[The Guardian, 1999]
SOMETHING is trying to eat my microphone. It looks like a dog, only smaller. Norman Cook smiles indulgently at the creature. He does nothing to stop it. The micro-pet turns its attention to Norman's deep, inset shagpile carpet. Only now does Norman show any concern.
“Don't chew the carpet, dear,” he chides. “It's not good for you.”
On the pebble beach directly below Norman's Brighton home, a man in a check shirt wanders, collecting rocks in a bottle.
“What's he up to?” Norman is suspicious. Understandably. “I've had photographers out there, trying to get pictures of me. I sleep up here sometimes. In the nude.” Which is an image to conjure with. What goes unsaid is that he may occasionally be joined by his girlfriend. His girlfriend being Radio One DJ and tabloid favourite Zoe Ball. You can see why the papers might be interested in conjuring with that one. So Norman currently acts with increased caution. We step out onto the balcony to take a look. The bottle man is arranging his pebbles as targets for a sighted rifle, aimed by another man, also in a check shirt.
“Thank fuck for that,” says Norman. “It's only a bloke with a gun.”
These days, Norman Cook is better known as Fatboy Slim, one of many alternate identities. His latest album, You've Come A Long Way, Baby, has been perched on or near the top of the charts since its release last October. The title refers to his odyssey through the music business, which began 14 years ago in Hull and has now fetched him up on the shores of Brighton. Home. From dour indie solemnity to hedonism, Big Beat, Zoe Ball and paparazzi, he has indeed come a long way. Full circle, after a fashion.
IT'S 35 years since Norman Cook - given name, Quentin - was born in Bromley, the most suburban suburb in the history of suburbia. Soon afterwards, the family moved to Surrey's commuter belt - to Redhill, which places a mere third or forth in the suburb rankings. “I am,” he agrees, “a child of the suburbs.”
Until punk came along, Quentin took only a passing interest in music. For a while he thought his uncle was in The Beatles. “His band used to rehearse at my Nan's house in New Cross. I'd hear them playing Ob-la di, Ob-la-da.” The next day, there it was on the radio. “That's my uncle”, he'd tell his schoolmates, proudly.
In 1976 his older brother brought home the first Damned album. “I'd bought it off him by the end of side one.” And although he missed out on being part of punk's Bromley contingent, Sunday nights would see the teenage Quentin, all drainpipe trousers and spikey hair, catching the train to Croydon. “Every punk from Reigate and Redhill would be there at the platform, twenty past six. And every week there'd be more of us, 50 or so after a couple of years. We used to run the gauntlet en masse from The Greyhound, where the punk bands played, to East Croydon station, trying not to get beaten up by Teds and Soul Boys. I always equate the smell of the railway line with going out.”
Later, Quentin would start crossing to the opposite platform, heading south. His sister was at college in Brighton. They'd go clubbing together. Quentin's preferred destination was Sherries, a New Romantic night on Saturdays. There, between the Depeche Mode and Human League records, you might hear James Brown, Manu Dibango or an extraordinary new track called Planet Rock, a kind of electronic fusion of P-funk and Kraftwerk.
By then he was a Brighton student himself, ignoring campus life in favour of the town. Brighton's colleges were a hotbed of political activism at the time, but Quentin wasn't interested. “Although I was always handy when there was a student occupation. You had a bit of a ruck and there was a good chance of getting laid.” Then an old schoolfriend called Paul Heaton, who had moved to Hull, started coming down to stay.
“I was a bit of a hedonist up until the miners' strike. Paul was always banging on about it. We'd spend Saturday lunchtimes collecting food outside supermarkets. Again, I was trying to get laid, I think, more than anything else.”
Heaton had a band up in Hull, and the band had a tour lined up. But there was a problem. No bass player. Or rather, they had a bass player, but he was leaving to c"0 €d arian restau`pà. “At least,” says Cook, “that was the official story.
“The Housemartins were the complete opposite of me. They read the riot act when I joined. You can't do this, you can't do that. Your clothes have got to go. They bought me a new wardrobe. I was just filling in. But then we had a record contract. Then we were on the radio. Then we were on telly.”
To complete the transformation, Quentin changed his name. “You have to be named after England's most celebrated homosexual,” he says sardonically, “all the way through your school life, to appreciate exactly how funny it is.” So, with no little relief, Quentin became Norman. Normal Norman. His odyssey had begun.
IN THE event, Norman might as well have stuck with the old name. As the Housemartins clocked up hit singles, they started to make headlines. They denounced everything they didn't like the idea of - and being the Eighties, there was plenty of it. They declared themselves to be Marxists, which was largely true. Then they announced that they were Christians, which wasn't. Avowed republicans, they cheerily offered a modest proposal to preserve the monarchy's tourism value: mount the royal family's heads on spikes outside Buckingham Palace.
After that, the headlines started to write themselves. What with Norman's role in a self-confessed pinko, god-bothering, regicidal conspiracy, it didn't take long for the tabloids to proclaim him gay into the bargain.
