Monday, March 19, 2007

Boy/Girlband Purgatory - Part Four

East 17

Years active : 1992-1999

Biggest hit(s) : 'Stay another day' (#1 1994)

File under : Malnourished East End twokkers raised on NWA

Brought onto the market around the same time in the early 90s as Take That, East 17 represented the brattier, tackier end of the market but were perhaps all the more charming because of it - their debut album featured some of the finest tunes of the boyband era and their reliance on goofy East End hip-hop as well as the standard ballads 'n' breakdancing formula made them eminently lovable for a while. They also had arguably teeny pop's most perceptive character in the shape of principle songwriter Tony Mortimer, who sounded like he was shrewd enough to see through the machinations of pop marketing and managed to inject a rare dose of individuality into their music - on the other hand, their ranks featured Brian Harvey, a rat-faced cockney with the intellectual capacity of a tin of prunes (he is probably the only person on this list to have successfully run over his own head). There were also two other blokes in the band who did backflips and pretended to play bass sometimes, but I can't remember what they were called.

Pedalling a 'harder edged' sound than Take That's gaybar aerobic-pop, East 17 first graced the charts with 1992's 'House of Love', a manic rave-era rap track in which Mortimer bemoans the encroaching nuclear apocalypse outside his local dog track whilst Harvey interjects with some singy bits. The track was an instant success and brought the band's day-glo bombast into the public eye - they followed it with a string of hit singles in which the same template was repeated : Tony provided the deeply reflective rap verses (piping on about various subjects from war to romance, with what often seemed like a barely-suppressed evangelical streak), Brian sang the chorus and the other two bopped around in the background. The halcyon days of their early period brought forth such gems as the smoothly suggestive 'Deep', the dancefloor-friendly stompathon 'It's alright' and, later on, the stadium-sized gospel pop of 'Steam'. Debut album 'Walthamstow' topped the charts, and after five top ten hits they finally topped the singles charts with ballad 'Stay another day', complete with tinkling bells and mournful piano backing - such credentials lent it that extra bit of festive charm and it became 1994's Xmas #1 single as well as the band's best-seller.

The band were now established stars in the UK as well as in various far-flung territories such as Australia and Eastern Europe, but the novelty of their bratty boyband pop was wearing off - such circumstances called for a tactical change of direction, and the logical choice was to play up their R'n'B credentials and tailor their sound to a more US-influenced model (their earlier releases, whilst steeped in rap culture, were still unmistakeably British). Their final album 'Up all night' attempted to play down the clanky rave-pop sound of their earlier singles and move towards a smoother sound, though its sales were less impressive than its predecessors and the singles culled from it were unremarkable (apart from lead release 'Thunder' which featured some bizarre pretentious lyrics describing a sort of Guinness-advert hallucination full of purple skies and galloping horses). Their '96 best-of (again denying their impending doom by tagging on 'The story so far' to its title) effectively bookended their career, though it did spawn their second biggest hit in the Gabrielle duet 'If you ever' which hit #2 the same year, successfully ripping off a US act unknown on this side of the Atlantic (Shai) and repackaging their song to European audiences in the same way that Blue, Another Level and Blazin' Squad did in later years.

The band were effectively skewered when Brian Harvey admitted to casual Ecstasy use in a radio interview in 1997, and amid a somewhat out of proportion media backlash he was kicked out of the band - however, they had pretty much run out of steam by then anyway and Tony Mortimer also decided he'd had enough later that year. The remainder of the band, understandably apprehensive about continuing on the merits of their own contributions to East 17's back catalogue, decided to get Brian back in and the band changed their name to 'E17' and attempted to launch a comeback as a straightforward R'n'B act. Surprisingly, it worked (although not for long) and their next single 'Each Time' charted at #2 in 1998 - however, parent album 'Resurrection' (enough with all those clever titles!) flopped and their next single missed the top ten. Brian and co called it quits for good the following year.

Since their split, Tony has gone into producing, the back line started their own roofing business and Brian guested on a couple of moderate hits for other people before becoming a regular feature in the tabloids via his somewhat troubled personal life (aside from the aforementioned automobile accident, he has survived a machete attack to the head in a pub carpark as well as a couple of suicide attempts). The three members of the final line-up still tour student unions and gala events in ex-Eastern bloc countries (check out the poster photo in the 'Intro' piece for this list that my mate Dave took of me next to a poster for their concert in Latvia last year) but they look destined to remember a distant yet undeniably fond memory for the rest of us.


Years active : 1996-97

Biggest hit(s) : 'Anything', 'Why?(duet with Michael Jackson)' (both #2 1996)

File under : Dickless Jackson nephews with weird eyebrows

Billed as a new generation of Jackson-clan talent, 3T were purportedly the sons of former Jackson 5 member Tito (although from looking at them I feel more inclined to believe that they were illegitimate love children from dalliances with extra-terrestrial fans during the Jacksons' mid-70s tour of the solar system). They all had first names beginning with the letter T, making them sound like some sort of musical learning device from 'Sesame Street' - I can't remember the individual members but I do recall that there was a short one who wore a backpack onstage that he used to fling to the ground in a fit of passion at moments of heightened emotion during their set). Their appearance on the charts coincided with the tail-end of Michael Jackson's 'HIStory' era, itself a frantic attempt to keep him relatively trendy for a few more years whilst he completed his transformation from globally-worshipped king of pop into some sort of porridge-faced gimp who spent suspicious amounts of time around nappy-clad toddlers. Though he was still selling high quantities, Michael was no longer cool in the way he had been throughout the 80s and even Janet was beginning to flag, so the house of Jackson brought in these three dorks to get more of their stock on the market. The novelty was enough to grant them a few hits but, predictably, they weren't around for that long before we all got bored.

