This feature on mid-nineties Lounge/Dance collective The Gentle People was originally written for a short-lived blog project of mine called Moogs Funks Breaks. At that time, I was getting a bit fed up with the general tendency to reduce perfectly good music from the past to pure sample fodder, and my aim was to try and combine appreciation of the, well, Moogs Funks Breaks with a wider appreciation of the arists responsible and even where possible a dash of cultural context. I found the format rather constraining, though, and it didn’t allow me to just go wherever I wanted, and also the reading stats were generally very low, which was presumably related to potential readers needing to be interested in the artists in the first place. Which given that one entry was about the Sally And Jake theme single by ‘Crisp’ was something of a tall order.
Even so, I’ve always been fond of this particular entry, partly because I really do love The Gentle People, and partly because it allowed me to go in some depth into the mid-to-late nineties aesthetic that really made it feel as though the world had swung around to my way of thinking for a while; you can find more on that in this piece on the strange ambience of 1998, this one about Modern Life Is Rubbish by Blur, and this one about Brass Eye. At one point it was actually on the shortlist for Not On Your Telly – though ultimately I just couldn’t make it fit the ‘theme’ of the collection – and I daresay it may well be revisited at some point in some form.
Recently I’ve been doing a fair amount of listening to The Gentle People, a retro-electronica act that emerged from the amorphous (and indeed Music For The Amorphous Body Study Centre-centric) Loungecore-Acid-Jazz-Easy-Listening-Big-Beat Madwoman In The Attic of Britpop that people try to avoid mentioning now (primarily if they’re writing career histories of Noel Gallagher), inspired in no small part by that big new Corduroy box set that’s just come out, complete with a previously unreleased two-fingers-to-‘Britpop’-as-they-come cover of the Sesame Street theme.
While enjoying their gloriously of-its-time combination of futuristic dance music sounds with an overall What Time’s Issi Noho On? vibe, it’s difficult to avoid reflecting on just how prominent they were for such a wilfully niche-marketed band. Only a couple of years earlier, The Gentle People would have been the sort of outfit that John Peel played apologetically in the last twenty minutes of his show, and then got complaints from miserable Grunge-worshipping dullards asking him never to play them again, before making a vague remark absolving himself of all responsibility for the decision to play them in the first place. Mark Goodier would have pushed their singles hard, then got half the band in for a chat about the album, and then moved on when it became obvious that they weren’t going to happen. There might have been the odd play on one of the dance music shows, but that would have essentially been your lot. In the mid-nineties, however, The Gentle People were everywhere, from daytime television to daytime radio, and the subject of countless multi-page colour spreads in magazines; and not just in the likes of Select or Vox either, but everything from Stuff to Loaded as well. In fact they were often called upon to give their opinions on fashion, food and books and so forth, with the music sometimes seeming like a secondary consideration.
In fairness, the latter sort of magazine might well have been drawn towards The Gentle People by the fact that they had two attractive female members – though it’s difficult to convince people these days that Loaded was actually a pretty good magazine for the first couple of years, placing articles on the likes of Peter Cook and Lancelot Link Secret Chimp in amongst all the Nicola Charles In Her Pants Again stuff, and heavily championing the likes of The League Of Gentlemen and Super Furry Animals way before they actually got anywhere, and that it was only finally consumed by the monster it accidentally created after Harry Hill featured on the last regular male-only cover in 1997 (although as I briefly appeared in a feature in Loaded some two years after that – no, not telling you which, sorry – I can’t really fingerwag as much as I’d like to), but that’s an argument for another article – yet all the same there’s no getting away from the fact that they weren’t the sort of band that would have been considered potential mainstream fodder only a couple of years earlier, or indeed only a couple of years later. They were, after all, a gaggle of flourescently-dyed-in-the-wool confirmed retroheads like the similar Space Age Space Cadets behind Radio Tip Top – themselves a regular sighting in the same sort of unlikely avenues, and similarly pushed towards the mainstream to the extent that they nearly landed a daytime show on Radio 1 (and if you want to know more about that, you’ll have to read my book Fun At One, which boasts a Tip Top interview with The Ginger Prince himself!) – and hardly of a piece with bacon sandwiches, football tribalism or children’s television presenter ‘babes’.
So what happened? Why was there that curious moment in the mid-nineties where the mainstream and the non-mainstream suddenly collided and everything seemed on a level playing field for the briefest of times (well, unless you were poor old Luke Haines)? A large part of it is clearly down to the success of the likes of Blur, Pulp and Supergrass, who waved their more angular influences in people’s faces but at the same time had found a way to make them eyecatching, earcatching and marketable, and given that to the average punter it must have seemed like all these amazing bands were suddenly tumbling out of nowhere (whereas the average NME reader would doubtless have seen things a bit differently and wondered why everyone was suddenly getting so excited about them who did My Legendary Girlfriend), it was inevitable that people would feel mildly curious about what else was ‘out there’. Obviously that can’t have been the entire cause, as it seemingly got through to people who wouldn’t know Sofa (Of My Lethargy) if it pitched up in the middle of a Shine compilation and refused to budge until they had heard it so many times that their head exploded… but that’s for some crazy futuristic Space Dominic Sandbrook to speculate on.
Anyway, for the briefest of moments – yet still one which in the heat of the moment seemed like it was stretching on into infinity in a sort of weird time distortion event of the sort that they used to use technobabble to describe before all this ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey’ business started – it seemed like the ‘outsiders’ could take on the mainstream and, if not win, then at least co-exist in a more receptive plane of popular cultural existence. But of course, Simon Cowell wasn’t having any of that…
You can read more about Radio Tip Top, Mike Flowers, Raymond Sinclair and other comedy offshoots of the Loungecore boom in Fun At One – The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
The Gentle People – still hard at work on relaxation – can be found on Twitter here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.