Happy 20th Anniversary to Jamiroquai’s Travelling Without Moving, originally released in the UK September 9, 1996 and in the US January 14, 1997.
I’ve never understood it. “It” being the derision flung Jamiroquai’s way time and time again by more than a handful of music snobs disguised as critics.
More on this in a moment. But first, a little context.
Four-plus years before they delivered their international breakthrough in the form of the inescapable 1996 hit single “Virtual Insanity,” Jamiroquai was born. Jason “Jay Kay” Cheetham founded the multi-instrumentalist ensemble in London in 1992, allegedly in the wake of his not-so-successful audition to become the Brand New Heavies’ lead vocalist, an honor that was instead deservedly bestowed upon the lovely N’Dea Davenport, recently the subject of an Albumism interview. Though in the interest of full transparency, Brand New Heavies founder Jan Kincaid has refuted that Kay ever tried out for the band, at least in any formal manner.
No matter though, as Jay Kay signed an eight-album recording contract with Sony Music on the strength of Jamiroquai’s 1992 debut single “When You Gonna Learn?,” originally released via the Gilles Peterson and Eddie Piller co-founded Acid Jazz Records, also the Brand New Heavies’ first label. The band’s first two studio LPs, Emergency on Planet Earth (1993) and The Return of the Space Cowboy (1994), juxtaposed funkdafied, feel-good anthems with politically and environmentally conscientious fare. Both albums are considered classics of the acid jazz movement and contain some of the band’s greatest compositions, including “Too Young to Die,” “Hooked Up,” “Blow Your Mind,” “Stillness in Time,” “Light Years,” “Mr. Moon,” and of course, the recognizable, not so thinly-disguised nod to marijuana indulgence, “Space Cowboy.”
Despite both albums’ modest critical and commercial success in Europe, Jamiroquai’s US breakthrough failed to materialize in their first few years together, and the band cultivated little more than a niche fanbase stateside. This would all change soon enough, however.
In August 1996, “Virtual Insanity,” the Grammy-winning opening track and second single from the group’s then-forthcoming third album Travelling Without Moving, was released. The midtempo, piano-driven groove finds Jay Kay lamenting the proliferation of technology at the expense of human connection and preservation of our planet, as best evidenced in the chorus with lines such as, “Always seem to, be governed by this love we have / For useless, twisting, our new technology / Oh, now there is no sound—for we all live underground.” While the song itself reflected Jamiroquai’s more mature and polished sound at the time, it was the accompanying video unveiled the following month that became the band’s transformative, watershed moment.
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, the inventively orchestrated video features the slick-footed Jay Kay dancing across an ever-shifting floor, evading moving furniture, and addressing the viewer through an unorthodoxly skewed camera angle. Not surprisingly in retrospect, the clip quickly pervaded MTV across the globe and elevated the group’s previously marginal profile in the US in particular. The video galvanized album sales (an estimated 11.5 million units sold worldwide to date, including the coveted platinum certification in the states) and eventually racked up four awards at the 1997 MTV Video Awards, including the supreme honor of “Best Video of the Year.”
Unfortunately, the song and video’s ubiquity arguably obscured just how wonderful the entire album is. A more varied and ultimately more immersive affair than its two precursors, Travelling Without Moving, in my opinion at least, remains Jamiroquai’s most consistently gratifying song suite of their nearly 25-year career. Standout tracks abound, particularly across the LP’s first half, and despite its widespread popularity, “Virtual Insanity” isn’t even the strongest song of the bunch.
This honor goes to the headnod-inducing “Alright,” a bass-fueled reverie that celebrates the myriad possibilities of newfound love, with a refreshingly optimistic Jay Kay proclaiming to the object of his affection, “We'll spend the night together / Wake up and live forever.” Without question, it’s still my personal favorite, not just from Travelling, but across the band’s entire recorded repertoire.
Other undeniable highlights include the percussive, carpe diem-like anthem “Use the Force,” which opens with tribal drums amid funky bass riffs and guitar licks before seguing into a keyboard-led groove. Film buffs will also recognize it from the soundtrack of the underrated 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow starring, butterfly effect inspired flick Sliding Doors.
Replete with synth and string-blessed rhythms, the propulsive, disco-tinged “Cosmic Girl” finds Jay Kay serenading an irresistible, otherworldly woman akin to “some baby Barbarella.” The rocking funk of “High Times” makes for another stormer of a song that explores the tough-to-reconcile temptations of drug-fueled hedonism and life along the straight-and-narrow. The high-energy vibe is further bolstered by the hard-driving, automotive themed title track, the epic 8-and-a-half minute gallivant through a great night out that is hidden track “Funktion,” and the drum-and-bass imbued M-Beat collaboration and lead single “Do You Know Where You’re Coming From?”
