The Anniversary

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby Turns 20

“Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother/ Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother/ Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother/ Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother/ Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother/ Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother/ Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother/ Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother/ Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother/ Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother/ Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother/ Right about now/ The funk soul brother/ Check it out now/ The funk soul brother.”

If you were alive at the end of the 1990s, this song existed in a loop in your head whether you liked it or not. It’s called “The Rockefeller Skank,” and — with an incessant Lord Finesse vocal loop riding a syncopated surf-rock tidal wave — it heralded the arrival of Fatboy Slim as a conquering global force.

Not that Norman Cook, the British DJ and producer who steered the Fatboy Slim project to international fame and fortune, was a new face in pop. In his native UK he’d previously hit #1 twice, first as the bassist for the Housemartins on their “Caravan Of Love” cover in 1986 and again in 1990 with the Beats International collective’s Clash-S.O.S. Band mashup “Dub Be Good To Me.” And with his Fatboy Slim debut Better Living Through Chemistry in 1996, he had established himself as a brazen pillager of hooks in pursuit of maximum fun. He’d built a whole career out of repurposing sounds in obvious but trend-conscious fashion, evolving into a cratedigger with a cheeseball populist sensibility worthy of Guy Fieri. As the Big Beat movement was crafting the soundtrack for a generation of TV ads, Cook positioned himself as the genre’s goofy, gregarious mascot.

Electronic music that repeated one catchy sample over and over was a very big deal at the end of the Clinton administration. Not long after Fatboy Slim got famous doing it, Moby got even more famous doing a serious artiste version of it with Play, sampling old field recordings from Alan Lomax’s Sounds Of The South box set and undergirding them with techno, house, and hip-hop beats. Cook never had that veneer of sophistication. What he did have was the shameless urge to poke you in the ear with the same few bars of music until you couldn’t tell the difference between pain and pleasure anymore. With You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, released 20 years ago this Saturday in the US, he bludgeoned the whole world into submission.

If your life was as saturated with this music as mine was in those days, you may be shocked to learn You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby never made it above #34 on the Billboard 200, though it did eventually go Platinum here in the States. And although it generated four top 10 singles in Cook’s native UK, none of them charted higher than #36 on the Hot 100. It goes to show what a pervasive force MTV remained back then and how incomplete the picture was back when the channel’s video plays weren’t factored into the charts. Had “The Rockefeller Skank” arrived in the YouTube era, it probably would have put up, if not “Gangnam Style” numbers, at least stats strong enough to propel it to the top 10. Not that its extremely late-’90s video was particularly special — quoth my colleague Peter Helman, “It’s no ‘Weapon Of Choice’” — but teenagers like me would have been playing it as compulsively as MTV was.

The clip that actually did go viral, or at least as viral as a video could be before YouTube — the one that established Fatboy Slim as an iconic music video artist before Christopher Walken went contorting around a hotel three years later — was “Praise You.” The lo-fi footage found director Spike Jonze (who also helmed the “Weapon Of Choice” video among zillions of other classic videos) posing as the leader of a community dance troupe, conducting a guerrilla performance at a Los Angeles movie theater long before the phrase “flash mob” entered the cultural lexicon. Jonze waves his charges through their steps with slapdash pizzazz. Cook makes a Hitchcock cameo as one of the puzzled onlookers. Charming, befuddling performance art ensues. It allegedly cost $800 to make — not bad for a project that MTV viewers later voted the #1 video of all time. (Over “Thriller”! And every other video in the 20th century!)

“Praise You” the song also turned out to be You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby’s biggest hit, the one that topped out at #36 in the US and all the way to #1 in the UK. Like all Fatboy Slim songs, it’s a mashup of obscure but infectious sounds, but it sounded less like dance music than some long-lost piano-pop song exhumed and given new life. It pumps the positivity with such a gentle kindness and dancing-Snoopy joy that it’s hard to hate even if you find the rest of Cook’s big hits relentlessly grating. And trust me, there was plenty to be annoyed by on this album. The post-Odelay kitchen-sink odyssey “Gangster Trippin’,” the symphonic faux-dramatic introduction “Right Here, Right Now,” the adolescent-delighting curio “Fucking In Heaven” (which endlessly repeated the lyrics “Fatboy Slim is fucking in heaven”), any number of pulverizing yet largely unmemorable deep cuts: this was sonic Cheez-Whiz, and sitting through a whole album of it was like spraying the entire can directly into your mouth.

That’s why, 20 years later, I’m surprised Fatboy Slim hasn’t come charging back to take over the world with some new novelty track — maybe tied to a viral dance challenge or another winsomely gimmicky video? The cultural climate is right for someone so exquisitely tasteless to come through and bombard our senses with extreme prejudice. Our nostalgia cycle is parked in the late ’90s. No one except Jackson Maine believes in guilty pleasures anymore. Streaming and social media are there to amplify whatever base-impulse animal-instinct inanity lurks in the recesses of Cook’s consciousness. In his homeland, he actually did have another moment in 2013 with “Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat,” but here in the States he’s a relic of the Y2K era, without a hit since before 9/11. I’m not saying I want this to happen, but if the funk-soul brother ever was going to mount a comeback, it’s hard to imagine a better time than right about now.