Electronica’s Time In The Sun: Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy Reinvented Rock (For A Minute)

For reasons even I don’t entirely understand, I have been reading a lot of old issues of Spin magazine recently. Most of the best issues in my personal archive (which is vast, by the way — a combination of issues I kept and ones I acquired when I worked at Spin from 2004 to 2007) are from 1996, 1997 and 1998. It’s the ’97 issues that most blow my mind, as they are filled cover to cover with the last gasp of the grunge era, lots of coverage about how Diddy was killing hip-hop and, perhaps most importantly, a full-court press over the electronica revolution that was supposedly in the process of changing the way we listen to rock music (especially in the “alternative” universe).

A bit of context: After grunge fell apart in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, record executives, trendspotting fans and music writers were desperately digging around for the next big thing in the rock world. Rap metal wouldn’t have its big pop moment for another year or two, and the bands left over from the early ’90s alternative revolution were either breaking up (Soundgarden), willfully becoming more obscure (Pearl Jam) or stumbling over their own success (everybody else). That left a void in the alternative market, and because of the rise of intelligent dance music (which was really just club-based subgenres that used more pop elements, like verse-chorus-verse structures, organic instruments and actual vocals), everybody thought this new wave of cyber artists would completely re-arrange how we listened to music in the future.

Of course, the breakout electronica acts of the era (the Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and the like) didn’t have the kind of longevity that pop pundits (and dance apologists) were hoping for (in fact, all three of those acts had re-entrenched themselves as rave devotees after taking some time to do more traditional rock-type tours). No matter how close some of the albums came to true rock and roll transcendence (especially the Prodigy, which seemed to bring enough guitars and punk fashion into the mix to make them into a stadium-filling rock act), nobody managed to truly make dance music into the kind of rock replacement some thought was inevitable.

However, that’s not to say that the electronica revolution didn’t have some lasting effects. Indeed, the bands who attempted to create the elusive mix of dance music and rock traditionalism were often rewarded with stunning, mind-bending results. For all their faults, U2′s Zooropa and Pop both managed to balance twitchy beats with their more traditional approach to songwriting. Of course, Radiohead’s OK Computer became one of the best-regarded rock records of all time, and electronica-embracing collections from Smashing Pumpkins, Blur and R.E.M. were all flawed-but-fascinating experiments. Plus, the move toward an interest in dance music simultaneously facilitated the resurrection of post-punk, which gave rise to the millennial rock of the Strokes, the Killers, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Even the Rolling Stones threw some scratching onto the barstool blues of their ’97 album Bridges to Babylon.

I was so convinced that electronica was going to be the wave of the future (and I was so obsessed with being ahead of the curve) that I invested gobs of allowance money on Spin-endorsed dance records. Some of them fell way, way short (I’m looking at you, Roni Size/Reprazent’s New Forms), but many of them were excellent (and still sort of hold up). Dance music is finding a peak again, but it has managed to cross over in the mainstream while staying true to itself (considering how entrenched most of these modern DJs are, it’s more like the mainstream has gone to them). Because of that, they don’t really make any attempts to appeal to anybody not dancing right in front of them. For a look into the way rock music was supposed to go circa 1997, check out albums like Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land, Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole, Underworld’s Beaucoup Fish, Tricky’s Pre-Millennium Tension, Portishead’s Portishead, the Crystal Method’s Vegas, Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James, Moby’s Play and Leftfield’s Leftism. If you need an immediate fix, dig the video for Chemical Brothers’ “Elektrobank,” which features a drop-in from Def Squad member Keith Murray.

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