When it comes to Fatboy Slim, British musician Norman Cook's disc-spinning alter ego, U.S. dance scenesters are split. One camp sees him as a terrifically entertaining personality who's introduced untold thousands of tailfeather shakers to a vibrant type of music. The other reviles him as a performer who's sold out the genre via pop-oriented electro-smashes that steal attention from the form's true innovators.
This division is particular to the States, Cook says: "A lot of the American underground DJs don't want this music to be played on the radio, because they want it to remain theirs -- kind of ghettoized. But that only happens in America. In England, we don't want to be cold. We want to get paid. We want to make a living, so crossing over into the pop media isn't considered to be a bad thing."
Nevertheless, Cook sees some merit in these disparate viewpoints. "I'm not sure where I stand on whether I'm cool or not," he concedes, laughing. "My motivation is to just make music that gets people to smile and dance. I sometimes wish I was a bit less accessible, but that's what comes out. When I try to make a really nasty, underground track, it always ends up with a catchy chorus. So, to be honest, they're both right, apart from the sellout thing -- because I've never promised anything apart from what I've done. I was a sellout to start with."
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Cook's irrepressible humor and self-deprecating manner help explain why he's one of the most distinctive individuals in the often faceless dance universe. That's especially true in England, where his unimposing build and rapidly receding hairline haven't prevented him from becoming a major celebrity. His relationship with Zoe Ball, a star in her own right thanks to a prominent gig on BBC radio, has been big news since their 1999 wedding; Cook jokes that "we're the Posh and Becks of the acid-house generation." When the couple briefly separated about two years ago, the press frenzy escalated appreciably, with Cook discovering at one point that his phone had been tapped. In later statements, he downplayed the incident, but he admits that "I wasn't relaxed about it at the time. It was scary. Still, I'm very wary not to bite the hands that feed me when it comes to talking about the English tabloids. The more you wind them up, the more they do to you. If I said rude things about them and went off on what fuck-alls they were -- hypothetically if I did that, you understand -- they'd say doubly rude things back. So I'm quite reserved."
Despite this wise course of action, the paparazzi keep coming around -- no surprise, given that Cook lives next door to none other than Paul McCartney. Cook says he and Sir Paul "never talk music. I'm such a Beatles fan that if we did, I'd bore the pants off him." Rather, "we compare notes about dodgy figures. If there's a photographer prowling around, we phone each other up and say, 'Watch out.'"
Such tales show how prescient Cook was when he decided to call the second Slim full-length You've Come a Long Way, Baby. The 1998 disc spawned a pair of the era's most infectious dance singles, "Praise You" and "The Rockafeller Skank," but it also raised expectations for his subsequent work to a level that he's had a hard time meeting. His newest album, Palookaville, issued last October on the Astralwerks imprint, earned lukewarm notices and underwhelming sales, although Cook is quick to point out that "it's only a relative failure, because You've Come a Long Way went quadruple platinum. It's still a hit record in my head, and half a million people went out and bought it. A lot of dance artists would give their eyeteeth to sell that many records."
Indeed, numbers like these are more common among acts that surf the musical mainstream, as Cook has done for much of his career. Born in 1963, he came of musical age during the earliest blush of punk rock and new wave, back when people played instruments instead of sampling them. His proficiency on the bass and guitar won him membership in the Housemartins, a British cult combo that was more successful in its homeland than on these shores. As the replacement for founding Housemartin Ted Key, Cook contributed to a couple of well-regarded LPs, 1986's London 0 Hull 4 and 1987's The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death, before the band dissolved. The divorce was reportedly prompted by creative differences, and that dreary cliche appears to have been true in this case, since Cook's next project, Beats International, largely eschewed the Housemartins' catchy jangle. Instead, the Beats' 1989 debut platter, Let Them Eat Bingo, attempted to bridge the gulf between pop and dance by mating pounding rhythms with contributions from guest stars such as Billy Bragg -- hardly the most disco-friendly performer.
