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Oct 14

MR OIZO – “Flat Beat”

Popular78 comments • 4,867 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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  1. 1
    punctum on 7 Oct 2014 #

    At the time of the initial onset of Acid House I was pleasantly amazed at the multiple and endlessly renewable ways in which ostensibly radical music can feed directly through to the mainstream and become popular. Listening to uncompromising early “pure Acid” milestones – especially Phuture’s 14-minute “Acid Tracks” which redefined everyone’s idea of minimalism – my eyes can still blink with wonder at the thousands of dancefloors this helped fill; not to mention things like Li’l Louis’ “French Kiss,” ten minutes long and something like the House equivalent of the first movement of Gorecki’s Third Symphony (the same palindromic architectural structure) with added beats and post-“Je T’Aime” sighs, a number two hit in the desert-like environs of mid-1989.

    “Flat Beat” clocks in at approximately five-and-a-half minutes, and as well as becoming the first purely wordless number one since “Eye Level” – there are sampled voices but they do not utter anything discernible other than short, sharp blasts of gasps or chuckles – it is also one of the least compromising; minimalist French techno worthy of release on the Basic Channel label which sets up its beat and sticks with it, and to it. Using only a handful of elements – the aforementioned vocal snatches, a brief rainbow refrain of harmonically ambiguous melody, squeals and air blasts like party streamers floating twenty feet in the blue sky ceiling and a shuddering, tripolar bassline which deliberately and subtly dislocates. There is even an unexpected hint of “White Car In Germany” towards the end as the track stops dead, and then, after a few long seconds, suddenly reappears like the tail ends of a particularly curious dream before the bass signs off with a triple nod.

    So how did Mr Oizo – a.k.a. Quentin Dupieux – manage to achieve this unusually hardcore number one? For one, the chart climate remained open to cunning interceptors; at around the same time, the Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” became the most radical single to make the Top 20 since “Death Disco.” But for a very emphatic two, it was down to television and a headbanging orange glove puppet; “Flat Beat” was used as the theme for the 1999 Levi’s ad campaign (some distance from “Stand By Me,” hmm?) which featured said puppet, whose name was Flat Eric, in the passenger seat of a truck, merrily pogoing away (in a sedentary fashion) to the hypnotic techno emanating out of the radio. How ironic that out of this week’s bunch of number ones, largely crucified by being burdened down with too many words and too little to say, the one which says the most, er, says the least. Another one Meek would have been glad to live to hear. Number 9, Number 9…

  2. 2
    Brendan F on 7 Oct 2014 #

    This was probably the first #1 that was beyond my ken at the time. In contrast to the things I saw and heard in the indie chart on The Chart Show in the late 80s, which intrigued me to the point of obsession, this just left me cold at the time. Listening to it now, however, it is much easier to understand it in the wake of Daft Punk et al and I very much enjoyed it.

  3. 3
    iconoclast on 7 Oct 2014 #

    BiotW narrowly missed being a sublime return to better days; this mind-numbingly tedious electronic scribble is an unarguably ridiculous and unwelcome jerk back into the real world of late-20th century popular music. It’s the musical equivalent of the Art world’s soiled nappies or dirty urinals, something so utterly devoid of redeeming features that it can only have been a prank, asking the listener (or viewer, or whatever you call someone who looks at works of art): “can this not also be Art”? The answer technically has to be yes, but it’s a special kind of Art whose appeal is fathomable only to the specially initiated, and whose actual experience for The Rest Of Us delivers no rewards which might explain or justify its existence. That it was considered worthy of commercial release is baffling; that British record-buyers favoured it over everything else for not one but two weeks is just depressing. One to forget as fast as possible. ONE.

  4. 4
    James BC on 7 Oct 2014 #

    This puts me in mind of a comment in the KLF’s Manual along the lines of “eventually someone will release a single that is just a drumbeat with nothing on top of it – and if there are two versions one will be better than the other and everyone will know which it is.”

    Though there is more going on than just a drum track here, I can echo Brendan’s feeling of being baffled at the time – and I knew and liked Daft Punk’s Homework. Very minimal.

    It’d take a lot for anything like this to ever be number 1 again. There have been some fairly uncompromising euro-dance instrumentals that have been hits lately, but they all get a pop vocal added for the UK release.

  5. 5
    Ed on 7 Oct 2014 #

    @3 Duchamp’s urinal was clean. At least, the one I saw was.

