Just what we needed, another corporate puppet at Number One. To be fair to Flat Eric, he was in fact an indie puppet – if you hired French house act Mr.Oizo, the yellow flannel sidekick came as mandatory. The Eric we see in the Levis Sta-Prest ad that birthed “Flat Beat” was reworked by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and he has that irresistible Muppety limberness. But none of Kermit’s pals were this aloof: Eric – and his pal Angel – drive around a suburb, Eric flexing and banging his head to techno. When the police pull them over they switch the music to a country crooner, and Angel complies with the cop’s request, flipping open the trunk to show immaculately folded shirts and pants. He lets them go. They put Mr Oizo back on, and the policeman glumly considers his own crumpled, suddenly uncool clothes.
It’s inscrutable, a snapshot of a world that makes sense only on its own terms. Even the obligatory product shot – those perfectly folded shirts – is framed surreally. But it’s not a world that invites you to fill in any gaps – to make sense of Flat Eric would be to invite the same sleepy-eyed condescension Angel gives the police officer. This is a flat world, deriving its cool precisely from its lack of dimensionality. Why is any of this happening? Why not?
You could say the same about “Flat Beat”’s two weeks at Number One: it’s a very enjoyable record, but its laconic, bone-dry style is a world away from the year’s main trends in chart dance – big-room pop trance, and the filigree sweetness of UK Garage. Those musics, in very different ways, feel like music for crowds, but the Levis ad gets “Flat Beat” right: this low-key electro sound is a more hermetic, solo experience, better in my mind for driving or strolling. The track has the regularity of a self-righting spinning top – those fat squobs of bass causing it to topple over and each time just about rebalance itself. Its gyroscopic rhythm is fun to listen to, but works best in forward motion, when its wonky motor can become yours.
The fact that the year’s most sonically unforgiving Number One is also its biggest sell-out – the end of the decade’s long parade of Levi’s soundtracks – raises a similar gallic shrug to the ad. Levis, Sta-Prest cool notwithstanding, had begun a slide that was to last through most of the 00s – if the ads had ever been effective beyond just tweaking sales, they were so no longer. But as much as any actual 90s artist, Levi’s had developed. They began the decade as an agent of conservatism, making still lives of cool using soul, soft rock and punk – reminding me why these were legacies that needed to be wriggled free of. Over time, though, the brand got more interested in promoting current music – albeit in ersatz (Stiltskin) or family-friendly (Shaggy) versions. It had tried techno before – a 1994 ad used Biosphere’s “Novelty Waves” – but the tie-in single release tanked. Now, with “Flat Eric”, it had finally become an effective vector from bohemia to the charts.
And the ad acknowledged it. The music Eric scrambles onto his car’s cassette deck is utterly obscure – Don Gibson’s B-Side “What’s Happened To Me” – and as such unlikely to have itself appeared in an old school Levi’s ad. But it has the style right, a marketable patina of old-timey yearning : you can imagine some brand, in the late 80s, picking this up and trying to make a thing of it. Ten years later, in this commercial, it’s a symbol of the uncool, the crumpled. The golden age of golden oldie advertising is dead: Flat Eric nods compulsively over its grave.