Debut single 'Anything' was standard Jackson-style ballad pop, and was tuneful enough although it committed the cardinal sin of crowbarring in individual vocal parts for all three members making it sound like one of those fuck-awful talent show presentations were everyone onstage has to have a go at singing. I fucking HATE it when people do that. The relatively barren chart landscape of early 1996 allowed the single to linger within the top five for ages whilst Babylon Zoo's 'Spaceman' ruled the roost, and they managed two more significant hits with the typically anaemic MJ duet 'Why?' (soulfully questioning the existence of stuff that sucks) and the outrageously pompous Broadway bollocks of 'I need you'. Further singles lingered on the cusp of the top ten and they soon disappeared from the UK charts, though Wikipedia reliably informs me that they continue to draw huge crowds in the Netherlands (surely one of the ugly side-effects of an ultra-liberal society).


Years active : 1997-98

Biggest hit(s) : 'We come to party' (#12 1997)

File under : Eastenders tea-girls doing fake homegirl soul

Another group set up to cash in on the trend for N-prefixed names in the 90s (how come nobody ever thought of doing a death metal boyband called N-TOMBED? That would have been ace!), N-Tyce were thrown together in an attempt to replicate the success of previous London-based pop acts such as Eternal and All Saints who had managed to pimp US-influenced girlband pop to British audiences. The formula was closer to Stateside acts like Jade and SWV, though it was tinkered to a British demographic by sticking in some white East End princess amidst the otherwise black line-up. No amount of sports bra & combat trousers dance routines could make up for how totally unforgettable their music was, and after a respectable four top twenty hits and an unremarkable album they went back to their jobs at the launderette.

Backstreet Boys

Years active : 1993-2002, then 2005-present

Biggest hit(s) : 'I want it that way' (#1 1999)

File under : Persil-washed Yank cum-suckers doing 5-part harmony

Quite possibly the most typically American group on this list, the Backstreet Boys came along in the post-New Kids wasteland of US teeny pop and unlike of many of their peers who peaked with their debut release, they managed to climb the ladder slowly over the course of the decade to arrive at the end of the 90s as the biggest boyband internationally. Though they seemed to be styled towards maximum commercial kickback, their teeny pop was desperately out of fashion in the music charts of mid 90s America and it took a wave of success in Europe before they could go back home to properly clean up - however by the time they finally hit big Stateside later in the decade, their records were selling in quantities previously unheard of in boyband pop and they proceeded to break numerous records for first week sales, concert capacity and sheer concentrated promotional overload. To be fair to the lads, they could hold a note between them and weren't that bad looking, but the rather weedy, Disney-soundtrack nature of their material made them the ideal target for the venom of the rap & nu-metal hordes that they jostled for place with on the US charts at the turn of the millennium.

Assembled by salad-dodging boyband svengali Lou Pearlman after he witnessed the New Kids phenomenon and decided to make his own fortune pimping emasculated pop-soul to malls full of drooling schoolkids, the lads were sent on relentless promotional tours around grade schools and shopping malls early in their career but no commercial success was forthcoming. It took further promo work in Europe to get them to catch on, and before long continental audiences were warming to their pristine, kiddie-friendly eunuch pop. The boys' success seemed well suited to MTV Europe - they looked so totally American (bright white teeth, spotless complexions and softly-lit videos featuring them riding around on bikes wearing sensitive knitwear) that you half expected them to turn out to be from fucking Sweden or somewhere else where everything's perfect. Whilst British boybands such as East 17 prided themselves on carrying a tangible odour of everyday life around everywhere they went, Backstreet Boys looked like they'd stepped right out of a cartoon - none more so than blond cherub Nick Carter, plucked from obscurity by Pearlman at the tender age of 12. This guy looked like the sort of kid who'd last about five minutes in the school playground, and the rest of the band weren't much more imposing (even supposed hardnut AJ looked like most British 13-year olds could slap the fuck out of him with one hand while they used the other to film it on their cameraphone).

It was all good clean (yet slightly wimpy) fun for the first couple of years, and they nailed 6 top five hits in the UK between 1996 and 1998 whilst simultaneously breaking through on the other side of the Atlantic, flooding the US market with previous European hits in an exact reversal of the marketing trick that brought NKOTB to Europe from America several years earlier. Slickly produced dancefloor numbers such as 'We going it going on' and 'Everybody/Backstreet's Back' (the latter with an awesome 'Thriller'-esque video) ran back to back with saccharine pop ballads like 'As long as you love me' and 'Quit playing games', and whilst you were never going to own up in front of your mates in the pub that you quite liked a couple of their songs, there was relatively little to violently oppose.

