jun 2014 #

    It’s a possibility, perhaps, that straight male indie kids (or straight males in general) didn’t like Jamiroquai because, in the 90s at least, the idea of a pop band with a purely hedonistic agenda, fronted by a moderately macho, hot guy who dated (and dumped!) Winona Ryder probably – well, it probably rankled a bit. And it didn’t help that JK was a bit of a twat who used to write songs about dolphins and the ecology but now seemed more interested in fast cars and supermodels. On top of which Jamiroquai songs lack the camp aesthetic that used to be so important in “allowing” the indie kids to like a pop song. Basically I’m saying boys probably had a more of a problem with the image than the songs – because the songs are pretty good! Maybe.

  3. 53
    Andrew Farrell on 2 Jun 2014 #

    I have no idea how to consider Jay Kay ‘moderately macho’!

    It’s possible that some of the key is in the dancing – difficult, intricate, flawlessly executed, and extremely annoying.

    I might also tie p^nk D’s theory above with Alex Macpherson’s view of the UK’s war on excellence – if technically demanding funk jazz is disliked, very good* technically demanding funk jazz is really disliked.

    *cheating here to have ‘good’ mean just ‘good at the technicals’

  4. 54
    wichitalineman on 2 Jun 2014 #

    The origins of the band’s name explain the Jamiroquai problem, I think: Jam (music) and Iroquai (Indian). Jay Kay will think of these as signposts to a) jazz looseness and b) important world issues, but it makes me think of retirees Vera and Norman who called their bungalow Veno.

    “Jay Kay looked like he was enjoying pop stardom too much, while “Mark King gave off the impression he was actually working at an accountancy firm in Hemel Hempstead despite his band’s frequent appearances on Top Of The Pops.” True, but the lack of Jazz Club signposts is something I find endearing about Level 42 (Sukrat… you are not alone).

    It comes as no surprise to hear that Mark King is one of the nicest men in pop. Of course, niceness in pop isn’t necessarily a good thing, but I’d have been hugely disappointed if he’d come up with that caviar and chips line about his bloody car.

  5. 55
    Steve Mannion on 2 Jun 2014 #

    Level 42 actually appeared on The Fast Show as themselves (performing ‘Forever Now’ only to be interrupted by Paul Whitehouse’s “Fancy a pint?”).

    ‘Technical excellence’ doesn’t strike me as a barrier to a wider audience in the UK but perhaps it does depend on the genre.

  6. 56
    tm on 2 Jun 2014 #

    There’s something a bit half-arsed about Jay Kay too: native American headdress and, er, tracky top and jeans, that do?

  7. 57
    weej on 2 Jun 2014 #

    While it doesn’t feel fair to pile on the Jay kay hate any further, we have to mention his professed environmentalism, which at best seemed wooly and rooted in a conservative distrust of science and technology (Virtual Insanity is the worst example of this, it’s basically just Insania with an (admittedly pretty good) funk backing track) and at worst, well, the sheer hypocrisy of being lectured about environmental catastrophe by a man who is the next moment flaunting his collection of sports cars is pretty astonishing in its chutzpah.

  8. 58
    tm on 2 Jun 2014 #

    #55: I think what people dislike is showy technical excellence covering a paucity of ideas or worse destroying enjoyable melodies and rhythms (this is why, I think, a lot people distrust Jazz). A lot of great musicians’ most technical moments are deceptively effortless sounding: if it sounds ‘over technical’, then surely in a sense it’s lacking technique because you can see the strings, see the effort going on: like the difference between a great acting performance that makes you believe in the character and draws you into the moment and a hammy one that makes you think ‘Oscar clip’.

  9. 59
    iconoclast on 2 Jun 2014 #

    #58: to recycle anecdotes from my younger days, a bit like presented with music you’re supposed to admire because the guitarists can play 100 notes per second, but otherwise with no other obvious appeal.

  10. 60
    lonepilgrim on 2 Jun 2014 #

    British audiences are used to rocking from side to side while facing in the same direction watching a band on a stage – we’re not comfortable with music that encourages dancing.

  11. 61
    flahr on 2 Jun 2014 #

    Even rocking from side to side was beyond the miserable hipsters that made up the rest of the Clean Bunny audience at HMV today. You’d think limiting the availability of tickets would mean only diehards showed up, but it actually seems to increase the proportion of dullards who only want to say ‘oh yeah I was somewhere pret-ty underground last night’.

    And the West End and the comedy clubs are dead, dead, dead. This is what austerity does to a nation.

    I don’t know what any of that has to do with Jamiroquai. Guesses on a postcard!

  12. 62
    PurpleKylie on 2 Jun 2014 #

    I have to say that Clean Bunny sounds like a good name for a band. Kinda reminds me of an Estonian indie band called Tenfold Rabbit.

  13. 63
    Chelovek na Lune on 2 Jun 2014 #

    #62, etc. I once saw, at a summer festival in Ljubljana, a Croatian band called the Bambi Molesters (they were less interesting than one might have hoped for). I’d like to think they would deal with anyone here who provokes the bunny.

  14. 64
    Ed on 3 Jun 2014 #

    @43 Talking Heads were critically and (fairly) commercially successful in Britain; first one, then the other. It was a slightly odd form of success, though. ‘Fear of Music’ was the NME’s album of the year in 1979, and then they had their second-biggest UK hit, ‘Once in a Lifetime’, while ‘Remain in Light’ was again loved by the critics. But OIAL, partly because of the video, made them seem like wacky one-hit wonders, of a similar stripe to acts that came later such as the Men Without Hats or Thomas Dolby. That ws certainly my impression, until I picked a cassette of ‘The Name of this Band…’, and I was enraptured. I listened to literally nothing else for the entire summer of 1984 – I was away from home and it was the only tape I had – but I never tired of it.

