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om Rowlands, Chemical Brother : "What influenced us most was probably discovering Public Enemy and Jesus and Mary Chain at the same time."
(I remember) scratchy sessions in dimly lit London pubs. Ten hour sets fuelled by imported lager and a grand dollop of frenzy. Hordes of fervour-pitched hooligans taking and breaking every rule in the mixing handbook. The head’s bliss of seeing ‘your’ bands and DJs storming up the charts with records that sounded like they’d been made with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. But most of all the joy of pissing off the gurning house-heads, and getting to watch their jaws drop so low that you could stick a barrow of glow-sticks in there and still have room for a couple of whistles—lovely stuff. It wasn’t about technique. It had bugger all to do with cool, little to do with style and everything to do with jumping around like a cat on a hot tin roof. Hedonism in pints and shots, no messy come-downs, no nasty flashbacks.
So why do I seem to be the only one? If you’ve read the British music press since the non-event of Y2K you’d think that Big Beat was some kind of horrific race memory that required a good course of Scientology. In the 21st century dance music became a genre that required intellectualising, beats stroked over and records boxes interrogated. And somewhere along the line the whole bloody raison d’être of going out to getting messed up got stuck on the back burner. Instead of the third way that big beat and its many siblings represented, we were told that we had to swallow zero-IQ dance pap or progged-up theorised nonsense as the Scylla and Charybdis of our listening landscape. The 9 to 5 hedonists drifted back to rock, and the possibility of a true indie-dance genre died the death of a thousand PhDs.
Which is particularly annoying, because big beat was going to replace rock. There was going to be a revolution. Learning Smiths songs on acoustic guitars was gonna be illegal, to be replaced by turntablism 101. Instead the kids got prime knob-cheese like Kasabian rammed down their nubile throats.
Time for some re-education. Time for a birra time-travel, loves. Step into the Tardis to work out who’s the hardest, and find out the roots of the biggest beats. Travel back with me to the lands of proto-breaks, post-Madchester lunacy, and mixtape madness. And feel free to nag me over the head with a glowstick when I start gibbering like a fan boy.
A quick axiomatic truth: the best big beat albums weren’t composed of original tracks, as the Chem’s first widely available mixtape shows. The first in a series of mashed-up party tapes issuing forth from the maw of all things beat, this mix runs just behind Coldcut’s Journeys By DJ for a generation raised on weak chart-diluted electro. Released before the Chemical’s first real album Exit Planet Dust, Live At the Social combined props to tha’ old skool (“Yes We Can” by The Crooklyn Clan), favoured remixes (their mix of “Packet of Peace” by Lionrock is seven minutes of rough, dirty acid funk), and nods to 1996’s idea of the future (Red Snapper’s live drum n‘bass). Simply a killer party CD whose appeal hasn’t waned, with a music policy that can‘t fail to appeal: a UN peacekeeping force in a silver disc.
Proustian Rating: Oui, c’est comme une Madeline, vous savez?
21st Century Boy Rating: Friends say it's fine, friends say it's good.
It was either trip-hop’s last gleaming or big beat’s first concept album: either way, the storming mix of “Packet of Peace” by the Chems on the album above motivated many a shy bedroom boogier to check out Justin Robertson’s Lionrock project. On paper, they were a 90s beathead’s wet dream, touring as a guitar-led rock band that allowed Robertson to exorcise most of his Townsendian fantasies. Their first album shows them as an inconsistently brilliant band that managed to altruistically give a home to Mancunian rapper MC Buzz B (remember Curve’s “Ten Little Girls”? No? I envy you) who managed to play his get-out-of purgatory-free card on “Straight at Yer Head” and “The Guide.” Bags of cod Sherlock Homesian dialogue elevates this one into the realms of cult classic: wonderfully eccentric stuff.
Proustian Rating: Ah, hmmm, c’est pas mal, mais je pense que c’est bizarre aussi?
21st Century Boy Rating: Everybody says it's just like rock'n'roll.
Hang on, you’re all saying—this isn’t Big BeatTM! You’re mucking around! This is just an excuse for you to go one and have a bit of a moan about how bands were great ten years ago, sandwiched between the thin crust of a feature on big beat! Go on—admit it!