Their commercial peak came with global #1 'I want it that way' - surprisingly, their sole UK chart-topper out of 16 top tens - which along with parent album 'Millennium' broke records in the US and many other territories for first week sales. The mid 90s lull in the US pop market had now given way to a more fertile period after the Stateside success of the Spice Girls, and the boys were in exactly the right place when the Max Martin-produced ranks of Britneys and Christinas broke in 1999 to wade in and claim their place at the top of the pop food chain. It's difficult to appreciate how huge these guys got in the US around the turn of the decade (alongside N-SYNC) as by then their grip on the UK pop market was slackening, but across the pond their music was being distributed by burger chains, fans were getting trampled at their concerts and American cities were creating official Backstreet Boys days in honour of their fan conventions. I kid you not. To this day, they have outsold all other boybands in the US as well as many other countries hooked up to American video channels.

Downfall was always imminent though - tensions rose between the boys and Pearlman (who always looked a bit dodgy hanging round with such a fresh-faced bunch of youngsters) and they sued him repeatedly for ripping them off, whilst both Brian and AJ also admitted regular drug use during their busiest commercial era. The deathknell of their greatest hits compilation in 2001 (cunningly titled 'chapter one', but they were fooling nobody) hinted that they were running to a slow halt, and in 2002 they decided to call it in for a bit. The silence didn't last for long though, and in 2005 they reformed as a 'mature' pop act (meaning that they started wearing dark suits instead of reflective sportswear) and returned to moderate success both in Europe and America. Nick's younger brother Aaron (possibly the most irritating object in existence) also hit the bigtime with some tuneless chipmunk hyperpop in the late 90s but is probably fucked in celebrity kiddie rehab with Lindsay Logan these days, whilst the others all got married to finally settle the argument over whether they were gay or not. Brian recently moved into Christian pop and named his firstborn child 'Baylee Wylee' (Nurse! Straitjacket!!), Nick has put out some solo records and Kevin left the band last year to do acting stuff in Canada. Having managed to stay squeaky clean despite the requisite drug habits, break-ups and over a decade singing like complete pussweeds, the Backstreet Boys look set to continue their reign for quite some time.


Years active : 1997-2002

Biggest hit(s) : 'Girlfriend' (#2 2002)

File under : Back-flipping eunuchs doing saccharine Max Martin teeny pop

Born into the same Yank boyband tradition pioneered by NKOTB, N-SYNC (note the streetwise acronym) erred more towards the aforementioned quintet's tightly choreographed dance routine workouts rather than the sickly sweet ballads pushed by peers such as Backstreet Boys. Whilst the achieved enormous success in their homeland in the fertile boyband landscape of late 90s US charts, full-blown notoriety in the UK evaded them until Justin went solo.

Another Lou Pearlman project (and, like Backstreet, they also ended up suing the fat fucker for dodgy business practices later in their career), the group were originally a rather geeky looking bunch of body-poppers who looked like they'd stepped right out of an episode of 'Saved by the bell' - the cover of their first album captures the sheer dorkiness perfectly (see photo) but was only used for the European release before being restyled for the US version. Incidentally, the Germans were the first to really catch on to the band's charms and they blew up there before even cracking the US market (moral : NEVER consider a band to be any good if the only people who willingly buy their records are the fucking Germans). They bagged several Stateside hits upon the album's release in 1998, including later UK top tens 'I want you back' and 'Tearin' up my heart' which both featured perhaps the first airings of producer Max Martin's clunky keyboard funk-pop - he would later match the style with other US pop puppets such as Britney Spears to such immense success that it seemed like pretty much every pop record released around the turn of the millennium had been produced by him.

A cheesy Xmas album followed (par for the course for American teeny pop acts) but they went full blown stratospheric with their second album 'No Strings Attached' which shifted a staggering 2.4 million units in its first week of release Stateside, a record unlikely to be bettered now that nobody can be bothered paying for CDs anymore. Shame that such an accolade should belong to a record so crappily put together - the success was built more on the band's cult status as teeny pin-ups with cool dance routines than the actual music, most of which was forgettable plastic pish. Lead-single 'Bye bye bye' was a huge success in the US and peaked at #3 in the UK, again repeating the thumping synth riff from their earlier singles - at this point, all that mattered was that it gave the chaps something to gyrate around on stage to whilst their slobbering teenage fans fainted in the front row. Their sophmore success was followed in typical fasion by the post-millenial 'Celebrity' which made a lame attempt at analysing their pan-global notoriety (especially lead-off single 'Pop' which challenged doubters to dislike it on the grounds that it was merely harmless pop music), but again the music was swiftly-knocked together to soundtrack their videos. Their final single 'Girlfriend' made a curious shift towards a more R'n'B-based sound and featured a guest slot from Nelly, bringing it a late injection of credibility and giving the band their biggest UK hit - the single's style would later be further refined on Justin Timberlake's solo releases to even greater success.

