Hammered. The beat just hammered you. Made your pant legs vibrate. Made your hair move, even though there was no breeze at all. Visceral. Guttural. Invading. Absolutely unavoidable. Totally consuming.
This was a recent Chemical Brothers show, as experienced by someone who clearly remembers--and rather awkwardly tried to dance to--the emerging music of Bill Haley and the Comets. Back then it was "Rock Around the Clock," which heralded a departure into an unknown called rock-and-roll, thought by an older generation to be the end of civilization. I immersed myself in the sounds of the Platters, the Drifters, Buddy Holly, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, Ahmad Jamal and the like.
Here was a new unknown, though, music I only vaguely knew from the CDs my twentysomething kids have been bringing home. So a small voyage of discovery had brought me to a Washington club, where I hoped to untangle my ignorance.
Happily, I was in the company of a Knowledgeable One, who could explain to a curious type what this music was all about. Except that I couldn't hear her. Inches away, and I couldn't hear a thing except the driving, unforgiving, overwhelming, energizing beat.
I expected to be surprised, and I was, before we even got through the door. The people in the ticket booth asked if we wanted ear plugs. Ear plugs? I don't think they did that at Perry Como concerts. (I took them.) Second surprise: No instruments. No drums, no bass, no guitars. The stage was instead filled with sound boards and electronic consoles, with tiny red lights rippling and dancing about. There was a small keyboard or two attached to some of the consoles, but they seemed more of an afterthought than anything else. This was, I now realized, electronic music. A place where the computer rules.
I can't say I ever understood the music. Perhaps that was because of the total domination of the beat, which at times bordered on the uncomfortable. And perhaps it was because of the scene, which often drifted into the chaotic. The Knowledgeable One had forbidden me to dance, which seemed impossible anyway because the place was packed. Everybody was standing (there is precious little place to sit at this club) and facing the stage. The air was a smoke-filled haze, the floor was greasy wet. We assumed, hopefully, that that was from spilled beer.
As for the performers, the Chemical Brothers (two) seemed to alternate between being sound engineers, engrossed in the toggles and slides on the boards, and cheerleaders, waving their arms and bounding about the confined space on the stage.
This was accompanied by a continuous and expansive light show. Lasers, rotating spotlights, strobes and a constantly changing kaleidoscope on the backdrop--amoebas mutating into wildly different shapes, what looked like wiring diagrams on speed, religious icons morphing into clown faces, a constantly changing landscape of peering, opening, squinting and closing eyes, the firing of huge artillery guns, a flyby of World War II planes. Designed, perhaps, the Knowledgeable One later confided, to give the impression of being on drugs even if you weren't. Yes indeed, what a long, strange trip it's been.
Even though the manufactured sounds felt at times like music from Neptune and at other times like some amorphous giant slowly settling to sleep, the beat remained supreme. And this had its desired effect on the hot, sweaty, confined crowd. They swayed, they danced as best they could (with head-swinging abandon, in some instances, seeing as there was no room to swing anything else), they jumped. Jumped in place, actually. Some (males) took off their shirts, revealing webs of intricate tattoos.
The combined effect for a first-timer was, well, transporting. I could feel myself being drawn by the palpable strength of the invented, electronic sound coupled with the mesmerizing attraction of the light show and its close coordination with the music. I could sense the magnetic compulsion of the crowd to move or otherwise celebrate the beat; there was the spontaneous growling, rising, diminishing, rising, appreciative noise from the throng, accompanied by the loose synchronization of the waving hands and arms glimpsed through the gathering fog. In my mind's eye, I saw something akin to an ancient ritual of obeisance. Druids probably did something similar.
What is a different generation to make of this? In truth, I did not hear much soul in this music. The Knowledgeable One says I need to listen to some more. But I don't think I will ever hear the intricacies of jazz, for instance, or the evocative emotion of the blues. What I did hear was technology and the infinite stretch of computer creativity. This manipulation of possibilities is of a new and different sort, unusual to a low-tech ear but perhaps entirely natural to those who have always known the computer as a central presence in their lives. Each generation seems to invent its own intriguing boundaries to explore, so why not wish them well?
Besides, I got carded on the way into the show. Amazing what that does to open the mind of, um, an older person.
Tom Wilkinson, an assistant managing editor of The Post, is recovering his hearing--and his perspective.