This’ll make you feel old: The Beatles’ song Tomorrow Never Knows came out 30 years before the Chemical Brothers’ visionary Setting Sun; and we’re now close to 30 years past Setting Sun (yikes). A more positive way to frame this is how remarkable the Chemical Brothers’ longevity is, ever reinventing themselves.
Paused in Cosmic Reflection is their long-awaited biography, introduced and edited by long-time pal Robin Turner. If you’re into electronic dance music don’t think twice about buying it. The lavishly produced pages combine text with archival photos, ticket stubs, flyers, live shots, video stills, and miscellaneous magazine covers. Told as an oral history by the band and its associates, its voices include the likes of Beck, Beth Orton and Noel Gallagher.
We’re cast into the era of illegal parties and bootleg cassette tapes from Camden Market. Obsessed with hip hop and the NME, the then-Dust Brothers came up in Manchester in the afterglow of UK rave. Their first UK No 1, Setting Sun, ushered in the maximalist big-beat era, and their arrival in the US revived audiences bored with post-grunge navel-gazing. Later, they seamlessly slid into the stadium-EDM era.
The Chemical Brothers were always visually daring. Dom & Nic, Michel Gondry and other directors tell us the background to videos such as Let Forever Be. Live VFX team Vegetable Vision (Adam Smith and Noah Clarke) came on-board early, and Smith later teamed up with Marcus Lyall to raise the visual standard further. These days the Chemical Brothers have wondrous live spectacles (the internet says their performance fee is about $300,000-$499,000).
Occasionally (as often with official biographies), the tone becomes too effusive. Narrative conflict in the middle third would have been welcome. Ed Simons alludes to a mental health crisis, and rumour has it he left the band for a while, but all that’s left unexplored. Private lives are kept out of the narrative, which is as streamlined as their productions.
Advance snippets of new album For That Beautiful Feeling are brilliantly melodic. For my part, I still love (old nerd alert!) the B-side to The Private Psychedelic Reel, a deranged live techno remix of Setting Sun. But everyone will have their own preferred version of the Chems. That’s their beauty – and another way they’re like the Beatles.