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Oral History

An Oral History of The Orb’s ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’


In the early ’90s, “What were the skies like when you were young?” was the new, “Can you pass the acid test?” — the question that separated the turned-on from those left behind. Britain’s 1988 Summer of Love and acid house’s ascent as the soundtrack the English anti-mainstream updated hippie-spiritualist concepts for an increasingly digital generation. But the Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds” took this druggy-cum-artsy utopian outlook, fed it through new technological methodology, and came out with a masterpiece. It not only framed it’s own epoch, but continues to successfully soundtrack everything from yoga classes and James Campbell readings to Animal Collective rave after-parties.

Its opening “primary” lyric — actually, a spoken-word sample from someone interviewing Rickie Lee Jones — announced these changes to a pop world distracted by the rise of Seattle grunge. Rooster crows; a monotonal BBC reporter’s yammering; that question, posed by a dubbed-out interviewer and answered by a spaced-out Rickie Lee; the ambient-house rhythm track looping, among other things, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny playing “Counterpoint” by minimalist composer Steve Reich. Those who pieced together all these sonic snippets saw the world through a sampler-filled and MDMA-powered spectrum. The U.K. charts beckoned (No. 87 in 1990) and by the time of its Fall ’91 release in America, it was an underground rave anthem, one Prince would soon musically quote. By century’s end, an adapted version was used by Volkswagen to peddle the new Beetle, thus completing the modern cycle of pop life.

“Little Fluffy Clouds” was the creation of two old friends and a South London scene. Duncan Robert (i.e., “Dr.”) Alex Patterson and Martin Glover (henceforth known as “Youth”) first met in the early ’70s at the Kingham School for Boys. Youth went on to become the founding bassist of Killing Joke, and Alex, the band’s roadie and tour manager, eventually went to work for E.G. Records, home to not only the Joke, but also Brian Eno’s ambient work. By 1988, both had fallen in with a posse that included the house-music pranksters KLF; using turntables, tape-recorders and live sampling to initiate the “chill-out room” experience as part of Paul Oakenfold’s residency at London club Heaven; and releasing acid-house and dub records on their own WAU! Mr. Modo label( well-compiled last year). The birth of “Little Fluffy Clouds” was not without drama and portents of history, and its afterlife not without humor. In early December, “LX” Patterson, Youth and SPIN floated fluffily down memory lane.

You’ve known each other for a long time, but what led to the formation of The Orb — and the song?
LX: Youth and I started a small record label called WAU!, and in 1988 released a collection of wild and underground music, including The Orb’s first-ever release, “Tripping on Sunshine.” Jimmy [Cauty] and I formed The Orb in the summer of ’88. I was also an A&R man for E.G. Records, and as Youth and Jimmy were then published by E.G, [the label] turned a blind eye to my other projects. They were beneficial to E.G. as publishers.
Youth: At the same time my old bandmate from Brilliant, Jimmy Cauty, was putting together the KLF, centered around the vibrant squat community in Stockwell and Jimmy’s studio Trancentral. We would DJ at the many legendary parties there and that was where Alex really got his mojo working, collaborating with Jimmy on “Lovin’ You” [a.k.a., “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld”]. It was a very fertile and creative atmosphere there and everyone helped out on everyone else’s tracks, as we were hanging out there so much.

Talk a little about the atmosphere when you came together to work upon “Little Fluffy Clouds”?
Youth: Alex and Jimmy fell out for a bit over what became the KLF’s Space album. Initially Alex had spun a whole load of samples and effects over it, but Jimmy didn’t want to share the publishing. He felt that because Alex was a DJ, that didn’t constitute “writing music”… a little ironic considering KLF stood for Kopyright Liberation Front! [Cauty] took all of Alex’s samples off the record and put it out… This really upset Alex and he was suddenly beached without a musical collaborator, which is when I stepped up.
LX: “Little Fluffy Clouds” was direct competition between Youth and Jimmy. “Huge Ever-Growing…” was a tremendously successful underground record. And for Youth to jump into Jimmy’s place and say, “Well I am going to do the next one with you and we’re going to do something better…” That’s what happened.

Youth, did you ever play with Alex at those Monday nights in Heaven?
Youth: I did sometimes. We would have three or four decks set up. It was the first chill-out room ever.

