LET THERE BE LIGHT...MUSIC
One Sunday in '93 I had found myself at something of a loose end, so I decided to form a group. Over the years I had regularly enjoyed listening to the music of others, and now thought it only fair that I should "do my bit" as regards the history of popular music. I thought I would start by preparing a number of arrangements of universally popular songs, and then recruit the appropriate musicians for a flexible expanded pop group.
Hey presto..The Mike Flowers Pops!
EASY LISTENING UBER ALLES
We soon found ourselves in a recording studio "cutting a disc"...in this case Get Easy! Volume 2, a compact disc of German origin featuring a selection of pop's hopefulls including Japan's 'Pizzicato 5'. How times change...was it really just fifty years since the end of World War II? General Douglas MacArthur had played the role of enlightened despot during the occupation of Japan in the late forties, and the character of modern Japan owes much to the constitution drawn up at MacArthur's headquarters in 1947. It would be fair to say that he is in some ways responsible for the Pizzicato's "Twiggy Twiggy", and that his military strategy in the Korean War was also partly responsible for China swallowing up quasi-independent Tibet in October 1950. Anyway, for whatever reason, America named a park after him in Los Angeles.
Jimmy Webb's epic "MacArthur Park" is the last word in orchestral pop, and the first recorded utterance of The Pops. Performing the song live was like taking on a musical Everest, so I had to get in shape...
INDIGO A GO- GO
The genesis of The Mike Flowers Pops coincided conveniently with that of a new night club in the heart of London's Soho. Indigo at Madam Jo-Jo's was billed as "an evening of exotic easy listening"...which is exactly what it was. Exotic we were not, but easy we were...so we performed on the second night of the club, thus avoiding the opening night tragedy when one of the older revellers had suffered a massive heart attack whilst dancing to Herb Alpert's "Slick". Count Indigo and Felchley B. Hawkes hosted these wonderful Indigo nights, brimful of music and laughter. We made many new friends in "the business", such as The Karminskys, The Gentle People, Beat Girl, The Radio Science Orchestra and America's Combustible Edison. Indigo became a Soho institution, with international stars such as Tony Bennet and Burt Bacharach choosing the club to make rare London appearances. It was during our run at Jo-Jo's that Count Indigo asked me to arrange and produce a song of his called My Unknown Love It was later released in '96. The song went on to become a UK top 30 hit and was included on the compilation This Is Easy.
These days Count Indigo runs a marvellous clubnight called "Workers' Playtime" at a community centre in Hackney, north London.
New clubs and venues of an easy disposition were springing up across the UK and internationally. Another such memorable clubnight was "Cheese", hosted by impressario Fred Leicester. As well as a being a marvellous DJ, Fred is also a fine graphic designer and artist and these days is responsible for the hugely successful, and ear-ticklingly delightful Lemon Jelly.
Anyway, this clubland phenomenon did not go unnoticed by the media, and in '95 I was interrogated by a somewhat suspicious Jeremy Paxman on BBC TV's Newsnight about demographic changes in light music consumption.
"AND AFTER ALL..."
By late '95 we were becoming the cult celebre of a burgeoning London cabaret scene. After one of our concerts, a Radio One producer asked me to provide versions of current hits for the Kevin Greening show. I chose Wonderwall by Oasis to be the first of these arrangements. Chris Evans heard my version of the song on Kevin's show and asked if he could use it on his own enormously popular breakfast show. He featured the recording as his "record of the week" although it was still only in tape form. Imagine our surprise when my version entered the '95 UK Christmas chart at No. 2. Wonderwall by The Mike Flowers Pops went top ten across Europe, and has so far sold over half a million copies...not bad for a mono recording.
OOPS...I'M A POP STAR!
Due to the remarkeable success of Wonderwall and the acceptance of Mike Flowers into the public psyche, I was offerred a recording contract with London Records. I recorded an album of songs with an augmented line-up of The Mike Flowers Pops. The selections included "Venus in Furs" (Velvet Underground), "Venus as a Boy" (Bjork) and "1999" (Prince).
The Album A Groovy Place was released in the Summer of '96.
Light my Fire was paired with Please Release me as a double "A" side single from the album...also included was a rare live recording of our "David Bowie Medley". The single entered the UK top 30, and also did rather well in France, where Jim Morrison and leather trousers are a national obsession. Promotion for the single resulted in the bizzarre spectacle of myself and The Sounds Superb Singers appearing on a German MTV special with an overworked Boyzone, a pre-resurrection model Robbie Williams and an ascendant Spice Girls.
One of my own compositions from the album, Freebase, can be heard in various degrees of deconstruction as remixed by The Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert, Funki Porcini and others on a CD called The Freebase Connection which was released by LO Recordings in '96. (The Funki Porcini remix from this single is also available on the Collaborations Vol.2 CD from LO Recordings and the Luke Vibert mix, called 'Chunks', is available on 'The Cocktail Shaker' compilation from Irma Records
Later on in the year I was asked to remix a song by jungle diva Nicolette called Nightmare for Talkin' Loud Records. I stripped the vocal from the multi-track and wrote what I imagined to be "the original" around Nicolette's melody. The resultant effect is that Nicolette's original track would now appear to be the remix. (Nicolette also chose the 'Pound Your Ironing Board' mix of Freebase by Slang from The Freebase Connection on her DJKicks compilation.)