Perfectly designed to usher in the late-night, post-party come-down, a handful of downtempo numbers round out the rest of Travelling, including the slinky soul ballad “Everyday,” the reggae-flavored ode to escapism “Drifting Along,” and the symphonic, minimalist dedication of eternal love “Spend a Lifetime.” Also worth noting are “Didjerama” and “Didjital Vibrations,” a pair of hypnotic instrumental tracks blessed by the combination of Wallis Buchanan’s didgeridoo (look it up, if you’re not familiar) with Derrick McKenzie’s percussion and Stuart Zender’s bass, respectively.
In the wake of the excellent Travelling Without Moving’s release, Jamiroquai’s newfound international recognition was well-deserved. But with the band’s augmented success came plenty of criticism and outright condemnation, much of it racially-charged, largely stemming from the group’s, and more precisely Jay Kay’s, perceived appropriation of Black music. Never mind that Jamiroquai was and has always been multi-cultural in composition and musical derivation, one British journalist accused Jay Kay of “stealing the soul” just as Elvis Presley was accused of doing 30 to 40 years before.
Moreover, amid prevalent Dr. Seussian references to Jay Kay as “the prat in the hat,” multiple critics accused Jay Kay of blatantly ripping off Stevie Wonder’s vocal style and musical approach. In its September 2003 issue, the short-lived, now-defunct Blender magazine included Jamiroquai in its list of the “50 Worst Artists in Music History,” labeling Jay Kay “the white, talentless Stevie Wonder” and further opining, “Where to start—the ludicrous headgear? The atrocious dancing? No, let us start, and finish, with the fact that Stevie Wonder has more talent in his dark glasses than Jay Kay has in his entire body.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. I mean, really? Did you even listen to any of Jamiroquai’s songs beyond “Virtual Insanity?” Even when the media coverage was positive in nature, publications still couldn’t resist contextualizing Jamiroquai’s success in myopic racial terms, as evidenced by the subhead of Vibe magazine’s March 1997 interview, which referred to “England’s funkiest white boy.”
Admittedly, these critics are all entitled to expressing their opinions. Just as I am entitled to dismiss the lion’s share of their perspectives as misguided rubbish, which it most certainly is. The media’s naïve obsession with evaluating how “original” Jamiroquai is obscured the fact that the band, including their frontman, are more than capable songsmiths. Not to mention that the group’s kaleidoscopic, impossible-to-pigeonhole mélange of funk, jazz fusion, electronic, soul, rock and other musical dispositions is unique to them, and their remarkably consistent discography offers more than sufficient testament to their artistic integrity and undeniable appeal.
Oh, and about those Stevie Wonder impersonation accusations. Sorry, but Jay Kay sounds nothing like Stevie Wonder. No one does. And to suggest as much is less a critique of Jamiroquai, and much more an insult to Wonder’s distinctive voice, sound and musical legacy. Jay Kay, for one, has always been quick to echo these exact sentiments. “Well, when you mention Stevie Wonder you mention someone who can play drums and keyboards, a fucking genius. Which I’m not,” he confided to Vibe in 1999. “There’s a great difference. Everybody’s influenced, but you’re only influenced so far. You cannot just copy…you cannot just sound like Stevie Wonder.”
Ever the consummate peacemaker, Wonder himself has never seemed to take any offense whatsoever to any vocal resemblances that may exist between the two, however remote they may be and are. "It would be different if Jay said he'd never heard of Stevie Wonder, and I'd say, 'Well, you know, that's some shit!'" Wonder insisted during a 1997 Paper interview. "But music is something God has given us as a gift that we can all enjoy. In fact, I have a song I never released that I was thinking would be perfect for [Jay]." Case closed.
And to conclude matters on a more positive note, a brief personal anecdote about the first time I heard Travelling Without Moving in its entirety back in early 1997. Midway through my sophomore year at UCLA, I was on a first date with a friend of a friend, and she had the freshly unwrapped CD in her car. We listened to the first half on the way to dinner in Santa Monica and absorbed the remaining tracks on the way back to Westwood a few hours later. And though the first date would prove to be the last for us since we each recognized that we weren’t terribly compatible romantically, I remember feeling like the date wasn’t a total wash because of the welcome discovery of Travelling’s brilliance. The next day I took a stroll to the nearby Tower Records and snagged my own copy, which I still play on the regular.
Twenty years and four subsequent Jamiroquai albums on (with a new one rumored to be coming soon), Travelling Without Moving still sounds as fresh and invigorating as it did that evening, and I still rate it as Jamiroquai’s greatest, most fully realized musical achievement to date.