When Norman Cook walked away from The Housemartins he walked into hi-tech record production and remixing: now he's topped the charts with Beats International. Tim Goodyer talks to a computer convert.
For many musicians the music business offers success on its own terms, but Norman Cook's success - with the Housemartins and now Beats International - hasn't tempered his attitudes to innnovation and technology.
IT IS NOW SOME 20 MONTHS SINCE MT'S last (and first) interview with Norman Cook. Then the talk was of his involvement with The Housemartins, and his remixing of artists such as James Brown, Eric B & Rakim and Stetsasonic. He talked of his experiences as a hip Brighton DJ, of his contempt for Stock, Aitken & Waterman, and of the technology that made it possible for the bass player of a polite white pop band to become involved in remixing and production work for some of the hottest acts in town. But quite a lot has changed in those 20 months - young Norman's got married, moved house and bought himself a new car - oh, and at the time of writing he's currently holding the No. 1 slot in the British charts with his band Beats International and a cover of the SOS Band's 'Just Be Good To Me'.
The list of "credible" artists for whom Cook can claim to have performed remix or production duties now includes such artists as Fine Young Cannibals, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens (who guested on the Art of Noise's single 'Yebo' last year), Digital Underground and Silver Bullet. Meanwhile the remix of Stetsasonic's 'A.F.R.I.C.A.' that had so excited the band but had been witheld from release because of the use of the chorus of Jerry Hammers' 'Free Nelson Mandela' has seen a significantly more timely release in 1990 and is scheduled for inclusion on Stet's forthcoming LP. Be in no doubt, a lot has changed in those 20 months.
It's a sunny day in Brighton when we meet in Cook's newhome studio to discuss what's happened to his fortunes, his gear and his attitudes. And reassuringly, the latter have remained very much intact - with one notable exception which we'll come to later. But let's begin with his fortune, and Beats International...
The original plan was for Cook to make the traditional "solo" album (the same one we're all going to make), but he found himself working in loose collaboration with so many people that the only option was to give them a collective name - and Beats International were born.
Their LP debut (which should be available by the time you read this) embraces a refreshing variety of musical styles, from the obvious dance appeal of 'Dub Be Good To Me' through the 70s soul of 'Dance to the Drummer's Beat' to the eccentricity of 'Tribute to King Tubby'.
The outfit that you've probably seen on one or other of the pop TV programmes consists of singer and ex-Grange Hill schoolgirl Lindy Layton, keyboard player Andy Boucher, indy soulster Lester (who was once part of a band called Grab Grab The Haddock alongside MT illustrator Andrew Kingham) and enigmatic percussionist Luke Creswell (the man behind Pookiesnackenberger and The Yes No People). At the time of the interview their dub rework of 'Just Be Good To Me' is hovering at No. 2, with the new Gallup chart to be announced in two days. Will it make No. 1? Our conversation is frequently interrupted by calls from friends and biz people alike - will he do this show, can he appear at a charity gig, will the single make No. 1?
Dragging him away from the phone for a moment we try to establish just what Norman Cook currently is: bass player, remixer, producer even? After a long pause Cook admits to having "a producer's hat".
"I suppose I like to think of myself as a producer really, even when I'm remixing. The idea of remixers was that they didn't know anything about music, but they knewhow things worked on a dancefloor. But now we've reached a stage where better remixers are rewriting tunes and basslines, and trying to change the chords and the melody around. I suppose I'm a producer-stroke-programmer because I do so much of my stuff on the computer."
It seems somehow appropriate, then, that at least part of Cook's success as a post-Housemartin artist should have come with a heavy rework of a classic song. But hasn't this business of "covers" gone on long enough? Wouldn't he rather have been able to take credit for the writing as well as the arrangement, production and so on?
"Yeah, definitely. But I'm a crap songwriter." The admission comes easily to the modest Cook. "Given that I'm calling myself a producer/programmer rather than a 'musician', it's kind of an acknowledgement of what I do - I produced it and put it together, rather than wrote it or performed anything on it. It would have been nicest if I'd written it, sung it and produced it, but I'll settle for one out of three because you have to recognise your own limitations and I don't think I'd have a No. 2 single with anything I could have written."
"It would have boon nicest If I'd wrltton, sung and produced 'Dub Bo Good To Me', but I'll sottle for two out of three - you have to rocognise your own limitations."
Nor, I presume, a No. 1... And Cook's sincerity regarding the role of the remixer in the '90s is further demonstrated by the title of his single: 'Dub Be Good To Me' - almost the original, but unique enough for the purposes of collecting royalties. Still, we'd both be living in a strange world if we didn't recognise that there are a good many musicians and punters who'd rather the remixers left other peoples' songs well alone. What does Cook have to say to critics of his work?