Well, I’d say that no one exemplifies the core kudos of big beat better than Shaun Ryder’s 2nd Gen. band Black Grape. Somehow, in a flukish move—probably involving the sacrifice of a large number of chickens—the boys behind Black Grape managed to project the spirit of P-Funk firmly into the mid 90s. The partyed-up ethos of old funk and new beats was perfectly exemplified by The Grape, resulting in a number of hit singles and a seeming stay of execution for Public Enemy #1 Ryder. Sadly, as if to prove their absolute timeliness, their second album Stupid Stupid Stupid proved that onomatopoeia was alive and well, and living in Burnely.
Proustian Rating: Super, Gaston, vraiment super!
21st Century Boy Rating: Oow.
A real taste of things to come, this album by Jack Dangers and co. identifies the clear influence that industrial music had on big beat. Employing a catholic approach to musical genres, MBM had already recorded a track that many regard as the first rumblings of big beat (“Radio Babylon”), featuring a simple yet memorable vocal sample and stripped down musical backing. While it was too far ahead of its time to really appeal to anyone (it would take multiple plays by more adroit popularisers like The Chemical Brothers for the track to get the respect it deserved) MBM dove straight into the sample box on Satyricon, creating a musical landscape that managed to name check everything cool over the last ten years, yet sound utterly original at the same time. One thing was sure: industrial was no longer a black t-shirt only zone.
Proustian Rating: Ehh, alors, c’est un peu fort pour moi, n’est-ce pas?
21st Century Boy Rating: Drive like a car…
The Aloof were one of the few collectives born of big beat that presented themselves as an old-fashioned band. Started as a by the book dance band, the Aloof began to be seen as one of the new generation of dance/rock crossovers by a music press starved of people to write about in 90s dance. Utterly unique (and bloody-minded with it) the band could sound like Horace Andy backed by The Sabres of Paradise - somewhat unsurprising given that producer Jagz Kooner was shared between both bands. Vocalist Ricky Barrow wrote like Mike Leigh turned loose with a pocket full of Amyl, yet sadly his distinctly grown-up take on relationships was never given the attention it deserved.
Proustian Rating: Les mots - raiment excellent! Le music…et….je ne sais pas…
21st Century Boy Rating: … babe I wanna be your man.
It was 1996, and our Norman was having a bit of a crisis. Having managed to split himself up into multiple recording artists, should he reform himself and give in to the braying attentions of his multitude of fans? Or should he just say ‘bugger it,’ give up and go for something a little different? History records the latter, and damn right too given the number of nights out that have been soundtracked by the man and his trademark acid swiggles and large drums. His debut album is probably the best you’ll get for pure nostalgia, but since he lost the plot recently, it’s also worth trying to track down those original Skint tracks on vinyl.
Proustian Rating: Ooo lala!
21st Century Boy Rating: I wanna be your toy.
What a difference a few years and a few less ‘special guest stars” makes. Here Death in Vegas were free to conduct their business as normal, spurning the great missing links between industrial and big beat without the hellborn task of undesirables getting in the way. “Dirt” sounds like a rave-up in a trash compacter; “Rekkit” does what it says on the tin, and “Sly” sounds positively sane. All the ingredients are there for a truly industrial-sized mash’ed up album. With no Gallagher brothers in sight. Truly, I have been blessed amongst all men.
Proustian Rating: Fantiastic, mes amis!
21st Century Boy Rating: Y’know: your toy?
And finally we start where it all began. Rumoured to be mixed by Tom Chem himself, BHAAH is an overland underground CD that feels like a Polaroid of the Magna Carta. It’s undoubtedly the best chance you have to convince people that year zero in big beatdom was not an unhappy place, that many musical tribes came together in the worship of the beat, and that the acid was still good. A fantastic mix of old skool hip-hop, acid, down-tempo…look, labels cheapen the whole thing, Track it down. Distribute it. Wonder why recorded history has been cheating you? Remember, that THE future lies with the proles.
Proustian Rating: Je susi absolute ‘f***ed up.‘
21st Century Boy Rating: Well it's plain to see you were meant for me, yeah.
By: Dave McGonigle
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