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“Little Fluffy Clouds”:
A Situationist History

I worked an OL job years ago. It was dead slow, actually. I zeroed in on the other inverts immediately, and sat in a cubiclette next to one for the better part of two years without the slightest acknowledgement of our Other Lives. The main entertainment, however, came from Donell McDonell (his actual name), the receptionist. Very slender, fit, and handsome, also smart. Very slender and fit. Shockingly fit, in fact, with long lean muscles in tight hairless skin. Fully one-third of his body weight was accounted for by his astounding uncut-and-pierced penis.

As much as I resent him for blowing marijuana smoke in my face at his parties and generally pretending I wasn't even there after being specifically invited, and for his pretentious, belittling latter-day bf unit Ted, I admit that Donell was influential on my life. He rode a Rocky Mountain Cirrus with a solid Tioga rear wheel, and did so year-round. I was in my mid-20s and couldn't even ride a bike, so typical-fag was I. Further, Donell would ride his steed down the steps of the Y, a feat he dismissed as "easy."

Well, whaddya know: In '94 I bought a bike. I ride it year-round (and am something of an expert on winter cycling, coining the word "icebike," running the Icebike mailing list, and writing articles on required skills and equipment). I still can't do a trackstand, but my interest in bicycle trials dates back to Donell's sailing down the Y steps; I would later start the first and only trials club in Canada.

The inverts at work did a lot of chatting on the antiquated DEC All-in-1 snatchmail system. The chat system was about as good as what we have today, and that's saying something for a minicomputer product at the turn of the '90s.

– You see that video “Little Fluffy Clouds” by the Orb?

– Is that the one where it's "what were the stars like when you were a child"?

That exchange came about because of lying on the couch watching MuchMusic and being mildly interested in the pacific images of clouds moving against a sky-blue sky. I remember being at first dismissive of the sampled interview dialogue:

– What were the stars like when you were young?

– They went on forever. They... When I... We lived in Arizona, and the skies always had these little fluffy clouds in them. And they were long, clear, and there were lots of stars at night. And when it would rain, they would all turn – they were beautiful, the most beautiful skies, as a matter of fact. Um, the sunsets were purple and red and yellow and on fire, and the clouds would catch the colors everywhere. That's, uh, neat cause I used to look at them all the time when I was little. You don't see that. You might still see it in the desert.

(Funnest source: automatic linking project in Germany.)

Now, I had led an electronic-music childhood. At a young age, I stood in a Radio Shack and played the record that happened to be sitting on a turntable, Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity, for over an hour, wearing the planet-sized foam earphones that represented the state of the art in the '70s. (No one in the store batted an eye.) I was wild for Autobahn. I see romanticism in synthesized music dismissed as cold and mechanistic by kids who grew up on rock – well before songs like "Porcelain" by Moby made it manifest even to doubters. (Yello and the Pet Shop Boys drip with sentiment and romance.)

I was unprepared for Rickie Lee Jones' words, reportedly purloined from an episode of Reading Rainbow, and the way they would stick with me so strongly. Yet, considering the video, the slomo imagery of dolphins swimming through clumsily-matted clouds, and the accompanying naïve gliding synth notes at that moment, tended to undercut the whole video, giving me an excuse to discount it. (Indeed, “Little Fluffy Clouds” exerted an excessive influence on subsequent video directors, whose habitual use of flowers and natural organisms, floating babies, diffuse focus, and sea- and skyscapes became instant clichés.)

If it was so inconsequential, why was I thinking about it at work?

– You see that video “Little Fluffy Clouds” by the Orb?

– Is that the one where it's "what were the stars like when you were a child"?

Even Donell knew about it. Of course. Because he is an hepcat.


How strange to hear Daniel Richler, host of the seminal, much-missed pop-culture show Big Life, describe “Little Fluffy Clouds” as the genesis of ambient music. I think Brian Eno might disagree, but his general point is fair: The single put floaty, ethereal ambient music on the map.

But what an irony: The Orb's label at the time was called... Big Life.


I wish to hell it weren't on at midnight Sunday, but Sound:Escape has strongly educated me about possible musics, to employ the brianenoism.

As described elsewhere, the show features the silky voice of Kresh and his more pedestrian cohort Robbie (who sounds like a buzzsaw cutting galvanized tin by comparison) spinning ambient music. (Or, in many cases, hosting live performances, on instruments or turntables, by in-studio musicians and DJs.) What's surprising, still, after months of rapt listening, are the turns so-called ambient music can take. Like meeting a black albino, it's initially jarring to hear electric guitar and percussion in a genre that's supposed to be floaty and ethereal.

The German-born Kresh is tall and geeky, and, while not as luscious to look at as he is to listen to (drat!), has a certain kottkësque charisma. I happened to be off the modem one night when the show was on, and was fully awake, and the planets were otherwise aligned, so I rang up the Man and had a chat. I brought him up to speed on the memorable Toolbox experience, where, after an almost-magical evening at the leather bar, the crusty DJ actually played Kresh and Robbie after midnight. (A matter/antimatter combination, shurely?! – ambient music and trolling bears?)

I did the standard gushy-teenage-fan-girl thing: I talked about the first thing any old ignoramus would mention about ambient music, an idée fixe known as "Little Fluffy Clouds." I had enough wits about me to set it up in a very meta way ("People who don't know anything about ambient music will invariably mention 'Little Fluffy Clouds,' so that's what I'm doing").

And by incredible coïncidence, the next song cued up for play on Kresh's show that night was...

"Little Fluffy Clouds."

A weak situationism?

It's only a song, albeit one that samples Steve Reich. It's a disposable early-'90s single with a low-rent video. “Little Fluffy Clouds” takes on strong meaning to many people. Ben Summers named his Web-design firm after it, and benefits from the funnest domain name in all of England: fluffy.co.uk. One writer sees the song as an allegorical: "[I]t lifted a riff from Steve Reich's avant-garde composition 'Electric Counterpoint' and cut up a bit of an interview with Rickie Lee Jones. It was a shockingly novel sound, and its subtext – as an understated, abstracted AIDS memorial – still gives it amazing poignancy."

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