The Orb – Little Fluffy Clouds

10th December 2023 · 1990, 1990s, Dance, Music

This came on the radio the other day and I was reminded just what a startlingly original song it was. And it still sounds as fresh and innovative as it did 33 years ago.

What was new to me was the discovery that the female voice reminiscing so soothingly about the titular “little fluffy clouds” during her childhood in Arizona is that of Rickie Lee Jones.

She was not happy about having an old interview turned into a rave record, subsequently suing them for unauthorised use and referring to The Orb in a later interview as “those fuckers.”

It’s not the only unauthorised sample.

The harmonica melody is Ennio Morricone’s (The Man With The Harmonica) from Once Upon A Time In The West, and there are parts of a Steve Reich composition for multi-tracked guitars, played by Pat Metheny. Unlike Ms Jones, Reich said he was “genuinely flattered” to be sampled by The Orb, who would return the favour by remixing one of his compositions.

Another piece of the jigsaw is the drum sample, which is taken from a track from Harry Nilsson’s album Nilsson Schmilsson called Jump Into The Fire on, played by Jim Gordon and slowed down from 45 to 33rpm; and Paterson has later revealed that there’s a Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry sample somewhere in there too.

Then there’s the voiceover.

The track begins with BBC Radio 4 presenter John Waite introducing a programme with the words: “Over the past few years, to the traditional sounds of an English summer – the drone of lawnmowers, the smack of leather on willow – has been added a new noise…”

In 2013, on their 25th anniversary tour, The Orb took Waite on tour with them to read the passage live onstage; I wonder how many Americans knew what the “smack of leather on willow” referred to.

The single came out at the end of 1990, perfectly timed for its role as a comedown tune for that generation of acid house ravers. It wasn’t a hit at the time but was included on the double album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and – in the last of several re-releases – reached No.10 in 1993.

The Orb were the pioneers of ambient house – armchair techno if you prefer – with Dr Alex Paterson’s psych-tinged electronica using elements of dub production harking back to early Pink Floyd, the ambient experiments of Eno and krautrock exponents like Cluster and Tangerine Dream.

Paterson was the only permanent member of The Orb, who had begun in partnership with Jimmy Cauty of The KLF, and collaborated with Youth (aka Killing Joke’s Martin Glover) on Little Fluffy Clouds, though he never became a permanent member.