    Joining the dots to Brit-funk, I remember seeing a pic of Level 42 in which one of them – Mike Lindup? – was wearing a ‘Remain in Light’ T-shirt*, which made me think: “They must be cool; I should check them out.” I was deeply disappointed when I did.

    I would have loved to have liked Level 42: it would have been a great hipster move in my studenty set, where being an Abba fan, for example, was already moving into the mainstream. But I just couldn’t do it. They always seemed be be quite agressively bland.

    * The meaning of the shirt, of course, was “Hey, white funk can be cool, too.” I remember Sting trying a similar tactic, wearing a Beat t-shirt in the video for, IIRC, ‘Don’t Stand Spo Close to Me”.

  15. 65
    Mark G on 3 Jun 2014 #

    I never understood why “Take me to the river” wasn’t a hit: It was catchy as hell, not madly weird, and it had a free 7″ with it with two of their best past tracks. I can only assume that the majority of sales were in ‘alt’ shops

  16. 66
    will on 3 Jun 2014 #

    Re 64: My younger brother is a massive Level 42 fan – to the extent of seeing them over 15 times, buying all their various solo projects, seeing ex-members perform in pubs. He really likes Jamiroquai too. I don’t think he would have regarded either as a ‘hipster’ move. I’m not even sure he knows what the word ‘hipster’ means.

    I’m fairly ambivalent about them. Hot Water was a pretty good single and that’s as far as I’d go really.

  17. 67
    enitharmon on 3 Jun 2014 #

    I can’t remember dancing at a gig, as opposed to an event mainly for dancing with a live band. I went to gigs to see and hear the performer(s), who I expected to actually perform and not jig about while lip-synching. I expect this is a generational thing, or maybe just a reflection of the kind of performers I went to see.

    Of course, there was almost always one lunatic, off his head on something (he was invariably male), who strode to the front and shook violently without any great sense of rhythm…

  18. 68
    Izzy on 3 Jun 2014 #

    66: I always assumed everyone had at least a soft spot for the Level. Their singles are all good and they did lay down some funky cuts on their albums, though that’s as far as I can go right now – I’d like the benefit of the circles your brother moves in.

    Mark and Mike’s handprints are set in the pavement on London’s Denmark St, with a little plaque (south side of the street, three or four doors in from Charing Cross Rd). I always look fondly when passing.

  19. 69
    enitharmon on 3 Jun 2014 #

    I can’t really understand why Talking Heads weren’t huge; they were always the band to look out for in the coming year and never did much outside the band of devoted fans like me, who were already feeling rather out of it. In much the same way Unix was always going to be the next big thing in personal computing but never seemed to catch on outside the world of enthusiasts. Then along came Micro$not, the Simon Cowell of technology!

  20. 70
    Geiger on 3 Jun 2014 #

    I don’t know why I get this feeling, but I really do. And I feel like Jay-Kay is taking a large leaf from Michael Jackson in this album but giving a modern twist to it. It works though for the most part. I enjoy the music even if I do feel like there are to many repeated parts.

  21. 71
    tm on 3 Jun 2014 #

    There was always a touch of Michael Jackson to Jay Kay (mainly the MJ of a mid paced Off The Wall album track) but this brings in a dash of paranoid 90s MJ.

  22. 72
    Garry on 11 Jun 2014 #

    #64 and #69 I can remember Road to Nowhere being big, and it was the song which would get played on commercial radio for years after. But as I moved into the right age bracket I realised Road to Nowhere wasn’t representative and the better years were earlier.

    I later came to Talking Heads after finding out about Eno, which makes One in a Lifetime one of my favourite all-time songs. Strangely The only two albums I’ve heard are Remain In Light and Speaking in Tongues.

  23. 73
    ciaran on 1 Jul 2014 #

    Fascinating comments on this one. Talking Heads to Level 42 to Jamiroquai. What makes popular so brilliant really.

    It’s become de rigeur in recent times to dismiss Jamiroquai, but I always suspected there was a greater fanbase for them than some would think.

    The hats werent part of Jay Kay’s appeal but the fast cars and Adidas Originals certainly were.

    I would liken Jamiroquai’s output to something like Microsoft Operating Systems- Every second one either is a gem or a disappointment.

    I would like Too Young To die as i only knew about from a loan of Now 26 but the Space Cowboy phase passed me by. Virtual Insanity is the one I would love to be discussing here as it my favourite of theirs ( A 9 to go along with Setting sun,Firestarter, Wannabe etc) and along with Cosmic Girl he probably was the one of the most exciting Pop stars amongst people in my school, marking I suppose what was his imperial phase.

    DU was to use the microsoft analogy more Windows 8 than Windows 7.A baffling record and tied to an over hyped film of which there were plenty of in 1998. A most atypical record which you would applaud the idea of but not the execution. One of the lesser of the hits for sure. A 3 or a 4.

    Jay Kay was back in top form with Canned Heat but Little L from 2001 was highly irritating and the Jamiriquai sound had fallen out of favour a bit by then.

    Can remember the 2006 Greatest Hits being heavily promoted and Runaway didnt lack for Airplay but just seemed like a Little L rehash.

    Comments above have prompted me to Seven Days in June which I had a vague memory of. The best of the later years without doubt.

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