How The Chemical Brothers Revitalised UK Dance With Their Lairy House And Hip-Hop Hybrid ‘Exit Planet Dust’

In the mid-1990s, with techno watered down into trance, and trip-hop on the rise, the dance scene needed something a bit more lairy. Step forward Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, who met at Manchester University, bonded over Chaucer but were blown to bits by Public Enemy. The fusion of house and hip-hop they would go on to invent ended up the perfect, boisterous dancefloor counterpoint to Britpop. The Dust Brothers – as they were originally known – gathered steam as resident DJs at Manchester’s Naked Under Leather and London’s Heavenly Sunday Social. Signed to Andrew Weatherall and Terry Farley’s acid hooligan label Junior Boy’s Own, early EPs showed promise before wall-shaking June 1995 single ‘Leave Home’ crashed into the Top 20. Then came ‘Exit Planet Dust’, released 20 years ago this week – a record that shook the foundations of UK dance. Here’s its story…

Story behind the sleeve

“The one brief we had from the Chemicals,” Anthony Sweeney, a partner in design team Negativespace, told Spin magazine in August 1997, “was that they didn’t want it to look like the techno imagery that you associate with dance music – the three-dimensional balls floating in space sort of thing.”

Five facts

1 The Chemical – or Dust – Brothers’ debut single, 1992’s ‘Song To The Siren’ (not to be confused with Tim Buckley’s song of the same name), opens side two of the double LP.Simons and Rowlands worked on it together while the latter was still a member of baggy-house group Ariel, but when Rowlands presented it to the band, they passed.

2 The title references the fact that, as they progressed from white labels to full releases, the duo ditched the Dust Brothers name to avoid action from the production team behind the Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’ and Beck’s ‘Odelay’. Album track and ‘Fourteenth Century Sky’ EP lead ‘Chemical Beats’ provided new inspiration.

3 Among a series of run-out groove messages on the LP, side four features the legendary “Huw is innocent!”, apparently dedicated to Rowlands’ brother. They would revisit the cause on 2005’s ‘Push The Button’, where the side four run-out claims, “Huw is still innocent!”

4 Tim Burgess’s appearance on ‘Life Is Sweet’ was The Charlatans frontman returning the favour after the Brothers mixed ‘Patrol’, the B-side to band’s 1994 single ‘Jesus Hairdo’. “Tim may be in a guitar band,” the Brothers said, “but he’s just as knowledgeable about dance music.”

5 ‘Exit Planet Dust’ was U2 guitarist The Edge’s favourite album of 1995.

Lyric analysis

“No way of knowing if she’s ever coming back/No way of knowing if I care or not” – ‘Alive Alone’: The album closer features the first Chemicals/Beth Orton collaboration, a match-up they would revisit on ‘Where Do I Begin’ on 1997’s ‘Dig Your Own Hole’. Orton’s mournful but insouciant voice is the perfect for a song about finding comfort in loneliness.

“And days like this are sweet/I’m walking in my sleep/It’s a place where I belong/I banged a million drums” – ‘Life Is Sweet’: Tim Burgess’ lyrics for ‘Life Is Sweet’ were reputedly dashed off in seconds, a stream of unconsciousness.

What we said then

“This is brash, raw, rule-bending gear made by open-minded music fans, for open-minded music fans.” Stephen Dalton, NME, June 24, 1995

What we say now

The Chemical Brothers’ debut is the blueprint for how it should be done – a still astoundingly chunky mix of punishing hip-hop rhythms, samples and techno kinetics that even finds space for a little soul on the low pulse of ‘One Too Many Mornings’ and dubby folk of ‘Alive Alone’.

Famous fan

“They are the fucking dons at what is going on in dance music.” Noel Gallagher, Uncut, March, 2000

In their own words

“We did come up with a new sound… We came up with our own mutant thing, and now people make records that sound like ours.” Ed Simons, Melody Maker, January 20, 1996

The aftermath

Soon after the release of ‘Exit Planet Dust’, Ed Simons revealed his ambition to “make a record that’s as good as ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’,” the game-changing Beatles trip-out. So they set about trying it twice on two Noel Gallagher collaborations, 1996 Number One single ‘Setting Sun’ and 1999 top-tenner ‘Let Forever Be’. The duo can lay claim to being prime motivators behind Daft Punk’s techno/hip-hop adventures, as well as Fatboy Slim’s late-90s chart reign, but they’ve never rested on their laurels, releasing seven albums that have planted their exhilarating meld of dance and rock dynamics firmly in the stadium and festival big leagues, with an eighth, ‘Born In The Echoes’, to follow in July.