"Wake up, we're in the 20th century for God's sake! A song is a song, yes, but people do different versions of songs - Elvis sang 'Mv Way' slightly differently to the way Sid Vicious sang it. In dance music there is the opportunity to come up with endless remixes - if you've just got one thing binding them together. It's like that Art of Noise track that came out under about four different names and, in the end, it turned out as a completely different track. It started as 'Beatbox' then it was 'Beatbox Version 1', then it was 'Close To The Edit'. Finally, apart from one snare drum, it was a completely different tune, because every time they remixed it they took a little bit more of the original away.
"Obviously, it depends on the type of music. Drum machine-based dance music and sample-based dance music is open to as many different interpretations as possible as far as I'm concerned. Obviously if you've got a classic recording of a classic track you shouldn't go back and butcher it. I'm not in favour of taking a Bill Withers song, bunging a drum machine all over it and re-releasing it.
"I think there are songs that need to be remixed, there are songs that it would be interesting to remix and songs that should be left alone. There are those that should be left alone, but only on the grounds of taste, not the politics of it. Having said that, it's got to be up to the artist. People say 'what if the artist doesn't like it and it still gets released?'. Well, if an artist is stupid enough to sign a contract whereupon the record company can get someone to do a completely different version of a song and release it without their approval, then they're beyond help. The artist must reserve the right of approval over everything that comes out with their name on it. If someone doesn't like a remix I've done, it won't get released - it's happened before. The Stone Roses got A Guy Called Gerald to remix 'Fool's Gold' and then said 'sorry, we don't like it, don t release it', and it never got released.
"To me, it's a question of taste. If a song is a classic recording that has a really good atmosphere to it and someone ruined it, that would be wrong. If you take a brilliant, heartfelt soul song and indiscriminately bung a drum machine on it, it's a hangable offence - on the grounds of taste, not because things shouldn't be altered or mucked about. You know those double-groove records like Monty Python's Matching Tie and Hanky - What I'd like to do is get a 20-groove version of one of those and fill it with different versions of a song, so that you never knew what you were going to get. It could be a wildly different version or it could just have a different ending..."
But not all styles of remixing draw this sort of enthusiasm from the ex-Martin.
"I must say I'm not in favour of the sort of 'creative' remixing that's used to keep songs in the charts", he proclaims. "I try to do my remixes from an artistic point of view, but some people do it from the point of view of just needing another version. If I had my way, all the remixes of a song would come out together. With 'Dub Be Good To Me' we put four different mixes of the same track on the same record - and then another three on the remix. I'd have preferred to put all seven on one double 12-inch in the first place because I think that, when you buy a song, you should be given all the different interpretations in the first place. An idea like that is perfect for CD - they could give you every version including the demo if they wanted. It would be like someone doing eight different versions of a song on the same album, where the only thing that was the same would be the title or the words. I suppose it's the ultimate concept album. If I had a killer song, I'd love to do that."
An intriguing idea - and not without its merits. It's obviously an area to which Cook has given considerable thought: "If I had tons of money, I'd pay lots of people, from Holger Czukay to Malcolm Maclaren, to remix my stuff just to hear what their interpretations of it would be - not to release it. I'd just like to hear how other people would treat something I'd done. There are tons of remixers who I rate, people who are really inventive, people like Coldcut, Smith and Mighty, Blacksmith, Dave Dorrell, CJ Macintosh...
But describing any song as a "classic", and therefore exempt from the attentions of the ill-intentioned remixer, brings its own problems. Just what makes any record a "classic"? The question bounces between us. I suggest a classic song must have stood the test of time - retained the elements that made it a success after the era in which it was written has passed.
"It would be like someone doing eight different versions of a song on the same album, where only the words were the same - I suppose it's the ultimate concept album."
"I accept that", concedes Cook. "I suppose the fact that we covered 'Just Be Good To Me' helps make that a classic, but I'm wary of people being precious about old songs. When The Housemartins covered 'Caravan of Love' there was one journalist who said 'of course, I loved the original when I was a kid', and he said in print that it wasn't as good as the original, but the original version had only come out eight months earlier - and totally stiffed. How could he have danced to it as a kid? Why didn't he review it when it came out?
"I wouldn't argue that it's a classic, and I actually prefer the original, but these people suddenly start revering originals that they know nothing about as soon as somebody releases a cover.
"It's like people who aren't respected until they're dead. Everyone regards Otis Redding as a brilliant singer cos he's died; Sam and Dave were much better but because they didn't have the decency to die young, they're not recognised by these people. To them, a song doesn't become a classic until someone else has covered it so they can say 'it's not as good as the original'.
