By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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The guitar dudes and rocker chicks, the punks and the metal heads, they hate the shit with a venom once saved for disco. And, actually, that's what a lot of them call it: They spit the word disco. Whether it's techno or house, trip-hop or drum & bass, all the guitar freaks unite in universal disdain. It must have been particularly galling when the Chemical Brothers won the Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental last year for their cut "Block Rockin' Beats." That ain't rock. That's disco.
But even the most venomous Korn-head stooge can't help but get a tingle in the heart when hearing Chemical Brother Ed Simons (the one who's not the one with long hair) describe the first time the duo heard one of their cuts bangin' in a club.
"When we made "Song to the Siren,'" he says during a recent interview from his flat in London, "which is the first record that we made, we heard reports that (famed British DJ) Andrew Weatherall was playing it. So we got into the car and went down to this place called Hastings, which is where the Normans invaded England in 1066. We went down to the club just to hear him play it, and we waited all night. He obviously didn't know who we were from Adam. And then he played it, and it was just the best feeling ever. Still, the best feeling for me is watching a record go off in a club. It's just the greatest thing, really, to have a record you made be played to 1,000 people who like it. You can't beat that feeling. That was the first time."
Since their trip to Hastings in 1992, the Chemical Brothers have had their fair share of cuts work a crowd, both live and on the dance floor. They've moved from being Brit buzz band to being the Yank "face of electronica"; they've cut some of the hardest, catchiest electronic records of the '90s even as they suffered being lauded as the Next Big Thing in America.
Alas, when commercial music could have taken a left a few years back and fallen passionately in love with the Chemical Brothers, it instead took a right and embraced the bitch-slappin' misogyny of Limp Bizkit. The rockers prevail because the beats, they apparently didn't rock the block hard enough for 'em. Of course, the Chemical Brothers, along with the Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, did poke through into the mainstream (two of the three played the dreaded Woodstock festivities) and Fatboy has somehow worked his whole ass into the pop psyche, but in general, things have cooled down a few degrees for the Chemical Brothers, though obviously, says Simons, the crowds have changed from the ones they saw on their early visits to America. "I think the change was more evident when we were over in '97, when there was a big electronica hype, and people were coming to our concerts to check us out because they read about us in Rolling Stone or had seen a video on MTV. But I think since then our last tour in America it was back to the kind of kids who were just into us. They weren't seeing us because of hype, they were just Chemical Brothers fans. We felt that in Chicago. I saw a lot of our old T-shirts, T-shirts made in '95."
In 1995, the Chemical Brothers were 3 years old. Their first full-length, the phenomenal Exit Planet Dust, though it sold relatively meagerly in the scheme of things, hit a bunch of confused music heads smack in the booty; it was dance-based but had enough texture and melody to suggest that something more than just Ecstasy-infused repetition-bliss was at work. As a result, it crossed over into another equally obsessive scene and served as a rallying cry for not just the dance-floored but the headphoned. Even though the Chemical Brothers expressed their ideas in the form of beats and samples and not smarty-pants verbiage and rhyme, one got the sense that these guys were at least a little smart, and if they weren't, they were at least quick to shut up and let the music suggest otherwise.
A gander at their CD booklets proves the point: eight- to 10-page photo spreads, no words; a threesome having some water-splashing fun; blissed-out lady swinging her long hair; a skier slaloming down a mountain; hippies hitchhiking; a hand grenade. No words, just images strung together to suggest some verbally elusive emotion. What the Chemical Brothers do in their booklets, they also do in their music.
1997's Dig Your Own Hole was supposed to be huge. It was supposed to rid the world of Alice in Chains and their ilk and usher in a new era of music. It was supposed to go global, and though a few of the record's cuts were virtual explosions, especially the transcendent "Setting Sun" (which succeeded despite the insipid presence of Noel Gallagher of Oasis one good reason for the Chemical Brothers to shut the hell up), the media's hype ultimately fizzled the record. The suburbanites didn't bite. Granted, it did go gold, and "Block Rockin' Beats" was a minor hit, but the album failed to meet the grand plan of the industry. "I think it's all expectations," says Simons. "Whoever was behind the electronica hype thought that that would be the only kind of music you'd hear on the radio. And that obviously wouldn't happen. But I think there's more space being given to us and the Prodigy and Fatboy Slim."