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'Sunchyme' is 20: this is why it remains a stone-cold banger

The 1997 hit hasn't aged one bit

'Sunchyme' is 20: this is why it remains a stone-cold banger
15 September 2017

There are some songs which, even 20 years after their release, are far too recognisable to be allowed anywhere near a ‘beat the intro’ competition.

‘Chelsea Dagger’ by the Fratellis is identifiable within a couple of seconds, as is Robert Miles’ life-saving classic ‘Children’.

But there’s one song that you can pick out even before the first note hits.

Don’t ask me how, but it’s somehow possible to just know ‘Sunchyme’ by Dario G – which turns 20 today – is about to start playing before that piano sounds.

Want to know how it all works? I don’t know, ask a scientist or something. Maybe it’s some kind of banger sixth sense, passed down through generations. All I know is that it’s real, and that our inability to explain it is what makes it so special.

September 1997 was a time of joy and optimism.

The Prime Minister was still ‘young Newcastle fan Tony Blair’ rather than…well, however you’d describe him now.

Film fans were still riding the Full Monty wave, content in the knowledge that a film like that could get the kind of coverage reserved these days for big-budget sequels.

Oh, and we’d just had Le Tournoi, famous for Roberto Carlos scoring that scientifically impossible free-kick and England’s footballers actually winning something.

So, what better time for a mysterious British outfit named after the Crewe Alexandra manager to take the charts by storm?

This was before widespread internet, of course, so much of the discussion at the time concerned the name of the performer.

Suggestions that they were named after Crewe boss Dario Gradi felt like one of those schoolyard rumours that spread like wildfire but couldn’t possibly be true.

The most obvious explanation would be that it was just some Italian bloke called Dario – after all, even Robert Miles was Italian, despite the anglicised name. If Italians were being forced to make themselves sound more English, surely there was no reason for it to go the other way.

Except Dario G wasn’t just one guy from Italy. It was three guys, led by Paul Spencer. And, yes, they were named after Gradi, the Milan-born Englishman then in the middle of a 24-year spell in charge of their local club.

“I went to his house to borrow a football shirt for Top Of The Pops and he said, `I understand you’re doing very well with my name!’” Spencer told The Independent back in 1998.

“I know the name Dario G conjured up the image of a hunk DJing in Ibiza, but we didn’t expect “Sunchyme” to take off the way it did.” 

That ‘Sunchyme’ performed so well comes in part from the fact that it appealed not just to people who weren’t into its genre, but to people who weren’t even that into music.

Perhaps it’s the association of the title, but it’s impossible to watch the video, or even listen to the song, without being transported back to a summer setting. This might be the reason why a friend of ShortList wrote this on Facebook:

When it all comes together…the piano, the steel drums and the vocals, there’s a level of unity that goes beyond the mere concept of chart music.

In combination with the video, ‘Sunchyme’ gives you nostalgia for somewhere you’ve never been, be it the African plains, an Ibiza club in its 90s heyday, or maybe…just maybe…industrial Cheshire - particularly appropriate given its sampling of ’Life in a Northern Town’ by Dream Academy.

As an aside, have you ever wondered how the director made their choice of which animals to include?

Was it as simple as a small selection native to the part of Africa in which it was filmed, or did more thought go into it? If someone had shown up off the street dressed as a crocodile, would they have been allowed in or would they have been turned away for a ‘lack of realism’ within a video consisting of no real animals, just people in body paint wearing artificial tails, feathers or manes? We need to know, Dario. Sorry, Paul.

As I have previously discussed in my analysis of fellow mid-90s banger ‘Drinking in LA’, it certainly felt easier to trouble the charts in 1997 than it does in 2017, with some notable exceptions.

’Sunchyme’ entered the charts in the same week as Bellini’s ‘Samba de Janeiro’, another largely instrumental track which – if you were to guess from listening in isolation – you’d probably place in mid-July rather than mid-September.

The mix of summer dancefloor hits, big name hits and…let’s just say ‘miscellaneous others’ led to what might be the greatest single-week top five in living memory.

Behind Elton John’s re-release of ‘Candle in the Wind’, we had, in order: ‘Sunchyme’, ‘Tubthumping’ by Chumbawumba, ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ by The Verve, and Will Smith classic ‘Men in Black’, the second-best Will Smith film theme song behind ‘Wild Wild West’.