STOCK, AITKEN AND FLOWERS
Christmas was coming around again and I was introduced to Mike Stock and Matt Aitken (of Stock Aitken and Waterman fame). The promotion of our Macerena-inspired version of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" involved MTV having myself and Davina McColl babysit Micheal Jacksons Nephews 3T in a Swiss Chalet. Coincidentally The Mike Flowers Pops spent the festive period supporting Gary Glitter in enormadomes across the UK. The object of the game was not to leave a gap in our show long enough to give anyone in the audience enough time to start the ubiquitous chant: "LEA-DER...LEA-DER...LEA-DER!"
Anyway "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" reached No. 30 in the '96 UK Christmas chart, thus sealing my fate.
I was forever condemned to haunt that twilight world between "one hit wonder" and "household name".
HOLLYWOOD OR BUST
Early in '97 I was asked to contribute a track to a new Mike Myers's movie. Originally the music supervisor liked our version of "Light My Fire", but apparently the surviving members of The Doors withheld permission...not because they didn't like my version, but due to Mike Myers' lack of respect to the late Lizard King in Wayne's World II. So Instead I recorded a version of the Tony Hatch song Call Me (originally a hit for Chris Montez) which I scored for the "revolving bed in jumbo jet seduction scene" of "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery". I remember thinking that any film with such a long-winded title would be doomed to failure. It just goes to show how wrong you can be.
Call Me can be found on the "Austin Powers original soundtrack" on Hollywood Records.
I was subsequently asked to write the main-title song for a low budget movie called "Hacks" starring Ryan O'neal and Steven Rea. The film is a delightful peice of Hollywood neurosis reminiscent of "The Player"...only funny. I wrote and recorded "Bet Your Bottom Dollar" for the movie...which, unfortunately, still remains one of Hollywood's best kept secrets.
The Mellowtrons (who had remixed "Freebase" the previous year) asked if I'd like to collaborate on a track for the a forthcoming compilation entitled "Pornbeats". I set a passage from a book called The Lure of Leather to the Mellowtrons beats. Though the resultant "Scarlet Leather" is hardly pornographic, it may cause alarm to repressed haberdashers.
Later in the year I decided to enter the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest with a song I had written called "Whatever Turns You On"...which sadly met it's Waterloo long before the peoples of Europe could put it to a vote.
In the New Year of '98 I was commissioned to write another main-title song, this time for the British film "Divorcing Jack"...a black comedy about Northern Ireland starring David Thewliss and Rachel Griffiths. Scala Films liked the song so much that they asked me to provide a song for the end credits too. They had been toying with the idea of using Sinaed O'Connor's "Thank You for Loving Me"...but this proved to be something of a "downer" at the end of an essentially light hearted film. Instead I wrote a song called "That Old Familiar Feeling" which The Nolans (a more authentic voice of Irish womanhood) very graciously agreed to record.
Looking back over '98 I now realise that I underwent something of a personal crisis...I had worked with The Nolans, met Sir Jimmy Saville and Alan Freeman, performed on "Blue Peter", was interviewed by David Frost and been a subject for Lloyd Grossman on "Through the Keyhole". But the excitement and glamour of Britain's daytime entertainment industry failed to move me.
To be honest, I don't think that I had ever really recovered from my Eurovision rejection. All the success and adulation of the last few years had, more or less, fallen at my feet...but on the one occassion when I had actively sought to partipate in the showbiz game I hadn't even made the qualifying rounds...not even a rejection slip.
I had started smoking again...drinking too, and had stopped grilling my bacon, opting instead for the less healthy frying pan. Everyday activities such as queueing in the Post Office started to be triggers for personal anxiety, and soon I avoided leaving the house altogether. Feeding the birds in the grounds of Plum Lodge became the sole purpose of my days. They were to be my only audience now...after all, what did they care for Eurovision or the bogus concept of "song contests"?
Each day started to seem more and more like that fateful day in '93 when I had first set out on my quest for personal distraction and the amusement of others. I had once more found myself staring into the smugly supercilious face of boredom...a face that I had often recognised whilst shaving each morning, or sometimes caught reflected in the dreaded Post Office window as I hurried past, but always...always in those illuminated dressing-room mirrors you get backstage. I felt that I had to do something musicially worthwhile and artistically substantial rather than just grinding out this silly novelty music. A light came on in my head. I had to prove to myself that I could be something more than “pop oddball” Mike Flowers.
Leisureland was to be a highly ambitious several-CD concept album along the lines of Jeff Wayne’s ‘War Of The Worlds’ - so I locked myself away in Plum Lodge’s studio annexe and started writing the story and songs for my ‘poperetta’, as I called it.
One rather thick script, several songs and twice as many months later it suddenly dawned on me that…
a) it was rubbish, and
b) “pop oddball” is okay after all.
After abandoning "Leisureland" I recorded a version of Orbital’s "Chime" and other pieces for the Lo Recordings label, had the late Sacha Distel over at the studio to record “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (yet to be released), recorded a version of ‘Joe Le Taxi’ especially for Jean Paul Gaultier and was asked to rework Future Sound of London’s “Little Miss Divinity” (also yet to be released).
Knob-twiddling in the privacy of your own home is only so much fun, so a few weeks ago I picked up the phone and contacted the original Pops line-up. Incredibly they were all still alive and available for fun - so we decided we would play a one-off, tenth anniversary concert in London.
Was it really ten years since Ricky Gervais had booked us for our first show? No, it was actually eleven. At the time Ricky was the University of London Students’ Union (ULU) entertainments officer, and had organised a specially-themed ‘Casino Royale’ night. He says he later received a letter complaining that “the cocktails were crap, the roulette was rubbish and the band were drunk”.
Well you can’t have everything.
You can, however, now attend the first The Mike Flowers Pops live show of the 21st century...hooray!