Under control

The Chemical Brothers' beats may be rockin' fewer blocks, but they won't Surrender

Being shut off from the world during the year they spent in the studio recording Surrender allowed Rowlands and Simons the time and space to create something new, rather than yet another Dig Your Own Hole, the duo's 1997 breakthrough. They more than succeeded: With this album, the Chems are the first group to transcend the form, delivering real songs instead of pieced-together fragments that throw listeners for a loop. Remedy, the debut album from Basement Jaxx, another pair of British DJs, is currently being hailed as a breakthrough by critics and fans on both sides of the Atlantic. But compared with Surrender, it's little more than a boring set of house music. (It might be that anyway.)

"On our other records, everything was stacked," Rowlands says. "On the top there would be a hip-hop sample, in the middle there'd be a funk groove, and at the bottom a techno bass line. Surrender is put together really tightly, and that was intentional. You can't see where one sample is and one isn't."

Yet even though Surrender is a career-defining disc, it might have come a year too late. Almost four months after its release, the beats on Surrender are rocking far fewer blocks than its predecessor, Dig Your Own Hole. The Chems' sophomore disc was held up as electronic music's Nevermind, the album that would change the way people listened to everything that came after it. It promised a rave new world, but as it turned out, no one wanted to move there.

Not that everyone resisted the change. At the time, the world seemed to rush headlong into the future, abandoning the tried and true for the shiny and new. Almost everyone was guilty -- MTV, radio programming directors, music critics, and more than a few bands. Two years on, they've all come back to the present. By now, every modern-rock radio station in the country was supposed to sound like Edgeclub, DJ Merritt's Saturday-night mix show on KDGE-FM (94.5). One station, Los Angeles' Groove Radio, even tried to introduce an all-electronic music format. But none of it worked: Modern-rock radio remains in the same post-Nirvana holding pattern, and Groove Radio was dead on arrival.

It all seemed so possible in 1997. The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy were supposed to be the Trojan horses that would usher in a new sound to the radio, opening doors for all the other DJs and electronic acts that never fit in before. But aside from Fatboy Slim, The Crystal Method, Moby, and Lo-Fidelity Allstars, electronic music has been a bust at radio. The reality is, only two songs by electronic acts received substantial airplay in the last two years, and much of that was on television commercials: Fatboy Slim's "The Rockafeller Skank" in 1998, and Moby's "Bodyrock" this year. Two songs do not a revolution make.

The problem was that The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy didn't kill rock and roll as critics assumed they would; they embraced it. They became rock stars, stepping out from behind their turntables and sequencers to put faces with the names. But the roll call ended before it really began, because every electronic act seemed to comprise the same two white British guys. Even their mothers could barely tell the difference between Alex Gifford and Will White (Propellerheads) and Felix Burton and Simon Ratcliffe (Basement Jaxx). Electronic music is as faceless as it ever was. Without a face, no one really cares about the name.

Rowlands is still mystified about why anyone ever cared about his name or his face. He just wanted to hear his records in a club, watch them make people dance. After the attention the Chems received on Dig Your Own Hole, Rowlands and Simons made a conscious effort not to change to fit the format, not knowing there wouldn't really be a format left when they returned. Which is fine with them. They were happy enough with a steady stream of DJ gigs, the chance to turn people on the way they were turned on a decade ago at the Hacienda. As Rowlands says, the nights he spent at Hacienda have more or less directed the last 10 years of his life. And they will probably guide the next 10 as well.

"It was about empowerment, you know, where you were listening to music that you could make yourself," he says. "Suddenly, you'd go out and hear the same noises that you were making in your bedroom. You knew it was made on similar equipment. And you could press up that record and get it played by all those people. It would be on equal terms with all the other records the DJ played. Doing it that way, people sort of come around to us, as opposed to, you know, us having to change what we did to make it fit in with other people's view of what our music should be.

"I think that's the exciting thing. The music hasn't changed. It hasn't had to become something else to get accepted. It just interlocks different things and makes people get with it." He stops and catches his breath. "It's exciting."

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