Was your process of working an outgrowth of chill-out room live gigs?
LX: Yes, in a way it was: taking the process of many tape-machines, loops and ambient noise. Or vocal samples of that week’s news and reliving it in a studio. We would shrine the studio up, and even have smoke machines and strobes for the effect.

How did you write and record the song?
Youth: I had this tiny studio on Wandsworth Rd called 45 RPM, and very quickly I put together a vibe with a pulse, a couple of beats, a weird keyboard sample from 808 State’s “Pacific State” and maybe a couple of other things. Including the Ricky Lee Jones sample, which I ran through my Akai S-900 sampler, and which created the stuttering effect. It was sublime psychedelia and was directly inspired from taking E and LSD, as that kind of thing can happen in your trip. Once I had this demo idea, I knew it was perfect for Alex and got him over with his bag of records and tapes and blasted him the vibe, he immediately took the bait and pulled the Steve Reich guitar sample out of the bag and a couple of other beats, the BBC dialogue and lots of other ideas.
LX: Cyclosonic panners were the order of the day too. Using real ambiance, we created a sound scrap to place the ideas from other pieces of music, used totally out of context.

Where is that Rickie Lee Jones sample from?
LX: From a cassette with Steve Reich on one side and Rickie Lee Jones on the other. From Simon, Youth’s mate in Birmingham.
Youth: It’s originally from an interview disc that was sent to journalists as part of a promo package. I had a friend who worked in a soundtrack record shop in Birmingham and was a fan. He was also a poet and would send me strange pictures with his poems printed on the back, [and] tapes of spoken word and soundtrack stuff he thought I might like.
LX: He thought that The Orb could make a track out of it. Simon was not wrong. The bloke who played Geordi in Star Trek, The Next Generation [Levar Burton], on his TV show [Reading Rainbow] he asked RLJ “What were the skies like…”

What Steve Reich’s reaction to the track? Did he want money?
LX: I saw a video of Steve Reich talking about the first time he listened to “Little Fluffy Clouds” and he was so into it, and seemed proud of it too! I believe he was impressed with our crafting. He asked us for 20% in 2003 and no back payments, and also asked us for a version for his pleasure .

From what I understand, your first American show was in Phoenix in 1991. Was that a conscious homage to the “lyrics”?
LX: The record company’s idea! Made sense once I saw the sunset — wow, my daughter’s middle name is Arizona. Think on! Halloween party too. Blimey, that was wild. The club had a chicken wire down the middle of the hall — one side over-21s and under-21s on the other — all in fancy dress. The front of the stage also had chicken wire across it, just like The Blues Brothers.

How did the Volkswagen commercial offer come about? Did you use the original version of the song or did you have to recreate some elements?
LX: When the German computers were making the design of the new VW, eight out of ten computers preferred little fluffy clouds. On finding out that it was music for samples, [the computers] decided to do a new arrangement, and got a new vocalist in to redo Rickie Lee Jones and new guitar for Steve Reich. Aren’t computers great?
Youth: They recreated it entirely as they couldn’t risk any legal stuff. Did a good job too. I know how hard it is to recreate a sample and keep it sounding authentic.

What is the oddest place you’ve heard “Fluffy Clouds”?
LX: A Virgin Atlantic flight from West Indies to London, while I was boarding. I was having a [row] with the big bloke who had just pushed past me and my girlfriend to get on the plane. I was actually asked, “If you don’t calm down sir, we’re gonna put you on another flight.” I thought, I better not say anything more and just listen to the music, and on it came.
Youth: The best was Anjuna Beach in Goa, India: Three thousand hippie ravers and freaks on LSD, kicking up the dawn dust to the original 12″ mix on a $20k rig. Sounded so tribal, so good — prophetic, a peak experience in my life.
LX: One of the best fan letters I ever had was from some paratrooper in the Royal Air Force, who used to jump out of his plane while listening to “Little Fluffy Clouds.” I thought, wow, I wish I could do that.

So, what were the skies like when you were young, where you lived?
Youth: When I was young in the 1960s, I grew up near Slough, but I remember bright blue skies and beautiful fluffy clouds. Very England and very ’60s. I am still obsessed with clouds and have even started a Cloudblog.
LX: “My God, it was full of stars.”