I first heard Robert Miles’ “Children” as an 11-year-old attending sleepaway camp for the first time. The camp had its own magic-teaching program led by Ricky, a gregarious but slightly mysterious counselor, who set all of his campers’ magic routines — performed to easily wowed parents every two weeks on visiting day — to the elegant thump of “Children.” The performance would’ve been impressive on its own — Ricky’s pupils were impressively disciplined for a bunch of arty young teens — but performed in smoky darkness with Miles’ signature trance smash as accompaniment, it became a silent ballet of swallowed fire and disappearing scarves. In retrospect, it seems incredibly obvious that Ricky was a raver in his other life.
“Children,” released in 1995, became an international chart-topper and something else increasingly rare the following year: an entirely instrumental U.S. top 40 hit, peaking at no. 21 on the Hot 100 in July 1996. Though dance music had a major presence on the radio in the mid-’90s, it tended to be of the hi-NRG, diva house variety; big club beats and bigger soul vocals. Comb the Hot 100 from the week when Robert Miles — who we sadly learned on Tuesday night (May 9) had died of an unspecified illness at age 47 — hit his apex, and you can find hits by La Bouche, Amber, Billie Ray Martin and many more that match that general description.
But “Children” was a different beast: Huge and undeniable, but also intimate and inscrutable. Its parent album was called Dreamland, and according to a ’96 article in The Observer, the song was in fact written to help combat drug-related auto deaths that were sweeping Miles’ home country of Italy — the thought being that if calmer records like Miles’ were played at the end of a DJ’s set, it might lead to less aggressive post-club driving. (The song was also inspired in part by pictures his father of kids hid father had brought from a humanitarian trip to war-torn Yugoslavia, hence the title.)
Despite these tragic catalysts for its inception, “Children” was hardly the “Miss Sarajevo” of the dance floor — it was still more buoyant than it was heavy, more adrenalizing than chilling. What it really sounded like was a remix to itself: The ’90s were littered with popular trance reinventions of gorgeously stolid compositions, whether Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” or Mark Snow’s theme to The X Files. “Children” sounds like it easily could’ve been one of those cross-genre marriages; its ethereal guitar picking and cavernous production originally belong to the beatless ambience of a track from a Pure Moods compilation. It’s that pretty, but it’s also that propulsive: The song’s throbbing bass, spectral synths and punishingly metronomic beat ensure the song sounded just as natural at an underground rave as a spa resort.
And the piano hook — dear lord, the piano hook. In all ’90s pop, perhaps only Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” only comes close to stimulating as much reflexive air-piano as “Children”; 20 years later and it still takes just one measure to guarantee that the thing will be Slinky-ing up and down your subconscious for the rest of the day. (Rapper Tyga clearly found it unshakeable, prominently sampling it for his 2015 single “$timulated.”) It’s hardly the only great piano riff that Miles ever managed; on Dreamland alone there are a handful of ivory-tickling tracks that rival “Children” for brain-stickiness — like “Fable” and “One & One,” both top 10 hits essentially everywhere but the U.S., and No. 1s on the Dance Club Songs chart here. But it’s the “Children” melody that ended up the real time machine, as short a trip back to 1996 as Cuba Gooding Jr. shouting at Tom Cruise through his cell phone.
Does that make “Children” sound dated, then? Yes, of course, but “dated” is one of the most frustrating words in music discussion; as if providing the definitive sound of a moment in time is an inherently bad thing. Anyway, Miles’ productions were richer and less cheesy than he was properly given credit for: Take “Fantasya,” also from Miles’ debut, which paired a skipping beat with wordless, cloud-scaling diva vocals and and a strong bass undertow. Zoom out on it and there’s not much separating it from Orbital’s 1992 euphoric house classic “Halcyon,” one of the most acclaimed dance songs of the ’90s and a song that aged well enough to soundtrack the closing montage to a generational teen movie a decade later in a totally non-winking way. And if we all moved on from this kind of dramatic progressive trance pretty quickly, well, so did he — sophomore album 23am, released just a year after the “Children” takeover, is much more resolute in its chill, disposing of Dreamland‘s rigid 4/4 pulse for much more elastic, temperate and occasionally altogether invisible rhythms.
Besides, though the oontz–oontz beat and infinite echo of Miles’ biggest hit have mostly been phased out of the contemporary EDM toolkit, the lessons it provided continued to reverberate — not only in the similarly chiming piano hooks to ’10s hits like Alesso’s “Years,” but in the central idea that you don’t need more than one gigantic instrumental riff to take over not just the clubs, but the entire world. It’s telling that Finiish DJ Darude was one of the loudest voices mourning Robert Miles’ passing on Tuesday: The synth triggers of “Sandstorm,” one of the most unkillable instrumental dance hits of the 21st century, can be traced back to Miles’ twinkling club-slayers pretty easily. The line between dated and timeless — just like the line between clubland and dreamland — is thinner than we think, and Robert Miles’ smash will endure for how gracefully it twirled back and forth across it.