The band called it quits after the requisite three albums, and Justin promptly launched a solo career doing more 'adult' R'n'B tunes (again, this transition to manhood was based solely on the fact that he cut off his pube-wig curls and started growing a bit of designer stubble) and managed a steady hit-strike with his first three singles, all of which peaked at #2. At this point, the cult of the superproducer was in full swing and Justin's sleekly fashioned pop tunes became acceptable purchases for grown-ups as well as little girls, and suddenly a new generation of drooling hags were desperate to get into his underwear. Some clever marketing there. Aside from his own solo hits, he popped up alongside the Black Eyed Peas on the infuriating save-the-world bestseller 'Where is the love?', toured with Christina Aguilera and finally topped the charts on his own with 2006's 'Sexyback'. He is still a massive solo star and seems to be suitable fodder for magazine covers in much the same way Robbie Williams was in his post-Take That years before he turned into a bog-eyed junkie trainwreck. As for the others, JC went solo to considerably less success, Lance is now a trained astronaut, Chris manages indie bands and the amusingly named Joey Fatone managed to wangle himself a couple of bit parts in shit American films you wouldn't watch unless you were stuck in hospital for a haemorrhoid operation.


Years active : 1997-present

Biggest hit(s) : 'Mmmbop' (#1 1997)

File under : Castrato midgets in need of a sound thrashing

Whilst not strictly a boyband in the purest sense of the term, these three brats deserve a mention nonetheless due to the thoroughly teeny-targeted nature of their music. A trio of Mormon crackers from Oklahoma, they were perhaps unique in that they were actually about the same age as most of their fans (upon their first rise to fame they were aged between 11 and 16), a factor not unimportant in their musical stlyings which were fashioned on the sort of squeaky vocals that males can only produce before their plums drop. Their debut hit 'Mmmbop' straddled the line between excruciatingly irritating and undeniably lovable, refusing to fall fully into either camp, and parent album 'Middle of Nowhere' yielded several hits of a similar ilk before they faded from the limelight only to reappear as a more adult-oriented act later on.

Upon first hearing, 'Mmmbop' was the sort of record that made you wonder whether or not the source of it all was rooted in the human race or some combination of pitch controllers, cartoon chipmunks and helium-fuelled drug orgies. In the end, it turned out that the record was the work of three blond Yank teenagers : Isaac (guitar, iffeminate enough to pass for a girl were it not for his enormous chin and visible zits), Zac (drums, young enough that you expected his drumkit to conceal a secret compartment for discreet potty breaks) and Taylor (keyboards/vocals, a real-life 'boy/girl' dilemma not helped by his parents' choice of androgynous name). Together, their collective squeak propelled the record to the top of the charts in 1997, and came as a breath of fresh air in the pop market otherwise saturated by wall-to-wall Spice Girls coverage and cumbersome Britpop. The song was pop in its purest form, yet held enough roots in 60s rock to allow it to cross over to rock/indie audiences (compared to the synthetic approach to boy/girl pop at the time, it seemed positively ballsy) and it even found a niche market in heavy metal clubs - my skater girlfriend of the time amorously taped me their album, which took up pride of place in her collection alongside Rancid and Deftones. The album spawned four more hits before they stepped out of the limelight for a couple of years, only to reappear with mediocre sophmore record 'This time around' (note subtle reference to musical progression in title) - it gave them one instantly forgettable top 20 hit and then sank without a trace. However, a 2005 revamp saw them return to the top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic with the more composed 'Penny and me', and they now eke out an existence as full-fledged popaholics in adult American chartland. As if this didn't emphasise their eminent rise to manhood enough, all three are now married and squeaky voiced vocalist Taylor has THREE FUCKING KIDS. Expect second-generation synthetic chipmunkery in the charts as soon as these nippers can be kept in a recording studio long enough to lay down a single without one of them puking on the mixing desk.


Years active : 1998-2000

Biggest hit(s) : 'Cleopatra's Theme' (#3 1998)

File under : Big-mouthed teen R'n'B goblins in black lipstick

Manchester's Moss Side area, previously well-known for guns, crack and unprovoked street murders, managed to provide itself with a more respectable export in the form of three-girl pop rocket Cleopatra, a black sister act who managed to claw a few chart placings doing thunderous kiddie-pop in the late 90s. Drawing for the same strain of British urban music that brought Eternal to the fore, their music was less self-righteously nauseating than the aforementioned act and they were perhaps more of a black alternative to the bonkers toddler pop being primed by the likes of B*witched around the same time. They were fronted by pint-sized singer Cleo who handled most of the high-pitched vocals, whilst her two sisters lurked in the background like a couple of prop forwards with voodoo make-up and curly black wigs.

Self-referential debut 'Cleopatra's Theme' (featuring the somewhat intimidating refrain 'Cleopatra! Comin' Atcha!') crashlanded the top five in 1998, swiftly followed by the less endearing heal-the-world pity anthem 'Life ain't easy' and their nutso cover of the Jacksons' 'I want you back', in which their 15-year old female vocalist managed to sound more like a bloke than Michael Jackson did singing the original. The next track stalled in the mid-20s and their debut album crawled inside the top 20, but that was as far as it went chart-wise. They blossomed Stateside after their initial wave of UK success and netted a TV show and a record deal with Madonna's label, but their appeal seemed better suited to cheesy family-based TV comedy than the world of the pop charts and they haven't been back on the airwaves since summer 2000.


