Oh 1999, how long ago you seem. Remember the days when all you had to do to get a hit was turn the tone control on a mixing desk from low to high and hope nobody noticed how ridiculously simple that was? Ok that’s a little unfair, but not everything stands the test of time. What’s interesting about Fatboy Slim these days is both how genuinely, unexpectedly impressive the music sounded back in the heady days of 1999 and how rather facile it sounds now. Still, in many ways Fatboy Slim’s breakthrough album, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby is extremely forward-looking – prescient even. It’s essentially the template for, to take one not-at-all-random example, Moby’s career, and many others will follow in its wake. That’s not a criticism of artists like Moby who will use this template, but it does demonstrate where it comes from.
Which is to say, basically, this takes a small handful of samples, throws some electronic beats underneath them, then sits back and lets the plaudits roll in. That’s what most of the singles from You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby do. Big Beat, in as much as it ever was a movement, is very much a feature of the very late 90’s and the very early 00’s and while its leading lights – The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, The Propellerheads and others – are well-known acts, it’s also not a genre that particularly goes anywhere. Even if someone like Moby owes his existence to this, it’s hard to call what Moby does Big Beat. And even then, Fatboy Slim is probably the least of these acts and though the previous album, Better Living Through Chemistry, was well-regarded it was itself mostly just a compilation. Norman Cook – when last we spoke of him it was regarding the excellent Housemartins – never quite managed to get Fatboy Slim to shake the aura of “side-project” and Big Beat itself lends itself very much to “just dicking around”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it exists mostly as a carrion genre, consuming electronic beats that were more typical of techno, acid-house and other smaller electronic genres while looping samples that can come from just about anywhere – movies, other songs, spoken word, you name it. It’s fun, it’s light-hearted and it is also, as pretty much a built-in feature, disposable.
Because if there’s a word to describe Big Beat, it’s probably “novelty”. We’ve discussed novelty singles in the past but this is the first time we’ve really come across a genre, rather than an individual track, that falls into that category. Disco was simply too vast and culturally important to be regarded that way and though a few of the 80’s genres might have brushed up against it – New Romantics most obviously – they were still possessed of enough variety to keep things interesting. And the thing is, the Big Beat novelty absolutely worked. There’s nothing wrong with being novelty, whether single, album or genre. Contemporary reviews of You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby are flattering to the point of absurdity. Today, it’s hard to see what much of the fuss was about. But of course that’s the nature of the novelty – it fades. What once seemed remarkable then becomes ordinary now, and the mash-up style of cut-and-paste that defines the Fatboy Slim sound was once brand-new and is now something that literally anyone with half an hour and some freeware sound editing software could knock up. The novelty has gone.
That doesn’t, however, devalue the nature of the novelty nor the quality of the music, it’s simply an artefact of the way things develop. And yet not all novelties are equal. “Praise You” was a vast hit but it really is little more than cut-and-paste, a few lines from “Take Yo Priase” by musician, poet and activist Camille Yarborough and a few samples from a handful of disparate music sources, slung together and ta-da! A hit single beckons. “Right Here, Right Now” uses a sample too – in this case Angela Bassett who provides the song’s lone lyric, but that’s as far as the similarities go. Because “Right Here, Right Now” is so far ahead, musically, of any of the other singles released from You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby that it’s fairly hard to imagine they were put together by the same person.
For one, “Right Here, Right Now” is the only single from the album that actually doesn’t seem like a novelty and feels like it might actually be stretching its writer. Norman Cook is a fantastically talented individual and this is the Fatboy Slim single that shows that off to its fullest extent. It feels like real effort has been put into it, in fact. Which isn’t to posit that no effort has gone into any of the other songs, that would be an absurd suggestion, but “Right Here, Right Now” is simply better. It has a real spark to it, and because most of the actual music is original if feels massively less derivative than much of the rest of the album.
Indeed, had the rest of the album been of this quality all those slightly absurd reviews from 1999 would make a lot more sense, because there’s something incredibly exciting about the single. It manages to capture the energy and vitality of dance music at the turn of the Millennium – rather like our last entry, in fact – but it doesn’t sound like it’s derivative. In fact, the idea that both “Ray Of Light” and “Right Here, Right Now” are so closely compatible yet don’t sound derivative of each other shows how far dance music, or at least the kind of dance music that this represents, had come, and how much diversity there is in the genre. “Right Here, Right Now” has a real power to it, but it’s the sort of song that’s more likely to play in Ibiza than Islington. Dance music has moved out of the discos and into the night air and few songs manage to capture that quite as well as “Right Here, Right Now”. The only bad thing about it is that it’s frustrating the other singles don’t quite live up to its high standards, but that’s scarcely the fault of this song. As it is, it stands at the pinnacle of this style of music. And you can’t really ask for a lot more than that.
