Jan 12

The Top 100 Songs of All Time: 7. The Orb – Little Fluffy Clouds

FT12 comments • 2,823 views

“What were the skies like when you were young?”

I think everyone hears a record in their youth which suddenly reveals a whole new world of possibilities. It could be a three minute punk song, where simplicity and lyrical fervour suddenly make the business of writing your own songs seem possible. Maybe hearing the Aphex Twin opened a world of atonal computer music, bedroom techno that saw no instuments at all. Or think of the kid coming home from yet another tedious trumpet lesson hearing the joyous release of Two Tone and looking in a whole new way at his instrument.

For me it was the Theme To S-Express. I knew drum machines existed, I knew sampling was going on. But hearing the cut and paste of S-Express suddenly suggested that my tape recorder was not just a way of listening to music, it was also a way of making music. I crudely stitched together my own extended version, interpolating bits of Pump Up The Volume, and latterly made a frankly tedious twenty two minute version of Beat Dis which barely held its own beat for twenty seconds. The beat franlly was the annoying bit, if I could get that to match up it sounded fine, but I couldn’t add my own samples over that beat, it would cut out when I tried to add a speech from Ripping Yarns.

But I had seen the future of pop and was insanely excited about this new sound. Then as soon as it happened, this sampladelic revolution got subsumed into Acid House, dance music and the wit and joy of finding vocal samples seemed to vanish into single hooks. The Jigsaw of S-Express had its moment in the sun then vanished. The KLF were doing some things like it off of my radar, but even when they got big, they were inventing their own lunacy.

And then, five years later, when I wasn’t looking for it I heard Little Fluffy Clouds. A song which has a laconic bubbling up beat under the longest strongest intro sample I had heard in ages. And that is before we get on to the frankly astounding Rickie Lee Jones sample.

“They went on for ever and they when I we lived in Arizona and the skies always had little fluffy clouds and .. they were long and clear and there were lots of stars, at night. And when it rained it would all turn, it, they were beautiful, the most beautiful skies as a matter of fact, the sunsets were purple and red and yellow and on fire and the clouds would catch the colours everywhere, that’s, its neat because I used to look at them all the time when I was little. You don’t see that.”

The secret of a good sample is for it to be compelling, fit the song and withstand constant repetition. This one does more than that, for all of its stoner simplicity, its seeming near idiocy, the American pastoral nature contrasts nicely with the previous very English sample. The beat isn’t anything special, the tune is pretty unremarkable, but the playful cut and pasting of the sample yet again shows endless possibilities if you find some interesting content. Compared to much of its parent album (the fantastic Adventure Beyond The Ultraworld) Little Fluffy Clouds is positively stuffed with content. But even by itself it seems laconic, laid back – the very essence of ambient house. I loved it and still do.

And the song is about its own method, Layering different sounds…

Rickie Lee Jones, her of the sample, didn’t love it. Annoyed that the track made her sound, well, stupid and or stoned she sued. And since she makes up the lions share of the song, Bog Life settled out of court. I do feel a little sorry that Rickie Lee Jones’s extensive musical career may have a highpoint represented by sounding a bit. On the other hand, perhaps she should be proud that The Orb found this obscure sample and made it into this track. After all, not many of us could give such a good response to the question.

“What were the skies like when you were young?”
“Mainly grey.”

Every now and then another jigsaw ambient track pops up to impress me. Nothing will ever blow the doors down like The Theme To S-Express, or perfect the form such as Little Fluffy Clouds. And I still believe I could make that brilliant bit of bricolage. And then to get myself in the mood, I listen to the Orb again. Which stops me, I could never beat it. The Theme From S-Express opened that door, Little Fluffy Clouds perhaps closed it. The problem with near perfect art is that it sometimes stops any form of imitation.

“You might still see it in the desert.”


  1. 1
    admin on 2 Jan 2012 #

    Soon we can reveal the titles of #2, 3 and 4. And who knows maybe even #1…

  2. 2
    Chewshabadoo on 3 Jan 2012 #

    “Mainly Grey”


  3. 3
    Alan not logged in on 3 Jan 2012 #

    LOLZ. yrs of watford

  4. 4
    Rory on 4 Jan 2012 #

    Very pleased to see FT giving props to this (also in Tom’s old link in the sidebar). I always thought it was a thing apart, but it didn’t seem to get much press attention at the time so it felt like a private pleasure.

  5. 5
    Garry on 5 Jan 2012 #

    In my little pocker of Australia, this was only Orb track I had ever heard for a couple of years (probably because it was the only one short enough to fit on radio). But I heard it in isolation – acid pop hadn’t crept into my like and while S Express etc hade the charts there wasn’t enough for me to link different tracks into a narrative of techno/house influencing pop.

    Then I heard the Digital Dream from University Radio Bath (similcast on my Uni station in Armidale, NSW) and thus heard parts of Orbus Terranum. I couldn’t believe it was the same band, but promptly the first three albums. I love them all.

  6. 6
    swanstep on 5 Jan 2012 #

    LFC is new to me….and I’ve got to say, I don’t hear what its fans here are hearing. The big sample strikes me as just OK – not especially interesting – and the track just beats it into the ground. And the rest of the backing track is just dull (as Pete Baran basically admits). I swear, you could ‘blind’ test this track with umpteen Aphex or Boards of Canada tracks, say, and very few people would choose LFC in any of those pairwise comparisons. It’s not much of a song and the sound/performance-scape is not distinguished enough to bother any serious top 100 ‘ambient’ or ‘dance’ list. Its inclusion near the top of any kind of all-of-music list is I take it a symptom of that list’s jokiness. But what’s the joke again? For-the-sake-of-the-drunk-argument-quorum preservation?

  7. 7
    Pete on 6 Jan 2012 #

    I know what you are saying Swanstep, but can you give me your Aphex Twin, and Boards Of Canada (or anyone else) contender of a similar tempo – ambient house – and is equally poppy enough to feel like a legitimate pop radio playlisted single, which this was on a number of occasions – it was re-released a lot. I’d be interested in your blind test, it is more than possible that my history with the track, and where it comes in history (and the equally great album it comes from) has led me astray.

  8. 8
    punctum on 6 Jan 2012 #

    Can’t say I would have got this confused in a blindfold test with e.g. “Windowlicker.”

    #6 – stop being a bore.

  9. 9
    Chewshabadoo on 6 Jan 2012 #

    the BIG sample in case anyone doesn’t know it:


  10. 10
    swanstep on 7 Jan 2012 #

    @7, Pete. I guess a lot of the stuff I was thinking about as clearly superior musically I wasn’t thinking about especially as charting singles: Xtal and We are the Music Makers off the first first Aphex Selected Works disc, and things like Dayvan Cowboy and Roygbiv from Boards most obviously. I’ve sometimes heard people bracket some of Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha album together with the Orb. Suppose that that make sense, then I’d take any number of tracks from that record over Little Fuzzy Clouds (or anything from the Orb). Vaguely relatedly, I did a Fish Tank (2009) video for London Belongs to Me (much better than LFC!) recently. Youtube/Warners has blocked it almost everywhere outside the UK, but try here if you’re interested.

  11. 11
    Chinny Reckon on 15 Mar 2015 #

    According to The Orb’s Alex Paterson, Rickie Lee Jones didn’t have a problem with the sample, but the lawyers threatened to sue anyway.

  12. 12
    Chinny Reckon on 15 Mar 2015 #

    @9 Some of the drums are also sampled, from Harry Nilsson ‘Jump into the fire’.

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