Surrender Turns 20
Prior to making his name in the early 1990s at the Haçienda and through his big-beat project Lionrock, Manchester-based DJ Justin Robertson once held a Sunday club night called Spice. Among its regulars were Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands, two college students from London who, like Robertson and other aspiring young musicians at the time, attended Manchester University in part to be near the city’s thriving music scene. Five years after Spice’s heyday, Simons and Rowlands, who were by then becoming sought-after remixers and had released a few bangers of their own under the lovingly pilfered name the Dust Brothers, recalled those evenings which had since become part of UK dance music lore. “It was 25 people sitting around eating their dinner and one bloke dancing…all evening,” the pair reminisced to the New Musical Express in the summer of 1994. “Wicked, though.”
That fall, the pair would become the center of their own outsized weekend legend when they took up residency at the Heavenly Sunday Social Club, then based at a London pub called the Albany. By the end of 1995, having since adopted a new moniker from their own breakthrough track “Chemical Beats,” the Chemical Brothers had fulfilled the promise of their early EPs Fourteenth Century Sky and My Mercury Mouth with a storming first album, Exit Planet Dust, and high-profile nights were now the norm. One such gig, recalled in Select magazine’s year-end recap, was DJing for the rapidly ascending Oasis when they played a concert in the city of Sheffield. Once again, Rowlands looked back with unembellished fondness. “They didn’t like any of the records we played…” he said, recounting how Liam Gallagher eventually ordered them off the decks so one of the Verve could put on some psych rock. “It was a classic ‘one person dancing’ night, and that person was Jarvis from Pulp.”
In these anecdotes the Chemical Brothers evoked the musician’s faith that, when you play, if you get through to at least one person then the effort was worth it. It’s an interesting notion for such a populist-minded duo to cling to, but they kept this image of dogged dance floor resistance in the back of their mind no matter how big they got, and when they were bigger than they had ever been they summoned it again with the cover of their new album. That lone skinny fella in exaltation gracing Surrender is the English music fanatic William Jellett as “‘Jesus’ Amongst Fans,” a Richard Young photograph captured at London’s Olympia Music Festival in 1976. The color-saturated cover projects a striking attitude, but at that moment the Chemical Brothers were hardly alive alone.
What more did they have to prove by the summer of 1999? Exit Planet Dust had commanded the attention of the dance music world, and its follow up would turn many a mainstream head beyond that. In 1996 they had an international breakthrough single with “Setting Sun,” and in 1997 they unleashed Dig Your Own Hole and, along with others like the Prodigy, Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim, convinced quite a lot of people that electronica was the new mainstream alternative music.
It certainly didn’t hurt their chances that so much major label alt rock had dully dug its own hole at that point, but the Brothers got people moving on their own merit. Doubling down on the debut’s big beats and furious loops, Dig Your Own Hole can in places come across a touch thin and jittery compared to its predecessor, but not to a degree that’s to its detriment — unlike a certain overstretched rock album from that same year released by their pal, and “Setting Sun” guest vocalist, Noel Gallagher. Dig Your Own Hole was regarded by many as a bigger and brasher version of the Chemical Brothers, but the impression of a sequel lingered in its live-set pace, similar sequencing, and Beth Orton arriving at the end to serenade you back down.
To this day the Chemical Brothers still haven’t lost fondness for their own traditions, but Surrender — which turns 20 today — was the first time they tried to consciously step away from some of them. “The records we made had quite a large impact on a hell of a lot of music,” Rowlands told CMJ New Music Monthly around the time of Surrender’s release. “And now, making this record, we feel much the same way: We’ve had to invent a new place for it.” The first two albums were consciously functional dance discs, arranged with technical aspects like beats per minute in mind, that also managed to infiltrate the pop sphere. Surrender, on the other hand, “was more put together by moods, the tone of the record and where it could take you,” said Rowlands.
Toiling away in the studio for longer than normal, Simons and Rowlands crafted a kind of classic-rock-minded rave record to cap off the era and their first decade together. Rolling Stone’s review of Surrender posited, perhaps with a glint of misguided hopefulness, that it “may be the first dance-music album about the end of dance music, or at least the end of the innocence,” before drawing more on-point comparisons to the Madchester scene from which the Brothers first sprang, Detroit techno, Afrika Bambaataa, post-punk and Kraftwerk. Others also celebrated Surrender’s multiple new directions and willingness to not just pause for breath, but to chill out here and there.
