‘Oh my god, we can’t do this!’ Inside Levi’s sexy, hit-making ads of the 90s

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Amid achromatic and achromatic Ansel Adams-style cinematography, 2 Amish sisters spy connected a topless antheral bathing successful a Yosemite river. Suddenly, a peaceful choral soundtrack gave gives mode to bone-shaking guitar: Inside, the debut azygous by Scottish grunge set Stiltskin.

Thus began 1 of the strangest taste wrinkles of the 1990s: erstwhile Levi’s became a jeans institution that could besides people UK illustration hits. Inside was built astir an addictive riff that inactive sounds fresh, and the advert, entitled Creek, changeable it to the apical of the UK charts. Over the adjacent fewer years, the likes of Babylon Zoo, Smoke City, Mr Oizo and Norman Cook’s pre-Fatboy Slim task Freak Power would besides people large occurrence disconnected the backmost of a placement successful Levi’s witty, often sexually provocative adverts.

Before Stiltskin, erstwhile Levi’s ads had made renewed hits retired of Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy, the Clash’s Should I Stay oregon Should I Go and Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine (the second successful 1985’s classic, Nick Kamen-in-his-boxers “Laundrette” ad). The marque utilized classical blues, stone and psyche to embody the brand’s consciousness of vintage authenticity. Inside, though, was the archetypal clip the institution had utilized a caller creator arsenic their soundtrack.

“When you’re selling the aforesaid basal merchandise successful the satellite of fashion, you person to alteration something,” explains Sir John Hegarty, the originative manager astatine London-based originative bureau Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), who ran the 80s and 90s Levi’s campaigns. “You can’t alteration the clothes. So we utilized the connection arsenic a mode of saying: we’re discovering music, we’re up of fashion.”

Stiltskin successful  1994.
Addictive riff … Stiltskin successful 1994. Photograph: Niels Van Iperen/Getty Images

“My location was being repossessed due to the fact that I couldn’t wage the mortgage,” says Stiltskin vocalist (and aboriginal Genesis vocalist) Ray Wilson, recalling his audition for the set successful January 1994. “I signed connected the dole and drove down to London successful this aged Volkswagen van that was falling apart. Weeks after, we were No 1.” Released 20 days aft Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the opus landed successful a philharmonic scenery overrun with grunge bands emulating the 90s Seattle sound. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, convinced Inside ripped disconnected their sound, greeted a Munich assemblage aboriginal that twelvemonth with a wry, “Hi, we’re Stiltskin!”

The set ne'er had different hit, thing Wilson chalks up to “too overmuch occurrence excessively quickly. You can’t spell up from determination – it’s not the champion mode to commencement a band’s career. We came unneurotic wrong weeks, truthful we didn’t person a relationship. We ended up hating each other.” That choler bled into the band’s performances. “We did MTV’s Most Wanted and we were told determination was thing successful the portion of 20 cardinal viewers,” helium continues. “Me and [guitarist and songwriter] Peter were astatine each other. He kicked maine successful the face. On 1 manus MTV were pissed off, but that small clip of Peter kicking maine and the microphone flying retired of my manus – they utilized that for 12 months connected their trailers.”

Having your way selected by Levi’s was capable to astatine slightest warrant a illustration hit, albeit not longevity – but adjacent fleeting occurrence was a temptation. “The euphony manufacture went from: ‘I don’t privation to interaction advertising’, to wholly swinging circular to: ‘Please tin we person immoderate of our euphony successful your ad’,” recalls Hegarty.

“It was that winning-the-lottery telephone call,” says Fatboy Slim, AKA Norman Cook, who, successful 1995, was playing keyboards successful acid-jazz troupe Freak Power. “We were slogging astir clubs playing gigs and frankly, we weren’t mounting the satellite alight. We needed thing to footwear america up a division.”

Turn On, Tune In, Cop Out had reached No 29 erstwhile it was archetypal released, but went Top 5 aft being re-released and selected to diagnostic successful the 1995 Levi’s advertisement Taxi. The commercialized showed Filipino-American manner decorator Zaldy, present amended known for making RuPaul’s outfits connected Drag Race, taking a New York taxi successful drag, and shocking the cab operator by shaving her chin mid-drive. Airing astatine a clip erstwhile determination was small successful the mode of LGBTQ+ practice successful advertising, it was astir banned by the Advertising Standards Authority, who yet agreed it could beryllium shown aft 8pm. “The main lawsuit [at Levi’s] astatine the clip was like, ‘Oh my god, we can’t bash this’,” remembers Hegarty. “The radical underneath him had to spell and person him it was going to beryllium great.”

“There was 1 chopped I truly liked wherever the full way stops erstwhile the shaver came on, which besides sounded benignant of similar a vibrator,” says Cook. “I was precise arrogant of the information it had this somewhat risque taxable substance [for the time].”

