I CAN’T be the only one who noted that December 18th was the 25th anniversary of the release of that swingin’, knowin’, cheesy-easy version of “Wonderwall” by Mike Flowers Pops and uttered a ripe Anglo-Saxon expletive.
F**k. How exactly did that happen now? A quarter-century? As Haruki Murakami said: “The past increases, the future recedes”.
The story of Mike Flowers, real name, Mike Roberts, and his version of “Wonderwall”, is a pretty random and serendipitous one. The band, a proper easy ensemble of up to 14 members, had capitalised on the burgeoning charity-shop chic look; reviving the past in cord flares, tank tops, lava lamps, cuboid furniture and the like, from British city centre retro-meccas such as Manchester’s Pop Boutique.
And musically, what better to have alongside your bachelor pad Dansette or record player-as-cabinet than a wire rack full of the grooviest sounds around, circa 1973? Suddenly charity-shop bin staple imprints such as A&M, Phase 4, Studio 2 and the like – many of whose releases were stocked by the same electrical retailers who sold you your must-have radiogramme, so you at least had something to play on it once you got it home and showed it off to the couple at no.24 over a bottle of Black Tower and a fondue – were a bull market.
Records on these labels, which you could still pick up endlessly for 25p out in the sticks, where suddenly sitting in sophisticated city record stores for £8, with handwritten labels proclaiming ‘classically crisp easy breaks’ or ‘contains loop as used in XXX’, as hiphop producers delved ever deeper into the crates looking for that next fat snare source.
…. but back to Mike Flowers. The journey toward the top of the British charts began thus. BBC Radio producer Will Saunders caught the band live and thought it would be a neat idea to bring in Mike Flowers for a short run of features on Kevin Greening’s Saturday show on Radio 1, covering the hits of 1995 in a post-modern and cocktail-sophisticate way. This being the year that Oasis pretty much ruled British popular culture, “Wonderwall” was at the top of that list. And so the wheels were set in motion.
That most Britpop-era of DJs, Chris Evans (remember how he used Ocean Colour Scene’s “The Riverboat Song” as the theme for TFI Friday?), was tickled by the version, made it ‘single of the week’; told credulous listeners that it was, in fact, the original, as a wind-up.
London Records wasted no time in getting the song out in the racks. It went in with a bullet at no.2 in the UK singles chart for Christmas week, 1995 (Twenty-five … ? No. Stop me). In one those odd turn of events that used to happen in Sixties’ charts a lot, Oasis’ version was still fully in the mix too, just slipping down the hit parade and spending that week at no.7; Mike Flowers thus thumbed his nose on the way past, and just missed out on the coveted Yuletide top spot.
Perhaps the oddest turn of events connected with “Wonderwall” and the easy listening revival – although I have a vignette of my own, more of which later – came in the spring of 1996 when, in an interview with Q Lou Reed responded to a question asking for his thoughts on Oasis, retorted: “Not that I would know. Oh, ‘Wonderwall’? The one I know is the Mike Flowers one. That is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard in my life.”
The music press, with the inkies especially pretty much in thrall to the lads from Burnage, didn’t have any truck with Mike Flowers’ take; it memorably being called “a pile of unrelenting donkey toss” by the NME, while Melody Maker found it “stupid, sniggery and entirely craven”. Not feeling the love, then.
For me? Yeah, it takes the piss gently while, I think, still being in love with the song. There’s nothing unprecedented about acknowledging both one’s own absurdity and the basic absurdity of it all, everything, while still being fun. It’s definitely gouda, but it does stand testament as a vignette to a more confident, swaggering country.
Mike Flowers’ star waned relatively quickly after that, with a rerub of “Light My Fire” that didn’t quite hit the beats it might’ve, peaking at no.39 – the Shirley Bassey album Something, which features her sublimely OTT take on that very song and which has Bond-theme magnitude of drama, was changing hands for up to £50 at this point; and a full dive into the cheese for a take on “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, finishing the Pops’ relationship with the British charts at no.30.
