M People Biography

The key force behind this popular pop/dance crossover outfit was Mike Pickering (Michael Duncan Pickering, 24 February 1958, Accrington, Lancashire, England; keyboards/programming), a former DJ at the Factory Records’ owned Haçienda club in Manchester. His activities there once encouraged The Face magazine to proclaim him as ‘England’s most revered DJ’. After school, Pickering worked in a fish factory and engineering warehouse, becoming a big fan of northern soul. He played saxophone and sang for mid-80s indie/dance forerunners Quando Quango, and had various connections with New Order, including sharing a flat with their manager, Rob Gretton. He also had the distinction of booking the Smiths for their first Manchester gig, and signing both James and the Happy Mondays in his role as Factory’s A&R representative. After leaving Factory Pickering became a junior director at Deconstruction Records, to whom he brought Black Box and Guru Josh, the label’s two most important early successes. He also provided Deconstruction with North: The Sound Of The Dance Underground, cited by many as the first UK house music compilation, though in truth it was Pickering and his band T-Coy behind seven of the eight songs.

At the start of the 90s, Pickering founded M People - the M standing for his first name - and signed a recording contract with Deconstruction. The band was formed by ex-Hot! House vocalist Heather Small (b. 20 January 1965, London, England) and Paul Heard (b. 5 October 1960, Hammersmith, London, England; keyboards, programming), formerly of Orange Juice and Working Week. They achieved major success with the club hit ‘How Can I Love You More?’ at the end of 1991. This single promoted a first album, which took its name from Pickering’s early musical leanings, Northern Soul. The breakthrough year for M People was 1993, as they enjoyed a string of UK Top 10 hits with a reissued ‘How Can I Love You More?’, ‘One Night In Heaven’, ‘Movin’ On Up’ (also a US Top 40 hit and later used as a campaign tune by the UK’s Labour Party), and a cover version of Dennis Edwards’ ‘Don’t Look Any Further’. The album, which contained the hits, Elegant Slumming (the title was taken from a Tom Wolfe book), featured vocal support from Nu Colours. It won M People the Best British Dance Act at the BRIT Awards, and the 1994 Mercury Music Prize for best UK act in any category, much to the chagrin of hotly tipped pretenders Blur. Meanwhile, their highly polished, commercial sound (omnipresent on car stereos and commercial radio) was being cited as the perfect example of ‘handbag house’, a term the band themselves despised.

The 1994 album Bizarre Fruit and the attendant Top 10 singles ‘Sight For Sore Eyes’, ‘Open Your Heart’ and ‘Search For The Hero’, were greeted with mild disappointment by critics but snapped up by the paying public. M People, by now a quartet with the permanent addition of their touring percussionist Shovell (ex-Natural Life), embarked on a tour of the world’s stadia to ecstatic receptions. Their love affair with the critics had cooled, however, the media taking special pleasure in poking fun at Small’s choice of boyfriend - rugby league player Shaun Edwards. Bizarre Fruit II merely compiled several remixes and edits as a prelude to a new album, though an ill-advised cover version of the Small Faces’ ‘Itchycoo Park’ managed to irritate the critics further. Released in 1997, Fresco proved to be another smooth slab of easy-listening soul, with the single ‘Just For You’ the stand-out track. Two lazily compiled ‘best of’ selections and Small’s 2000 solo debut, Proud, are the only products to have subsequently emerged from the M People camp.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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