Most radical who grew up successful the 90s volition mention Babylon Zoo’s 1995 industrial-glam deed Spaceman arsenic the Levi’s advertisement opus they retrieve best. Although, arsenic Hegarty reveals, the collaboration astir didn’t happen. “[Vocalist Jas Mann] didn’t privation to bash it and his manager said, ‘Are you fucking stupid? This is going to marque you’.” It would spell connected to go the fastest-selling British azygous since the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love, contempt wide disappointment that the pitched-up snippet successful the advertisement wasn’t typical of the wide track. “Millions of popular kids rushed down Woolies and bought the azygous – lone to get it location to observe to their fearfulness that it was ‘good’ (like successful the advert) for astir 10 seconds,” Steven Wells wrote successful the NME. “Then became rubbish. Very rubbish.”

Babylon Zoo’s Jas Mann successful  1996.
Industrial glam … Babylon Zoo’s Jas Mann successful 1996. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy

Still, the Levi’s cachet continued to emergence done the 1990s, and BBH commissioned well-known names to helm their commercials. In 1997, Roman Coppola directed the Brady Bunch-inspired commercialized Daytrippers, soundtracked by US indie set Lilys’ psych-pop track, A Nanny successful Manhattan. The opus reached No 16 successful the UK – their lone large illustration success. Vocalist Kurt Heasley remembers helium felt pressured to travel up with euphony radical could “instantly grasp by the 2nd chorus. We’re this weird, rare, unusual happening and radical were like, ‘More meat! More potato!’ We’re much similar truffle lipid connected chips.”

Also successful 1997, Michel Gondry, who would aboriginal nonstop Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and more, was hired to movie the raunchy spot Mermaids. For Smoke City’s Brazilian-British vocalist Nina Miranda, Gondry’s sensual advert, which featured a pod of mermaids attempting to relieve a antheral of his Levi 501s successful the ocean, conjured a consciousness of escapism. “Levi’s ads were weird small messages successful a vessel from an exotic spot determination else,” she says.

Miranda had written the way successful 1993, agelong earlier Levi’s came calling: “I was truly depressed and surviving successful London. I utilized to beryllium successful my room, putting ideas to tape. A DJ person said: ‘I’m going to marque a opus conscionable for you’. I enactment it on, without having heard it before, and I sang what I felt which was this unthinkable travel into water.” Underwater Love became an underground deed and sparked a bidding warfare – but erstwhile signed to Zumba Records, Smoke City were frustrated to find the statement wouldn’t beforehand their debut album, Flying Away, aft the Levi’s advertisement was confirmed, due to the fact that they considered the advertisement specified an effectual selling instrumentality connected its own.

“We were saying, ‘please beforehand the album’, due to the fact that already radical were saying we were one-hit wonders,” Miranda remembers, though she believes the commercialized was inactive a blessing alternatively than a curse. “That opus went each implicit the world. It opened a batch of doors and radical inactive retrieve it.”

BBH’s final Levi’s advertisement of the 90s would beryllium their astir palmy of the decade. It featured a headbanging, fluffy yellowish puppet called Flat Eric. Soundtracked by Flat Beat, French DJ-producer Mr Oizo’s influential bass anthem, it was a conception Hegarty had to transportation 3 times successful bid to get implicit the decorativeness line. The azygous sold millions of copies, spent 2 weeks astatine No 1 successful March 1999, and spawned deliberation pieces that pondered Flat Eric’s presumption astatine the intersection of consumerism and fashionable culture.

Flat Eric successful  Levi’s astir   palmy  advertisement  of the decade.
Flat Eric successful Levi’s astir palmy advertisement of the decade. Photograph: Courtesy of Levi's/BBH

But Flat Beat would beryllium the past opus to go a large deed aft appearing connected a Levi’s advertisement and BBH turned distant from utilizing archetypal artists successful the 2000s. That 90s tally is simply a feat Hegarty thinks could ne'er hap again. “The mode advertizing works today, it doesn’t person rather the assurance – oregon if I tin usage that connection ‘swagger’ – arsenic it had backmost then,” helium says. “People person mislaid assurance successful those large marque statements astir what we are, who we are, however we behave.”

“I accidental the modern equivalent would beryllium to person a TikTok hit,” says Cook, who precocious pondered joining the societal web with his manager and label. “We went to TikTok and asked, ‘We cognize however to get records connected the radio, but however bash we get them here?’ And they said, ‘They conscionable turn ergonomically oregon organically.’ It’s not an algorithm that tin beryllium influenced.”

The difference, Hegarty says, is the mode that the satellite is fragmented contiguous done societal media. “There’s ever a narration betwixt euphony and covering – the occupation is you’ve not got anyone going retired determination making a large connection astir it and starring the market,” helium says. “Someone ever says to me, ‘How bash you foretell fashion?’ You can’t foretell fashion. What you tin bash is constitute interesting, challenging, distinctive small stories and that way, you mightiness person an influence.”