During the '90s, Cook formed a handful of other collectives -- most notably Pizzaman, with J.C. Reid and Tim Jeffrey, and Freak Power, with Ashley Slater -- but he earned more notoriety as a producer and remixer once he dubbed himself Fatboy Slim. Under this moniker, he cut the coyly titled Better Living Through Chemistry for Skint Records in 1996, and after the recording was picked up for American distribution by Astralwerks, Cook got his first taste of disapproval from dance purists here.
"When I first came over, everyone called me a sellout because Astralwerks is a subsidiary of Virgin," he recalls. "I'd be like, 'They're cool. They've got the Chemical Brothers, and they're committed to cutting-edge dance music.' And they'd go, 'Yeah, but they're a major' -- like that was bad."
As for Cook, he was perfectly happy to have a powerhouse helping him in the USA, a land of opportunity he saluted with the Chemistry song titles "Santa Cruz," "10th and Crenshaw," "The Sound of Milwaukee" and "Michael Jackson," a cut that's Jacko-free, but does contain a sample from wacky deconstructionists Negativland. The label came in even handier for Long Way, because it paid for director Spike Jonze to put his thumbprint on the delightfully silly "Praise You" video, which went on to win three MTV Video Awards. Jonze worked his magic again in 2000 for Cook's "Weapon of Choice." The clip, which turned on the unexpected dancing ability of actor Christopher Walken, doubled the "Praise You" take, collecting six MTV Video Awards, and gave a sizable boost to Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, the recording it appeared on.
The following year, Cook threw a free event in Brighton that drew a throng of more than 40,000. The upbeat set he played that day hit stores in June 2002 under the title Live on Brighton Beach, and Dorian Lynskey, who wrote liner notes for the CD, boasted that "there wasn't a single arrest or serious injury" at the bash. Its successor didn't go nearly as well. Staged mere weeks after Live's release, the next Brighton spectacle attracted a quarter- million folks and caused substantial transportation and sanitation nightmares. Worse, a 25-year-old attendee perished in a fall that evening, and the death was immediately connected to Cook -- a conclusion that still displeases him.
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"The woman died four hours after the gig," he allows. "She'd gone off to another club and bought some drugs there, so it had nothing to do with the event I put on -- nothing to do with bad security on our part. Her parents wrote me and said, 'Don't take any responsibility. She phoned us that night, saying she was having the best night of her life. Thank you for making the last night of her life the best.' And as far as the police were concerned, it was a completely unrelated incident. So it does annoy me that it's gone down in history as me being responsible for somebody's death. That's a heavy thing to pin on anybody."
His 2003 separation from Ball wasn't much fun, either, and British reviewers were certain that Palookaville overflowed with references to their marital woes. For instance, "Push and Shove" is filled with lyrics about forgiveness, and "Mi Bebé Masoquista" turns on the line "My masochistic baby went and left me." In Cook's mind, the significance of these references has been overstated. The words in "Push and Shove" were written by Justin Robertson, and Cook didn't know they were about him and Ball until he read an interview with Robertson confirming it. "I thought it was about him and his girlfriend," Cook says. "And also, 'My masochistic baby went and left me' was written before Zoe ever did. Afterward, I asked her if I should keep it on the album, and she was like, 'Yeah, it's hilarious, because that's what I did.'" He adds that "we'd been back together for a year by the time the album was finished, and we were only actually separated for six weeks. But it was six weeks being in the English tabloids, so it felt like longer."
Palookaville isn't down for the count yet. The hip-shaking "Wonderful Night" -- featuring the declaration "You rock my Colorado" -- has just been released as the disc's third single (the underwhelming "Slash Dot Dash" and a slack cover of Steve Miller's "The Joker" preceded it), and the song's inclusion on the companion CD for the animated film Robots, which is shaping up to be a big moneymaker, can't hurt. No matter what happens, though, Cook doesn't seem too worried about the future.
"Dance music is going through a bit of a fallow period, but it's not dead," he says. "We provide the soundtrack for hedonism and debauchery -- and that's a good business to be in."