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Oct 14

MR OIZO – “Flat Beat”

Popular78 comments • 3,939 views

#820, 3rd April 1999

flateric 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.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    Tom on 9 Oct 2014 #

    I think assuming someone is only saying they like something for [x reason] is basically never an excellent point, sorry.

  2. 52
    glue_factory on 9 Oct 2014 #

    For me the parallels with earlier Levi’s adverts (Stiltskin and Babylon Zoo) are clear; it worked well in the context of the advert, was utterly thrilling, in fact, there, but played to its full length and without the visuals I found less to keep my interest. And like others that’s not for want of liking hard or minimal electronic music; oh to be discussing something like Aphex Twin’s Quoth or something by Ancient Methods.

    And like those earlier number ones, it stuck around for longer than a week, presumably giving the lie to the idea that people were instantly disappointed on hearing it as a single and not a soundtrack.

    5/10

  3. 53
    glue_factory on 9 Oct 2014 #

    ” I mean if I can describe/recreate a number one record by making a sound effect with my mouth for 20 seconds, and then saying it goes like that for 3 minutes, that doesn’t seem like a good thing, does it?”

    It depends. If you can do it, and have a single, glorious, chord change halfway through, like the Punctum mentioned French Kiss, then that’s a FANTASTIC thing.

    (The groaning and the slowing down were always the least interesting bits of that record for me)

  4. 54
    iconoclast on 9 Oct 2014 #

    @48: “Rubber soul?” Plastic soul, more like; they’d long since sold theirs to commerciality. Captain Pepper’s where it’s really at, man.

    Tom’s mention of “Revolution 9”, a piece of which I have a high opinion, has made me think long and hard about my reaction to FB. If it’s fair to make the comparison, and assuming both are indeed “avant-garde” pieces of music, then the difference for me lies in my perception that in R9 – which *develops* quite substantially over its length – the Artist is sincerely trying to take the Listener on an emotional or mental journey, whereas in FB – which just sits there more or less unchanged – I mostly hear the Artist and his select audience sniggering behind the Listener’s back and thinking “let’s see what the belpers make of *that*!” In short, in R9 the Artist assumes the Listener is an intelligent human being, whereas FB takes the Listener for a fool.

    Others will, of course, have exactly the reverse perception; de gustibus non disputandum est.

  5. 55
    Tom on 9 Oct 2014 #

    To be fair Iconoclast I am arguing that it ISN’T a piece of avant-garde art, it’s just an electro house banger – I think Ed might be right in that the framing/presentation of it as a hit single from a cool advert is a little bit Duchampian, though, which adds a layer onto it. R9 is a bit different – in a way its asking people to find a use for it, interpret it, find a way it fits into their lives and expectations. I really don’t think the use of “Flat Beat” is terribly obscure! It’s a dance record. You either want to move to it or you don’t.

    The hidden issue here is that utilitarian dance records are very hard to WRITE about in the same lit-crit/art-crit/pop-sociology derived terms that a lot of pop is. This has always been a huge problem! (I find dance records tough to write about too – if you look at Popular it’s almost always on dance stuff that I fall back on expressive metaphor as a critical tool, yer sonic cathedrals of sound) But being hard to fit into the literary frame of “a piece of art you appreciate as an individual listener” is really not an inherent fault of a recording’s.

    This is what “rockism” was about, by the way, much more than “liking rock” or not. Rock (especially the arty end of it) succeeded as a critical object because it could be written about very easily. (This point borrowed from DUBDOBDEE I should say!) Attempts to apply the same styles to other music often led to incomprehension or bad assumptions about them becoming common currency. Frankly it led to that for a lot of rock as well, PARTICULARLY the stuff that – as Fivelongdays would point out – actually rocked.

  6. 56
    Ed on 9 Oct 2014 #

    That is a good point.

    Classical music is an absolute bugger to write about, it seems, which is why everyone loves Alex Ross of the New Yorker so much: he is one of the very few who can do it well.

    Paul Morley is making a decent go of it at Sinfini, too: http://www.sinfinimusic.com/uk/features/series/paul-morley

  7. 57
    flahr on 9 Oct 2014 #

    “Ptolemy” really is rather wonderful, isn’t it?

