Rise of the superstar DJ: In praise of Fatboy Slim
Fresh from a sell-out gig on Brighton seafront, Norman Cook is now working on a soundtrack for Disney. Jonathan Brown charts the rise of a dance-floor king
Thursday 04 January 2007
A euphoric Fatboy Slim strode to the front of a rain-drenched outdoor stage at Brighton seafront earlier this week, his arms outstretched and a vast grin plastered across his soaking wet face. Despite the best efforts of the English weather to scupper the event, the DJ was enjoying himself as usual.
After enduring a painful series of electric shocks during his typically frenetic performance, Fatboy was lapping up the adulation of 20,000 revellers who had chosen to see in the New Year in the company of Britain's best-loved superstar DJ at his hometown gig.
Two days later and he is back in the news again. This time Fatboy is being linked to Hollywood's hottest film composer, Danny Elfman, founder of the cult band Oingo Boingo and creator of theme tunes for The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives.
Elfman's previous movie scores include Batman, Good Will Hunting and the recent remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The two men, both celebrated for the cartoonish quality they bring to their music, have been working together on a soundtrack for a new Disney children's animation. Although details remain scant, the project is generating considerable excitement in both film and music circles.
The collaboration however, could prove bad news for fans of the DJ's now legendary live parties that in recent years have earned him admirers from Rio de Janeiro to Loch Ness. Their popularity reached a peak in July 2002 when 250,000 people rather than the expected 60,000 turned up to watch him play in Brighton.
That event was marred by the death of a female fan after the show had finished. But the crowd remains the largest ever to have attended a musical event in Britain.
"It'll be a quiet year for Fatboy this year," the DJ said yesterday. "It feels right that, after 10 years and so many albums, we should give it a rest for a while."
Yet these are clearly exciting times for 43-year-old Norman Cook, restored husband of the broadcaster Zoe Ball, and creator of Fatboy Slim whose career has been a rollercoaster ride of music, drugs, alcohol, controversy and sheer good times spanning more than two decades.
Those who have charted his progress over this time, watching him grow from indie kid and musical outsider to A-list celebrity, will appreciate that even if Fatboy Slim is having a quiet year, it does not mean that Norman Cook will be taking things easy.
Since adopting the Fatboy persona in 1997 with the release of the album Better Living Through Chemistry - a none too subtle reference to the alleged therapeutic powers of the drug ecstasy - Cook and his alter ego have been international stars.
The DJ described how he makes the transformation in typically entertaining style earlier this year: "I go into the phone booth and put on a bad Hawaiian shirt, drink half a bottle of vodka and come out as Fatboy Slim."
For transformation has been at the heart of the Norman Cook story. Born Quentin Leo Cook, the youngster had already adopted the name Norman by the time he was editing his own punk fanzine while still at Reigate Grammar School. It was at sixth-form college that Cook met Paul Heaton who, in 1985, was to give his old friend his big break. Even though he was building a reputation in and a love affair with the seaside town of Brighton where he studied English at the polytechnic, Cook grabbed the chance to play in his friend's Hull-based band, The Housemartins. Having lost a bassist on the verge of a national tour, the group were unperturbed by the last minute stand-in's lack of experience on the instrument. The Housemartins may have been adored by a generation of cardigan-wearing students, but they were musically light years away from Cook's natural home in the rapidly emerging acid house dance scene of the late 80s.
And having delivered a number one in the form of the a capella version of "Caravan of Love", the band split in 1988, with Heaton going on to form the hugely successful Beautiful South. Cook meanwhile got back to his musical roots teaming up with producer Simon Thornton. The pair set about the first of a number of incarnations that enjoyed varying degrees of success. Beats International scored a number one single with "Dub Be Good To Me", which merged the SOS Band with The Clash, tapping into the new public appetite for aggressive - and legally problematic - remixing. In 1994, Cook's new band, Freakpower, enjoyed success with the track "Turn On Tune In Cop Out" after it was picked up to accompany a multi-million pound advertising campaign for Levi's jeans. The following year Cook enjoyed solo success in the guise of Pizzaman and once more benefited from the power of advertising when it was used to promote Del Monte fruit juice.
But it was the emergence of Cook as Fatboy Slim in 1997 that was to define his career. The former bass player now found himself part of an elite coterie of superstar DJs. These were the hedonistic days when once anonymous record spinners like Judge Jules, Paul Oakenfold and Pete Tong were becoming known in every music-loving household.
