[19 June 2006]
It would be too easy to underestimate Fatboy Slim. Despite his unquestioned success and near-universal appeal, there is also a perception of disposability that has dogged his most successful releases and, at least in America, willfully relegated him to the status of a “one-hit wonder”. This despite the fact that, rather than one good album, he’s managed to produce four memorable, high quality albums in the space of seven years; this despite the fact that he’s had far more than just one hit; this despite the fact that he is, without a doubt, one of the most consistent pop songwriters of the modern era, not to mention one of the very best remixers in the business, as well as one of the most popular DJs of all time.
Regardless of these virtues, people want to discount him at every turn. To some jaded ears, there can be no doubt that Fatboy Slim carries the unmistakable aura of novelty—at least in the United States, that is, where dance music itself came across as little more than a novelty fad in the pre-millennial rush of the late ‘90s. Add that to the fact that the musical establishment is predisposed to dismiss artists who don’t take themselves very seriously, and you’ve got a profound disconnect between the quality of the music on display and the disrespect accorded to Slim by critics across the globe.
It probably doesn’t help matters that Fatboy Slim does not exist. What we have, instead, is a man named Norman Cook. Cook isn’t very impressive as these things go, less a rock star than a crazy uncle, famous for his loud Hawaiian shirts and proclivity to drink lots of alcohol while performing, as much as his understated, modest attitude. Fatboy Slim is the crazy alter-ego who goes into the studio and comes out with sublimely brilliant pop records by the dozen, the raucous maestro who eclipses Cook’s natural modesty by dint of bravura musicianship and overwhelming charisma. One gets the idea that Cook is slightly embarrassed about Fatboy Slim’s success. After all, Cook had already been a working musician for a good decade before spawning the Fatboy alias, earning his bones as bass player for Brit-pop wannabes the Housemartins before moving on to a successful career as a remixer and DJ in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Fatboy was hardly Cook’s first alias; he’s also recorded as Pizzaman and the Mighty Dub Katz (to name just two), in addition to a stint as ringleader of Beats International. So why was Fatboy Slim the one that stuck, the name that took him to international acclaim and global fame?
Well, to a large degree, Fatboy Slim came about at the right place at the right time. Norman Cook was inspired by the advent of the Chemical Brothers to take a more concerted stab at producing music as a solo producer in the mid ‘90s—sure enough, Fatboy Slim’s first album was called Better Living Through Chemistry. To this day he remains closely tied to the Chemical Brothers in terms of sound and temperament. Better Living Through Chemistry was one of the first albums—and probably the best, outside of the Chems’ own later material—to take the rough template of the Chems’ 1995 debut Exit Planet Dust as a direct model. Since Cook shared much of the same influences as Tom Simons and Ed Rowlands, his records didn’t depart from the template so much as put another spin on it, replacing the Chemical Brothers’ tendency towards meditative digression with an unflappably sanguine cheerfulness. Fatboy Slim’s best records owe as much to pop chestnuts like “Surfer Bird” and the the Ramones’ first album as anything else—two punky touchstones that would have once seemed unthinkable for a dance artist.
But in a very real way, Fatboy Slim changed the rules. Even moreso than the Chemical Brothers or the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim proved that dance music could compete with pop on its own terms—and more importantly, he also proved that dance music and pop weren’t as far apart as most people probably believed. Whereas previous commercially successful artists such as Orbital, Leftfield and Massive Attack had sometimes gone out of their ways to seem more recondite than they actually were, Fatboy Slim could never be mistaken for aloof. He was, and remains an extremely user-friendly musician, someone who still believes his highest calling as an artist is to play fun records at parties. You’ve got to respect that.
The “Big Beat” sound that blossomed in the late ‘90s was really the sound of the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, and everyone else who produced records in this vein had a hard time keeping up with the three men who created and refined this distinctive formula. (As an aside, I should probably mention that “Big Beat” is one of the single worst genre names I’ve ever heard coined for a particular style of music, and I only use it grudgingly—scare quotes are in full effect.) The particular strengths of the music produced under the ostensible auspices of this micro-genre are sometimes overlooked in favor of a generally reductive attitude towards its poppy exterior, but anyone who approaches Fatboy Slim (and the Chemical Brothers, for that matter) should, more than anything else, appreciate the sheer ingenuity of such incredibly eclectic music. More than merely the obvious influences of early house, acid, and industrial, they are just as willing to take their cues from classic rock or vintage hip-hop, to experiment with jazz or soul textures that might seem peculiar in the context of more conventional dance music, to sample records from across the world and collaborate with performers from across the spectrum. The results may be remarkably accessible, but it would be a grave error to mistake the process for anything other than consummate musicianship.
Despite its flaws and puzzling exclusions, Why Try Harder presents even the experienced listener with a bracing abundance of riches. It wouldn’t have made any sense to start the compilation with anything but the one-two punch of “The Rockafeller Skank” and “Praise You”, both from 1998’s You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby. Even as many times as I’ve heard these songs—for the space of about a year they were positively ubiquitous on film soundtracks, television commercials and music videos—they still impress. “The Rockafeller Skank” is simply a gorgeous example of pop songcraft. Everyone knows that “Right about now, the funk soul brother” sample by heart, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’s not a single element of the track that has been constructed for anything less than premium catchiness, from the surf-rock guitars to the restless pseudo-jungle breakbeats right down to the ringing phones that emerge from the jangling chorus. “Praise You”, on the other hand, is less a cacophony than a ballad, a uniquely expressive example of the sampler’s art. It’s one of the most honestly endearing tracks I’ve ever heard, and a living refutation to the still-lingering stereotype of electronic musicians as faceless programmers incapable of intimate expression. It may have been overplayed, but it still holds up alongside some of the best pop songs ever written.
