Although it’s a little premature to write their obituary, The Chemical Brothers’ chief contribution to British music seems clear: a brilliant confidence trick that seduced rock traditionalists into liking dance music. Superficially, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons’ story is similar to many of their generation?unassuming indie boys who went to college in the late ’80s and were drawn into the acid house scene. But unlike many of their contemporaries, Rowlands and Simons actively courted rock’n’roll credibility while epitomising the cliche of the ‘faceless DJ’.
Singles 93-03 is a handy catalogue of The Chemical Brothers’ adventures, from their amyl-splattered early days in residence at the Heavenly Social, through the short, blokey heyday of big beat and onto bombastic stadium techno. Continuously, there’s that desire to poke up a limber new music with old rock cachet, so that even their excellent, spunky debut single arrives with a historically resonant title, “Song To The Siren”.
The problems?and commercial glories?really come with the superstar collaborators. Noel Gallagher’s presence on “Setting Sun” might have provided massive crossover appeal, but it also brings a characteristic prosaicism, detracting from the track’s nifty fusion of breakbeat and “Tomorrow Never Knows”-style atmospherics. Further work with Gallagher, Richard Ashcroft and Bernard Sumner is equally patchy, while Wayne Coyne is charming enough on the new “The Golden Path” (see The Chems vs The Lips, p96), even if the tune’s one-dimensional compared with his own work. Ironically, it’s Coyne’s old associates Mercury Rev who emerge best, applying unstable textures to the instrumental whirl of “The Private Psychedelic Reel”.
The fact that the best Chemical Brothers tracks are repetitive beat matrixes rather than rock star-assisted songs is beside the point. The latter is where the band’s reputation now rests. Which leaves Rowlands and Simons looking like either fanboys on a methodical campaign to work with all their heroes, or canny networkers who’ve expanded their business by tapping into a conservative rock market. As Brothers who’ve worked it out, perhaps, but only to the detriment of their art.