    It’s a masterpiece, as is this. 10

  6. 6
    Alan on 7 Oct 2014 #

    There was a 2006 number 1 that was musically similar – to the point where a mashup of this and that did the rounds

  7. 7
    weej on 7 Oct 2014 #

    This is an easy ’10′ for me and I’m a little disappointed not to see it score higher. It’s easily the most sonically interesting thing to top the charts for quite a few years, and (I would say) one of the most enjoyable listens too. As much as 1999’s parade of one-week wonders could be depressing, at least it gave the chance for something as odd and as brilliant as this to hit the top.

    Unfortunately I was a little disconnected from the charts at this point, and wasn’t even watching TV in my student halls, so missed the ad too – but I picked up the album (Analog Worms Attack) a few years later and would absolutely reccommend it. No commentary on Flat Eric is complete without the comments of Mr Oiso’s son at the start of No Day Massacre for a start.

  8. 8
    Mark G on 7 Oct 2014 #

    I loved it then and I love it now.

    I have the CD single, and a Flat Eric lives in the loft. It’s a signifier of the treasures that lurk within my loft, as far as the kids are concerned.

    Ten, easy.

  9. 9
    Tommy Mack on 7 Oct 2014 #

    I was utterly non-plussed by this at the time. ‘Is THAT it?’ was my reaction to both the song and TV ad when I caught up with the playground buzz. As the frequent and unwilling gauche recipient of the cool kids’ sneery disdain, I had little time for insouciant hipster cool (still don’t: living your life on a ‘Flat’ emotional plateau just so that you get to feel better than people who aren’t doesn’t seem like a great choice). That I dismissed the music as aimless poker-face minimalist doodling seems more of an oversight (sorry, Iconoclast) especially as if you’d asked me at the time who was the best and most important and most artful band of all time, I’d have been like ‘Duh, The Velvet Underground of course!’.

    Listening back now, I’m surprised how jaunty FB sounds. I expected to admire it’s monolithic minimalist futurism but more than that there’s a real charm to it’s wonky lope (helped no doubt by memories of Flat Eric in the ad.) I’m still not a massive fan of minimal/tech stuff (Ketamine? No thanks) but I can dig it; head-nodding like Eric can be fun for a bit.

    I was also going to say stuff like this demands at least half-decent stereo equipment to enjoy (the boy racers at school loved it because it sounded great through a sub-woofer) but actually, it sounds fine through my laptop speakers. I doubt very much I’ll be returning much to Flat Beat (got the rest of Hacienda Classics to get through) but it’s put an unexpected smile on my face today.

    An aside: I thought Sta Prest were preppy mod-ish chinos but when I bought a pair off eBay, they were nasty drain-pipe stonewashed jeans with a crease pressed into them and an anti-wrinkling treatment. If they were fakes, someone had gone to a lot of trouble with the Levi’s tags. Bizarre.

  10. 10
    iconoclast on 7 Oct 2014 #

    @9: When I read “Sta Prest” I was immediately reminded of the StayPuft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. I have an itchy feeling this is relevant, but I’m not sure how.

  11. 11
    lonepilgrim on 7 Oct 2014 #

    what I love about this is that, despite its machine like beat, the main bass riff sounds so analogue – almost ham fisted. As well as the House connections this reminds me of the Flying Lizards in its wilful witlessness. 8 for me

  12. 12
    Chelovek na lune on 7 Oct 2014 #

    Although I fear it marks out my philistinical tendencies, I *still* don’t get this. (And saying I was too old for it – 24 – in 1999 is not going to cut the mustard either – although I certainly never went anywhere where I could have danced to it, then or since.). I like a bit of minimalistic acid house, and indeed minimalistic music of various other kinds, too, but I really can’t appreciate this at more than a detached, quasi-intellectual level. Which, as this was not designed to be appreciated that way, and really doesn’t reward that way, either, evidently misses the point. I’m still not sure if that it is my failing or that of the record. Maybe it is too clever for its own good, though?

  13. 13
    Tom on 7 Oct 2014 #

    #9 I just popped out for lunch and there was a lad parked at the Coulsdon traffic lights in a car marked STREET ELITE pumping out something enjoyably Flat-Beat-esque. That bass you like is going to come back in style.

    In the same queue there was a man-in-van whose van was called MARLON VANDO.

  14. 14
    pootle on 7 Oct 2014 #

    My favourite minimalist-techno-igetallthesubgenresmixedup song is “LFO” (or, to be honest, the fifteen-minute mix of ‘I Feel Love’), but this is kind of cute. There was a semi-ironic nostalgia for 1988 in 1999 that really improved the charts a little before the corporate boot came down for good.