“It was our fault,” he says, “for trying to take on the establishment without realising how much more power they had than us. After the wind up about the royal family, which I still stand by, we were considered traitors. They were doorstepping my nan, that's when it got upsetting. They said I was middle-class and not really from Hull, although I'd never pretended to be anything else. The hypocrite thing you could just laugh off. But the gay thing - we got picked on and physically attacked for that. I freely admit I can be a bit camp at times, but even now, cab drivers still think I'm gay. I was about to get married, and my prospective mother in law was going, ‘Well of course, the wedding's off.’ There'd be lads saying to my wife, ‘What you doing with him, he's a fucking wooftah.’”
After two albums, The Housemartins split up, with Heaton going on to found The Beautiful South. Norman had already disgraced himself in their eyes. He had recorded a dance track, The Finest Ingredients, before he joined the group. Bootlegged and released under the deliciously dated name of DJ Megamix, it was a hit. Word got around. He was all but drummed out of the band.
It was the late eighties, the time of Big World Cafe, enforced multi culturalism and pretending to like The Bhundu Boys. He assembled Beats International. They were A Collective. Their logo was dotted with flags of the world. It was all a bit UNICEF. A bit muesli-flavoured. Their first single was Dub Be Good To Me, an Eighties soul classic cover set to a Clash reggae bassline. It went to number one. When the gods choose to punish us, they answer our prayers.
“Beats International,” admits Norman, “was just me having a small attack of megalomania. Because it did so well so quickly, I thought, maybe everything I touch does turn to gold. In the end it completely fell on its arse, because I wasn't that clever. And my personal life just took a nosedive at that point.”
And didn't stop until it buried itself in the dirt. Norman got divorced. He got taken to the cleaners. He went broke. He had a nervous breakdown. In his own words, he “didn't smile for a year.” He found himself flogging off his sample collection on a CD. Writing music for a Smurfs videogame. In a deep depression, “not being able to cope with anything. Not wanting to be alive.
“My mum gave me this book called If You Meet Buddha On The Road, Kill Him. It basically said that everyone at some point goes on this journey where they doubt themselves and they doubt life. We only do it once. Some people do it early in life and end up Morrissey fans. Some people do it later. I think I did it early enough in life that I could get over it.
“Eventually, I found a different way of making myself happy that didn't involve being at the top of the charts. And ironically, as soon as I found that and started having a laugh, I went straight back to the top of the charts. I just didn't give a fuck any more. Which is when I do my best stuff.”
Teaming up with vocalist/trombonist Ashley Slater as Freakpower, Norman created a tune called Turn On Tune In Cop Out. Levis jeans used it in an advert. Come 1995 he was at number one again. And again, taking charge of a big touring outfit. “Trying to be a CEO, to be Kissinger and Branson all at once.” When he refused to tour without his then girlfriend, that was the end of Freakpower. “But Turn On Tune In bought me another five years in the music business.”
SKINT records didn't invent Big Beat. You could argue that Planet Rock did. But generally, credit goes to The Chemical Brothers. The genre was once known as Chemical Beats. Skint, the brainchild of Brighton boy Damien Harris, didn't just jump on the bandwagon. It became the bandwagon. Its Big Beat Boutique club became a proving ground, and gathering place, for all the bands and DJs involved. Skint's first release was Santa Cruz, by Fatboy Slim. Its first non-compilation album: Fatboy Slim's Better Living Through Chemistry. The title was partly down to Norman Cook's fondness for Ecstasy, which he reckons did him a power of good, helping to lift him out of his slump. And it was partly a nod and a wink to his musical mentors. “My girlfriend used to say, ‘All you do is rip off The Chemical Brothers.’ And I hold my hands up to it.”
Norman seems to have found his niche, slapping together big, catchy, brilliantly dumb breakbeat numbers. His remixes propelled Renegade Master's Wildchild and Cornershop's Brimful Of Asha to huge chart success. Having perfected a formula, he completely dismantled it on his own breakthrough single, The Rockafella Skank. “Grooves and hooks. Chorus and a groove and don't bother writing the verse.”
He's happiest, it seems, and at his best, working on his own, in his tiny home studio. “I suppose I must be a control freak. I'm a big fan of democracy. But there isn't time in the creative process for democracy. ‘Why do you want to make that silly noise?’ ‘Let's discuss the implications of the silly noise.’”
This is a much happier Norman Cook than the one who, at his lowest ebb, nearly jacked it all in to become a fireman. “Notice a pattern developing? It was the uniform. I've spent all my life trying to get laid. But I didn't think I had the chest to be a fireman. So I'm still here.
“For me to be considered even half cool after being around through the Eighties is a miracle in itself,” he reflects. “To have any kind of credibility after this long, I think I've done alright.”
He has, at that.
All material on this site is copyrighted © to David Bennun and may not be reprinted or reused without permission. That would be ill behaviour, ill behaviour.