Dance music group
In 1992, M People released their first album, Northern Soul, in the United Kingdom. Since that time, the group from Manchester, England, consistently won critical praise for their unique ability to include elements of old-school funk and rhythm and blues into the youth-driven house or dance music genre. As Nilou Panahpour of Rolling Stone noted,“M People make the kind of dance music that could inspire even a banker to put on a platinum wig and try John Travolta moves in front of the mirror naked.” From the onset, vocalist Heather Small, keyboardist Mike Pickering, bass guitarist Paul Heard, and drummer/percussionist Shovell sought not only to create modern club grooves that inspire listeners to dance, but also to pay tribute to the music of the past. “Paying respect to the original soul players has always been of the utmost importance to us,” asserted Pickering, as quoted by the band’s record label. “The bottom line is that without them, we couldn’t be here.”
The group’s 1999 release, Testify, further explored a funk/dance music tradition. However, a few songs on the album showed M People taking a slight detour by
Members include Paul Heard, bass guitar; Mike Pickering, keyboards; Shovell, drums, percussion; Heather Small, vocals.
Formed band, 1991; released debut in the U.K., Northern Soul, 1992; released Elegant Slumming in the U.K., 1993; released U.S. version of Elegant Slumming, 1994; released Bizarre Fruit in the U.S., top ten British singles totaled nine, 1995; released compilation and remix album Testify in the U.S., 1999.
Awards: Brit Award for best dance act of 1992-94; Brit Awards for album of the year for Elegant Slumming, 1993; Mercury Music Prize for 1993; best album of the year from the U.K. and Ireland for Elegant Slumming, 1994; Silver Clef Award, 1999.
Addresses: Home —London, England. Record company —Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York City, NY 10022-3211, (212) 833-7442, fax (212) 833-5719; 2100 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404, (310) 449-2870, fax (310) 449-2559.
traveling down a more overtly rhythm and blues road. For singer Small, known for her soulful alto vocal range, the diversion was a welcomed change. “I’ve always enjoyed performing softer, more introspective songs,” she professed. “It allows me to use my voice in ways that a dance beat doesn’t allow—not that I don’t love to cut loose on an uptempo dance track, because it’s great fun. I’m just so pleased to have the opportunity to explore every color on the palette, if you will.”
M People’s roots can be traced back to the city of Manchester, England, Mike Pickering’s hometown and the birthplace of other notable acts such as Simply Red and Joy Division, one of Pickering’s favorite groups. In fact, before forming M People, Pickering used to work as a Joy Division roadie. After this, he worked as a chef, then a roadie again for the group Kraftwerk and singer Julio Iglesias, among others, and finally as a window washer.
Obviously unsatisfied with his former jobs, Pickering longed to create music himself rather than work behind the scenes. Eventually, he started working the turntable decks at a legendary Manchester nightclub, The Hacienda. Soon after this, Pickering joined his first band, Factory Record’s Quano Quango. He honed his musical skills playing saxophone for the group. During the same time, he also played saxophone with one of the first house music bands in Britain, T-Coy. In addition to playing music, Pickering worked as a Factory Records recruiter, signing two groups that later witnessed popular success, both Happy Mondays and James.
By 1991, as dance music was taking over Manchester’s club scene, Pickering realized his true musical mission. His goal, according to M People’s record company, was “to bring dance music back to the song, like Motown, Stax or the Philly International era. A classic song is the foundation of any kind of music.” In order to fulfill the idea of uniting dance and soul/funkmusic, Pickering first enlisted the aid of Paul Heard, a bass guitarist. Prior to meeting Pickering, Heard, a professionally trained musician, had played bass for various British groups, including Working Week, Strawberry Switchblade, and Orange Juice. The two composed a number of songs together; one such composition was written with a particular singer in mind, vocalist Heather Small, a petite but passionate performer of West Indian descent from a well-established, London-based soul band called Hot! House.
Pickering, along with Heard and Small, entered the studio to record songs together. Although the trio’s initial plans were to simply put down some tunes, the aforementioned sessions eventually led to the makings of a first album. At first, Pickering held to his plan of using a variety of vocalists in addition to Small. But after playing together, Pickering realized that Small’s vocals contributed a unique quality to the music unmatched by any other singer. “It was obvious as we were recording that what we had musically was much more than just a one off thing,” Pickering realized, according to Epic Records. “It had turned into something really coherent. We never went back to rotating vocalists.” Defining her singing style, Ron Givens of Stereo Review remarked,“The sound that erupts from her throat is deep and throbbing, edged with raw passions or tender mercies.”
With Small as lead vocalist, M People released their debut album, Northern Soul, issued in 1992 in Britain on deConstruction/RCA Records. An instant success, the record featured the top ten British singles “Colour My Life” and “How Can I Love You More.” Consequently, the group evolved into one of Europe’s most popular live acts within no time, and their shows regularly sold out stadiums and arenas. In the meantime, Pickering realized that the group had grown beyond the studio and assimilated a full band (usually a ten-piece unit) for touring. While many dance bands refrain from performing live and limit playing to the studio, M People flourished before an audience. “People say, Isn’t it strange for a dance band to play live?’” remarked Pickering, as quoted by Epic. “Don’t they remember? That’s the way it always was.” Around the same time, the trio also enlisted Shovell as the group’s full time drummer and percussionist.
In October of 1993, M People released their second album in the United Kingdom, Elegant Slumming, later issued in the United States in May of 1994 by Epic Records. Surpassing the success of their debut, Elegant Slumming reached number two on the United Kingdom album chart and spurred three additional British top ten singles, including “Moving On Up,” “One Night In Heaven,” and a cover of a Dennis Edwards classic entitled “Don’t Look Any Further.” By September of that year, the album had sold 1.7 million copies worldwide (excluding the United States) and over 600, 000 units in the United Kingdom alone. For the 1993 Brit Awards (the British equivalent to the Grammy Awards) held in February of 1994, the release was named album of the year, and the group was voted best British dance act for the second year in a row.