  8. 58
    Wheedly on 9 Oct 2014 #

    There’s some really great and perceptive comments here. And some that leave me groaning. Believing that you understand another listener’s response to a piece of music better than they themselves do is an unsustainable, not to mention pretty arrogant, position to take. Assuming that you know what the artist was thinking at the moment of creation is even more presumptuous.
    To talk about any art outside your own tastes and experiences meaningfully, you have to engage with it first, experience it with as many of your own preconceptions, prejudices and opinions stripped away as you can possibly manage.
    Imagine hearing Flat Beat with someone’s ears other than your own. What does it sound like? Think beyond notes, chords and rhythm. Think in terms of frequency, harmonic content, dynamics. What does it feel like to listen to? What do you see when you hear it? What does it make your body do? Do you enjoy the physical sensations it provokes? How about the mental ones?
    Yes?
    No?
    Why?
    Done all that? Now you’re engaging with the music itself. Which in most pop music criticism may only be half the story, but it becomes a bigger part when surface meaning through lyrics and easy signifiers like big, swelling arrangements are stripped away.
    So having called others out, I guess I have to be brave enough to offer my own opinion. I liked it at the time, I like it now. If anything, even more so. The reason FB became such a big hit, I think, is because it’s playful. That juxtaposition of the beep-beeps against the huge, near-steady state bass is a dead giveaway here. As Tom keeps insisting, it’s not avant-garde, it’s a banger, albeit a very minimalist one, made by a guy with a peculiar but entirely audible sense of humour.

  9. 59
    Ed on 9 Oct 2014 #

    You might think it’s pretty arrogant to tell people how they ought to listen to music :)

    More seriously, asking people to listen without their own “preconceptions, prejudices and opinions” is a hopeless exercise, surely?

    “How would I feel about this record if I wasn’t me?” I am pretty sure I don’t have the necessary philosophical detachment to answer that question.

  10. 60
    Wheedly on 9 Oct 2014 #

    OK, point taken. :) Put it another way, then. If you’re going to discuss music with others, it’s more rewarding if you’ve tried to take the music on its own terms. Since someone’s already mentioned Ian McDonald upthread, let’s wheel him out again: Pet Sounds is an abject flop considered as a heavy metal album.

  11. 61
    Andrew Farrell on 10 Oct 2014 #

    If there’s one thing that Flat Eric is doing in the video, it’s rocking out.

    As a shield-bearer of clan Techno, I have to say I don’t think this is it – it doesn’t have the interesting things happening to the rhythm track that say Rotterdam Termination Source does, it’s house as far as I’m concerned. Though that could frankly be just my way of saying “I don’t like it”

    (Is anyone going to take up #40’s challenge, by the way?)

  12. 62
    Paulito on 10 Oct 2014 #

    @58: “Assuming that you know what the artist was thinking at the moment of creation is even more presumptuous.”

    Not always. The motives of many music-makers are entirely transparent. And what you describe as “assumption” is often more a case of inference or gut instinct.

  13. 63
    katstevens on 10 Oct 2014 #

    #40 & #61 The more I feel something is [10], the generally harder it is to describe in words why that’s the case. Instinct? A sudden formation of neuron pathways? While pulling apart why something is awesome and attempting to explain it to others can contribute to your enjoyment of it, so can the baffling realisation that something so simple and relentless can flick your switch in the same way as the blimmin’ Bolero.

  14. 64
    punctum on 10 Oct 2014 #

    The reason why writers get in a flap with non-lyrics-based music is because they by and large don’t have any musical training, as opposed to the Eng Lit most appear to have studied at university (hence the stock reliance on lyric as meaning/significance carrier). If you are a trained musician you can spot exactly what’s happening in a specific piece of music and make a reasonably good guess at why it’s happening. The downside is that detailed technical musical analysis tends to be a turnoff for readers so the challenge for the music writer is to strike a balance between informative and entertaining.

  15. 65
    Rory on 10 Oct 2014 #

    @64 Bang on. I always remember a reader’s response to a review I wrote for a student mag many moons ago: she wrote that I must be a “really boring political-type person” because I’d lauded a song she disliked on the album and dissed another that she liked. But although I’d noted the former song’s lyrics with interest and approval, my main reason for liking the song was its music, which in hindsight I could see I hadn’t written about at all because I didn’t have the language. Similarly, I disliked the other song for its music, not for its lyrics, and yet her defence of it was all about its heartfelt lyrical message. Dancing about architecture, we were.

