Electronica fever hit the States hard in the late ’90s. I remember this well, because I fell into it wholesale. At the time I was primarily into whatever my Dad owned, instead of anything new, because I never was really taken much by anything, and as a 12-year old if you’re going to buy a $15 CD then you’d better be sure. One day after school I was watching TRL (as I often did, if only to get mad that N*Sync took the top spot again, instead of real music like Smash Mouth), and coming in at #10 was the Fatboy Slim remix of “Body Movin'” by the Beastie Boys. I knew the original well, as Hello Nasty was one of the few CDs I actually owned, but this remix – man, fantastic. I was obsessed with it; it replaced the carnival-esque melody line with this cool funk guitar, there were sirens, big, in-your-face drumbreaks, record scratches, everything to overload the oh-man-this-is-cool sensors in my brain which have long since burned out. Alas, I had a real difficulty finding it. TRL didn’t play it again, and believe me, I watched it for weeks trying to capture that video on VHS (I remember always giving up after #6 because “it’s too good to be top 5”). None of the record stores near me had the single, which an Altavista search told me was only available as an import. So I taped hours and hours of radio trying to find it, only to eventually stumble on it by chance; I just had the radio on while I was reading a Dilbert book, hearing the DJ talking about something and hearing those buzzing noises, thinking “wait, is this it? Oh shit, that’s it!!”, fumbling around for a tape, hitting record, and getting like….two-thirds of it. Which I played over and over anyway, because two-thirds of a Holy Grail is still something. So who the hell was this Fatboy Slim guy? I’d heard (and loved) “Gangster Trippin”, then “Praise You” came and I loved that even more, though why did that Fatboy guy sound so high-pitched in the first song and grainy in the second? Oh, it didn’t occur to me then that all these vocals were samples (What? You can use some else’s voice on your recordings??) But man, this was my scene right here.
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby was one of my next purchases. The CD shop had to special order it (they didn’t have much of an electronic section compared to stores like, say, Sam Goody), and I remember having dreams about what a song like “Right Here, Right Now” might sound like (my dream was not wholly incorrect, either). I got Better Living Through Chemistry later, thinking specifically that it was gonna be a CD I’d treasure in the future, when electronic music was all you’d ever hear on the radio and you couldn’t just download the shit you wanted to hear off Napster or KaZaa or whatever. I admit I had a strange way of thinking about things back then. To a 13-year old in 1999, this really sounded like the future. Electronica (they still called it that) compilations were front and center at the big stores. Moby was breaking all sorts records. There were articles in the music mags every month with titles like “is techno the new folk?” or something equally stupid. Norman Cook, a.k.a. Fatboy Slim, was on the cover of Rolling Stone. The Matrix used a ton of it and suddenly even The Propellerheads turned into an “artist to watch”. Who knew it would all go belly up so quickly?
Well, of course it wouldn’t last. I think a lot of it is good but it also feels so gimmicky now, as tied to the late 90’s as “Livin’ La Vida Loca”. Plus, the entire electronic scene seemed to have a collective hangover at the turn of the millenium; it seemed like every big name act was disappointing their fans come 2002. I mean, there was still Discovery, which turned out to be way influential, maybe because it actually brought back the sexy. Fatboy Slim on the other hand, was always a clown. Sure, he had his serious work (that nobody took seriously), but above all he was just always searching for that hook that would make people smile. Whether by using surf rock (what’s more immediately catchy than that?), or repeating vocal samples a thousand times (thereby forcing them into your skull), Fatboy wrote the kind of music you’d remember, as well as provide all the fodder one would need to eviscerate the whole genre.
Not really wanting to hear You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby again, I instead turned to his Greatest Hits collection, appropriately titled Why Try Harder. First, because I really lost interest after 2000, and thus didn’t really give Fatboy’s later singles that much of a chance. Secondly, because these are all the three-and-a-half minute edited versions, and for once I think that’s about right. I always hated people ragging on electronic music as “repetitive”, but Fatboy really was the exception that proved the rule. He’s been all about instant gratification, and once he gets on it, he’s like a bulldog that just won’t let go. Case in point is the tracklisting, beginning with “The Rockafeller Skank”, “Praise You”, his remix of “Brimful of Asha”, and “Weapon of Choice” – this is, in order, what I’d guess his four most popular tracks are.
As you might be able to tell, Norman Cook is better as a remixer and a DJ than a songwriter – most of his best work is either in remixes (Beastie Boys, Groove Armada, Cornershop) or tunes that cobble together a few prominent samples (nearly everything on You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby). His collaborations mostly fall flat (“Demons” with Macy Gray, “Bird of Prey” with the late Jim Morrison), as does most of his original material that’s not just a straight-up party jam (“Right Here, Right Now”, “Wonderful Night”). His bag of tricks isn’t too deep; he loves high-pitched hype men, he loves to break everything down in the same way, he loves carnivals. But to his credit there’s not a lot of repetition over these 18 tracks; outside of the “Rockafeller Skank” cipher “Slash Dot Dash” all of these tunes have their own thing going. That’s not to say it’s a smooth listen from start to finish – the only tunes I really liked on the second half were the pre-1999 ones, plus maybe “Slash Dot Dash”, if only because I’d forgotten how over-the-top that one was. Norman Cook definitely knows how to make cash in this business, but when he starts doing the same thing for too long he runs out of ideas quick. His first two albums are in no way masterpieces but they’re at least wacky enough – his third and fourth are just no fun, save for “Wonderful Night” and the video for “Weapon of Choice”.
Still, I grinned my way through most of this. “Rockafeller Skank” is kind of a relic and the single version is ham-fisted as hell (a lot of the appeal of the original was the “how long does this shit go on for?” factor), but “Praise You” and “Sho Nuff” both still sound great, thanks to Norman’s unique ability (or willingness) to take smash hooks like this into a dancefloor context. I miss “Michael Jackson” but was glad to hear “Going Out of My Head” again; even if it is little more than the “I Can’t Explain” riff, you have to appreciate the way the guy bashes your head in with those four chords – even the Chemical Brothers (who Fatboy aped mercilessly) couldn’t come up with something this brilliantly straightforward. Neither of the new tracks are any good, but you probably knew that.
This sort of nostagia diving is always a dicey thing; the only memory it brought back this time was the color of my 7th grade locker (what the hell, brain?). In fact, the most Fatboy nostalgia I ever felt was at a gas station that happened to be playing “Praise You”, which is still a damn fine single, that hits upon such an obviously great groove that it almost seems to be celebrating itself. Fatboy was always good at that; one thing you could usually count on was that he wasn’t going to pull any punches. He buys into these hooks so much that you’re either going to want to like them yourself, or you’re going to marvel at just how annoyed you get. I remember Palookaville provoking that reaction a lot when I first heard it, though I was 19 then and I’m 29 now, and stuff that felt like it was drilling my brain out now feels a little more harmless. But as a 13 year old this was pretty much perfect; lots of beef, lots of melody…what the hell else did you need?