Years active : 1998-2000

Biggest hit(s) : 'Because we want to', 'Girlfriend' (both #1 1998), 'Day and night' (# 1 2000)

File under : Buck-toothed Swindon jailbait still reeling from ginger paedo-trauma

Primed for fame by the Sylvia Young stage school from an early age, the goofy youngster from Swindon netted a lucrative spot on an ad campagin for Smash Hits magazine in her teens and was soon groomed for a pop career - she was given a record deal at age 15 and in 1998 she became the youngest female to top the UK charts with her infuriatingly squeaky debut 'Because we want to'. Her pop career stayed buoyant for another couple of years before she hit burnout and went into celebrity marriages, airport biographies and a second career as an actress.

Billie's debut was perhaps a stroke of clever marketing in that it perfectly captured the irritating obstinence of recalcitrant kiddies refusing to go to bed early - however, it also stands as proof of why the aforementioned age bracket should be prevented from contributing to the outcome of the pop charts (if they're gonna buy stuff this fucking awful, why let them buy anything at all? Send the little bastards up the chimney I say!). Follow-up 'Girlfriend' also went to #1, and her next two singles also broke the top five whilst parent album 'Honey to the B' notched up moderate sales. Oafish Radio 1 personality Chris Moyles later used the title track to test new chart regulations in early 2007 to see if literally any track could chart as a download if backed with an appropriate publicity campaign. When the single re-appeared briefly at #17 and then vanished again, the only theory strengthened by the whole exercise was that nobody gives a toss what that witless fucking lardball thinks about anything.

Back to Billie though - whilst her records where flying off the shelves, the youngster found herself faced with a somewhat venomous backlash : first from the rock-based music press who poured scorn on her records, then from teenage girls who disapproved of her fingers & tops relationship with Richie from 5ive and booed her offstage at the Smash Hits party. She found consolation in the arms of another eminently punchable radio personality, this time a ginger egomaniac skidmark of a human being by the name of Chris Evans who she encountered whilst promoting her second album. The record showcased a departure from her kiddie-pop roots and attempted a transition to more mature R'n'B - surprisingly, it gave her a third #1 when 'Day and Night' topped the charts in 2000, but future releases began to chart lower and lower, and she hit the skids good and proper when her frantic touring and bacchanalian relationship with Evans left her physically wrecked to the point that she was admitted to hospital pissing blood (Cool! How come we never saw that in her videos?). Bereft of hit singles, fucked on diet pills and vodka and trapped in wedlock to a ginger twat 16 years her senior, the future looked bleak for Billie as she moved into womanhood.

Happy endings are what TV is all about though - once she'd cleaned herself up and dumped Evans, the BBC granted her a reprieve from showbiz obscurity and she netted the role of Dr Who's assistant on primetime British telly. Since then, she's managed to bag a number of albeit second-tier acting roles in film and TV and dropped a tell-all biography aged 24 detailing her troubled youth. Moyles' chart-rigging antics aside, we probably won't see her back in charts anytime soon and for that we can probably all be grateful, not least of all Billie herself.

Worlds Apart

Years active : 1993-94 then a late 90s comeback in Europe

Biggest hit(s) : 'Could it be I'm falling in love?' (#15 1994)

File under : Proof that shitty music exists all over the planet

A short-lived boyband project in the early 90s, Worlds Apart were supposed to be a new twist on the formula by incorporating members from various different countries (What haven't we done already? Siblings? Racial Stereotypes? I know! Foreigners!!). A diverse selection of young bucks was duly selected, the drum machine was plugged in and the band were put through their paces doing horrific kareoke versions of the kind of cheesy soul tracks you can buy on petrol station compilation tapes for 20p. Their look reflected all that was dreadful about fashion circa 1993 - all pastel colours, stone-washed denim and ghastly Vidal Sassoon haircuts. They managed four moderate hits in the UK before dropping off the radar, but a rejiggled line-up returned to conquer Europe later on in the decade, this time switching to French as their singing language (in the same way that Aussie pin-up Tina Arena did when her career dried up in English-language territories, preferring to opt for piss-feeble French variety music in order to pay the rent). Their cover of Jean-Jacques Goldman's 'Je te donne' tore up the continental charts in 1998, but their vanilla soul reworking of French drivetime pop couldn't cross back over to the UK market and they remain a distant memory for most.

Adam Rickitt

Years active : 1999-2000

Biggest hit(s) : 'I breathe again' (#5 1999)

File under : Captain! The Gayometer's giving off some alarming signals....

When Rickitt launched himself as a day-glo gay pop icon in the late 90s, it was rumoured that his previous tenure in 'Coronation Street' was merely designed as a springboard to the pop charts in the same way as Kylie & Jason had reached mass audiences before the even released a record. It's unlikely that this was true seeing as once his pop career died on its big gay arse, Rickitt returned to the soap resumed his acting duties as if nothing had happened.

With the advent of Britney Spears' rather sinister ode to schoolgirl iniquity 'Baby one more time' in early 1999, as well as the consistent popularity of gay bar troupes such a Steps, producers of the time seemed to be thinking 'Hmm, exactly HOW crass can we make this record in order to attract attention?'. Rickitt, seemingley bereft of any serious music credentials aside from his plastic Ken-doll chest, was hastily paired with a squeaky popper-orgy synth disco soundtrack and his debut 'I breathe again' shot straight into the top five, complete with a video of the scantily-clad star writhing around in a cage. Squealing kiddies and squealing gaybar loiterers went mental and covered their walls with posters of the blond bombshell, however the momentum soon faltered and his next two singles stiffed, leaving parent album 'Good Times' languishing at the bottom of the charts. Rickitt emerged unscathed from the wreckage and now divides his time between doing panto, soap acting and campaigning for the conservative party.


