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How The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Surrender’ became their biggest, brightest album

Released on 21st June 1999, The Chemical Brothers’ third album harnessed the enormity of trance, the ecstasy of acid house, and the vibrancy of psychedelia to become their boldest statement, and a mirror to the hedonistic mood of the UK at that time. Here, with the help of the duo’s Tom Rowlands, Ben Cardew reflects on its legacy

In June 1998, dance music was huge in the UK. From high street clubs to the local school disco, the decade’s early anti-establishment rave dreams were slowly shifting into a stark, commercial reality. Trance was everywhere, pumping out of clubs like Gatecrasher in Sheffield and Ministry Of Sound in London, while singles by the likes of Paul van Dyk and Binary Finary were making a euphoric splash in the charts. 

It was in this context that Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, better known as The Chemical Brothers, distributed a promo vinyl to DJs up and down the country called ‘Electronic Battle Weapon 3’. Arriving one year after the release of their second LP, ‘Dig Your Own Hole’, the track wasn’t trance per se, but with its scrabbling, high-pitched riff, driving bassline and perpetual forward motion, it tapped into the impulsive, hedonistic energy of the moment, and signalled something of a change in tack for the pioneering big beat duo. It was later tweaked and renamed ‘Under The Influence’, after the spoken sample that appears throughout, to become the second song on their third album, ‘Surrender’, which was released almost exactly a year later on 21st June 1999.

‘Surrender’ is the Chemical Brothers’ biggest, brightest album: a cacophony of dayglow indulgence; of dance music in excelsis and repetitive beats for all. Featuring now-iconic singles including ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’, ‘Let Forever Be’, ‘Music:Response’ and ‘Out Of Control’, it’s sold over 2.3 million copies worldwide in the 25 years since its release. It’s a record that still feels very much attuned to the optimistic mood of the UK in 1999: a conversation with the big-room trends of DJ culture, and a bombastic leap forward for their own musical explorations. 

“I sometimes think that the record you make is the reaction to the last one,” says Rowlands when DJ Mag calls him up to talk about the milestone. “We’d really chased after something with ‘Dig Your Own Hole’, and we'd kind of got that. ‘Surrender’ was going to open things up to be a more collaborative work. When we started, we were driven by the excitement of coming off the last album and feeling we could do anything, really.”

Chemical Brothers' press shot on a blue background
© Kevin Westenberg

“All these ideas we were exploring, they all came out in ‘Surrender’ in their real, ideal form.” - Tom Rowlands

Given its dominance in UK dance music in that era, it was perhaps inevitable that the bosh-it trance energy of Gatecrasher, with its community of brightly disguised Crasher kids, would rub off on the Brothers, injecting their music with a visceral, brightly-coloured power. “We played in Sheffield, a kind of beats and breaks night, and we didn't feel that sort of real connection, I suppose,” Rowlands says. “And then we went down the road to Gatecrasher. It had more that spirit of wonder in the music and frequencies. It was a much more intoxicating sort of night – feeling the power of dance music.” 

As ever though, the Chems weren’t drinking from just one well of influence on ‘Surrender’; trance was just one of the ingredients they mixed into their potent club cocktail. “All our records are influenced by our first connection with acid house, and everything within that – the sort of intoxicating feeling that we had when we first found dance music,” Rowlands explains. “Obviously we were going out a lot and we were playing live a lot, and I suppose we were playing bigger stages. It’s almost like a sort of feedback loop for us: when we're DJing or when we're playing live, some of the music gets really influenced by where we imagine playing it.”

Few tracks capture that big stage, bigger dancefloor energy than ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’, the first single to be shared from ‘Surrender’ in May 1999. To this day, it remains arguably the Chems’ best-known and best-loved track, but on its release, it felt like an unusual excursion for them. One of their most out-and-out four-to-the-floor dance cuts, its furious trance-indebted riff and instantly recognisable spoken word hook would feel as at home in DJ sets by Dave Pearce, Judge Jules and Pete Tong as it did in their own live shows. Watch clips of them playing it nowadays, and its power isn’t even slightly diminished.

As Rowlands makes clear, it’s not like the duo came back from Gatecrasher and made a Paul van Dyk record. But ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ did feel like a roaring response to the fluoro trance that was then dominating the charts, while retaining just enough of the classic Chems breakbeats to keep the fans happy. With its pulsating bass arps and clattering drums it is, by some distance, their most likely track to send a crowd into rapture, and the public swallowed it whole. It ended up reaching No. 3 in the UK singles charts just in time for summer.

The single’s mention of “superstar DJs” – sampled from Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three’s ‘The Roof is on Fire’ – may have sounded ironic coming from The Chemical Brothers earlier on in their career, but here, it felt spot on. Here was a song for superstar DJs, made by superstar DJs, unlikely candidates as Rowlands and Simons were. If you didn’t like it, well, that was your problem. Because people were having a great time. Heeeere we go!

Gatefold artwork from The Chemical Brothers' 'Surrender' on a blue background
© Kate Gibb

"I always like hearing our records on the radio, because they all felt so different, and they all felt like they shouldn't be there. We didn't have to change anything in our vision of what we wanted to do for them to fit into that world. It almost felt like that world was bending to us.” - Tom Rowlands

Large, decadent and ever so slightly plastic, ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ set the tone for summer 1999 and for ‘Surrender’ itself. Here was an album of uncomplicated beats that matched the enormity of dance music at the time. While ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ was moody and often dark, ‘Surrender’ was full of ecstatic dance urges, blatant hooks and commercial saleability.