Massive rewards were up for grabs - the top-name DJs could regularly command fees of up to £50,000 a night and fly between venues each weekend on privately chartered Lear jets. Between them they produced an apparently inexhaustible supply of mix albums each year, presented their own radio shows and could be guaranteed to fill dance floors from Manchester to Madrid. The exuberance peaked on Millennium Eve with one DJ paid £100,000 to man the decks at a private party.
According to Andrew Harrison, editor of Mixmag magazine, despite the atomisation of mainstream dance music into its constituent parts, Cook continues to dine at the top table of superstar DJs. "No one else could get 20,000 people to dance in the rain on New Year's Eve and certainly no one has ever drawn a crowd of 250,000 people to an event like he has," he said. "People like him because he can guarantee they have a fantastic time. He is the one most dedicated to the idea that the DJ is there to get people moving and to provide the audience with a party."
In 2000, dance music was at its peak, commanding 13.3 per cent of the album charts, thanks in large part to commercially successful crossover acts like Fatboy Slim, along with his friends and contemporaries The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers. But four years later, sales were flagging. The once all-mighty superclubs were closing. The Brits committee acknowledged the changing times by renaming its Best Dance Act category Best Live Act. Mr Harrison believes the cult of the superstar DJ and the spectacular fees they once commanded, helped to fatally undermine the economics of dance music by the end of the 1990s. Yet he says the broad genre continues to flourish. "Dance music is in rude, rude health," he said. "The appeal of dance music is that you are not participating in a mainstream world that you are will read about in the gossip columns but one in which you are part of a completely different environment."
Today the guitar bands who dominate the charts owe their own debt to dance music and the superstar DJs that delivered it to them during their formative years. The DJs themselves are also maturing. Oakenfold has also been knocking on Hollywood's door. In 2006, Cook collaborated with the former Talking Head David Byrne to produce a musical based on the life of Imelda Marcos. With Tinsteltown now beckoning, Fatboy watchers can look forward to yet more transformations in this uniquely eclectic pop career.
Kings and queens of the decks
Few people can claim to have lent their name to the English language in the way that Tong has. He began his career promoting bands while at school in Rochester, moving on to Kent's famous soul weekenders before swapping his mobile disco for a London night club. Has been a fixture on Radio 1 since 1991 and his Pure nights at Pacha in Ibiza remain one of the most popular in the dance calendar, having performed a 17-week stint last year. He is said to have amassed a personal fortune in excess of £2m.
Claims to be the most successful female DJ in the world, the former S-Express star has also enjoyed chart success as a vocalist. Cites Donna Summer and Roberta Flack as influences. Spent three years training as a DJ. She accompanies her stage act with live horns, strings, bass and synthesisers as well as her powerful vocals. Her single, It Feels So Good, paradoxically written while suffering a broken heart, was one of the biggest hits of the past decade. Collected a Brit award in 2001 for best British female artist.
The self-styled queen of UK hard dance and founder member of the Tidy Girls, an all-female DJ group, Lashes - real name Lisa Rose-Wyatt - has built a fan base as far afield as South Africa, China and Australia. Having escaped the drudgery of working at Marks & Spencer in her native Coventry, she was discovered while DJ-ing during a party on a boat on the river Severn. She pioneered the successful Lashed parties in Ibiza in 2003 and was the first woman to become one of the top 10 DJs in the world, according to DJ magazine.
Real name Julius O'Riordan. The 41-year-old LSE law graduate - hence the stage name - began his career at pioneering dance station Kiss FM then moved to Radio 1. He remains one of the biggest earners in the business, with an internationally syndicated show and business and property interests in Britain and Ibiza. He recently established his own digital download store and has built a formidable reputation as a record producer where he works under the name Hi-gate with the Belfast-born DJ Paul Masterson.
Groundbreaking producer for the Happy Mondays, Oakenfold has worked with bands including U2 and Massive Attack. In the mid-1990s he could command vast fees as a DJ too. Having pioneered his distinctive trance style based on the sounds he first heard on a Goan beach in India, he became a leading light in Ibiza with one of the first residencies on the island. He has worked on film soundtracks including Matrix Reloaded and recently created music for the best-selling Fifa series of video games. Oakenfold also wrote the theme tune for Channel 4's Big Brother.
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