    This is a problem for someone whose longtime favourite musician is predominantly an instrumentalist whose occasional lyrics are notoriously rubbish: how on earth can I explain why his music matters to me? We can’t all spend years in music training in order to be able to talk authoritatively about music.

    Or perhaps we can and should. Maybe we should expect all our kids to get a musical education that gives them the language they need to talk about it sensibly, even if they don’t have the ability to make music themselves, just as we try to with English and other core subjects. (See also: visual art. Cue rant about undervaluing of the creative arts in school today, fist-shaking at Gove, etc.)

  16. 66
    Tom on 10 Oct 2014 #

    As Punctum says, the trick is to do it entertainingly. Certainly, more should try. Musicology is one of – but not the only – underrepresented skillset in music writing, though it may be the most crucial: but programming and the technical elements of production, marketing and PR, choreography and stagecraft – all areas where the contributions of genuine experts could make a difference.

    I think as a writer you have to start by owning your knowledge and admitting your gaps. I’m obviously not a musicologist at all, for instance, but I also don’t have a lit crit background – my degree was history and my career has been in the research and communications biz. (Speaking personally, I think Popular has improved over time as I’ve loosened up more about embracing the historical approach and including that in the entries. But then I would think that!)

  17. 67
    Steve Mannion on 10 Oct 2014 #

    #63 I remember ‘No Limit’ getting a chain of “TEN TEN TEN” responses and thinking “yeah but whyyyy tho” just a bit. I would’ve for something I like more too but I do like to think that everyone has their equivalent of this even if they do show the working.

    A lot of us have a clear preference for the kind of thing tracks like ‘Pump Up The Volume’, ‘No Limit’ or ‘Flat Beat’ represent (all different from each other but also clear connections). I’m probably too strict about dishing out 10’s personally – but that’s just part of my own Popular fun :)

  18. 68
    Tom on 10 Oct 2014 #

    I have been too ungenerous with 10s, to be honest. Britney joins “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Stand And Deliver” on the list of 9s I should probably have gone one higher on.

  19. 69
    punctum on 10 Oct 2014 #

    The trouble is that if you give enough records a ten, then the mark stops being unique and special, and it should really be reserved for those number ones which *cringeworthy management jargon alert* go the extra mile.

  20. 70
    Rory on 10 Oct 2014 #

    Tom @66: I think (hope) it’s clear to those of us who aren’t market researchers that your background in that area has been enormously valuable for this project, and I suspect is what’s keep you at it for 10+ years. When there’s a stretch of duds there’s only so many ways you can say “I don’t like this much”, but even with those entries you’ve found interesting and insightful things to say about the songs’ broader context thanks to your MR background. This entry is a case in point, really (not that you thought it was a dud; but it has interesting things to say even for readers who do). I have a feeling that this can only strengthen as we move solidly into the era that overlaps with your own career, when you will have been thinking about each new number one in this way as they happened rather than forming your responses in hindsight. It’ll certainly keep me reading through coming stretches of number ones I’ve never heard before.

    Right, that’s enough flattery. But I think you’re quite right about owning your knowledge and admitting your gaps. We see it in our collective comments, too, where different commenters offer insights into different aspects of the songs. I suspect it’s also why many of us delve into autobiographical anecdotes for our comments: we may not have much to bring to the table for particular entries that others haven’t said or couldn’t say better, but we do have our unique experiences of this track at that time in that place. As a reader, I find those valuable too: each comments thread is collecting a kind of folk history of each track, the UK-number-ones equivalent of a bunch of social researchers going out with their tape recorders to interview WW2 veterans.

    @68: “Stand and Deliver”: yes! One of mine.