Album opener ‘Music:Response’ has the best alarm clock bleep since Bomb the Bass’ ‘Beat Dis’; ‘Out of Control’ is borne aloft by a synth arpeggio right out of the ‘I Feel Love’ school of irresistible; the album’s title track plays out to a wonderfully warm central melody, which floats around the song like cosmic bees on honey. 

‘Surrender’ is an album of excess. Both New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie contribute vocals to ‘Out of Control’, while ‘Music: Response’ samples ‘Make It Hot’ by Nicole Wray and Missy Elliott, a borrowing that is unlikely to have come cheap. And yet, despite all this, the album remains true to the oddness and juxtaposition that made The Chemical Brothers so refreshing when they emerged in the early ‘90s, from the mercurial guitar on ‘Out of Control’ to the weird beat scratch effect at the end of ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’.

At its best, ‘Surrender’ is effortless: huge piles of fun rendered in gigantic 3D. It’s an album of pure mood, driven by a general reverence for what feels good, an ultra vibey record for endless summers, where each song flows into the next in a party time rush of adrenaline. ‘Surrender’, Rowlands told CMJ New Music Monthly, “was more put together by moods, the tone of the record and where it could take you”. As such, ‘Surrender’ stood for all the positive moments in dance music 1999 – the uncomplicated good times and friendly rush of its late century commercial peak. 

“It's like all these ideas in our band came together at that point,” Rowlands says of ‘Surrender’. “‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ is like the best version of that acid house-influenced big dance record, but still very connected to the love we had of hip-hop, which is at the core of it.

“‘Got Glint?’ really connects to our early love of house music but done in a different kind of way,” he adds. “All these ideas we were exploring, they all came out in ‘Surrender’ in their real, ideal form.”

That is equally true of the album’s downbeat songs. The woozy ‘Asleep From Day’, with Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval on vocals, is a gorgeous addition to The Chemical Brothers’ catalogue of comedown classics; ‘Dream On’, with Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, is an electronic lullaby, while ‘The Sunshine Underground’ initially inhabits similarly sleepy psychedelic territory, before powering off into dance ecstasy in its second half.

“We were really obsessed at the time about crafting what, for us, was this perfect sort of album,” says Rowlands. “It was a time when we were trying to squeeze in everything we liked about music, everything we wanted to say with our music, trying to get all these elements of our band in one record that didn't feel disjointed or bolted together.”

The album and singles artworks for The Chemical Brothers' 'Surrender' on a blue background
© Kate Gibb

‘The Sunshine Underground’ is often cited when people call ‘Surrender’ The Chemical Brothers’ psychedelic album, where 1960s acid meets 1980s acid house. This view, perhaps, overlooks how deeply trippy ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ was, but that song, the soaring Noel Gallagher collaboration ‘Let Forever Be’, and the album’s title track do flirt with the trappings of psychedelia. The record’s cover art – designed by printmaker and illustrator Kate Gibb – features a suitably far out photograph, of music fan William Jellett at The Great British Music Festival in 1976. 

Rowlands says that ‘Surrender’ represents a different type of psychedelia to the band’s second LP. “‘Dig Your Own Hole’ is more disorientating, wild and... not nasty, but there’s a bit of like, ‘Woah this doesn’t feel quite right.’,” he says. “‘Surrender’ probably is more the idealised version, the technicolour version.” 

The album’s 20th anniversary reissue in 2019 even included the ‘Secret Psychedelic Mixes’ of five tracks, which were made in the process of working towards the final versions. These extended jams are further out, weirder and perhaps more interesting than the album tracks they preceded, but Rowlands correctly points out that they simply wouldn’t have made sense on the end record. What’s more, this jammy, loose take on ‘Surrender’ would probably never have topped the charts, which the official version did. And topping the charts suited ‘Surrender’, a self-consciously huge album from a group empowered by the success of its predecessor.

“We were excited that ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ could be such a successful record,” says Rowland. “We were excited when [‘Dig Your Own Hole’ track] ‘Setting Sun’ was No.1, because it’s still just a totally mad, really singular piece of music. I always like hearing our records on the radio, because they all felt so different, and they all felt like they shouldn't be there. We didn't have to change anything in our vision of what we wanted to do for them to fit into that world. It almost felt like that world was bending to us.”

A year after the release of ‘Surrender’, the UK’s mainstream dance bubble sort of burst: after a disastrous series of club nights to mark the new Millennium, inflated DJ fees and promoter greed left punters with a sour taste in the mouth. The Chemical Brothers didn’t exactly shrink off underground, remaining a huge commercial force in the UK. But ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ would be their penultimate top five hit, followed only by the atypical hip-hop slammer ‘Galvanize’ in 2005. 

25 years on, with trance music once more en vogue, ‘Surrender’ feels surprisingly well aligned with dance music’s trends again. Out in the world, bad things are happening, but within the sweet inner life of ‘Surrender’, everything feels OK. It’s a reminder that sometimes it's worth not thinking too hard about it all for a little while; that you can just surrender to your impulses.

“I think ‘Surrender’ is perfectly at 10: all the frequencies are there, things sound shiny and sparkly,” Rowlands concludes. “It’s a record that has a sheen to it. A lot of time was spent trying to make it perfect. Whereas other music we've made, we spent a lot of time making it imperfect. This was us trying to make something that just felt right, as soon as you heard it.”

From 24th May - 31st July, Sónar will host a 360º audiovisual installation, Music:Response, at Casa Batlló in Barcelona, celebrating the visual world of The Chemical Brothers and their longtime live collaborators Smith & Lyall. Full details and tickets are available here.

Want more? Read about how Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’ predicted a new era for British music here

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist. Follow him on X @bencardew