Years active : 1998-2001

Biggest hit(s) : 'Finally found' (#4 1998)

File under : Three-way chart-friendly British girlie night R'n'B

Again aping the Stateside success of female vocal ensembles such as Brownstone, Zhané et al, Honeyz (note risqué urban spelling) succeeded in pimping an essentially American sound to British audiences, again helped no doubt by their willingness to play cack-arsed chartiy roadshows in faceless British cities without having to jet in from Miami. Active at the same time as fellow Londoners Another Level, Honeyz were perhaps the female counterparts of the aforementioned and enjoyed similar chart success (though the never hit #1) before fading from the limelight once the musical landscape changed around them at the turn of the decade.

More of a classy, wine-bar option that their female peers B*witched and Atomic Kitten, Honeyz capitalised on the popularity of cheesy urban soul in the late 90s (the sort you'd find on 4-CD compilations called 'Ultimate Love Unlimited Classics' advertised at 3am between Bollywood films and the James Whale show). Like Another Level, they were merely aping their US influences but again it all came together quite nicely and they racked up five consecutive top ten hits over a two-year period at the end of the decade. Whilst Another Level played up their US hip-hop connections, Honeyz drew more from that great American musical tradition of divorcee girlie-night white wine binge soundtracks - after Cher's global success 'Believe', the charts were swamped with righteous female power anthems about booting your man out and doing things your way (see also Destiny's Child 'Independant Woman', Whitney Houston's 'It's not right but it's OK' as well as Honeyz' own 'End of the line' and 'Won't take it lying down') featuring lots of hands on hips and fingers waved dismissively at the camera. Success was duly forthcoming though, and the girls remained a permanent feature in the pop charts for a good couple of years.

Frantic line-up changes destabilised the project after a while, and unlike Sugababes who later used the revolving door membership policy to their own advantage, Honeyz fell out of favour with the press because you could never tell who was in the band at any one time. A musical shift to the American market circa 2000 gave them a couple more appearances on Eddie Murphy film soundtracks, but their style soon became passé and by the time they threw out career-stopper 'Talk to the hand' in 2001, most people had wised up to how ridiculous the whole thing was. A reconstituted version of the group still exists but chances are they will remain in the pop archives.

Another Level

Years active : 1998-99

Biggest hit(s) : 'Freak me' (#1 1998)

File under : 'Stars in their Eyes' Jodeci doing cockney wine-bar slush

Another Level were perhaps slightly outside the boyband bracket due to their music having a slightly more credible edge to it (a direct result of their record label being heavily affiliated with American rap music, leading to a number of guest slots on their records by the likes of Jay-Z and Ghostface Killah), although cynics would argue their exclusion from the boyband canon was more down to the fact that all four members were pretty fucking ugly. Nevertheless, they racked up 7 top ten hits over two solid years of chart presence before splitting at the end of the decade.

The crossover success of US vocal groups such as Dru Hill highlighted a market in late 90s Britain for the sort of streetwise R'n'B that had already blown up Stateside - in contrast to persil-washed Nickelodeon muppets like N-SYNC, the wave of black R'n'B combos such as Next, Immature and (earlier on) the mighty Jodeci showcased a slightly more dangerous take on the formula where the music was slightly roughed up and the band members didn't look like complete pussies. However, we Brits are insular by nature especially when it comes to music so instead of buying into the original acts, we had to have a London stage-school version reproduce the sound for us (with added multicultural membership to make the transition to the UK's pop charts all the more smooth). The formula worked, and Another Level broke the top ten with their very first single 'Be alone no more', proceeding to top the charts with their follow-up 'Freak me' - another example of direct musical piracy from the US, the song having been an American #1 for the band Silk who never managed to export the track across the Atlantic. The cover wasn't that bad, it just sounded a bit weird coming from the mouths of four cockney wideboys - could you really imagine Dane Bowers sliding up to someone in a club and persuading her to come home with him so he could 'get freaky' with her? I think not.

Later hits included Notting Hill ballad 'From the heart', a close shave with a second #1 with Ghostface Killah duet 'I want you for myself' and further Stateside reproduction in dancefloor hits 'Bomb Diggy' and 'Summertime'. Despite the somewhat cheeky thievery from their US influences, the band's sound wasn't half bad and their singles have dated surprisingly well compared to those of their peers in the late 90s. They split after second outing 'Nexus' and Dane Bowers managed to knock himself up a couple more hits doing guest vocals on singles scaling the charts as part of the UK Garage movement at the turn of the decade (most notably on garish electronic Posh Spice duet 'Out of your mind', kept off #1 only by Sophie Ellis Bextor's sublime 'Groovejet'). The other three disappeared and so too did Dane, unable to find another bandwagon to jump on once everyone got sick of his hideously-overproduced Top Shop dance numbers. He attempted a return as part of überboyband Upper Street in 2005, but I don't need to tell you how successful that was....