“It looks like there is life after big beat, after all,” observed Q magazine about Surrender, offering, like that Rolling Stone review, a compliment to the Chem Bros couched in a terminal diagnosis for their genre. Given the typical lifespan of many dance and electronic scenes over the years, such assessments weren’t entirely out of order. The duo themselves even noted at the time that they didn’t want to back themselves into the corner of pleasing the crowd until the crowd are no longer content with what used to please them. But this wasn’t the Brothers turning dance traitors and planning their escape, this was about redrawing boundaries and the need to grow. They weren’t the ones meant to be surrendering. They were saying, quite expressly in “Hey Boy Hey Girl,” the album’s first single: “Here we go.”
Not that the Chemical Brothers had a problem with going back to the same well when there was plenty of water left. “We like working with people whose music we’re great fans of,” Rowlands told Billboard about Surrender, “and we established nice relationships working with Noel Gallagher and Jonathan Donahue on ‘Dig Your Own Hole,’ so there’s that continuity….” Mercury Rev’s Donahue had contributed to “The Private Psychedelic Reel” on Dig and was called back to blissfully strum Surrender to a close with “Dream On.” Meanwhile, “Let Forever Be” found the Chem Bros landing on the right side of repeating themselves, with Gallagher lending a more full-chested vocal this time around to a more organic-hued cousin of “Setting Sun.”
That was just the tip of the guest list. On the album’s looser second half, Hope Sandoval drifts through “Asleep From Day,” a midpoint comedown that for its gentleness was perhaps the most startling new development on Surrender. The house shapeshifter “Out of Control” brought in both Bernard Sumner of New Order and a title-exhaling cameo from Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie (a man for whom the term ‘dance traitor’ had once been essentially invented after the Scream followed Screamadelica with Give Out But Don’t Give Up). Halfway though, “Out of Control” spins into a distinct pairing of open guitar chords and high bassline, and Sumner’s presence accomplishes something more meaningful than just filling a ‘featuring’ slot. “Out of Control,” like other moments on Surrender, combines homage and collaboration in a way more familiar to, but at the same time more capable than, rock music.
Make no mistake, the Chemical Brothers were up for being rock stars. “We’re not into avant-garde excursions, the sort of abstract ideas that you’ll hear on a Mo’ Wax record,” Rowlands told Muzik magazine in 1995. “We’re more like party steamrollers.” They had been throwing loud guitar samples in their tracks as far back as early single “Leave Home.” When electronica was deemed the new rock ‘n’ roll they rose to the occasion and became two of its most identifiable faces. Then, just like any rock band worth more than a mere good time, they got ambitious, and decided that steamrolling the party was no longer enough.
“Surrender feels like an old style rock record, and that’s a compliment,” wrote England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage in Mojo. “It has variation, depth and emotion, and addresses an audience outside its own immediate concerns and genre.” Though his appearance on Surrender passes almost unnoticed, the presence of Bobby Gillespie is a notable connection. Primal Scream had reset themselves again with Vanishing Point in 1997 and were putting together XTRMNTR when Surrender dropped. At this point, the Scream and the Chemical Brothers were pushing toward the same middle ground from different points along the spectrum, with the former wielding righteous modern anger and the latter focusing on good times past and present. Between the two of them at that moment, rock ‘n’ roll and electronic music were the closest they had ever been to being the same thing.
Successfully crossing over didn’t come without at least a little consternation. “I don’t like the way big beat is seen as a more acceptable form of dance music for people who aren’t really into dance music,” Simons admitted in an early 1999 interview. What he did like was seeing rock culture at that time reflecting dance culture. “Usually, it’s going to clubs that’s all about meeting up early and you all go down together, but Oasis gave you that sort of thing with rock gigs,” he said. Dig Your Own Hole had dug into the heads of legions of listeners who could probably count the number of other dance acts they liked on one hand, and it had done so with making few if any real concessions. Surrender reached even further across the imaginary aisle, and it did so on its own terms.
It also set a new precedent for Chemical Brothers albums to come. The next two in particular, Come With Us in 2002 and Push The Button in 2005, present the duo at their most pop-thinking. The singles brightly stand out, the pacing ebbs and flows, the vocalist lineups remain illustrious. The Chem Bros certainly didn’t get big turning their backs on a good formula, and the pattern-breaking they achieved on Surrender ultimately gave them a new one to work with.