If you knew the name Norman Cook back about 20 years ago, chances are you were either a diehard Housemartins fan or a diehard dance music fan. Back in the 80s, Cook played bass for the British rock group and, as a solo act, created dance music under a variety of pseudonyms; Beats International, Pizzaman, and others.
While there’d been a few records, his first as Fatboy Slims came out in 1996 on Skint Records (and Astralwerks in North America). The new name was a deliberately nonsensical choice: “It kind of suits me,” he said in 2001, “it’s goofy and ironic.” Which is a good way to describe Better Living Through Chemistry: it plays off of familiar riffs and beats, mixing disparate ideas into a stew that’s at once familiar and new.
For example, take the album’s biggest hit: “Going Out of My Head.”
Here, Cook places Pete Townshend’s guitar riff from “I Can’t Explain” against a pounding drum beat, record scratches and Yvonne Elliman singing the chorus of Townsend’s song – minus, of course, the title itself. It’s turns something familiar – and dare I say almost stale? – into a pretty instantaneous groove. It’s the sort of thing that filled dance floors a good decade-plus ago. The video’s no slouch, either, with some nice breakdancing.
Of course, not all the sounds are as familiar. ‘First Down,” for example, is built around a Fela Kuti riff (“Roforofo Fight,” which isn’t exactly his most popular tune) and “Song For Lindy” uses an uncredited sample from Chicago’s “I’m A Man” as it’s beat. In both cases, they push the limits of what dance music could be: “First Down” is downright jazzy, bordering on trip-hop, while “Song for Lindy” shifts into a piano solo and refuses to rely on a stomping beat.
Indeed, in 2016, the album sounds dated: there aren’t jarring drops or room-shaking synth riffs.
The loud bombast of dubstep or the hazy production of trap are light years away; the drum programming sounds almost primative and you can practically see Fatboy Slim manipulating the records as you hear the music.
At the same time, it still holds it’s own. At it’s best, dance music still fills the room with energy and here, Fatboy Slim still does. “Michael Jackson,” built around an unlikely Negativland sample, still pulsates with energy, as does “Going Out of My Head.” Meanwhile, songs like “Santa Cruz,” “Song for Lindy” and “Next to Nothing” might not fill a dancefloor, but are compelling listens, showing a distinct Aphex Twin influence.
Taken as a whole, Better Living Through Chemistry admittedly drags at points and in retrospect, sounds like a warmup for Fatboy Slim’s commercial breakthrough You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby. There, his cut-and-paste productions hit their stride on roller-coaster rides like “Rockafeller Skank” or “Gangster Trippin,” the retro-soul of “Praise You” and the tense, pulsating “Right Here, Right Now.” But you can see the seeds here, it’s ideas getting sketched out.
Thankfully, the album’s appended with a generous selection of bonus tracks. Some are familiar – the US-only cuts “Michael Jackson” and “Next to Nothing” – and some are new to all but the hardcore fan. Both “Big Beat Soufflé” and “Knuf of Knup” were on the Punk to Funk EP, while “Neil Cassidy Starts Here” and “Weekend Bonus Beats” were on the Santa Cruz EP. Loose tracks from other EPs and import versions are also here; all that’s missing are redundant radio edits of album cuts.
All in all, it fits the bill of what you’d expect from a re-release of this kind. For fans of dance music, and especially people who remember Fatboy Slim’s late 90s/early 2000s heyday, Better Living Through Chemistry remains a great listen.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.