    It has inspired me to make an mp3 playlist of all the most one-note minimal music I have because it’s so soothing.

    Also the puppet made a very pointed return as an early ‘The Office’ joke.

  15. 15
    Chelovek na lune on 7 Oct 2014 #

    #14 I also love LFO (even have a soft spot for Tricky Disco, helium-voiced screams or not) – but it strikes me that one thing that worked so well, on several of those early WARP records numbers, was the alternation and interplay between deep bass sounds with other melodious elements (or at any rate: synthesised sounds of higher pitches.) Whereas this, conversely, is, to coin a phrase, all about the bass, and not much else.

  16. 16
    weej on 7 Oct 2014 #

    Chelovek @ #14 – there’s plenty more going on here than the bass – the countermelody a couple of minutes in is the hook as much as anything is.

  17. 17
    wichitalineman on 7 Oct 2014 #

    NOW watch. This was tucked away on disc 2 of Now 42. Odd that it kicks off with a song that stalled at no.4, but maybe Robbie’s people insisted he start the disc. Beyond that, a rather intriguing collection of post-Britpop moves (All Seeing I’s track was written by Jarvis, wasn’t it?). I thought The Cardigans and Divine Comedy songs were a couple of years earlier, seems all wrong to my memory cells that they were out the same time as Dru Hill. It runs like a K-Tel comp of old, properly random (Flat Beat into Erase/Rewind!). And why was Dusty on there?

    1. “Strong” Robbie Williams
    2. “Fly Away” Lenny Kravitz
    3. “Praise You” Fatboy Slim
    4. “You Don’t Know Me” Armand Van Helden featuring Duane Harden
    5. “Flat Beat” Mr. Oizo
    6. “Erase/Rewind” The Cardigans
    7. “Just Looking” Stereophonics
    8. “Walk Like a Panther” The All Seeing I featuring Tony Christie
    9. “National Express” The Divine Comedy
    10. “Tequila” (Mint Royale Shot) Terrorvision
    11. “How Long’s a Tear Take to Dry?” The Beautiful South
    12. “Wish I Could Fly” Roxette
    13. “A Little Bit More” 911
    14. “These Are the Times” Dru Hill
    15. “My Love” Kele Le Roc
    16. “War of Nerves” All Saints
    17. “Inkanyezi Nezazi (The Star and the Wiseman)” Ladysmith Black Mambazo
    18. “Tender” Blur
    19. “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” Dusty Springfield

  18. 18
    Cumbrian on 7 Oct 2014 #

    All Seeing I song – written by Jarvis.

    All Seeing I song – version with Jarvis:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uh-ZTtIqZA4

  19. 19
    Tom on 7 Oct 2014 #

    The opening lines of “Walk Like A Panther” are one of my favourite ever scene-setting openings, almost up with the Happy Mondays’ “Son, I’m thirty…” couplet.

    I don’t think the rest of WLAP quite lives up to them – the verses are way stronger and more venomous than the chorus – but it’s a good record.

    Jarvis also wrote the follow-up, “First Man In Space”, which was voiced by Phil Oakey and is a tremendous record that’s nagged at me increasingly as the years go by.

    I liked both enough to buy the All Seeing I album, which is – from memory, and hauling the thread back on-topic – not all that far away in a lot of places from the very dry, arch electro sounds of Mr Oizo, though more on a “taped-together vintage gear” tip.

  20. 20
    thefatgit on 7 Oct 2014 #

    Irrespective of whether Levi’s sold more Sta-Prest or not, FB was enormous and inescapable for at least two weeks. I would be willing to bet more Flat Erics were sold than Levi’s super sharp trizers, which had the look of Rain Man’s wardrobe for probably double the price.

    Anyway, the radio edit iirc, was shortened to around 3 minutes, with perhaps only Tong and Pearce giving it the full 5 and a half on Radio 1. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if even longer mixes existed. And yes, LFO is an obvious precursor and worthy of praise until the cows come home.

    Tom’s point about forward momentum is apt as well, it sounds so much better as a driving tune. I had a mixtape in my car that had this and a couple of other minimal techno tracks, as well as Daft Punk. Great to drive to, and fantastic for destroying factory-fitted speakers.

    I wub this. (8)

  21. 21
    Cumbrian on 7 Oct 2014 #

    That All Seeing I album is really good. Didn’t Britney Spears cover “The Beat Goes On”? Which is itself a cover – I have just discovered?

