Posts from 24th November 1999

Nov 99

21. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS – “The Private Psychedelic Reel”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Britpop was a confidence trick. ‘Confidence’ because that’s what the music ran on, a massive surge of aggressive self-belief that catapulted it into the charts. Oasis especially tapped it, this feeling of entitlement that was more cocky than angry, this moment when alternative pop in Britain realised what the mainstream had always known – it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, it’s how you do it that counts. Image is everything, whether you’re Ronan Keating and call it by its name, or Liam Gallagher and call it ‘front’ or ‘bollocks’ or being ‘down-to-earth’.

And ‘trick’? Well, Ian Brown may have pronounced “It’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re at” (these words bring the British 90s into being, the way some people tell it), but of course it was where you came from that mattered: Britpop jumped the Top 40 by standing on the shoulders of giants. The exploratory drive that had animated British indie music for two decades was vanished. In fairness this was inevitable – Britpop came into being as an inevitable reaction to dance music as much as a reaction to US altrock, and since dance music was frighteningly fast-moving and creative and faceless, Britpop had to be reasurring musically and offer nothing but face.

“The Private Psychedelic Reel” is what Britpop should have been: brimful of confidence, but also a feast of sound and quite unlike anything the charts had played host to before. You grope for reference points – My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon” after eight pints of lager? – but nothing fits. The Chemical Brothers’ guest-stars policy has never paid off so handsomely as here: approaching Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue to fuzz up and enlighten “…Reel” was an act of curatorial genius. It’s not of course possible to exactly define where Donahue ends and the Brothers begin, but that’s hardly the point. “The Private Psychedelic Reel” is that great and rare kind of collaboration where both parties seem to raise their game out of respect for one another – the Chemicals offer a beat of total propulsive acumen and a nagging sitar line to ground the surrounding madness, and with the security of that structure behind him Donahue goes all out for texture. He smears effect after effect over the track, dissolving the edges of every sound until “…Reel” becomes a disorienting head-riot of whistling, chiming, howling and swooping.

The first time I heard this track on Dig Your Own Hole I knew I was in the presence of greatness, and I also knew that, fresh off two number one singles, the Chemical Brothers were going to hit massive with it. The thought that every head around me might be ringing with this beautiful and unearthly noise made me happier than I had been for months. Whatever the Chemical Brothers did here they’ve not been able to repeat or build on – most of Surrender sounds like an attempt to avoid this song, or an attempt to tie it down. Such attempts are doomed from the start.

Pet Shop Boys – Nightlife

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Writing about “So Hard”, I suggested that the story of the Pet Shop Boys in the 90s has been one of decline management, which is of course a terribly English story, much more so than the stories of wealth and despair they used to tell. The truth or not of English decline in the 20th Century isn’t really relevant – what matters is that the idea of it has seeped into our pop culture like a great grey stain, and when it recurs, even in personal form, it carries a deep emotional charge with it. From the moment Neil Tennant sang “I’m always hoping you’ll be faithful / But you’re not, I suppose”, his songs have filled up with images of romantic failure, of desertion by younger lovers, and of his own ageing uselessness. On Very, he watched as his lover played video games, made impotent by his own inability to understand them, and he woke up filled with dread after dreaming of himself denuded. On Bilingual, the superficially upbeat songs had a brittle, forgettable quality to them, and the only image that stuck was of Tennant the commercial traveller, rootless and alone, wandering from discoteca to discoteca. Now, on Nightlife, age and doubt are spectral presences in almost every tune.

Tennant and Lowe wanted this record to take place at night: the cover shows them in their blonde frightwigs, sitting blank-faced on a train that’s presumably jetting them to wherever the nightlife is going to happen. But the question you have to ask yourself is what kind of nightlife can two fortysomething men enjoy? Nightlife makes a lot of nods to clubland and is comfortably up-to-date in its trance stylings, without ever remotely requiring you to move so much as a toe. At its worst this means the backing tracks on “Vampires” or “Footsteps” are cursed with a politeness more supper club than superclub, a tasteful mock-up of dancefloor energy the younger Pets would never have countenanced. The same misplaced impulse towards classiness presumably accounts for the lungful presence of Sylvia Mason-James on “Happiness Is An Option”, her baffling ‘real soul’ swoops adding nothing to Tennant’s thoughtful song. Then again, the most heavily trancified tracks are oddly effective: of all dance musics, trance in its blank purity is probably the most unforgiving of regret and imperfection, meaning Tennant’s implorings on “For Your Own Good” are more poignant for sounding so useless in such a context.

Much of Nightlife has Tennant and Lowe gingerly expanding their range, trying out less familiar styles, possibly aware after Bilingual that clubland, and even pop, may not need them any more. Their most striking departure here is “In Denial”, a duet with Kylie Minogue which serves as preview for the band’s upcoming musical. One reason ‘rock operas’ have tended to be so aesthetically disastrous is that the impulses of pop, to turn the listener into the subject and imaginary singer of a song, are tough to reconcile with musical fiction, where an overall narrative reduces these chances for connection. “In Denial” is sumptuous: it has a beautifully rich melody, the production is a banquet and Tennant’s performance is excellent, but even so the prospect of two hours along similar lines makes you a little queasy.

Elsewhere, more experiments, all tinted with the pervasive waning of spirit which is Nightlife’s defining feature. “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” is a deliciously pretty acoustic number, warmly rueful – “What a performance…” sighs Neil, making the best of his undemonstrative boyfriend. “Boy Strange” is more eerie and less successful, Tennant once again finding his refinement and intelligence desert him whenever a young man walks into his life: this bitter self-knowledge sung over a mournful backing of treated, echoey guitar and ambient moans. The only track which is an unequivocal celebration is “New York City Boy”, a muscular but mannered Village People romp, and even that is strictly second-person.

Neil Tennant can envy this boy who “wanders out into the ticker-tape” but he can’t be or have him. He never could, of course, but Nightlife is the first Pet Shop Boys album where you get the impression that it matters. And it matters, maybe, because the Pet Shop Boys themselves don’t anymore. Decline management: this unique band, once so perfectly representative and critical of their time, have lost their cultural weight. Bilingual was the sound of their trying to deny it, Nightlife finds them coming to terms with it. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess: it may well remain a dark journey