Interview: Norman Cook/Fatboy Slim - You've come a long way, Quentin
This man has an identity problem. His parents christened him Quentin Cook, his sister called him Julie, and he has called himself Norman and Pizzaman. Today, he is known worldwide as Fatboy Slim. But soon, will it be Mr Zoe Ball - and Daddy?
Still, being open to new experiences - so long as they don't persist past my bedtime or require that I possess all my own teeth - I trot off to Brighton where, it turns out, Fatboy lives in one of those fabulous, whitewashed, Twenties jobs right on the seafront. His immediate neighbour is Nick Berry but no, says Fatboy, he's yet to catch him racing along the beach in a policeman's uniform, chasing baddies with a bicycle pump. "I think, anyway," he says, "you'll find he's the Harbourmaster now." I rather like Fatboy Slim from the off. He's funny. I say if he ever gets fed up with Zoe - ever finds himself hankering for someone considerably less perky, say - I'll be up for it. He asks: "Can you cook?"
"I can microwave Ready Brek. Can Zoe cook?"
"Not a thing! Do you have your own teeth?"
"Abso-loot-ly," I lie gaily, through closed lips.
"You'll do, then," he says.
Hang on, I say. I just want to get one thing clear here. Zoe has described you as an "animal in bed". But, of course, this may or may not be a compliment, depending on which animal she was thinking of. She might have been thinking of a bitey little weasel. Was she thinking of a weasel, Fatboy? "No. I'm a donkey. A DONKEY!" he cries. I think I might hang on to my elasticised trousers after all.
I hadn't known what to expect of this bloke, really. I hadn't found it easy to get a three-dimensional sense of him. He refuses to appear on British television. He refuses, even, to appear in his own videos. (He did the whole fame thing when, after The Housemartins, he had a hit with his own band, Beats International, and it nearly did him in. "I was too chicken to kill myself, but thought about it a lot. I thought about throwing myself over the railway sidings...") His music doesn't reveal much, either. I've listened to his two massive-selling albums - Better Living Through Chemistry and You've Come A Long Way Baby - but it's that twin-turntable, sampled, mixed-up sound that possibly goes down better in Ibiza than it does in our house, where this particular genre has now been identified as: "A Bit of a Din". This, however, does not mean I'm not "with it". It's just that it's quite hard to respond appropriately to energetic dance music when you're afraid two molars attached to a bridge might shoot out.
Anyway, I don't seem to have any kind of handle on him before we meet. And am rather nervous. What if we have nothing to say to each other? Happily, though, I'm reassured the moment he answers his door. He isn't, in fact, very Fatboy Slim. He is much more Thinman Balding, with a nice, Hugh Laurie-ish face. Plus he's 35, which means he's not far off my age, and while we may not have much in common now, we certainly did once.
What's your first memory of someone on Top of the Pops? I ask.
"I remember David Cassidy's "How Can I Be Sure?", with him walking with his hands in his back pockets. I walked with my hands in my back pockets for two years after that."
"I had my first big crush on David Cassidy," I offer, excitedly.
"Mine was Hannah Gordon," he offers.
"I think you'll find she now hosts a how-how-to-watercolour programme on daytime telly - not that I ever watch it," I inform him, knowledgeably.
"Really? Still, I think I've got over that one now. It was either her, or Sally James, in that leather waistcoat."
"With me, it was either David, or Captain Poldark."
"You like a man in costume, then?"
"Absolutely. Even if he does have a sad ponytail."
"Yeah, but it was the fashion then. It's inexcusable nowadays, but in the 19th century it was probably allowed."
We go up to the living-room, which is on the top floor. It's a spectacular room, all white, with a brilliantly Seventies black, semicircular sofa, a spectacular view of the crashing sea, round skylights in the ceiling, and even something that looks rather like a steel fireman's pole but isn't. It is, he explains, one of those poles more commonly found in lap- dancing clubs, the sort the dancers wrap themselves around rather erotically. Apparently, Zoe had always wanted such a pole, so he bought her one for Christmas. I do suspect that, as a couple, they don't spend their evenings watching The Good Life while nicely relaxing in elasticised trousers.
He is certainly much taken with her. She phones from London while I'm there. I take it she's in bed, because he coos: "Ah, you've got your little blanket, so you don't need me... bye, darling, bye..." It is quite touching. They're due to marry on 21 August but, disappointingly, you won't be seeing the pictures in OK! or Hello! "We've had some attractive offers but want it to be a private thing. If you sell the pictures, you're not just selling the pictures, you're selling
the day." He does have a certain kind of integrity. Perhaps, even, a kind of wisdom. But, then, he has been around a bit.