"Our version of 'Caravan of Love' didn't get much airplay in this country, but suddenly there were Radio 1 DJs playing 'that classic Isley Brothers song'. But it wasn't the Isley Brothers, it was Isley, Jasper and Isley who were the sons of the Isley Brothers, and eight months earlier some plugger was desperately trying to get you to play it on your show and you wouldn't touch it.
"I'm not saying 'Dub Be Good To Me' is a brilliant record, but I've put a lot of time into it and it's been done for the right reasons. It's so easy to be snobby about music, and I'd love to take some of these people out and say 'tell me about it...'
BACK IN SEPTEMBER OF 1988, COMPUTERS did not feature highly in the working environment of Norman Cook. With characteristic honesty he admitted to being "really 'anti' too much technology", and harboured a fear that these machines were secretly engaged in a long-term plan for world domination. Today an Atari 1040 running C-Lab's Creator sequencing software is the nerve centre of his home setup and the 24-track he frequents in Brighton.
"You see, I had a fear of computers because I'd never touched one. We never had them at school or anything; kids today get taught about computers at school. When I was at school computers were these big things in James Bond films with whirring tapes going around. So I was very wary.
"I'd always been wary of them", he continues, "because, to me, they were things that baffled engineers pored over while you were bored in the studio, or they were things that people played games on instead of making music. But I'd never really recognised what they could do. If you know how to use them they make things easier, but I've worked with so many engineers who only half knew what they were doing that it would have been quicker to do it on my old Roland MSQ700. That was until I met an engineer who could do things quicker with his Atari than I could with the MSQ700. We used to have races: me with the sequencer and him with the computer - and he always used to beat me.
"You could have someone write a really average song, and then someone else who is good musically could turn it into a brilliant single - whose credit is that?"
"When I was working at home I was using the sequencer, but in the studio he'd be using the computer. It wasn't until Simon was out of the room one day and I thought 'I know he does that next', that I had a go - and it all worked. So I've got into it now. Having said that, all I've done is to get a Creator program and learned how to use it. I've made a conscious effort not to buy any games so I don't go off and play Dungeons and Dragons all day and I'm not really into the latest updates and all that."
So why is it that hi-tech innovations like synthesisers, samplers and drum machines can find their way into the hearts of most musicians, and yet computers suffer such bad press?
"I think it was the image for me and my generation", ventures Cook. "Computers were something that only 'boffins' dealt with, and I had a fear of pressing the wrong button and blowing up the world - or erasing everything I'd ever recorded. It's the way computers were portrayed by the media when they were first brought out. The fact that they can all be linked up by telephone and talk to each other made you think 'Jeez, if I press the wrong button, I can empty the Bank of England...'. It was the idea that the computer wasn't just a slave - that did things for you, but that it might be more intelligent than you. Or that the computer held this mass of information and that you didn't want to find the button that wiped it all.
"I honestly think it's the snobbery of computer heads who love having their own jargon and everything and take the piss out of anyone who doesn't know step one about computers - they're the same as train spotters really. Whenever you talk to anyone about computers they start talking 'K' and hard disks - I wanted people to explain it to me in English. It took me three months to work out the difference between software and hardware.
"Those people propagate the snobbery of computers, where, if you've just got a few buttons to press on a machine, it's easy. If you see a drum machine that's got play, record and hi-hat written on it, you know where you are, but when you look at something that's got insert, delete, shift and tons of buttons that you don't recognise you sort of think 'where do I start?'.
"No-one has ever stressed to Joe Public the difference between computer programming and computer operating. It's only the programmers that are the boffins and have to talk the jargon. I don't think that Computer Incorporated PR department have ever impressed on people like me that a computer is a tool and it depends on the software what you can do with it: if the software is written for a child of five or your average stupid musician me - then we can all use it. I've had no problems with Creator except that it doesn't have much of a sense of humour. An SSL desk has a lot of nice little messages for you - there's a series of messages that go 'you can't do that, please try again', then if you do this again it goes 'I've told you once...', and if you do it again 'listen, knob-head, this is the third time'. And the guy that's written it had taken the time to write ten insults that ended up like 'listen, penis-breath, your mother sucks cocks in hell'... Creator could do with a little bit more flair in there."
Er, if you say so, Norman. But on to things of more import. The art of sampling has had a lot of bad press - not just recently, but ever since the term "sampling" was adopted by the tabloid press as a synonym for stealing. Yet sampling has been going on since the avant-garde began splicing together pieces of recording tape and calling it music. How much is the advance in technology to blame for the falling credibility of the technique?
