He’s our local hero, ambassador for worthy causes and dance-music royalty. Absolute’s Mr Pete Hayward has known Mr Norman Cook since the 1980s. They catch up and chat about beats, bits and pieces, his formative years and, of course, Norman’s love of our colourful city.
For the uninitiated, Mr Cook was no overnight sensation. To the benefit of younger readers we rewind to the 1980s, and piece the numbers together.
The first flirtation with fame begun with Hull-based miserablists, The Housemartins. Norman sheds some light.
“Anyone who knew me in Brighton, in my days before The Housemartins, will ask the question ‘How on earth did you end up in the Housemartins’ rather than how did you get from white Indie pop, into the kind of music I was doing then. I was always into black, chemical, electronic, funky alternative dance. But in those days it was simply called ‘Black music’, ‘Soul’ or ‘Rap’ and made by black people. I kind of felt as a suburban, middle class English white guy I shouldn’t be making that kind of music. Alternatively, I thought my destiny was to be in a white English, suburban pop band playing indie music. Though anyone who heard me at the Brighton Belle, DJing in my Tuesday residency the three years before, would be like “No, you’re hip hop, Acid Jazz, you’re scratchy old funk records!” Wind back to 1987, the Harrington jacketed, flat-top brigade that queued for his Corn Exchange gig bore testimony to this.
Norman paid DJ dues at The Belle (Oriental Place), as DJ resident establishing the new sound of hip hop on the Brighton scene throughout his student years. He also worked the decks at The Yard, Savannahs and The Escape. Playing his way through college, he concluded that playing his style as a musician could only lead up the Simply Red, Level 42 path, and that wasn’t on, so the Housemartins it was. “The arrival of the drum machine and Akai sampler spelt the eventual end of my days with the band. My music mates of the time – Coldcut and Tim Siminon – started making hits from the music that we had been loving and digging as DJs, and there I was, stuck in this white pop band. It was time to jump ship so I moved back to Brighton. All my mates were wearing bandannas, mental clothes and going ‘get on one’ and mouthing ‘aciieeeed’. I was “what are you on about?” because nothing like that had happened in Hull yet. So I missed the whole 1988 wave of acid house; Chris Coco’s ‘Frenzy’, and Jesus lookalike Harvey’s ‘Tonka’ night at the Zap. In the meantime, while I was processing the change, I started a night of acid free funk ‘n’ soul at the Downbeat club with Shem: ‘Streets Ahead’.”
“The eye-opening moment happened at the Escape Club one night. A little chemical stimulus took hold, then I finally understood the euphoria of the past couple of years. C.C. Peniston’s anthemic ‘Finally (it is happening to me)’ boomed around the club. Ah, Yes! I get why you’re all dancing on the tables and hugging each other. The glory of ecstasy was apparent, and that turned me onto house music. The nearest I got to it before was gay disco music; The Flirts, Bobby O, Donna Summer. I think I spent the rest of my life loving Acid House because I missed it first time round. Put it down to geography. Remember it was pre internet, it took longer to filter through, but Brighton was hot and quick to Acid House. It travelled up the M1, but not the M62!”
Norman went on to No.1 success with Beats International and Freakpower, but new frontiers were emerging. “I was finding a new niche and looking to make something fresh. By this point I’d been in a white boy pop band, made reggae and hip hop influenced music, then Acid Jazz and variously a bass player, guitarist, producer and DJ. There was this hybrid music I really liked that no-one else did.” He refers to a mulch of influences being pop music like The Beatles, punk rock, hip hop and Acid House – all pivotal, but a little bland in the contemporary context. “By this point house had become formulated. I looked back at hip hop but it lacked the tempo energy, trip hop sounded interesting played at 45 so I got the idea of break-beats at house tempo, introducing pop references – I loved playing these tunes. But no-one wanted to book me playing a set like this.” Ex Beats International Lindy Layton introduced Norman to the Heavenly Social in London where the Chemical Brothers were having similar ideas. Norman walked in the club only to hear his own record, by his new moniker – Fat Boy Slim – on heavy rotation. Notes were swapped, new relationships formed. The trips to London became frequent but eventually took their toll. Norman decided a new Brighton night, based on the same lines, was in order. The Big Beat Boutique was born. It became quickly apparent after the first night (a Primal Scream after-party), that a lot of people were on the same wavelength. By the third night the queues were out of control!
The Boutique was the Skint records HQ’s own club, ideas were tested and boundaries pushed. In the same manner of genre name creation as Chicago’s Warehouse, New York’s Paradise Garage, Big Beat took its name from the club.