Fatboy Slim is, of course, not his real name. His real name is Norman Cook. Or at least it would be, if it were. His real name is in fact Quentin Cook, but he ditched the Quentin for Norman when he joined The Housemartins as bassist. He always detested "Quentin". He says he used to get beaten up at school because of it. And so you chose Norman instead? "Well, I was going to be Ernie, but then I just kind of decided that Norman suited me better." He is brilliant at reinventing himself. First Quentin, then Norman, and, post-Housemartins, Beats International, Freakpower and Pizzaman, before becoming Fatboy Slim. He has, he thinks, probably had more British chart successes under aliases than anyone else. And now, I think, he's about to reinvent himself again. Do you and Zoe want children? "Pathologically," he replies. "We already talk to our first son as if he exists." You're ready for it, then? "Yeah. I'm ready to move on to something else, I don't want to be 40 and getting drunk every night. Until I met Zoe I thought I could never give it up, but now it seems right." He is even learning to cook. He made lamb with rosemary and garlic from The Naked Chef cookbook the other night. "And do you know what? It was surprisingly edible." Interestingly, for a pop star, he seems to kind of know just when to change and what to change into. This may, even, take an unusual kind of intelligence.
He was brought up in Reigate, Surrey, the youngest of three. His mother is a teacher in a hospital school. His father is an environmental consultant who was appointed MBE for introducing bottle banks into this country. Norman despised Reigate. "It's a suburban hell. Everything revolves around garden centres. It probably has the highest incidence of garden centres per capita in the country." Norman despised being Quentin, too. "Two years after I was born, Quentin Crisp became the most famous homosexual in the world and people at school seemed to think that was really funny." But what he despised mostly was being middle-class. He desperately, he says, wanted to be working-class. His big hope was to go on the dole after leaving school. His parents are first-generation middle-class. His grandad had been a window cleaner. "And I always remember my dad saying: `Do you want to end up like your grandad?' And I thought: `Yes I do.' He seemed to have a much happier attitude to life." I say I like being middle-class. It means you have fruit in the house even when no one is poorly. He says it doesn't: "No, it's about believing you are better than other people. Or that's what I thought when I was a kid. Now I can see there are good things about it, like expecting more than two square meals a day, and maybe a video-recorder."
He fought against his background through music, as teenagers tend to do. He got very into punk, colouring his hair with poster paints at the weekend, washing it out on Sunday night. He wasn't a great punk. "I wanted to look aggressive and horrible and dangerous, but I was too cute." His sister, he says, used to call him "Julie" because he looked more like Julie Andrews than Johnny Rotten. Anyway, he started amassing quite a record collection and, at 15, was already DJ-ing. He met Paul Heaton (the founder of The Housemartins, who now fronts The Beautiful South) while doing his A-levels, and joined the band when the bassist quit just before their first tour. The Housemartins had two massive hits - "Happy Hour" and "Caravan of Love". He was, he says, very up for being a pop star.
"Oh yes, I'd always been attracted by the glamour of it all. I wanted a leather jump suit with my name sequined on the back." But Paul, as it turned out, was very much against the whole celebrity shebang. "So, actually, we didn't do any of the pop-starry things. I remember my first time on Top of the Pops and getting the Tube home afterwards. We deliberately tried not to fall into any of the traps." Which are? "Believing your own publicity, not being able to calm down after having gross excitement, not being able to go back to a normal life afterwards, just losing touch with reality."
The Housemartins disbanded in 1988. Norman was partly relieved - "I didn't want to be doing that kind of music any more" - and partly devastated. "I thought I'd have to go and get a proper job." Which would have been? "A fireman. The uniform is quite nice. And you get laid a lot, apparently. But I'd probably have been useless. I wouldn't have saved people's children or dogs. I'd have probably saved their record collections." Instead, he founded Beats International and had a No 1 hit with Dub Be Good To Me. And this is where it all started to go wrong. Once free of the constraints of The Housemartins he became, he says, everything he shouldn't have.
"I became an arrogant workaholic. You know, not having time for my friends and basically pissing everyone off." You became the job, then? "Yeah, I was taken over by it. I thought I was Prince.'' He became self-destructive. "I'd try to knock myself out to get to sleep, by bashing my head against things - I tried to drink myself to sleep, which sometimes worked, and sometimes I'd just get very drunk. It was about hating myself and not wanting to be here. I suppose if my problem was an over-developed ego, then it was about bringing myself down to a gibbering wreck, with no ego at all, so I could build myself up again." His GP referred him to a therapist. "He wanted an expert opinion on whether I was mad." And? "After two months, the therapist said I wasn't mad, just unhappy."
He didn't find the therapist much help, in fact. He found ecstasy much more effective. A friend gave him a tablet one night, and the next morning, he says, "I just woke up grinning." Do you still take it? "I'll take the fifth on that one, if you don't mind." OK, what else makes you happy? "Sunshine. The sea. And Zoe. Zoe's quite a big thing."
Anyway, he has to go. He has to drive up to London where he and Zoe are due at the Star Wars premiere. I exit through his white minimalist hall. I have had quite an interesting time and might be a bit smitten. "Do you like the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and, in particular, Cats?" I ask him. "NO!" he replies. Still, never mind. I've known of relationships built on less.
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