"Sampling can be copying", concedes Cook readily, "but it can be more than that. Every 12-bar blues band is ripping off somebody else. A sampler is just another instrument, and it's an instrument that will make far more varied and interesting sounds than an electric guitar. Some people love hearing Eric Clapton play guitar, but it's all been done now. There are only six strings and 12 notes... It's pretty obvious which side of the fence I come down on.
"I'd say if you take a James Brown grunt and put it in a different context you're ripping off James Brown less than the Rolling Stones ripped off Howling Wolf, because they copied everything about him. With "Just Be Good To Me" we're crediting the songwriters and saying it's a cover version, whereas the Rolling Stones used to nick peoples' songs, change one word of the title and call them their own songs - Eric Clapton used to do that as well - and I don't think they should now be turning round and looking at DJs now' who're trying to do something innovative. James Brown is now sampling himself, Janet Jackson's Control album was done by arguably the two best dance producers of the moment - they could have got the best session musicians and songwriters in, and yet they used samplers."
"If you wrote enough songs randomly, you'd write a good one, but which one - work it out on a computer: what are the chances of coming up with a good tune out of 12 notes?"
Cook has great respect for the people he regards as musical innovators - those people who bring something genuinely new to music. He also recognises that such artists are rarely recognised for their contributions. Genuine innovations are usually regarded as being too much of a risk by the record industry, and are usually passed over in favour of a safe, potentially moneymaking act. Often it is another artist that recognises the commercial potential of fresh ideas and incorporates them into their own work. Artists eager to further a musical cause rather than cash in on it are fewer and farther between.
"If you look at the charts they're full of the obvious thing," observes Cook in support of his case. "One of the reasons I'm proud of this single is that I didn't copy the sound that everyone else is making. Say you took the Technotronic/Black Box sound to a record company at the moment you'd get a record contract. We walked into record companies with 'Dub Be Good To Me' and they said 'can't you do something a bit more current sounding?'.
"If you keep innovating you can't stay on line. Big Audio Dynamite I consider very big innovators - sometimes they get it hopelessly wrong and sometimes they're brilliant. But they're always interesting. Innovators are never the big sellers, the big sellers are Technotronic who are just doing the sum total of what the innovators are doing. They've picked the things that have worked out of the innovation in dance music of the last two years. Because of that they've picked the most obvious bits, and because of that the music is ultimately boring. Going back to computers, if you look at the early machines today you'd say they're shit, but if it wasn't for them we wouldn't have today's computers. Prototypes can seem good at the time and bad later, or, like the early synths, they can be seen to have something very good about them later."
So what of this technology: musical asset or musical catastrophe? Alongside Cook's Atari are Roland's TR909 and TR808 drum machines and an Alpha Juno 2, yet none of these are the heart of Cook's music. Instead, music itself is the starting point.
"Most of my stuff is based on samples rather than actual instruments", he explains. "To be honest I walk into the studio with a box of records most days.
"I think technology has made songwriting a hell of a lot easier. Before you had to be able to be able to play the piano or guitar. I like the idea that The 45 King sold so many singles with 'The 900 Number' when he didn't actually write or play it - it was just his idea. But I think it's the ideas that should be credited. Whoever wrote that riff wrote it in the context of another song but to come up with the offbeat idea of finding a loop so appealing that two years later I still love it, is brilliant. It's songwriting credit without the songwriting; it's ideas credit. Maybe it's a bad thing that there's so much emphasis on PRS and the songwriting side of the business because you could have someone write a really average song and then someone else who is good musically could turn it into a brilliant single. Whose credit is that? I don't mind personally, because I'm not really interested in money, but there is a problem.
"I put together loads of ideas that don't get used and I'm sure Elvis Costello writes loads of songs he throws away - because they're boring. The secret is being able to recognise the corkers. That is the genius of songwriting. If you wrote enough songs randomly, you'd write a good one, but it's a question of knowing which one it is. Work it out on a computer: what are the chances of coming up with a good tune out of 12 notes?"
If music is the stuff of which Cook's dreams are made, then the money that puts the "biz" in music biz is the stuff of his nightmares.
"The whole distribution of dosh in the music business is heading in some very strange directions", he says disparagingly. "You've still got innovators starving and you've still got some very talentless gits who are very rich. All the time we've got that situation innovators will not be encouraged to innovate, and airheads will be encouraged to be airheads. If all the money is in doing the obvious thing, why should anyone do anything different?"
Why indeed. But without an answer to this question, the old arguments about the charts and their integrity will rage forever. Cook appears to be one of a few seeking not to ignore them, but to bring what innovation he believes he can to talent-starved popular music. And he's relying on technology as much as his love of music to help him. It's certainly not a task for a humble bass player: "I was miming the bass on the video for 'Dub Be Good To Me', and I got blisters on my fingers because I hadn't touched it for two years..."