Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
It took Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands all of nine seconds to hit music fans over the head with what in hindsight has stood as the Chemical Brothers’ mantra for 20 years. Maybe it’s coincidence that the opening line—“The Brothers gonna work it out”—on “Leave Home,” the first track of the duo’s first full-length record, would land and stick with that kind of longevity and conviction. Then again, it’s just as easy to suspect that it isn’t. Simons and Rowlands knew the hodge-podge of sounds swirling around their head defied categorization. In the broadest stroke, it was dance music, but what the pair was grabbing at owed just as much to funk, psychedelia, hip-hop, rock, alternative, and a whole host of subgenre sounds that fell between the sonic floor boards. Bringing it all together under one roof was going to be tough, they knew that much. But they also knew there was something in the mix that would hold it all together.
Still, the outside-the-box approach to dance and electronica showcased on Exit Planet Dust looked as if it would face a tough inroad to mainstream audiences on its August 1995 release. The early to mid-’90s represented middle-of-the-road rock music at its apex, but the alternative era kept its bands in a very tightly defined mold. Many of the bands looked, acted, and inevitably sounded the same, and none of them looked, acted, or sounded like Simons or Rowlands. But Exit Planet Dust bridged a gap that at the time seemed unbridgeable.
Dance music and alternative existed on opposite sides of the sonic globe, but The Chemical Brothers had no use for keeping their varying tastes in their neat and tidy compartments. They liked their Public Enemy and Schooly D with a side of New Order and My Bloody Valentine, their Beatles mixed in with the Velvet Underground. It was imperative that the pair knocked down the barriers that stood in between their tastes, and Exit Planet Dust was their conduit for doing so. By making electronic music cool for rock kids and vice versa, Exit Planet Dust worked around homogeny to earn its standing not only as one of the best electronic records of the ’90s, but also one of the decade’s most unique and entertaining rock records.
Rowlands told Remix Magazine in 2002 that he and Simons stayed up for three weeks straight making Exit Planet Dust, the title an allusion to the duo’s abandonment of its original Dust Brothers moniker. Truth or yarn, it sounds like the kind of record its creators probably lost sleep over. Restless, kinetic, and darting all over the musical map, Simons and Rowlands reassessed the entire concept of the dance record. Their debut pounded against the inside of listeners’ skulls with funky breakbeats, sirens, tribal chants, fuzzy bass lines, and slick samples for an intoxicating 49 minutes. While scores of faceless DJs were busy churning out formulaic club cuts, The Chemical Brothers envisioned dance music as a spectacular free-for-all, something too menacing and fucked up to be contained on the dance floor. Exit Planet Dust skirts rote house music to great effect. It’s tough to imagine pumping your fist to choppy, schizo joints like “Life Is Sweet,” “In Dust We Trust,” or “Chemical Beats,” but there was still something exciting about it. The duo’s use of breakbeats aligned them closer to rock music, and within a year Daft Punk, Prodigy, The Crystal Method, and others were also exploring how to bring dance and electronica in closer range of the rock ’n’ roll paradigm.
True to their word, The Chemical Brothers did work it out. Over time the duo grew into bona fide stadium heroes, while their music grew increasingly pop savvy with each passing record. Nothing on Exit Planet Dust measures up to the polish or finesse of a tune like the Q-Tip-endorsed “Galvanize,” but to play devil’s advocate, no Chemical Brothers effort since has matched this debut’s flair for inspired reinvention. It isn’t simply a debut in terms of chronology, but also in attitude. Its songs are marked with the kind of boundless energy that can only come in a band’s infancy, where every note and creative whim bristles with the opportunity for something huge. In this ground-zero pursuit, the experimental terrain seemed endless, and the duo staked out their territory with the energy of kids locked up in a candy store overnight. Even though today Simons and Rowlands are older, more graceful, and inarguably better than they were in 1995, that unchecked ebullience makes The Chemical Brothers’ debut the band’s most enduring strike.