Chemical Brothers and the big beat revolution

Twenty-five years ago this week, the Chemical Brothers released Exit Planet Dust, an album that helped push dance music into the mainstream, writes Ed Power
Chemical Brothers and the big beat revolution
The Chemical Brothers were at the forefront of the big beat movement.

Twenty-five years ago this week, the Chemical Brothers released Exit Planet Dust, an album that helped push dance music into the mainstream, writes Ed Power

At around 8pm on June 1 1996, at the old Point Depot in Dublin, two hunched young men with unimpressive haircuts shuffled into the spotlight. Stooped over complicated-looking banks of equipment, for the next 70 or so minutes they refused to smile or indeed show any emotion whatsoever. Their music, though, had plenty to get off its chest.

“Brother’s gonna work it out…brother’s gonna work it out,” began the sample to one of their biggest hits (taken from Willie Hutch’s 1973 smash of the same name). As a roar of approval swept the venue, a huge lurching groove kicked in and – or so it felt – the floor began to tremble.

Twelve months prior to their appearance at the "Night In Of The Big Speakers” – the bill also featured Leftfield and Fluke – Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons released their debut album as the Chemical Brothers. Exit Planet Dust, which turns 25 on June 26, was heralded at the time as a new chapter for dance music. It was loud, accessible. You could even mosh to it.

“Nobody from the dance world has come up with an album to reflect these times,” Simons told Muzik the month the LP landed on record store shelves.

“Why is that? Why is it left to a group like Oasis to express the way that young people want to go out and get battered every weekend? That’s what the Chemical Brothers are about. Tom and I are out all the time, off to clubs and gigs, living fast, living it up. That’s what I hope we’re putting across on our records.”

The Chemical Brothers were one of the pioneers of performing dance music in a live arena.
The Chemical Brothers were one of the pioneers of performing dance music in a live arena.

The Chemical Brothers were in the vanguard for a new dance movement christened “Big Beat”. As with contemporaries such as Fatboy Slim, their music had the rollicking quality of a rock anthem or terrace chant. Exit Planet Dust wasn’t an instant classic – there are too many roiling dance floor workouts, not enough innovation or emotion. But it was a record that grabbed you by the scruff. It swept you along, took you away.

This streak of populism didn’t win the Chems many favours within the dance community. Nor did they endear themselves to their peers with their declaration that they wanted to take the snobbery out of the scene. For many in dance, the snobbery was just fine thanks all the same “The trouble is that too many people involved in dance music want to keep the scene down to their little clique,” Simons told Muzik. “They don’t want to try to create characters, they don’t want artists with something to say. They’re just interested in faceless boffins sitting in their bedrooms, putting out their tunes on white labels. That’s part of the reason dance music hasn’t progressed over the last three or four years.” Big Beat was defined as music that used “heavy breakbeats and synthesiser-generated loops and patterns”. The tempo tended to be down the middle – faster than trip-hop or rap, slower than house or techno.

And its practitioners weren’t always from a dance background. Simons and Rowlands were New Order fans who had built a reputation by DJing in the dingy basement bar of a pub called the Albany on Great Portland Street in the West London district of Fitzrovia.

“The Heavenly Social”, as the club night became known, was an everything goes mash-up. And the Chemical Brothers were bang in the centre of the action, blending techno, rap, and indie.

Those same influences informed the records they started making for themselves. Song to the Siren , their 1992 debut single (paid for with a £300 loan from friends), sampled This Mortal Coil’s 1984 cover of Tim Buckley. Such reference points were not exactly on trend in mid-Nineties dance circles.

Still, if the elitists were cool toward them, everyone else loved Rowlands and Simons. With Exit Planet Dust, the Chems became superstars (having changed their name from the Dust Brothers after the American production duo of the same name threatened to sue).

They were groundbreakers, too. Today it feels routine for a big dance to play arenas. But in the mid Nineties it was regarded as genuinely shocking that the Chemical Brothers and Leftfield were coming to the Point. Electronic artists weren’t supposed to be that popular.

“Around 1995, dance music was going through a bloated, self-important phase,” Damian Harris, who DJ and produced as Midfield General and ran pioneering Big Beat label Skint Records, wrote in the Guardian several years later.

“A purist mentality among DJs dominated and it was all a bit pompous and segregated. So a vacuum appeared for the people raised on John Peel, acid house, hip-hop, Madchester, Boys Own, trip hop, punk and to an extent Britpop. The Heavenly Social – held in a small, sweaty pub basement – was the perfect place for a new scene to develop.”

“Big Beat was the unification of practically every music genre conceived in the 20th Century,” says Rory Hoy, author of The Little Big Beat Book. These influences were, he continues, “mashed together in a blender, and reinvented for a dance floor, with the only real rule being that everything must have a “big beat”, or optionally a Roland TB-303 synth. Hence the name of the genre”.

The secret of its success was straightforward he says. This was dance music for everyone. As Harris told the Guardian, you could groove to it without having to take drugs. It was techno for people who preferred beer over ecstasy.

“It became one of the biggest genres of the Nineties,” says Hoy. “It brought disparate scenes together as one. For example, it made rock fans and hip-hop fans get into house music, and alternatively got house heads into hip hop and vice versa.

“It was the gateway drug for people to broaden their musical horizons; not forgetting it conceived some of the most well-known artists in electronic dance music history, such as Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers. “

The Chemical Brothers are still with us and were due to play Cork this summer (the gig has been put back to next year for obvious reasons). Big Beat, however, has become the genre that dare not speak it same. Dance die-hards, who always hated it, were happy to see it to sink into irrelevance. Rock fans, for their part, quicky grew bored and moved on. If it is remembered at all nowadays it is as a fad that passed like a very loud ship in the night.

“Unfortunately because of the genre’s success on a huge commercial scale, and its widespread appeal, the “snobbier" end of the dance music scene tried to persecute the genre and its fans, dismissing it as “ephemeral throwaway lowbrow nonsense”,” says Hoy. “Sadly they pretty much won the battle by 2000, rendering the scene “dead” in the eyes of the dance music arena and the mainstream.”

“The full-on nature of big beat started to grate and the subtleties of it were lost as a more laddish element stomped into the party. Cocaine became much more prevalent – never healthy for a scene,” agreed Harris in 2008. “Success meant that we moved from small sweaty clubs to huge arenas and DJ sets got too predictable. So people went off in their different directions, big beat became a dirty term.”

Groovin’ On Up: What Happened to the Big Beat Generation?

Fatboy Slim For many the end of Big Beat took place on July 12, 2002 when Fatboy Slim, aka ex-Housemartin Norman Cook, DJ-ed to over 250,000 on Brighton Beach. It was the Knebworth of pint-tossing dance music and after that the scene died a rapid death.

Bentley Rhythm Ace Part of the a generation of novelty dance acts that sprang up in the wake of the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim. The duo’s 1996 single Bentley’s Gonna Sort You Out! was ubiquitous but they quickly return to obscurity, breaking-up in 2000 (though they reformed in 2016).

Prodigy Considered Big Beat “adjacent” rather than a key part of the scene. Having struggled to follow-up 1997’s mega-smash Fat of the Land LP, the group would spend the next 20 years tearing it up as a live act. Fire-snorting frontman Keith Flint died by suicide in 2019.

Propellerheads The Bath duo of Will White and Alex Gifford had a UK top 20 hit with History Repeating, featuring Shirley Bassey on vocals.

Monkey Mafia A vehicle for DJ Jon Carter who cut his teeth alongside the Chems at the Heavenly Social and had a moderate sized hit with the 1998 album, Shoot The Boss.

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