Ultimate Collection 2005 Inlay

Inlay: Information by Paul Lester, Deputy Editor, Uncut:

After over a decade of beautifully sung, expertly played and sumptuously arranged music - unofficial national anthems like "Moving On Up", "Search For The Hero" and "One Night In Heaven" - it's probably safe to say that M People are the most successful soul-dance band this country has ever produced. With 20 Top 40 single chart entries, including 10 Top 10s, between 1991 and 1999, and more than 10 million sales worldwide, it's hard to think of another act in the same commercial ballpark. Not bad for a group who emerged out of northern England's underground club culture.

M People were formed in 1990 by Mike Pickering: they were, literally, Mike's People. And they all had impressive CVs. Pickering had the longest track record. A mainstay of the Manchester music scene (the one-time fish factory worker had shared a flat with New Order manager Rob Gretton and booked The Smiths for their first local gig), Pickering played saxophone and sang with early-'80s indie-dance favourites Quando Quango. By the late-'80s he was a globally renowned DJ at legendary Manchester nightspot the Hacienda - "the Godfather of UK House," they called him - as well as A&R man for Factory Records, signing James and Happy Mondays. Londoners Paul Heard (bass, keyboards, programming), formerly of Working Week, who were part of the early-'80s New Jazz movement, and erstwhile plumber Andrew Lovell alias Shovell (percussion) completed the instrumental wing of M People.

Then there was vocalist Heather Small. Born and raised on a west-London council estate, she apparently battled with shyness from an early age. Not that you'd guess as much from the songs on this CD. Few singers are as capable of such raw power and intense emotion as this. A fan of gospel, soul, reggae and blues growing up, Heather managed to channel a lifetime's immersion in black music into her highly distinctive, soul-baring performances with M People. The spirits of Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Mavis Staples are rarely far away.

Our fab soul four began their chart domination in 1991 with "How Can I Love You More?" while "Colour My Life", a cover of Marshall Jefferson's "Someday" and group composition "Excited" continued their run of modest success throughout 1992. But it was during the following year, with the release of a remixed "How Can I Love You More?" (Number 8), "One Night In Heaven" (Number 6), "Moving On Up" (Number 2) and a version of Dennis Edwards' '80s soul classic "Don't Look Any Further" (Number 9), that M People became a permanent fixture at the top of what they used to call the hit parade.

They weren't just master craftsmen (and women) of perfect pop singles, either. Their albums were superb examples of sustained creativity. 'Northern Soul', the debut issued in 1993 whose title referenced Mike's mis-spent youth at the famous Wigan Casino, hinted at future greatness, but it was the group's second LP, 'Elegant Slumming', another 1993 release, that truly put M People on the map. Spawning numerous hit singles and peaking at Number 2, the album spent months in the charts and was one of the signature sounds of the mid-'90s. It wasn't just a commercial success. It was critically adored, too. In fact 'Elegant Slumming' became the third album to win the prestigious annual Mercury Music Prize, in the process beating Britpop faves Blur and Pulp, as well as The Prodigy and Paul Weller.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Of course, they didn't just peak there and leave it at that. This was merely the launch-pad for further triumphs throughout the '90s: hit singles like "Renaissance", "Sight For Sore Eyes", "Just For You" and "Angel Street" and Top 3 albums such as 'Bizarre Fruit' (1994) and 'Fresco' (1997). For Heather Small, there has been more recent solo success with 2000's "Holding On", "You Need Love Like I Do" (a duet with Tom Jones) and "Proud",  the title track of her Number 12 charting debut solo album of the same name. In fact, the latter single has been chosen as the official tune for London's 2012 Olympic Bid.

As for M People the band, whether or not they are currently enjoying a New Order-style lenghty hiatus remains to be seen. They've achieved and bequeathed enough. Some of the best soul music of the modern era.