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Members include Paul Heard (born October 5, 1960, in London, England), bass; Michael Pickering (born in 1958 in Manchester, England), deejay; Shovell, percussion; and Heather Small (born January 20, 1965, in London), vocals. Addresses: Record company--Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211.
In a 1993 issue of Melody Maker, Paul Mathur distinguished dance group M People from their colleagues by saying, "More than mere trance chancers, they're fairly keen on things you can hum in the bath." Dance music in the 1990s had for the most part developed a character that was, to some degree, stale and faceless.
As house, techno, and rave music took over European dance floors in the 1980s, it drove out the disco bands of the 1970s, replacing them with electronic beats and sampled voices controlled by a deejay; musical creativity stemmed from the mixing board or turntables, and the only "face" was that of the deejay. Dance "bands" were often flexible collections of musicians combined in the recording studio for each single; there wasn't really a "band" in the celebrity sense to command a following. Consequently, when M People won Britain's prestigious Mercury Music Prize in 1993--pushing aside numerous popular rock outfits--more than a few jaws dropped. Although M People was started in 1991 by deejay Mike Pickering, the group had emerged not just as a powerful force on the dance floor, but as a band with a human presence.
For much of Pickering's working life, deejaying was just another one of the odd jobs he pursued occasionally; he juggled a wide array of callings, some musical and some not--including training as a cook. He got his start in the music business in the 1980s as a roadie for some of England's most important post-punk electronic dance bands, including Joy Division and Kraftwerk. He went on to serve that function for rock band Supertramp, Swedish dance popsters Abba, and Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias. Not content to offer his contribution only behind the scenes, he also played saxophone with a band called Quando Quango. He polished his deejaying skills in Holland, where he moved after the suicide of singer Ian Curtis dissolved Joy Division in 1980. Struck by an absence of dance venues, Pickering decided to open his own club, Rotterdam Must Dance, and in the words of Detail's William Shaw, he "taught the Dutch how to do the electric boogaloo."
Rotterdam Must Dance, however, coincided with a day job that sent Pickering back to England. Washing windows in Rotterdam, he found himself dangling from the side of a skyscraper one day and decided it was time to return home and devote himself to the deejay booth. The Hacienda Club in Manchester, owned by the members of New Order, which had sprung from the remains of Joy Division, offered him a venue to spin records and, ultimately, to build a following. During this time Pickering also had the opportunity to handle the business side of music as an A&R (artists and repertoire, the talent scouting area of a record label) representative at Factory Records, the company that had released records by Quando Quango.
Probably of the most use to his future with M People, however, was the remixing work he did for the deConstruction label; here, he cut beat-heavy house singles using the name T-Coy. Not surprisingly, his success as a mixer hinted at other possibilities--rather than reworking other people's compositions, he could create his own. Thus, he decided to embark on M People--or Mike People--in 1991.
Initially, Pickering expected to be the only stable element of M People. He would write the songs and manage the recording, bringing in different musicians to work with him as the need arose. Soon after he began work with Paul Heard and Heather Small, however, that plan changed. Pickering described the band's history to Larry Flick in Billboard: "I was looking to collaborate with someone who was very musical when I met Paul. We became great friends and formed a partnership. I wrote 'Colour My Life,' our first club hit, for Heather, though, at the time, I didn't think she'd join us permanently. While we were working on the track, we fell in like family. We became completely connected to one another." Heard, an erstwhile teacher, played bass, which he had done in the past for a string of bands, including Working Week, Strawberry Switchblade, and Orange Juice. Small had less practical experience than either of her bandmates, but a good deal of obvious vocal talent. She had worked with a soul band called Hot House that drew heavily on her deep, powerful voice, which Melody Maker contributor Richard Smith would describe as "at once dignified, desolate and delirious." Small had also worked as an administrative assistant in the Wandsworth Council offices and at the Hammersmith Job Centre.
Appropriately, the trio gave their first live performance at the Hacienda Club, where Pickering would continue to deejay even as M People's star rose. M People's debut album, Northern Soul, was released in 1992 on deConstruction, which Melody Maker contributor Mathur described in March of 1993 as "the most broadly thrilling dance label in the country." The single "Colour My Life"-- which Melody Maker's Andrew Smith described as "a luxuriant, gently pulsating soul workout lifted by some appealingly funksome piano and singer Heather Small's velveteen voice"--had led the way for the album.
When Mathur reviewed Northern Soul for Melody Maker the following spring, he applauded the artists for "successfully incorporating the heavenly swish of seventies soul and disco into a nineties musical environment, genuinely reinventing the genre rather than just papering over cracks in a once glittery empire." He further remarked that "almost every track is a potential single, but the variety of styles are held together by immaculately assured production." In fact, both "Colour My Life" and "How Can I Love You More" made the Top Ten and enjoyed extensive club play. Despite this excitement, Mathur would be forced to argue a year later that "M People deserve far more critical respect than is currently lobbed their way."
The group's second effort, however, far outstripped the success of the first. With Elegant Slumming, released in October of 1993, M People scored a trio of Top Ten singles--"One Night in Heaven," "Movin' on Up," and "Don't Look Any Further"--which combined to push the album to the Number Two position on the charts. At the Brit Awards that year, M People took home album of the year laurels. They were also named best dance act, the second time they were so honored. In September of 1994, Elegant Slumming was named best album of the year at the Mercury Music Prize ceremony.