But elsewhere, Cornwall’s favourite electronica son Aphex Twin wasn’t swayed by such cultural diktat; in 1996 he collaborated on a 12″, the somewhat convoluted TheMikeFlowersPops Meets TheAphexTwin Uptown release, The Freebase Connection, on which brass stings, bossa-lite and baa-baa-baa backing vocals were bust through the looking glass and into a world of fractured Kerrier polyrhythm. Check “Debase (Soft Palate)”, by way of example.
Of course, Richard James quietly had a little easy listening form around that point himself; witness the retrotronics of his 1996 two-hander with Mike Paradinas, aka μ-Ziq, Expert Knob Twiddlers, without which we’d maybe have no Plone, thus, conjecturing, maybe no Ghost Box; check the swing of “Jellyfish”.
And of course he had a hand in the greatest of easy-related albums from that era which time seems to have left behind, The Gentle People’s Soundtracks For Living, a trippy, blissful odyssey released on Aphex’s own Rephlex imprint, and which will get a Not Forgotten of its own in these pages before long. Have a groove on “Emotion Heater”:
And of course there was an absolute slew of compilations to cover the thirst for this forgotten mood muzak. Probably the best of the pack came from London label Blow Up, whose quartet of Exclusive Blends delved deep into British TV incidental music and library tracks, focusing on for-film composers such as Alan Hawkshaw, Keith Mansfield and Alan Moorhouse; the pearls they brought back to the surface leant heavily on the mod jazz side of the spectrum, and were thus really bloody cool anyway. These compilations had dancefloor bite. Check Keith Mansfield’s “Funky Fanfare” and N Ingman’s “Trip Wire”.
At the other end of the spectrum was the Ultra Lounge series, which ran waay into double figures and was much more about a certain crooning, high-society, velvet gloves to the elbow and cigarette holder glam; which became diluted as the series chuntered on and the well of themes for each individual compilation ran dry.
There were scuds of others: The Sound Gallery series saw a couple of crackingly curated, British-focused volumes that pulled a little away from the mod edge of Blow Up; and there’s nine volumes of Easy Tempo, which focused on the brilliance of Italian Moog experimenta and soundtrack giants such as Armando Trovajoli and Piero Piccioni, thus shading off towards and opening up another beautiful and long-overlooked world in its own right.
The British easy revival looks like a passing and quirky fad to us now, with Mike Flowers atop its bri-nylon summit in late 95; it was all over by ’97, which really was a bit of a nadir for mainstream British pop culture, the last tainted drops being wrung out of the Britpop cloth, Dadrock ascendant. But did it bring any proper musical gems back to life? Hell yes, it did. There was actually much to love in these forgotten pieces of production music, TV incidental passages, BBC orchestra leaders and composers coming across and snatching a little of the trendy spotlight for themselves.
I’m gonna sign off with an anecdote and a fairly random three faves of my own which came, went, came once more in the mid-Nineties and then very much went again; The Sandpipers’ angelic “Guantanamera”, from 1966 on A&M; The John Schroeder Orchestra’s 1971 groove “Grow Your Own”, which you can hear just above (and check the cover art for his album Witchi Tai To: a none more satisfied, beatific Brit of the era will you find, all flowing locks, zapata moustache and cheroot staring straight down the lense); and in conclusion, below, John Keating’s cool organ and Moog take on “I Feel The Earth Move” from ’72.
Oh yeah, that anecdote. During that brief year of apex-easy, club nights proliferated. Certainly London’s Blow Up edged in, but its agenda was already the crisp and indisputably cool mod thing, as espoused on those compilations. For a few months Manchester’s cool basement bar South also ran a midweek easy night; and it was at one such that, discreetly moving around a pillar with a pint from a couple of friends who were having a free and frank exchange of views, I instead found myself, as the groovy beats swung, next to Liam and Patsy.
And I think there’s a closure of the circle; the Oasis frontman at a club which no way would’ve been as populist as to play Mike Flowers, digging far deeper into the crates; but nevertheless that was hosting the singer of “Wonderwall”, uptown to check some early Seventies’ charity shop grooves over a pint.