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How The Chemical Brothers Taught This Punk to Dance

on April 10, 2014, 12:01am

Welcome to Shelf Life, the bi-monthly series in which Ryan Bray combs through his record collection and gets reacquainted with the lost treasures within. Last time, Ryan discussed how Rancid’s Let’s Go got him started on record collecting. This week, he digs into The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole.

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“Who is this, doing this, some static type of alpha beta psychedelic fuckin’?”

–The Chemical Brothers, “Elektrobank”

Is it me, or was 1997 kind of a weird year for popular music? It was, right? Maybe weird isn’t the right word, but it definitely was a period of transition on the pop music landscape. Two years earlier, everything was still long hair and flannel. It was still raining in Seattle, and the neo-punk movement had scores of teenage cretins hopping. Then all of a sudden there were the Hanson kids, the Spice Girls, and that guy with the big hat that kept walking around on the moveable floor. Jamiroquai, was it? Brit pop overtook grunge, Puffy was riding The Police’s biggest hit all the way to the bank, and nu metal acts like Limp Bizkit were starting to sew their seeds in the mainstream.

Strange days, indeed.

Of course, it hardly mattered to me at the time. At 14, I had already largely left MTV and mainstream radio at the door, at least as much as someone making that tightrope walk between junior high and high school was able to avoid those things. I was aware of what was happening around me (if you managed to get through 1997 without knowing who the Spice Girls were, you’ve got to show me the rock you were living under), but I didn’t really care. I was far too preoccupied with digging into the trenches of my local music scene or scouring the Epitaph Records back catalog to bother with what the rest of the world was digging into. The budding punk and indie rock fan in me was proud of this. My friends and I wore our elitist underground tastes like badges of courage. If memory serves me correctly, the words “sell out” were used pretty liberally.

chemical brothers - dig your own hole

Then something crazy happened. Get this: I kind of got into dance music, just a little bit. Popular music had splintered into what seemed like a thousand different directions in 1997, including a new strain of dance music they called big beat. Think “Firestarter” by Prodigy, “Busy Child” by The Crystal Method, and, just a few short years later, “Rockafeller Skank” by Fatboy Slim. There was also a record called Dig Your Own Hole by a duo called The Chemical Brothers. “Setting Sun” was my first proper introduction to the Brothers, born Ed Simons and Tow Rowlands, and it blew me away. The skull-crushing percussion, outlandish bass, and general electronic freakishness, combined with Liam Gallagher’s unintelligible lyrical contributions, simultaneously soared right over my head and had me completely absorbed. I was overwhelmed by the shear number of sounds that were being hurdled at me, but I was also amazed at how these guys managed to make such a musical mess sound so tight and cohesive.

I knew I had to get to the bottom of this. Who were these guys, and precisely what the fuck did they think they were doing? Where did they come from, and what other tricks did they have up their sleeves?  Those answers were delivered in quick succession. Dig Your Own Hole has pretty much everything: jacked-up, inescapably catchy singles (admit it, you’ve still got “Block Rockin’ Beats” kicking around your brain somewhere), funky, bass-heavy break beats ( “Elektrobank”, “Lost in the K-Hole”), more straightforward acid house thumpers (“It Doesn’t Matter”), and less kinetic, more melodic tunes that skirt with indie rock (“Where Do I Begin”, “The Private Psychedelic Reel”) all glazed over with a hypnotically, druggy tint coat. All of a sudden, my narrow, little punk rock brain started to broaden, even if just a little bit.

I was big into the record for a few months, and then the fling started to cool a bit. It wasn’t that I got bored with it, but I was picking up new music at a pretty fast clip at that point, and as such, Dig Your Own Hole ultimately found its way onto the shelf. It stayed there for a long time. Years passed without so much as a casual spin until I saw Daft Punk at Lollapalooza in 2007. In a flash, the dance rock pleasure center that had largely been asleep in my brain for the better part of a decade sprung back to life thanks to one of the most electric live shows I’d ever seen. Thanks to the robots, I found my way back to The Chemical Brothers, and I quickly caught up with everything I’d been missing. Gems like Surrender, Push the Button, and We Own the Night have joined my collection in recent years, but Dig Your Own Hole is still the one I keep coming back to. It used to be years between spins; now it’s weeks at most before the record once again booms out of my CD player or out of my iPod. I have a hunch that it’s here to stay this time around.

On first listen, it can be easy to marginalize and write off dance music as propulsive noise set to a metronome. I have friends who playfully mock dance music with fist bumping and “oonce, oonce, oonce” noises whenever the genre comes up in conversation. I get it, and sadly there’s a lot of music that rests wholeheartedly on those reductive stereotypes. But when it’s done right, the music is as layered, intricate, and powerful as anything you can pull together with a piano, guitar, bass, and drums. That to me is the value of Dig Your Own Hole, a record that bounced enough to satisfy dance purists, screamed enough to attract the rock crowd, and was maddeningly inventive enough to help drag dance music out of the nightclubs and into the limelight.

On the next installment of Shelf Life, I tackle a hometown favorite that put its own devilish punk rock spin on country and rockabilly.

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