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Boy/Girlband Purgatory - Part Three

Dannii Minogue

Years active : 1991-present

Biggest hit(s) : 'I begin to wonder' (#2 2003)

File under : Diet-Kylie on fifteen-year pop sinecure

Drafted in to flesh out the post-Kylie ranks of Aussie soap stars turned singers, Dannii's pop lineage (along with her Home & Away acting job) practically guaranteed her a record deal in the early 90s regardless of whether or not she was actually any good. A clutch of hit singles ensued and her late start in the game meant that she was still charting when Kylie & Jason had already begun to slide off the map, but her pop career stalled in the mid 90s and she had to go through several clubland reinventions in order to maintain chart success.

Kylie's kid sister broke on to the pop market in her homeland with her debut in 1989 (titled with her awkwardly-spelt first name, adapted from the original Danielle to make it sound more 'hip') but it didn't make it to the UK and much of the original Aussie soap fever had died down by the time her second album 'Love and kisses' hit the British charts in 1991. The title track hit #8 and has to rank amongst the worst pop records of all time - you got the impression that her producers threw the thing together in the pub ten minutes before they recorded it, but by the time it came out the charts had been so totally steamrolled by SAW production line pop that people just rolled over and bought it because they were expected to. She reached the same position with 'Jump to the beat' the same year and scored a third top ten hit in 1993 with a hideous cover of summertime disco classic 'This is it', but by the time her third album 'Get into you' surfaced later that year it was obvious that she was also on the way out.

Past her early 90s peak, the younger Minogue successfully tapped the Japanese pop chart in 1995 with some tunes she didn't even release in the rest of the world (so I can imagine the music sucked but the videos were filled with enough kitsch-erotica to keep the kareoke parlours full) and later resurfaced in 1997 with 'All I wanna do', a club-friendly dancefloor number about how all she wanted was a good seeing-to. It hit #4 and the accompanying album 'Girl' successfully rebranded her as a clubland icon, although it took until after the millennium for her status as rent-a-vocalist for travelling DJs to become firmly established. Since 2000 her club collaborations have given her five more top ten hits, peaking in 2003 with 'I begin to wonder' which took her to #2, and nowadays she spends her time playing gay clubs and squeaking in the press about a number of worthy causes ranging from domestic violence to the National Front. Her second fiddle status to her elder sister is unlikely to change, but to her credit she's managed to stay in the music business for a decade and a half without resorting to reality TV or crummy nostalgia.

Jason Donovan

Years active : 1988-1993

Biggest hit(s) : 4 #1 singles between 1988-1991

File under : Living proof that coke abuse makes your mullet fall off

Pimped by Stock Aitken Waterman stable in the late 80s as Ken to Kylie's Barbie, Jason Donovan was equally as successful as his female counterpart but once the limelight faded he ended up forever stuck in the realm of gaylord West End musicals whilst Kylie was repackaged over the course of the next decade to ultimately regain chart success at the turn of the millennium. His early tunes were pretty much the same kind of SAW studio-produced garbage that swamped the upper reaches of the charts in the late 80s, but his clean-cut looks and teatime TV pedigree made him more successful than his rivals and for a few years around the turn of the decade he was arguably the biggest teen idol in the business. 'Kylie & Jason' became synonymous with teenie-pop as a market product, but were universally loathed by the rest of the music world due to the fact that they were basically just crummy soap actors lip-synching to unlistenable production-line pop that Pete Waterman put together on a computer while waiting for his next royalty cheque to arrive.

Donovan's debut 'Nothing can divide us' broke the top ten in 1988 but before too long his producers had the brainwave of pairing him up with Kylie on 'Especially for you', a romantic duet in which the two soap stars offer a serenade to one another over a suitably slushy musical backdrop. It put them at #1 in late '88 and was one of the biggest singles of that year, but has perhaps lost some of its power as the years have gone by - the piss-thin SAW production, toe-curlingly trite lyrics and vocals that sound like a bad high school 'Grease' performance give the tune all the romantic appeal of a butcher's dustbin. Nevertheless, the duo became pop's king and queen and Jason nailed two more solo #1 hits the following year (pop-rock turd 'Too many broken hearts' and naff 60's cover 'Sealed with a kiss') whilst his debut album 'Ten good reasons' outsold all other records that year - up against a backdrop of Jive Bunny, Fine Young Cannibals, Simply Red and the rest of the Neighbours cast, that should give you an idea of how music popular music in the UK fucking sucked before the 90s kicked in properly.

The hits continued into 1990, and Jason took up full residence in that graveyard for musical creativity, the West End musical circuit. He managed to top even his past output in terms of music so irritating that it saps your will to live with his version of Lloyd Webber's 'Any dream will do', which gave him his final chart topper in 1991 and the successfully launched the stage version of the musical with him as Joseph and his technical underpants or whatever the fuck it was all about. However, the road between the pop charts and smug insipid West End musicals is strictly one-way - once you've sold your soul to the devil (because we all know that smarmy little fuckstreak Andrew Lloyd Webber is in league with Satan) you can fucking well abandon all hope of getting your music back into the charts. Jason had one more post-Joseph top ten hit then fell off the radar, hastened no doubt by his risible lawsuit against 'The Face' magazine who had insinuated in one of their articles that the star took it up the shitter. Donovan went to great lengths to prove that they were LIARS!!! - he won his courtcase, but presumably a lot of his fanbase began to wonder 'what the fuck is he so upset about??' and he fell out of favour with the mainstream media. His final two singles peaked in the mid-20s in late 1992 and his third and final album 'All around the world' stiffed at #27 early the following year. Donovan was officially dead as a pop music commodity.