And that’s where we leave the story of Number 2 singles. The Millennium will turn, more music will be released, and the cycle will continue. It will also change – the singles charts are noticeably less important now than they were at the dawn of the 2000’s, at least in part because streaming means that musicians are able to bypass the more formal structures of the music industry to connect directly with their audiences. There will always be a place for traditional labels – not least because of the massive marketing budgets they can command – but as we move away from the year 2000 access to music, and the ability to directly reach music fans, becomes easier and easier. Getting to Number 1 is no longer the be all and end all of a music career, neither is it a failing when an artist doesn’t manage that. The charts will continue to exist, grow and develop in new directions, a process that’s already begun of course. It was only in this year that digital music became a viable method of distribution, and it would take another five years before downloads were counted towards a single’s sales. The charts adapted, and as we move into a more technologically integrated age, they will adapt again. It’s inevitable. But there will always be a place for the songs to slog it out in terms of sales, and there will always be someone at the top of that chart. Which means there will always be someone who almost, but not quite, made it too.
What Else Happened in 1999?
If you came here hoping for lots of inspiration in the final What Else Happened In…? article then I fear you are doomed to disappointment – 1999 was, like 1989, dismal. Feel free to get excited about “Baby One More Time” being the biggest single of the year if you can summon up the energy – the second-largest was “Mambo No 5” by Lou Bega and third was, Rassilon help us all, “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”. The remaining two are rounded off by TLC’s “No Scrubs” and the Backstreet Boys “I Want It That Way”. I’m sure you do, love. R.E.M. reach their highest UK chart position with, of all things, “The Great Beyond” and Garbage do this year’s Bond theme with “The World Is Not Enough”. The best-selling albums of the year are pretty grim too and manage to include Kid Rock and Ricky Martin. Eminem breaks through with The Slim Shady LP, and Gary Glitter is sentenced to four months in prison for his child porn downloading. The Columbine High School massacre takes place, putting Marilyn Manson and Rammestein in the cultural crosshairs, and in spring Billy Joel announces he’s doing his last pop concert so he can focus on classical music. It won’t, unsurprisingly, last. Christina Aguilera debuts, and Smash Mouth give us – all together now – “All Star”, and it seems we can’t return it. The Beta Band release their first, eponymous, album and Missy Elliot is in Da Real World. Korn become the first rock band to perform at the Apollo in New York City, and George Harrison survives a knife attack at his home in England. David Bowie stays at the forefront of technology by having (the staggeringly bland) Hours be the first legally-available album for download. Grant Lee Buffalo and The Cardigans split up, and arguably the greatest violinist of all time, Yehudi Menuhin, dies at the age of 92. So does Screaming Lord Sutch.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Look, I know its stupid trash that pretty much ruined their reputation but I’ve always liked Terrorvision’s “Tequila” and I’m not going to pretend that isn’t the case just to front. It’s catchy as hell. Blur’s “Tender” was in contention, and Madonna makes herself available to us again with the Austin Powers-supporting “Beautiful Stranger”. Will Smith makes his case for inclusion twice, with “Will 2K” and “Wild Wild West” but you know. It’s Will Smith. ¯\_ (ツ)_/¯ Feel like getting lectured at by a bunch of idiots? The Offspring’s “Why Don’t You Get A Job?” was worryingly successful, and one song that was very much What Was There Never Any Chance Of Us Discussing was Eminem’s “My Name Is”, which got to Number 2 in the UK in April.
This series was originally meant to run to 2008, but I decided the Millennium was a better cut-off point
, and also most of what comes after is straight-up terrible. The songs that would have been covered had the original deadline been adhere to were…
S Club 7 – “Reach”
Sophie Ellis-Baxtor – “Murder On The Dancefloor”
Puretone – “Addicted To Bass”
Electric Six – “Danger! High Voltage”
The Libertines – “Can’t Stand Me Now”
Gorillaz – “Feel Good Inc”
Infernal – “From Paris To Berlin”
The White Stripes – “Icky Thump”
Adele – “Chasing Pavements”
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Kylie Minogue – “Confide In Me”
7. Ultravox – “Vienna”
8. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
9. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
10. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
11. Pulp – “Common People”
12. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
13. The Beautiful South – “Song For Whoever”
14. The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
15. Luciano Pavarotti – “Nessun Dorma”
16. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
17. The KLF with Tammy Wynette – “Justified And Ancient (Stand By The JAMs)”
18. Madonna – “Ray Of Light”
19. James – “Sit Down”
20. Natalie Imbruglia – “Torn”
21. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
22. Suzanne Vega-DNA – “Tom’s Diner”
23. Fatboy Slim – “Right Here, Right Now”
24. Manic Street Preachers – “A Design For Life”
25. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
26. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
27. 4 Non Blondes – “What’s Up?”
28. Queen, “Killer Queen”
29. Blondie, “Denis”
30. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
31. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
32. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
33. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
34. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
35. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
36. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
37. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
38. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
39. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
40. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
41. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
42. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”