I’ve got to salute whomever compiled this disc for having the good grace to include two of Fatboy’s best remixes—“Brimful of Asha” by Cornershop and “I See You Baby” by Groove Armada. Cook’s remixes carry as distinctive a stamp as his solo productions, and these two particular remixes are excellent examples of his strengths as an interpreter of other people’s songs. In both cases the remix became more famous than the original, to the point where many listeners might be surprised to learn that the familiar versions are not actually the originals. Cook’s skill as a remixer is such that, whereas many less imaginative mixers are content merely to lay a house beat under a pop vocal or warp a track until it barely resembles the original, he seems intent on actually improving the original track itself, accentuating a song’s intrinsic strengths while also punching it up a bit. Listening to the Fatboy Slim mix next to the Groove Armada original of “I See You Baby”, it’s almost embarrassing how much better the remix is than the original. The latter is a slightly funky, but mostly restrained midtempo house number, whereas the former is just balls-to-the-wall energy, with mutant guitar licks and freakin’ cowbell, for God’s sake (and all this before cowbell was cowbell, if you know what I mean). It’s easy to imagine that Groove Armada was more than a little embarrassed that Fatboy Slim’s mix of the track ended up on its own Best Of.
But unfortunately, the compilation is also marred by a few puzzling exclusions, all the more baffling because of the fact that the disc only runs 66 minutes. Only two tracks are included off his debut Better Living Through Chemistry: the anthemic “Going Out Of My Head” and the melancholy “Santa Cruz”. “Everybody Loves a 303” (from that same album) is represented by the b-side remix “Everybody Loves a Carnival”. This is a strange but ultimately inoffensive substitution compared to the criminal exclusion of “Michael Jackson”, one of Fatboy’s very best tracks, easily “The Rockafeller Skank’s” equal in terms of pure pop charm. Also lacking, but not as vitally, is “Give A Poor Man a Break”, which wasn’t a single but which has been used often enough in commercials and other DJs mixes that you’d probably recognize it anyway.
In addition to “Rockafeller” and “Praise You”, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby is also represented by “Gangsta Tripping” and “Right Here, Right Now”. “Gangsta Tripping” was never my favorite track, probably because of it’s repetition (considering that Fatboy Slim is often accused of being overly repetitious, the fact that “Gangsta Tripping” is especially repetitious is a significant achievement). Although most of the tracks on Why Try Harder don’t suffer for being presented in their truncated radio edits, “Right Here, Right Now” does suffer for being a bit shorter, depending as it does on a massive swooping build. Oddly enough, there’s also a b-side from this era included, the pleasant “Sho Nuff”. It’s a nice track but nowhere near essential.
2000’s extremely underrated Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars is represented by “Sunset (Bird of Prey)”, a posthumous collaboration with the Doors’ Jim Morrison, in addition to “Weapon of Choice” and “Demons”. You might remember “Weapon of Choice” from the classic video, which featured Christopher Walken dancing and leaping through the air, and won MTV Video Awards and even a Grammy. The song itself was never more than a confection, however, whereas “Demons” is one of Fatboy Slim’s best moments, a highlight of the album from which it was taken as well as this compilation. Built on a scratchy Bill Withers’ sample, the track also features one of Macy Gray’s most understated performances. It’s a majestic, heartbreaking song that also suffers considerably from truncation, having been cut fully in half for inclusion on this disc.
I also question the absence of “Ya Mama”, probably the most energetic rocker off Slim’s third album, which also received a decent amount of airplay in conjunction with the soundtrack for the second Charlie’s Angels film. Also, why not the Chemical Brothers’ remix of “Song For Shelter”? The original was a ten-minute-plus psychedelic sermon, but the remix was a stomping hard-house number that showed up on quite a few DJ’s playlists.
2004’s Palookaville is thankfully not represented by its cheesy cover of Steve Miller’s “The Joker”, sung by Bootsy Collins—a minor miracle considering it was the only track off that album to get any airplay in the States. The album is however represented by three excellent tracks, the abrasive “Slash Dot Dash”, “Wonderful Night” and “Don’t Let the Man Get You Down”. The latter is present in the shorter edit previously available on the soundtrack to the SSX Tricky video game. “Wonderful Night” is the first of three collaborations with Lateef on Why Try Harder, including two new tracks, “Champion Sound” and “That Old Pair of Jeans”. However, whereas “Wonderful Night” is a rousing party track that easily fits with the best of Fatboy’s energetic ouevre, the two new tracks are uncharacteristically tepid. “Champion Sound” in particular sounds like a b-side, filled as it is with odd squelchy noises and strange lyrical digressions. “That Old Pair of Jeans” is a better track but still seems somewhat subdued. Its lyrical content seems of a kind with Palookaville’s preoccupations, i.e. relationships and forgiveness. There’s nothing wrong with the track, but it lacks the spry whimsy of so much of the earlier material on display throughout the album.
Even given these various qualms, it’s hard to complain about the bulk of the material on Why Try Harder? Anyone who is only roughly familiar with Cook’s output could do worse than this disc—it’s got all the major touchstones you would expect. However, for anyone with more than a casual interest in the history of modern dance music, it would probably be better to skip this package and head straight for the albums themselves.
Fatboy Slim - The Rockafeller Skank