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.