    Agree that the verses on WLAP are much more venomous than the chorus and really make the song – if I remember correctly, Tony Christie didn’t much like singing it because it was a bit nasty and he didn’t think it reflected well on him at all. FMIS is superb – sort of a happy (happier?) ending to Space Oddity – with just the right voice singing it (rather than Bowie who I don’t think would have done half as good a job of it as Oakey does – plus Oakey’s from Sheffield to fit the concept of the album).

  22. 22
    mapman132 on 7 Oct 2014 #

    Never hearing this in the US but yet hearing it described as “line noise” at the time, I sought this out in the Youtube era due to curiosity. Bizarre and repetitive. When Harlem Shake became a very dubious US #1 years later, I immediately thought of this. I didn’t “get” the HS phenomenon and I sure don’t “get” this either. Ungradeable.

  23. 23
    JoeWiz on 7 Oct 2014 #

    I thought this worked quite nicely over the 30 seconds of the advert, but was too into guitars at the time to really listen. Now, it does sound like a record that would never in a million years get to number one now, it’s oddly cold and unapproachable, but never gets dull despite not really deviating from it’s initial 30 seconds or so.
    A 6 from me.
    And I can’t think of Flat Eric without seeing David Brent’s smug, knowing face as he points at him to his new member of staff. Brent, one would assume, didn’t buy the CD single.

  24. 24
    Kit on 7 Oct 2014 #

    Britney’s cover of The Beat Goes On is basically her vocal slapped on the All Seeing I’s recording. Is it too late to start a craze for “the Cher riddim”?

  25. 25
    Flat Erix on 7 Oct 2014 #

    I rule!

  26. 26
    Lazarus on 7 Oct 2014 #

    #17 Dusty died at the beginning of 1999 of course – perhaps that track was re-released by way of a cash-in, I mean tribute? Didn’t chart again as far as I recall, but perhaps someone at the record company was enough of a fan to close the collection with it.

    As for Mr Oizo, I didn’t hate the thing but I sure couldn’t warm to it either. I was nearer 40 than 30 by this time and it wasn’t hard to figure out that it wasn’t really meant for me. Don’t remember the video, but I liked the hot dog gag. 3.

  27. 27
    James Masterton on 7 Oct 2014 #

    Dusty was on the Now! album as a tribute as she’d just died. A bizarre, random thing to do, almost as if the licence for the track that was supposed to appear there fell through at the last moment.

    As for Flat Beat, it always strikes me as the greatest ever Emperor’s New Clothes single ever made. A record which nobody really feels comfortable critiquing or expressing negativity towards for fear of appearing uncool or the proverbial old fart. It was a record so far out of the mainstream, so utterly beyond any other prevailing musical trend that you either got it or just had to pretend that you did. In that sense it was bulletproof.

    I cannot conceive of listening to it for pleasure, to have it stimulate my senses in any way or even to dance to it (surely no such thing is possible) and it is truly the kind of track that only makes sense after the eighth pint of the evening, lying on the edge of coma on the stained seats of a grotty nightclub whilst the flashing lights play havoc with your brain’s desire to either shut down or activate the vomit reflex. Flat Beat is the record that makes me dread the hangover I’m going to have tomorrow. Yet thanks to a TV ad it was a Number One record.

  28. 28
    Shiny Dave on 7 Oct 2014 #

    Utterly uncompromising, isn’t it? No surprise it’s divided the commentariat so sharply.

    That bassline feels about, oh, twelve years ahead of its time? It certainly feels like a precursor to dubstep. The rest of the production, especially the high synth line that precedes the entry of the bassline, is more of-its-time Francophone techno cool, and none the worse for it.

    However, none of that really matters that much to me, and Tom’s remark about the song working for driving or strolling does. Like many autistic people, I’m inclined towards “stimming” – repetitive physical movements or sounds, like flapping or bouncing. I don’t know how I forgot about this record so comprehensively, but this is just about the perfect stimming record – the “gyroscopic” rhythmic bassline is fun to mimic, repetition, repetition, repetition, and not even a vocal line for distraction.

    I expect to be head-nodding and flapping to this on my way to work tomorrow. And many a day thereafter.

    8.

  29. 29
    Tom on 7 Oct 2014 #

    It seems a stretch to say it’s completely divorced from its time, though. The beats and overall vibe aren’t too distant from Homework – which had spawned hits – and the bassline feels quite similar to the Azzido Da Bass”Dooms Night” remix which was a huge hit the year after. And Marcello’s shout to “Windowlicker” is a good one too.

  30. 30
    pootle on 7 Oct 2014 #

    I should add that I like dancing to this sort of thing. You just sort of acknowledge each little ‘ting!’ and ‘parp’ variation with a slightly different movement.

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