How does one account for the phenomenon that is the Chemical Brothers, a quarter of a century on from their first records, just getting bigger and bigger? Only now are they touring the arenas of the UK for the first time. They’re nominated for a Grammy. Their current album, No Geography, is a top-five hit. Wasn’t the 1990s dance-music explosion meant to have ended with, well, the 1990s? They’re not alone either: Underworld, too, are now playing arenas, and not just to people who want to shout the refrain to ‘Born Slippy’: ‘Lager! Lager! Lager! Lager!’
Perhaps there’s something in the fact that neither group was completely contained by dance music. A friend was telling me recently about seeing the Chems — then still called the Dust Brothers — DJing in the basement of the Albany pub in central London, at the famous Sunday Social nights. What they played — house and hip-hop, but also the Beatles, the Clash, the Specials — was utterly unlike the staple diet in most house clubs. ‘And I realised,’ my friend said, ‘they weren’t like the old soul boys who DJed in most places. They were like me!’
My friend also noted, with a middle-aged shudder at his own recklessness, that he used to drop acid at five in the afternoon before going to the Sunday Social. God knows, you wouldn’t want to risk that with their current son-et-lumière spectacular: there were times when the visual effects were so enveloping — white lines forming a tunnel on the giant screen behind them, with spotlights projecting those same lines out into the audience — that I felt a little queasy on nothing more than a couple of pints of pale ale.
The Chemical Brothers persist, perhaps because they were always a little off to the side of dance music’s trends, and also because they remained anonymous. They were never all over the tabloids, as Norman Cook was in his Fatboy Slim pomp; their faces were never on the covers of their records; even now you can barely see the pair of them (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons) behind their banks of equipment, not least because of the sensory overload of what’s going on around them. This anonymity has meant that no one has had the chance to grow fed up of the people making the music, and that helped the music thrive. And thrive it has. For all their vast knowledge of music, there was nothing of the chin-stroking techno nerd’s purism about the Chemical Brothers’ set: it was a vast, DayGlo explosion, with massive peaks — ‘MAH’, ‘Star Guitar’ (including part of New Order’s ‘Temptation’), ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’, ‘Escape Velocity’, ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ — emerging from the plains of electronic beats as track merged into track with scarcely a break.
There’s always the question when watching blokes behind banks of computers as a vast show unfolds: what are they actually doing? An interesting interview with one of the Chemical Brothers’ behind-the-scenes tech people a few years back explained that there are basic tracks that are prerecorded and played through the PA, over which Simons and Rowlands trigger samples, play synth lines, alter the mix of what the audience is hearing. And so each show is semi-improvisational, albeit running along a set of tracks. Everything has to begin and end at predetermined times: music co-ordinating exactly with the visuals. It was, in fact, a little like seeing one of those American jam bands: long stretches of music shifting organically until, without one realising it, one had arrived at a completely different place from the starting point.
And the spectacle! Oh, the spectacle. Imagine going to one of those French cities where you can pay €10 to watch crazy projections on the façade of a cathedral while they play some Pink Floyd. Then imagine Stanley Kubrick with a vast budget doing the same thing. It was like riding a rollercoaster: as soon as I got off I wanted to do it all over again, and again and again and again until I felt sick.