Now probably best known for his love of fast cars and an even faster lifestyle, Jay Kay was once simply known as the lead singer and frontman of British acid jazz/jazz-funk outfit Jamiroquai. Establishing the band in 1992 alongside Toby Smith (keyboards), Stuart Zender (bass), Nick Van Gelder (drums) and Wallis Buchanan (didgeridoo), they released their debut single “When You Gonna Learn” via Gilles Peterson‘s now legendary Acid Jazz Records (then also home to fellow funksters Brand New Heavies). Thanks to the single’s success, particularly at a time when American rock and British pop ruled the airwaves, Jamiroquai were picked up by Sony Music Entertainment with whom the band signed an unprecedented eight-album deal the first of which, 1993’s Emergency on Planet Earth, would go on to be hailed a classic.
The album opens with a heavily re-worked version of their debut single “When You Gonna Learn,” which set the tone for the remainder of the album with its socio-political commentary backed by a killer groove. With lyrics such as “Victims of a modern world/Circumstance has brought us here/Armageddon’s come too near” and “There’s no fish let in the sea/Greedy men been killing all the life there ever was” it was clear from the outset that Jamiroquai were a band with something to say. Apart from the “call-to-arms” nature of the lyrics, what was also striking about the album’s opening cut was its use of the indigenous Australian wind instrument the didgeridoo, which would go on to be one of the album’s signature sounds and certainly made Jamiroquai stand apart from other acid jazz acts, along with the larger-than-life Jay Kay.
Continuing the album’s socially conscious themes (themes which will still resonate with audiences now, some 20 years later) “Too Young To Die” was an anti-war song like none ever heard before or since. Jay Kay delivered the line “Everybody don’t want no war/’cos we’re too young to die” over swirling strings and Zender’s irresistible bass groove, meaning audiences were torn between digesting the song’s message and busting out the dance moves, especially once those Stevie Wonder-esque ad libs kick in. In fact, it was probably with this track that Jamiroquai raised a red flag to their detractors who lampooned them as nothing more than a Stevie Wonder pastiche cooked up by a group of British white boys. With 40 million album sales and counting, I guess the joke was on them.
The album’s title track and the epic, 10+ minute “Revolution 1993” were further highlights of an album that, on reflection, doesn’t contain anything that could really be termed a low-point. Even “Music of the Mind,” the album’s sole instrumental cut (not including the “Didgin’ Out” outro), proved to be an aural delight, awash in strings, synths, bass and any number of other instruments. It’s probably the most straight ahead jazz moment on the LP and serves to showcase that, minus Jay Kay and his forthright lyrics, the remainder of Jamiroquai are still a force to be reckoned with. Special mention has to go to “Blow Your Mind,” an anomaly on the album simply due to the fact that its subject matter is a far cry from “Too Young To Die” and “When They Gonna Learn,” instead focusing on love and romantic relationships, something Jamiroquai would revisit in greater depth on later albums.
It wouldn’t be until 1996’s Travelling Without Moving that Jamiroquai would really make their mark on US audiences, thanks to singles “Virtual Insanity” and “Cosmic Girl,” but UK audiences lapped up their debut, pushing Emergency on Planet Earth to the #1 spot and keeping it there for a total of three weeks. In the 20 years since its release Jamiroquai have tried their hands at rock, pop, electronica and dance, all to varying degrees of success. However, it’s the jazz-licked grooves and soulful melodies of their debut, and its follow-up The Return of the Space Cowboy, that most fans hold closest to their hearts.