The idea of Fatboy Slim came about after a brainstorming meeting at Loaded records. The new label, Skint, was born of an idea by A&R man Damian Harris, and a new product was needed to stamp the identity. Norman was sitting in exactly the right place to deliver the goods. In a space of two years, everything from Norman’s never-switched-off mixing desk made vinyl gold. The so-called trilogy followed: A remix of Cornerstone’s ‘Brimful Of Asher’, Wildchild’s ‘Renegade Master’ and the killer – Fatboy Slim’s ‘Rockafella Skank’ – all made within the space of a week, took our hero and genre to global fame. Norman’s formula of ‘a bit of Northern Soul beaks’, ‘acid 303’, ‘crazy pop samples’, repeated, mangled, warped and taken to extreme, was the formula to dancefloor and aural magic.
“The best bit about it all is The Big Beat Boutique has put Brighton squarely on the map. Before the club, the Big Beach Boutiques and Skint sponsoring the Albion, my experience going round the world and saying I’m from Brighton usually prompted ‘Ah, Quadrophenia, Brighton Rock’. Our own contribution has now added to the fame. Now it’s more ‘Ah, Brighton, Big Beach Boutique’. In my career this is one of the things that has made me really proud.”
In this part of our conversation, Norman goes on to emphasise his love of Brighton, his pride and happiness at being the unofficial ambassador, mascot or however he is perceived. “I love all things Brighton, I enjoy being involved and love that people are proud of me. Brighton is special, bordering on eccentric lunacy at times, but that’s the key. That’s what this city was built on. Where else could you have something like the i360? It probably wouldn’t be tolerated. Anyone who doubts its place should take a look at the Pavilion, and imagine how people saw it when it was new. It doesn’t exactly reflect the south coast surroundings!
However, that set the benchmark of eccentric things that would become iconic for this city. The elements that bring people and tourists; ultimately helping our economy. The city is based on visitors – be it dirty weekends, party political conferences, car rallies, mod reunions or hen parties. Half our economy is probably based on the influx of tourists, and so we have to embrace that culture, feed the beast and continue to build these ideas that ultimately make people smile. It’s what Brighton does best.
Moving on to his newest passion – Snow Dogs. “We are all getting involved having sponsored one ourselves. My daughter and I have done the trail and spent hours loving the process. I spent this morning having coffee at our Hove Lagoon café, watching people interacting with our Snow Dog ‘Boomer’. It’s something that probably wouldn’t work in many cities. We’ve met people who have come down for a couple of days just to do the trail. Again, we’re back to tourism. We are all here to entertain. I firmly believe that’s what Brighton exists to do. It’s totally open-minded, we tolerate most things, and for me it’s the best place to live.”
Moving back to his day job, we talk about music and where he is now. “I’ve just made a new record. They don’t come so easily these days. I don’t have a particular desire to inflict my records as I used to do.” He admits to finding it harder pushing his enthusiasm on others while being a parent, sober and older. However, DJing has become his main passion and drawing board for new ideas. The organic process of dropping hooks into his set has stimulated ideas for this new tune, containing all the hallmarks of another Fatboy classic. His DJ style can be summed up in his own words: “Party Acid House’ 128bpm, nasty noises, hooks of big tunes – hard, but fair.”
Norman laments the days of pioneer record making, the hardware, the button pushing and sheer hard work and engineering that went into making a record sound great. “These days the laptop does most of the work, it’s easy to do anything, and so I end up doing nothing. The days of going round your mate’s house to borrow a synth, or drum machine to get a special sound have gone, the magic with it too. That frontier spirit of abusing the equipment has disappeared.” Citing the example of a Roland 303 bass module – developed to accompany a guitarist without a bass player – “Chicago house pioneers discovered by abusing the filters they could get really sexy noises, and so inventing a new sound and genre.” His home recording studio has become frozen in time, a near museum piece – a shrine to how it was all done in the 1990s. “It still works, but like everything in life I grudgingly have to accept the labour-saving benefits of technology, outweigh the soul you felt for the old way of doing things. I was probably one of the last people to play vinyl as a DJ. I clung on continually making dub plates (a single pressing) of tunes so I could still play vinyl. Now I’ve made the change to software DJing – I can’t go back!”
Qualifying his DJ superstar status, Norman’s next gig is the mighty 02 arena. Nor will we only experience his DJing abilities, but his VJ talent too. The amazing digital visuals that will spread across the arena are all at his fingertip control. The show promises a spectacular, massive budget event.
Norman’s favourite album, “on an emotional level,” is Stevie Wonder’s album ‘Innervisions’, 1973. Followed closely by The Beatles ‘Abbey Road’, 1970 (minus two tracks – your guess reader), and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, 1971. His first record purchase was Chinn & Chapman’s production of Suzie Quatro’s ‘Devil Gate Drive’ 1974; “I loved the strutting energy”.
That energy seemed to have made a major impact; he’s shared the same positive entertaining spirit for well over two decades, which shows no sign of abating.