Billboard's Flick, who had been an M People fan for some time, greeted the release of the second U.K. album with a declaration that the group had "struck a near perfect balance between hip dance culture and radio-savvy pop/soul." He had taken note of M People's dance singles as they were released in England and had encouraged his readers to get to the import bins. Commenting that it "boggles the brain that M People have yet to secure a U.S. major-label deal," Flick urged, "Wake up, folks, it rarely gets better than this." The strength of Elegant Slumming did eventually bring the group to the attention of American labels. Epic offered a suitable contract and released a version of Elegant Slumming in the U.S. in 1994 that combined cuts from both of M People's British releases.
American audiences, and crowds at dance clubs in particular, drove "Movin' on Up" up the dance charts. As Flick had predicted, "One Night in Heaven" also climbed the rankings, making it to the Number One position on Billboard's Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. Even before American dance fans began picking up on the M People vibe, Pickering had told Flick, "Although I do feel that our popularity has been slowly building over time, I think we're all a little surprised by the fast success of [Elegant Slumming]." At the time Pickering also revealed to Flick his "plan to establish the act as a creatively viable and commercially competitive entity for more than a couple of hit singles."
With Elegant Slumming's release in the U.S., American critics joined Flick in taking notice. Anderson Jones granted it an "A" in his Entertainment Weekly review, quipping, "[the] British trio rips through broad pop-soul territory with the voraciousness of a Range Rover." Michael Freedberg waxed poetic in the Village Voice, naming "Movin' on Up" "the silkiest danceable diva music." He saved his greatest praise, however, for Small's voice, about which he said, "If Small's high-pressured tenor recovers the luscious anxieties of ... 1950s rhythm and gospel, she's also rocketing atop Mike Pickering's sound effects and tiptoe rhythms direct to enthronement as the queen of clubland."
A tour of the U.K. and Europe in support of Elegant Slumming added to the group's already strong tour resume; 1992 had introduced them to enthusiastic audiences at clubs and universities throughout Europe. The group also appeared at a twentieth anniversary party for a London paper, prompting Melody Maker's Mathur to rave anew, contending that the group were "entertainers of the first water and the classiest pan-European purveyors of soul- studded dance."
Not everyone, however, was thrilled with the face M People had put on dance music; some viewed it as a step backward. One critic unimpressed by the M People sound was Richard Smith, who took Elegant Slumming to task in Melody Maker. "They still do all those things that most dance acts threw in the box marked 'boring' years ago" he wrote, "pushing their personalities, writing songs with verses and choruses and going on tour. Such things are forgivable when they can turn out a funky little monster like 'Movin' on Up,' but most of this album is just soul muzak."
Nonetheless, Pickering kept to his vision for his group, telling Flick: "Dance music does not have to be disposable. You need to be focused on being a real band; the kind that can come up with good, solid songs, and can play them live. A few years ago, you could get away with ... a 'Who sings? Who cares?' attitude. These days, people do care."
By the spring of 1995, M People had expanded to a quartet- -bringing drummer Shovell in permanently--and had produced its third album, Bizarre Fruit. The first single, "Open Your Heart," entered the Top Five on U.S. dance charts, reflecting its popularity in the clubs. By this time, however, the album had already achieved platinum status in the U.K. (one million copies sold). Elle's Adele Sulcas called the album "a juicy set of tightly structured songs," while Jeremy Helligar reported in People that the group "stuffs in all the best elements of timeless R&B: soaring melodies, gospel backdrops, joy in repetition and big, distinctive vocals." Concluded Jonathan Gold in Vanity Fair, "'Bizarre Fruit' threatens to make [M People] the most popular British dance group in the U.S."
by Ondine E. Le Blanc
M People's Career
Group formed with shifting lineup by Pickering in Manchester, 1991; Heard and Small joined permanently, c. 1992; released first album, Northern Soul, deConstruction, 1992; signed with Epic label in the U.S., 1994; Shovell joined as permanent percussionist, c. 1994.
M People's Awards
Brit awards for best dance act, 1992 and 1993, and for album of the year, 1993, for Elegant Slumming; Mercury Music Prize, 1994.
- Selective Works
- Northern Soul (includes "Colour My Life"), deConstruction, 1992.
- Elegant Slumming (includes "One Night in Heaven," "Movin' on Up," and "Don't Look Any Further"), deConstruction, 1993, Epic, 1994.
- Bizarre Fruit (includes "Open Your Heart"), Epic, 1995.
- Billboard, June 5, 1993; October 23, 1993; September 24, 1994; June 24, 1995.
- Details, May 1995.
- Elle, June 1995.
- Entertainment Weekly, July 15, 1994.
- Melody Maker, June 1, 1991; March 28, 1992; March 27, 1993; June 12, 1993; July 17, 1993; October 30, 1993.
- Out, May 1995.
- People, May 22, 1995.
- Rolling Stone, August 10, 1995.
- Vanity Fair, May 1995.
- Village Voice, August 23, 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Epic Records publicity materials, 1995.
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