  21. 71
    weej on 10 Oct 2014 #

    I’ve been thinking about how to answer Paulito at #40’s challenge for a couple of days now, and am still sort of stuck, but not for most of the reasons put out upthread. Firstly I genuinely do think this is a ’10′, even after rethinks and relistens, and I genuinely *do* think there’s something new going on with the track which differentiates it from other French house and the cheeky lounge music of Mr Scruff, etc. Putting my finger on exactly what that is though, well that isn’t easy – as Kat correctly says at #63, the closer something is to a ’10′, the harder it is to explain why. Punctum at #64 has a good point that lack of training in music means that we lack the vocabulary to explain why something works or doesn’t, but while I’m fascinated to hear Howard Goodall talk about the use of the Dorian mode in ‘Eleanor Rigby’, I suspect this approach would fall down with ‘Flat Beat’. Any attempt to strip it down to its components would surely result in the essence going missing somewhere, I fear, the tropes and precursors aren’t there to lead us in our deconstruction. It’s just a nice, odd sound that I enjoy a lot. I know that isn’t helpful, but you have to trust me that this is sincerely how I feel about it.

  22. 72
    Rory on 10 Oct 2014 #

    Weej @71: My dad used to have a photocopy in his studio, which I wish was online somewhere but isn’t, of a one-page comic depicting a student potter’s defence of her work in front of a group of chin-stroking art profs who were trying to get her to explain its worth in formal art-theory language. They kept poking and prodding her using more and more convoluted terminology, while she struggled for words, in the end saying: “Um, I think it’s nice, I like the shapes.” (Followed by further panels of them tearing their hair out and pushing her out the door.) Every time I find myself struggling to explain what I see in something, I think of that.

    (The cartoonist was Gaynor Cardew, who I’m sorry to learn is now the late Gaynor Cardew. One day I’ll find out whether Dad still has the photocopy, and get it out there.)

  23. 73
    iconoclast on 10 Oct 2014 #

    @60’s invocation of the sadly departed IMac brings to mind a pertinent question which has been floating around in my mind since before I started adding my tuppence-ha’penny to Popular: is it correct for the Critic to pass judgement on something in a genre to which s/he does not otherwise listen? Slightly rephrased: how much value is there in the opinion of a Classical music purist on a simple pop song, or of a teenybopper on someone’s Unfinished Symphony? Is it correct to judge, say, “Flat Beat” by the same standards as, say, “Penny Lane”? And if not, why not, and what are the correct standards, and why are they correct, and who gets to decide?

    I think I should shut up now.

  24. 74
    Ed on 10 Oct 2014 #

    @73 Personally I enjoy reading Penny Lane fans’ views on Flat Beat, and vice versa.

    As you imply, it’s ridiculous to start insisting that there are “correct” critical standards for approaching music, or any other art. It may be that some approaches are more interesting and productiver than others, but I certainly don’t think that means only techno experts can express opinions on techno.

    Put another way, I think it could be quite interesting to approach Pet Sounds as if it were a heavy metal album.

    I really like Rory’s point @70: the heterogeneity of the set of UK number ones is one of the features that makes Popular interesting, and the Mass Observation-style diversity of views is what makes the comments worth reading.

  25. 75
    PurpleKylie on 11 Oct 2014 #

    I remember the ads very vividly. As I was still a kid at that point I of course loved the Flat Eric puppet and thought the song itself was strange but enjoyable, I remember at a school disco I was sat in a chair and just nodded like Flat Eric did through the whole song.

    As an adult who’s more knowledgeable of the French House scene it kinda makes me glad that such a song made it to #1 in this country, even if it was only for that puppet.

  26. 76
    thefatgit on 13 Oct 2014 #

    So it’s RIP Mark Bell. Only a few days ago LFO was mentioned on this thread. Thanks to Tom for the heads-up by posting “We Are Back” on This Is My Jam.

  27. 77
    punctum on 13 Oct 2014 #

    From the other end of the decade, more or less, yet LFO said so much more to me about life as I knew it than Westlife. Not to mention MB’s producing of Bjork’s unassailable Homogenic.

  28. 78
    ciaran on 25 Nov 2014 #

    Not really much to say about this.Its had a big critical reappraisal recently.

    I liked the french dance scene of the late 90s a lot but I’m fairly indifferent to this.Indebted highly to its advert. Almost the sound of a genre too pleased with itself .A bit of a swansong for Levi’s and the charts. The kind of thing commercialbreaksandbeats /shazam was invented for.

    On the plus side it’s not a con trick like Babylon Zoo and not the worst thing about 99 so 5.

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