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Classic Tracks: The Orb 'Little Fluffy Clouds'

Producer: Dr Alex Paterson By Richard Buskin
Published August 2011

Dr Alex Paterson tells us how the Orb's cavalier sampling and devil‑may‑care attitude towards copyright took ambient house from the chill‑out room to the top of the charts.

The Orb — Kris 'Thrash' Weston (left) and Dr Alex Paterson as they were when photographed for SOS in 1993.

It was 1989, and on Monday nights at Heaven, a club close to London's Trafalgar Square, there was the kind of scene that provided non‑stop tabloid fodder for the News Of The World. While about 1300 people would line up outside the UK's first openly gay nightclub, unable to get into a venue that had been converted from a cellar located within the arches beneath Charing Cross station, roughly the same number would be dancing inside to DJ Paul Oakenfold's ecstasy‑fuelled 'Land Of Oz' acid house raves.

At the same time, in a small VIP area known as the White Room, Dr Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty would host their low‑volume, chill‑out alternative, spinning records by the likes of Pink Floyd, Brian Eno and 10CC against a backdrop of multi-screen video projections for about a hundred punters coming down from their drug‑induced highs. The duo would use three record decks, a cassette player, a CD player and a 12‑track Akai mixer to provide dance music for those who were in no fit state to dance. Known as the Orb, the pair utilised their six‑month DJ'ing stint at Heaven to create ambient house; the atmospheric, electronic sub‑genre that, in the studio, would see Paterson and his partner of the moment meld mid‑tempo, four‑on‑the‑floor beats with synth pads, strings, and the inventive yet blatant use of assorted, highly‑manipulated samples.

"We all have our own little tricks in music,” he says. "My main trick is being a DJ, and I've always stuck to my guns and developed that sensibility. I've got a bpm counter in my head. What's more, where there's a great scene going on and a lot of people are high, you can draw on plenty of energy. The beautiful thing about doing my own music and being a DJ is that I can make up a tune and play it that night in a club to see if I like it or not. I remember doing 'Higher Than The Sun', walking out of the studio at eight o'clock one morning with a DAT, jumping on a plane at about one in the afternoon, and playing it that night at a club in Vienna which had a quadrophonic sound system, a bouncy floor and a roof that opened so that I could see the stars. I was like hello!”

Dr Alex Paterson

The Orb's live shows have always been known for their elaborate lighting effects — and this one is clearly no exception.Photo: Mick Hutson

Born in South London on 15th October, 1959, Duncan Alexander Robert Paterson grew up listening to anyone from T‑Rex and Alice Cooper to Kraftwerk and Jamaican dub engineer King Tubby. Kraftwerk would remain his biggest influence, although as a teenager, while attending the same school as future producer and Killing Joke bassist and composer Martin 'Youth' Glover, Paterson also absorbed the sounds of reggae artists such as Bob Marley, the Mighty Diamonds and the Abyssinians.

"Living in London, I heard a broad range of music, and right from the start I was attracted to weird things,” he now says. "My best mate at school happened to be Jamaican, but it wasn't until I went to secondary school that I was even made aware of the fact that he was black and I was white. To this day, it means nothing to me at all; the conditioning of a horrible society that we once grew up in.”

To hear the reggae influence on Alex Paterson and the Orb, just listen to 'Perpetual Dawn' on The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld (1991) and 'Towers Of Dub' on 1992's U.F.Orb.

"One of my fondest memories from when I was a kid is of listening to Minnie Riperton's 'Lovin' You' and my mum insisting it was a bloke singing,” Paterson continues. "I got a slap around the ear for telling her it was a woman, and in a strange, warped way that led to a sample of 'Lovin' You' being used many years later as the main focus of 'A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain'...”

After starting life as 'Loving You', with Riperton's hit 1975 recording set alongside numerous sound effects and sci‑fi samples, the Orb's 'A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Underworld' — whose title was taken from a Blake's 7 sample on a BBC sound effects album — was released as a 19‑minute ambient single in October 1989. Then, a week later, the unlicensed 'Lovin' You' sample was removed when Big Life bowed to pressure from the singer's management, resulting in subsequent pressings of the record featuring a Riperton sound‑alike.

"Back in the days when we were DJs, we'd rip things off willy‑nilly and not think about the consequences,” Paterson continues. "'Lovin' You' was a very beautiful song and it was hard to find anyone else who could actually sing it.”

While referring to the Minnie Riperton chart‑topper as "just a little snippet of my brain,” Alex Paterson also points out that such mainstream pop numbers take on a whole new character when listened to under the influence of hallucinogens, more of which in a moment.

"For me, 'Lovin' You' and [Kraftwerk's] 'Autobahn' basically fall into the same category,” he remarks. "Huge influences during the mid‑'70s. I'd also buy very obscure, weird records that would surface as samples on the Orb's second and third albums, and I'm not afraid to move forward using the same kinds of structures of reggae sounds as the Jamaican boys. As they've told me, 'You're not a white boy.' That's a compliment, you know? At least I'm not trying to sound like the Police… God forbid!”

Eno, EG & LSD

The Orb playing live, early 1990s. Photo: Mick Hutson

In 1979, Paterson became Killing Joke's roadie, and it was while on tour with the band in Neuss, Germany, that he first heard Brian Eno's ambient Music For Films album, conceived as the soundtrack to some imaginary movies. As Paterson would later recall, having just dropped some acid he saw "the Ruhr steel works explode in the distance” and observed that "the scene seemed to be taking place in the music as well.”

Still high on LSD, Paterson was next blown away by how the steel works' "huge metal arms were crushing molten rocks in time to the music” of Krautrock experimentalists Cluster on their electronic album Grosses Wasser. It was nothing if not an eventful evening for a man who was also positively affected by the compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen, yet his subsequent, evident influence by Brian Eno wouldn't be reciprocated.

"Brian and I never saw eye to eye, bless him,” confirms Paterson, who landed in the A&R department of EG Records in 1986, when Eno was on the indie label's roster. "I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I'm sure we could have some very nice conversations about EG Records, because I know the ins and outs as much as he does — in fact, although he wouldn't know it, he used to say hello to me when I worked at EG. He'd come in and give me a nod, and that's how I got to know Robert Fripp so well. He'd tell me, 'You've got the best ears in this record company.' Later it was 'Can I do a tune with you?' 'Yeah, okay, brilliant!' To put this into perspective, two of the first three albums I ever bought were by King Crimson, and here I now was, doing an album with the man. Once again, hello!”

EG was run by King Crimson's managers, David Enthoven and John Gaydon, and the record Dr Alex Paterson is referring to is 1994's eponymous FFWD, featuring him, Fripp, Thomas Fehimann and Kris Weston.

"I felt at the time, and I still do, that it was a spectacular album,” Paterson says. "It's off the cuff, rare as martians, and I'm quite happy for it to be that way. You need records like that because everything's so accessible these days. Some things in life have got to be worth hunting down, especially if you love music.”

Not that Brian Eno will necessarily be hunting down Alex Paterson's musical tribute to him.

"Unfortunately, when EG saw my rise as the Orb at the turn of the 1990s, they got me to do versions of all my favourite Eno tunes and put them out under the guise of the Orb on EG,” Paterson explains. "Looking back on it, if some smart‑arse DJ sent me a bunch of my music and told me he was going to put it out on my home label, I'd also think, 'Fuck off, who do you think you are?' I just got off on the wrong foot and I blame EG for that.”

EG is no more. Nevertheless, it was during the mid‑'80s, around the time he first became involved with the label, that Dr Paterson began crossing over into the artistically innovative side of the business.

"Ever since I was a kid, I always had loads of records and cassettes that most of my mates couldn't be bothered to keep,” he says. "I've still got boxes of them and I'm not going to throw them out — they're just too valuable. When I was at EG, they actually said, 'Clear all those records out, we don't need any of them.' I was like, 'You're talking about so many loved records. I'm not going to throw them out. I'm not a fool.' As I discovered, most people at record labels don't even know what music is. They don't know what's going on in the evenings at nightclubs and bars, and what's hip and what isn't, and basically what's coming. Labels are supposed to find out what's coming and feed the public what they need. It's a good job I didn't take their advice. These days, I do a radio show every week called Chilled Chewy Choosedays for that I'm very proud of and that is my little outlet to the world, enabling people to tune in and hear what I've collected for the past 30 years of my life.

"Back in 1984 and 1985, we used to have these 98.7 KISS‑FM parties in Brixton, where I'd have a box of cassettes and, using twin cassette decks, we'd try to mix two cassettes together at the same time. That was really the start of the whole DJ'ing conundrum for me. Because of my DJ'ing connections and those with EG, I started getting weird little ambient gigs — like the openings of fitness centres — before I started working at the clubs and the whole thing suddenly just snowballed.”

The Cauty Connection

Dr Alex Paterson today.

Alex Paterson had first met Jimmy Cauty in 1982, when Cauty was the guitarist in a pop/rock band named Brilliant, Youth was the bass player and Paterson was their roadie. In 1987, Cauty joined forces with Bill Drummond to form the Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu (aka The JAMs), which morphed into the Timelords and, eventually, acid/stadium/ambient house pioneers the KLF.

"I was doing these ambient parties for [record label] KLF Communications,” Paterson recalls. "One afternoon when I was there, Jimmy popped in with a new keyboard. He didn't have a clue what it was or how it worked, but it just so happened to be the same keyboard that I'd been looking after for five years with Killing Joke. So, I told him, 'Okay, I'll give you a quick 'once around the block' and he said, 'All right, let's record it,' and we made a track that day. That's how do‑it‑yourself it all was: 'That's a great sound, let me sample it...'

"Those early, early sessions were purely about taking direct samples from KISS‑FM in New York, which, incidentally, had nothing to do with KISS‑FM in London. Aside from nicking the logo and the templates from KISS‑FM in New York, KISS‑FM in London didn't have a mastermix show with Tony Humphries and Shep Pettibone. Those boys were mixing [New Order's] 'Blue Monday' and stuff by Erasure into proper techno and disco tunes, and I remember thinking, 'Wow! I can do that.' One of my favourite things is to turn up at a proper techno club where they're expecting me to do a techno set and the first thing I put on is the Cure. That's one of the most beautiful feelings I've ever had, just knowing it's going to nauseate people but that they'll still stay there.

"The sampler was like the Rosetta Stone for DJs. With the Akai S700 I could now do all of those things that had been going around in my head. Up until that point, I had been an A&R man, I'd run a record label, I'd been in a couple of bands — having recorded four or five unreleased tracks with my group Bloodsport in 1979 and then served as a singing roadie with Killing Joke — but I'd never really taken myself seriously. I was also doing a lot of DJ'ing. So it was a case of 'Bring all of your favourite records, Alex, and let's see what we can do.' That's how it all started, to be honest, and I've never been afraid to say it, because predominantly the Orb is not about a vocalist, it's about a DJ being the frontman, and that should help all of the other DJs to have a bit of confidence to go ahead and do their own thing in a band as well.”

The first release by Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty was 'Tripping On Sunshine', issued on the 1988 compilation album Eternity Project One. This was followed by the Orb's 1989 four‑song Kiss EP, featuring samples from KISS‑FM (New York, not London) and released on Paterson's and Martin Glover's own WAU! Mr Modo Records label. Soon after — together with Glover — Paterson and Cauty began leaning toward the softer, less beat‑heavy sound that would evolve into "ambient house for the E generation” at Heaven. And following a recording session for BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel that gave rise to the track that would be released as 'A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld', the Orb remixed Dave Stewart's hit single 'Lily Was Here', leading to similar assignments from several other artists.

Then, in April 1990, after Paterson and Cauty had been working on their first joint album at the latter's own Trancentral studio in the basement of his South London squat, they went their separate ways. Cauty wanted to release the record on his KLF Communications label; Paterson wanted to accept the deal offered to the Orb by Big Life. The result was that Dr Alex held onto the group's name and Cauty held onto the recordings, releasing them — minus Paterson's contributions — under the pseudonym Space on the album of the same name. Paterson, meanwhile, did appear — albeit without credit — on the KLF's Chill Out album, also culled from the Trancentral sessions. And it was at this point that he began working on the Orb's 'Little Fluffy Clouds' with longtime friend and fellow DJ Youth who, he recalls, "was the one in our club who was always going to be the pop star, even when we were 13 or 14 years old.”

From Bedroom To Studio

"That song is now my calling card,” Paterson states, ”and yet the whole record is samples. It speaks to the beauty of how you use the samples, and true to my word, I've never let anybody know where the drums come from and I never will. Again, I think it's great to let people guess.”

Point taken. Still, what is known regarding the track's other samples is that they include a harmonica sample from 'The Man With The Harmonica', composed by Ennio Morricone for the film Once Upon A Time In The West; a spoken passage by John Waite, presenter of the BBC Radio 4 consumer show You & Yours; parts of 'Electric Counterpoint: III. Fast', composed by Steve Reich and featuring multitracked guitars played by Pat Metheny; and, at the centre of the entire track, clips from the 'Conversation With Rickie Lee Jones' promo CD that was added to some boxed copies of her album Flying Cowboys.

Speaking in a strangely nasal tone that some people have attributed to drug use, but which Jones herself has cited as the result of a heavy cold, she recalled images from her childhood: "We lived in Arizona and the skies always had little fluffy clouds in 'em, and, uh... they were long... and clear and... there were lots of stars at night...”

Whereas Reich, flattered by the use of his composition, asked for and received a 25 per cent royalty on all sales of 'Little Fluffy Clouds', Jones was less than enamoured of the unauthorised use of her voice and, after resorting to litigation, agreed to an undisclosed out‑of‑court settlement with Big Life.

"I can't tell you how many times we've turned up in America and heard, 'So, where's the vocalist, man?'” Paterson says. "They expect to see some bird, and it's like 'Well, you'll be hearing her later. Don't worry...'

"Whereas we used a song for 'Loving You', we didn't with 'Fluffy Clouds', because that's where we suddenly didn't feel the need to do a cover version. It started with a friend from Birmingham sending us a cassette that had Pat Metheny on one side and the Rickie Lee Jones interview on the other. It came with a note saying something along the lines of, 'You guys are going to have to make a track out of this. It is definitely Orb material.' At that time, I was sharing a flat with Youth and he had a studio in my bedroom — part of the deal of living with him. Funny that, isn't it? That little room in a coach house in Wandsworth is where 'Little Fluffy Clouds' was born.

"Quite simply, we had the infamous Akai S700 with loads of samples, so we did the demo in the bedroom, using not only the samples that everyone knows, but also bits that people have never pulled out. For instance, did you know there's some Lee Scratch Perry? I hear it every time, but people don't hear the same tune as the one I got it from. It featured heavily on the demo and it also features very heavily in the live sets that we do now.

"From the bedroom, we moved things up a notch, switching to a place called Bunk, Junk & Genius (BJG) on Farm Lane in Fulham, where we got Thrash in and the track evolved over the course of about six months. Thrash is an amazing engineer and the next level was him programming the drums properly. Then it was down to editing and getting a seven‑inch [4:27] version for the Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld album because, given the old punk rocker in me, I was really loath for it to become a pop song.”

Layering Different Sounds

"'Fluffy Clouds' was probably one of the very first sessions we did at BJG. We also went there to do a remix of 'Hotel California' and ended up with 'Earth (Gaia)', which was the second track on the Ultraworld album that we began recording after 'Clouds' had been released as the Orb's second single. Working in a proper studio was different to being in the bedroom, where we could waddle in and out whenever we felt like it. Then again, developing the track at home also took time, since we had no preconceived idea of getting it done, but an even bigger problem was the samplers that, in those days, would always crash before you could save anything. Old macs were the same — 'Save! Save!' For years, that was a favourite saying in the studio.