It can feel like a bit of a cliché to claim music was ‘better’ in your day. If anything, the selection above proves that it was infinitely worse, but more fun. Which is what really matters here.

The success of Sunchyme might have been a little unexpected, but it paved the way for another of those songs which instantly transport you back to a certain place when you hear the title alone.

Football tournament music has somehow been able to retain the sense of fun long since removed from mainstream charts (with a few exceptions), with even recent releases like K’Naan’s ‘Waving Flag’ and Pitbull’s ‘We Are One (Ole Ola)’ acting less as songs and more as beaming smiles in musical form.

Perhaps it’s the association with Brazil and o jogo bonito, or perhaps it’s more to do with absence making the heart grow fonder – waiting four years for the World Cup and all its accoutrements is less likely to leave you at saturation point than even a three-month run of self-styled sounds of the summer – but it’s tough not to warm to this particular subgenre.

Dario G’s contribution, ‘Carnaval de Paris’, while not an official tournament song, carried with it that togetherness that only comes with tens of thousands of international football fans in holiday mode in a foreign country (not club fans, though, apparently their mixing counts as ‘chaos’ or ‘mayhem’).

After the ‘people covered in paint’ video format worked so well with ‘Sunchyme’, they doubled down on ‘Carnaval de Paris’ with teams of children painted to represent the countries taking part in the 1998 tournament in France.

The marriage of Dario G with actual football feels like a no-brainer, and that’s presumably how Spencer and co. saw it back then.

Blending different instrumental versions of the same broad tune like a scriptless A-Team episode, it – like ‘Sunchyme’ before it – offered the perfect environment for fans to sing along after a few drinks: no words, and an instrumental track that could (and still can) be easily replaced with out-of-tune Na-Na-Nas.

Oh, and bagpipes. Because who doesn’t love bagpipes.

“We looked at the different styles of music and instruments from each country [that qualified] and incorporated an element of each one into the melody we had created,” Spencer told Billboard.

“It was an absolute nightmare to record, because we recorded everything live”.

The bagpipe element is among the most recognisable aspects, acting as a fond memory of Scotland’s last major tournament and introducing the opening game, which Craig Brown’s team narrowly lost to holders Brazil. And, in Spencer’s eyes, its presence was never in doubt.

“The idea of featuring a bagpipe solo as the centrepiece of a pop record was pretty bold, and could have been foolish, but took comfort in the knowledge that it had worked for an ex-Beatle in 1977,” Spencer wrote in a 2015 post for The Green Soccer Journal.

“Not since Wings’ ‘Mull of Kintyre’ had bagpipes featured on a top five record; I still believe that they were long overdue a renaissance.”

If a 20-year wait is about the right amount of time for any musical centrepiece, logic dictates that we’re probably due something resembling an heir to Dario G round about now.

You’re probably scratching your head trying to think of who would be capable of such a thing, but there’s no need – it’s already been done, and you probably didn’t even notice.

Take Duke Dumont’s ‘I Got U’, for example, or even Jamie xx’s ‘Far Nearer’. The use of steel drums as a centrepiece to build in to a slow-burner of a track is straight out of the Dario G playbook.

Sure, they might not have been the originators, but you can almost draw a straight line from one to the next.

You’ve probably been wondering what Dario G have been up to in the meantime, haven’t you.

If you’re the sort of person who hasn’t given them a moment’s thought since ‘Sunchyme’ and ‘Carnaval de Paris’, save for instantly recalling ‘Sunchyme’ and ‘Carnaval de Paris’ at the first mention of either and shout-singing ‘Hey oh ma ma ma’ for several hours as your colleagues gradually despise you more and more to the point that they decide to let you work from home for the next fortnight, you’re probably thinking Dario G would have been a great fit for the last two World Cups too.

Sure, the mere idea of a major tournament lends itself well to their particular brand of euphoria, but imagine the same thing with the added bonus of a tournament taking place in South Africa or Brazil, rather than France.

Well, idiots, they did that too. Well, Paul Spencer did, at least, after shedding his bandmates and going it alone.

Where were you? Yeah, that’s right, an official song in 2010 and a Shirley Bassey collaboration ahead of the 2014 tournament. Too busy listening to ‘Three Lions’ on repeat instead, were you? We can’t take you anywhere.

Anyway, don’t mind us, we’re off to play ‘Sunchyme’ on full volume in the office until everyone leaves and then go for a kickabout on the nearest beach. You’re all invited.

(Images: YouTube/Rex Features)