M People have their roots in the embryonic underground club culture of the late '80s and early '90s, particularly the now legendary Manchester Hacienda scene documented in the biopic, 24 Hour Party People. Prolific producer / DJ / musician Mike Pickering a group he formed "M People" - literally "Mike's People".
The group could just as well have been called "H People" after their unmistakable and brilliant vocalist Heather Small. And few musicians could have suited Pickering's vision better than the multi-talented Paul Heard (bass, keyboards, programming) and percussionist Andrew Lovell. But, conceited or not, Pickering could certainly pick a winning formula and M People went on to become one of the most successful dance pop acts of the 1990s.
While it's silly to single out any one group of musicians as "the voice of an age" (fanfare), you can definitely say that the M People captured and gave voice to the spirit of a time and a place. Slick, sassy and unrelentingly positive, their music became a sort of secular gospel for the newly awakened dance movement. As the Berlin wall fell; as the world economy shook itself free from the effects of the Black Monday stock market crash; as England's independent music scene jolted out of a long sleep - M People were there to celebrate.
Looking back with the perspective that time affords, it's hard to understand why M People have been classed as a house music act. Despite their liberal use of synthesizers, their sound is far more pop or soul than house, particularly considering their extensive use of analogue instrumentation and their avoidance of samples. They could just as easily be seen as a continuation of the acid jazz movement of the 1980s or heirs to the classic pop throne left open by the departure of supergroups like ABBA.
Arbitrary labels aside, M People have a distinctive and powerful signature sound, the effectiveness of which has dimmed only slightly with time. A heady mixture of hook-filled electronic riffs, thrumming bass guitar, expansive sax and tight drumming, their music is the definition of slick and professional. But it's Heather Small's contribution - that effortlessly powerful, rich, smooth and sassy voice - that elevates M People from "good" to "bloody marvellous".
Unlike many tepid "Best of" offerings this Ultimate Collection does actually live up to it's name. For all their popularity and talent the M People's heyday was relatively brief, spanning five years and four albums. This means their best tracks fit neatly onto one CD. They even cheat a little, including two of Heather Small's solo tracks ("Proud" and "Holding On") - though its doubtful that even the most anal of purists will complain about these great songs' inclusion.
The rest of the tracks are drawn from all four of M People's albums, with a slight bias towards 1993's Elegant Slumming, their most commercially successful album. All the old favourites are well represented - "Moving on Up", "One Night In Heaven" and "Excited" to name just a few.
They've also included some slightly lesser-known singles like "Fantasy Island" and "Love Rendezvous". The interesting thing is that these have often aged better than the bigger heats, possibly because they weren't pounded to death by MTV and pop radio.
It may be premature to call Ultimate Collection a true collectors item. In ten more years the M People sound may seem a lot more dated - it may become the toe curlingly embarrassing music with which aging ravers torture their teenagers. On the other hand people said that about ABBA, often while they were still putting out albums. And while M People may not have reached the pinnacle of infuriatingly infectious pop that ABBA made their speciality, they will always have a place in the hearts of anyone who grew up in the early '90s.
- Alistair Fairweather
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