"One of the main challenges was disguising so many things to make the track have its own identity and getting so many different areas of samples to stick together. For example, at the beginning of 'Little Fluffy Clouds', do you know who's asking Rickie Lee Jones, 'What were the skies like when you were young?' It's LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte in Roots and Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation, asking her that question on a TV chat show. I myself didn't find that out for years. Then again, on 'Fluffy Clouds' you can also hear little bits of me being interviewed on Radio 4 about ambient music. Youth played the bass line on 'Clouds' and there were things taken from the BBC sound effects archives. There are some fanatics who have probably written pages about the samples on that track — I should check them out online to see if I'm actually correct!”

One person whose work has definitely never been sampled by Dr Alex is Brian Eno.

"I just wouldn't bother,” Paterson confirms. "It's not worth the hassle.”

Fair enough, although the threat of hassle doesn't appear to have deterred him when sampling anyone else, either flagrantly or in a heavily manipulated form. That, without a doubt, takes balls.

"It's about having your own record label and being prepared to deal with the consequences,” Paterson reasons. "This old punk knows that any press is good press. It doesn't matter what the story is — half the people don't read it anyway, they just see your name.”

Beyond The Ultraworld

According to Alex Paterson, 'Little Fluffy Clouds' changed during the course of its six‑month evolution from a house anthem to "something for a generation”.

"I get that feeling when people come up to me and talk about that record,” he says. "I can see it's from the heart. There'll be these 40-year‑old blokes telling me that, the first time they heard 'Fluffy Clouds', it inspired them to go out and buy an electronic record. A lot of that is converting young kids from indie music to dance music — Primal Scream's Screamadelica is a really good album, but at the end of the day it's made by two DJs.”

Certainly, the Orb helped change the way samplers are used, from replicating real instruments to serving as creative instruments in their own right, and Alex Paterson reinforces this view.

"I've always thought that plagiarism is creative,” he agrees. "In no way did I consider it to be destructive, especially if you can twist that sample and make it become something else. That's why Steve Reich viewed 'Fluffy Clouds' like a real musician, telling people that he could never have envisaged his melody being turned into another song. In fact, we never went to him and said, 'We sampled you.' It was just that old‑school punk rock attitude of 'If you want something, you can come and get us.' Which is what he did several years later, asking for one fifth of the publishing from then on if we'd give him a version for the album that he was doing. It was a real gentleman's agreement. And Rickie Lee Jones also ended up liking the song because she could consider herself cool again. Never mind that her management wasn't too keen; she overrode her management. So the sharks swimming around the musicians are the ones you've always got to look out for. It's rarely the musicians.”

Originally released in July 1990, 'Little Fluffy Clouds' peaked at 87 on the UK singles chart. However, following its inclusion on Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld — most of which was recorded at Berwick Street Studios, as well as at Marcus and BJG — and the number one success of the Orb's second album, U.F.Orb, the song's various re‑releases culminated in it reaching the Top 10 in 1993.

"Having grown to hate that track for a long time, I've now grown to love it,” says Dr Alex Paterson, whose recent projects include HFB's (High Frequency Bandwidth's) BAFTA‑nominated soundtrack to Pixel Junk's Playstation 3 title, Shooter; the Screen album of "spaced out ambient dubness” that he's recorded with Daniele Gaudi and Chester Taylor, scheduled for release this autumn; and a commission by the Royal Opera for the Orb — currently comprising Paterson and Thomas Fehimann — to produce a short opera that will be staged in 2013.

"As with all ambient house, 'Little Fluffy Clouds' is music to sleep to. You see, one of the best things I could do in the studio was fall asleep to a tune. Then, if something in it woke me up, I'd make sure I removed it...”  

Live Remixes

"There were loads of different mixes that we put on the Wau! Mr Modo/Big Life 12‑inch selection,” explains Dr Alex Paterson. "We wanted to grab people's attention regarding ambient house, so we always had an ambient house mix, which obviously meant taking the drums out. The remixes, which had a drum and bass track, didn't come out until many years later. We now incorporate a Kraftwerk sample when we play 'Little Fluffy Clouds' live. And if we ever play America again, we'll incorporate the Pat Metheny/David Bowie song 'This Is Not America', which has the same bpm as 'Fluffy' and pretty much the same kind of tune, too. It works a treat when you mix the two in. It wouldn't make sense in Europe, but it does make sense when you're in America.”