The best singles from both Elegant Slumming and Northern Soiulwere later released in the United States by Epic in June of 1994 under the title Elegant Slumming. While M People had yet to receive significant recognition in the States, the British hit “One Night In Heaven” peaked at the number one spot on Billboard magazine’s Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart in September. In addition, the album reached number 12 on the Heat seekers album chart and had sold approximately 36,000 copies in the United States, according to Sound Scan.
After issuing an American version of their first two efforts, M People became the subjects of further acclaim. On September 13, 1994, the group won the third annual Mercury Music Prize for 1993’s best album of the year from Britain and Ireland for Elegant Slumming, edging out the internationally famous Blurand eight other nominees. “From a musician’s point of view, it’s very gratifying to win this award cause it reaches beyond the categories of dance, or indie, or rock, or whatever,” Pickering told Billboard, according to reporter Thorn Duffy, after he and his band mates accepted the honor at London’s Savoy Hotel. Rather than dividing the sum among themselves, the group announced they would donate the 25,000 pound—about $38,000—prize money to charity.
By the spring of 1995, M People boasted a total of nine British top ten singles, and further successes were yet to come. Bizarre Fruit, released on November 14, 1994, in Britain on deConstruction, and in mid-1995 in the United States on Epic, saw favorable reviews as well. As Panahpour concluded, Bizarre Fruit ’continues the hook-laden disco-soul gallivanting of Elegant Slumming. This self-produced album is not one long throbbing dance marathon; the group’s unifying vision of emotive pop music pulls together a collection of actual songs.” The Rolling Stone critic also praised the group’s skill of making “corny” lyrics work: “Anywhere else, lyrics like “Search for the hero inside yourself” would sound silly; here they contribute to the pure emotionality and sing-along beauty that only the best dance music evokes.”
And although Givens argued that the lyrics of some of the tracks were for the most part dismissible, the reviewer nonetheless described the music, notwithstanding Small’s singing ability, as “ravishing.” Moreover, wrote Givens,“while relying heavily on synthesizers for melody and rhythm, the tracks also employ what [rock musician] Graham Parker describes as ’basically organic keyboards.’ Many of the riffs and solos that may have been played on amplified programmed instruments actually sound natural. And the judicious use of such nonelectronic gadgets as saxophones ant strings, as well as a couple of guitars, help to leaven the technological accomplishments of the band.”
Hinting at the Motown era, M People’s melodies and lofty vocals added a sense of euphoria to songs like “Sugar Town,” a rhythm and blues inspired track with elements of both reggae and gospel, and “Sight ForSore Eyes,”achoir-like tune featuring a rolling piano and traces of salsa music. Other standout tracks included “Search For The Hero” and “Open Your Heart.”
Following the success of Bizarre Fruit, M People released the rhythm and blues-inspired Fresco in 1997 and The Best of the M People, both issued only in the United Kingdom. Fresco bore another string of British hits, including “Sight For Sore Eyes,”“Search ForThe Hero,” and “Just For You,” all of which appeared on Testify, primarily a compilation of tracks from the abovementioned albums issued in the United States in May of 1999. However, Testify offered more than a packaging of “greatest hits.” While the release comprised several choice tracks from Frescoand The Best of M People, the American issue also contained four previously unavailable remixes of classic M People recordings: “Sight For Sore Eyes” (M People Master mix),“Colour My Life” (Joey Negro’s Agoura mix),“Moving On Up” (Mark Picchiotti’s Millennium Vocal remix), and “How Can I Love You More” (Jimmy Gomez’s 6am mix). Moreover, Testify’s title-track and first single pays homage to the roots of soul—“a lovely down tempo jam that is steeped in soulful rhythms and vocals,” noted Billboard magazine.
On June 25, 1999, the British soul outfit received another important honor. This time, the band took the Silver Clef Award during a luncheon ceremony in London. The annual event, at that time in its twenty-fourth year, raises money for the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Charity, which uses music to help children overcome language difficulties. Accepting the honor on behalf of the band, Billboard reported, Small told the audience,“We’re all about making music. That music is our reward.”
Northern Soul, (U.K.), deConstruction/RCA, 1992.
Elegant Slumming, (U.K.), deConstruction/RCA, 1993.
Elegant Slumming, (includes tracks from U.K. releases Northern Soul and Elegant Slumming), Epic, 1994.
Bizarre Fruit, (U.K.), deConstruction/RCA, 1994, Epic, 1995.
Fresco, (U.K.), deConstruction/RCA, 1997.
The Best of M People, (U.K.), deConstruction/RCA.
Testify, (includes remixes and tracks from U.K. releases Fresco and The Best of M People), Epic, 1999.
Billboard, September 24, 1994, p. 1; October 8, 1994, p. 33; November 19, 1994, p. 33; June 24, 1995, p. 1 ; October 11, 1997, p. 33; February 13, 1999, p. 50; May 22, 1999, p. 33.
People, May 22, 1995, p. 20.
Rolling Stone, August 10, 1995, p. 58.
Stereo Review, November 1995, p. 116.
Village Voice, June 27, 1995, p. 74.
Additional information was provided courtesy of Epic Records.
Contemporary dance group
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
For the Record …
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.
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.
Awards: Brit awards for best dance act, 1992 and 1993, and for album of the year, 1993, for Elegant Slumming; Mercury Music Prize, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022–3211.
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 Soulfor 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.”
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,
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.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc