“Back then I was like, ‘What can I get away with?’ I’d try to make pop records out of the wrong ingredients. As long as it had a catchy hook, a bit of repetition, and you could dance to it, you could get away with pretty much anything.”
The album that would define dance music for a generation began life with a simple instruction. Make a record, Norman Cook was told, that sounds like “Hip-hop at the wrong speed”.
The request came from Damian Harris, head of Brighton’s Skint Records, at whose Big Beat Boutique nights in the seaside city Cook was a regular DJ. Already a seasoned pop star courtesy of jangly indie darlings The Housemartins, as well as dance projects Beats International, Pizzaman, Freak Power and The Mighty Dub Katz, in 1996 he adopted a new moniker: Fatboy Slim.
His first album released under that name, Better Living Through Chemistry, was an acid-infused rollercoaster through funk, frantic breakbeats and snatched vocal samples, all underpinned by 303 basslines and – as in the standout track “Going Out of My Head” – a keen ear for a killer riff.
It would be “Going Out of My Head” that set the template for the extraordinary success that was to follow. While the rest of Better Living… was rooted firmly in the post-rave dancefloor culture that would give birth to the superclubs of the late 90s, “Going Out of My Head” offered something thrillingly different. Splicing the four-chord guitar hook from the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” with a sped up and messed-about drum loop from Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge”, all run through the hip-hop mixer and underpinned by a simple repeated vocal refrain, it was instantly infectious… and held serious crossover appeal.
Cook took the same formula through remixes for Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha” and Wildchild’s “Renegade Master” – with his versions of those songs hitting Number 1 and Number 3 in the British charts respectively – before unleashing the single that made Fatboy Slim a household name.
“The Rockafella Skank”, released on June 8, 1998, was a big, ridiculous, gloriously catchy mash up of surf guitars, Northern soul and big beat drums – with a single vocal sample courtesy of rapper Lord Finesse repeated to the point where, once heard, it stuck in your head all week. Right about now…
Q magazine described it as “Northern Soul on a tripped-out, twanging surfing holiday somewhere off Wigan Pier” and noted that the single was “staking its claim to mark the high point of big beat to date”.
That high point would be surpassed just a few months later, with the release of Fatboy Slim’s second album, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.
Cook had taken Damian Harris’s instruction and run with it. What he later described as “the Holy Trinity” of mixes – “Brimful of Asha”, “Renegade Master”, and “Rockafella Skank” – had opened his eyes to combining the propulsive rhythms and dancefloor-filling skills he had honed DJing at the Big Beat Boutique, with the instinct for crafting a killer pop song he had developed as bassist in the Housemartins.
“I wanted to take this music out of the nightclubs and onto the radio,” he explained. “So I took all of those dancefloor ingredients, but arranged them in a manner that the human brain would associate with pop music.
“A lot of the underground club stuff was great, but they were missing that verse/chorus, verse/chorus, middle eight. I’d been in enough pop bands over the years to know that’s how it worked.”
Recorded and produced at his home studio in Brighton, Cook dug deep into his record crates, pulling out a dizzying range of styles and genres, fusing acid house, techno, breakbeat and hip-hop with funk, soul, rock, surf, jazz… and whatever else took his fancy.
Using a battered Atari ST computer loaded with Creator software and a stack of floppy disks (storage capacity: 1.4 MB apiece – get your heads around that, kids of Gen Z!) as well as a rack of samplers, Moog-clone synths, effects pedals, a Roland 303 and of course his decks, Cook chopped up and reassembled five decades of music into 11 tight and irresistible new packages. And according to the website whosampled.com, using no fewer than 92 separate samples along the way.
The result was cheeky, fun, irreverent, shot through with a very British sense of humor… and overwhelmingly danceable. It was a party soundtrack made with no ironic distance, the sound of a man unashamedly sharing his love of all musical genres – and of the simple, primal joy of throwing your hands in the air and just dancing… whether in the uber-hip club nights he DJ’d in, or the kitchens and bedrooms of suburbia.
The critics loved it; AllMusic describing it as “a seamless record, filled with great imagination, unexpected twists and turns, huge hooks, and great beats,” Muzik declaring it sounded like “jungle, reggae, surf rock, Northern soul and hip hop pogoing in front of the DJ booth,” Spin as “generating the kind of visceral thrills normally reserved for a wrestling match,” and Rolling Stone, most succinctly: “More than pretty darned good… a world historic gimmick.”
Cook’s “dance music as pop music” trick was present throughout – and used to irresistible effect. Big drums, big hooks, and simple, repetitive vocal samples used as instruments in their own right held the structure of each song together, and his liberal and often almost absurd use of every DJ’s favorite “drop and build” trick gave each track at least one, and often several, euphoric moments.
From the swirling, almost cartoonishly epic opening strings of “Right Here, Right Now” – later revisited to devastating effect in 2020 courtesy of a sampled speech by Greta Thunberg to the United Nations – to the squelchy, old-skool rave of closer “Acid 8000” (described by Cook as “me being self-indulgent. I’d put enough pop singles on the album, so I could have a moment going off on the 303”) You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby clocked in at a little over an hour – but felt, in the best possible way, like an all-nighter.
It also gave birth to another two monster singles – as well as "The Rockafella Skank" and “Right Here, Right Now,” there was “Gangster Trippin”, in which Cook took the furious in-your-face rapping style of Manchester hip-hop hardman MC Tunes and made a lolloping, brass-soaked, sunshiney groove out of it, and, perhaps the pick of the bunch, “Praise You”.
With its soulful lyric courtesy of three lines from Camille Yarbrough’s “Take Yo’ Praise” and an electric piano riff lifted from “Lucky Man” by the Steve Miller Band, the deceptive simplicity of the song caught the imagination of fans across both sides of the Atlantic, reaching number 1 in the UK and breaking into the top 40 in the US Billboard Hot 100.
Helped by those singles, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby crossed over from the clubs to the mainstream, topping the British album charts and peaking at number 34 in the US Billboard 200, and selling some five million copies along the way. It was, and remains, arguably the first great mass-appeal dance record.
Part of the extraordinary success of the album came from the greater social and cultural backdrop around its release. By 1998 Britpop had crossed the Atlantic, with Vanity Fair running their famous “London Swings Again” cover featuring Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit on a Union Jack-adorned bed, and as well as the guitar-led music of Oasis, Blur and Pulp, dance acts like the Prodigy, Massive Attack and the Chemical Brothers were gaining serious chart crossover. By combining the traditional sensibilities and structures of pop and rock with the energy and immediacy of dance, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby neatly straddled both camps… and showed that house music had a place in the canon of popular music. The relentless optimism of the LP also reflected the zeitgeist of Britain at that time – Tony Blair’s New Labour had recently won the General Election by a landslide, and after 18 years of Conservative rule, there really was a feeling around the country that things could only get better. Right here, right now, indeed.
If You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby was the moment dance music, sampling as an art form, and even acid house and rave culture became an accepted part of the mainstream, then perhaps the most tangible expression of that was to come four years later, in 2002. On July 13 of that year, Fatboy Slim put on Big Beach Boutique II, a free concert on Brighton Beach. More than 250,000 people attended – double the entire population of the city. It was later described as “the last perfect rave”… a description which might also be applied to the album which inspired it.
A special 25th anniversary edition of You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby is released on October 14.