Post-fame years have kept the Aussie chancer pimping his talents on the West End circuit and popping up in a variety of crappy acting roles - his transformation from fresh-faced surfing beau to scowling Soho taxi driver was hastened by an unfortunate bout of psoriasis along with a raging coke habit that he later admitted to in interviews. Celebrity reality telly picked him up along with dozens of other has-beens a couple of years back, but a full pop comeback looks pretty unlikely anytime soon.

North & South

Years active : 1997-98

Biggest hit(s) : 'I'm a man not a boy' (#7 1997)

File under :
Toothless BBC-backed pop wimps playing 'real instruments'

Another Tom Watkins pop project, North and South had the running advantage of having their own kids TV show 'No Sweat' on which they performed songs in their acting roles and then released the recorded output to the general public as a 'proper' band. A good idea on paper, it ultimately failed due to the aura of persil-washed BBC lameness attached to the group and the fact that no amount of gimmicks could hide how shoddy their music was. The four members (who, to their credit were actually playing the music on their records) featured a specky, intellectual one, a short, green-haired cute one who played easy stuff on guitar and two buff model types with enormous chins. Their debut 'I'm a man not a boy' (mirroring Chesney Hawkes' flop of the same name in its focus on a somewhat flawed argument) went top ten in 1997 but follow-up 'Tarantino's new star' attempted to cleverly weave in modern culture references to disastrous results - it stalled at #18 and they had two more low-level chart hits before disappearing along with their TV show. The later success of S Club 7 probably made them feel even worse, and Watkins was surely left wondering why he didn't fully exploit the TV link by recruiting a batch of mixed-gender spunk puppets rather than four boy scouts doing music A-level.


Years active : 1995-96

Biggest hit(s) : 'I've got a little something for you' (#4 1995)

File under : Randy automechanics doing US-influenced crotch pop

Thrown together to cash in on the success of black American vocal groups such as Jodeci and Blackstreet, MN8 were a London-based alternative to American sleaze-pop with the added bonus that they'd appear on Saturday morning TV without having to jet in from New York or somewhere like that. Their music lacked the full-blown gospel pomp and circumstance of their Yank influences, but they were quite good at dancing and spouting suggestive lyrics to innocent TV audiences. Their raucous debut 'I've got a little something for you' stormed the charts in early 1995 and their ensuing appearance on Top of the Pops sent home counties parents into a froth of discontent over their stage moves (which basically involved thrusting their tackle at the front row whilst chanting the song's title). Their somewhat risqué image and impressive 'ethnic' credentials made them the darlings of the music press (even the indie papers) for a brief spell, and they clocked up two more top ten hits before the year was out but sadly neither of them retained any of the menace of their debut and instead plumped for bog-standard boyband soul-pop. They attempted to return to their roles as funky penile mercenaries with a second album in '96 but by that point people had already forgotten about them - however, their debut was recycled on numerous later occasions as the 'nasty' track in the repertoire of many a boyband (Backstreet Boys with 'We got it going on', 911 with 'Bodyshakin' etc) so their mark on teeny pop must be given its dues in the correct context.


Years active : 1997-2001

Biggest hit(s) : 'Keep on movin' (#1 1999), 'We will rock you

(featuring Queen)' (#1 2000), 'Let's dance' (#1 2001)

File under : The Macc Lads repackaged for your 11-year old sister

Thrown onto the market to immediate success as a 'boyband with attitude and edge' by the same managers that had previous launched the Spice Girls, 5ive were perhaps the first boyband it was OK to like if you weren't gay - though they did a couple of ballads, their music was rooted more in loud, dancefloor friendly anthems and more than a couple of nods towards rock music (as well as some highly comical attempts at rapping). When they appeared in the late 90s the charts were so totally saturated with androgynous choirboys doing slushy sentimental crap that it was quite a relief to see a boyband composed of the sort of blokes you'd generally cross the street to avoid on a night out.

A search for members was launched via a London-based performing arts magazine, though as this was pre-Pop Idol they neglected to show the process on TV (shame, I would have loved to see the kind of drooling fuckwits they turned away judging by the guys who actually made the final cut) and the band got their major launch at the 1997 Smash Hits poll winners party where they performed debut release 'Slam dunk da funk', which their token beefcake J then ordered the crowd to go out and buy the next day in a thick Yorkshire accent from the stage. It worked - the single went top ten and sparked off a string of hits from their first record which itself topped the charts the following year. Indeed, the Smash Hits party became somewhat of a key event for the band - they later used their appearance as an opportunity to diss rivals Westlife by starting their act as white-suited crooners only to abruptly stop, rip the suits off and launch into a much louder, aggressive dance number dressed in their 'street' togs. Whilst such a jest was hardly going to shake the foundations of pop music, it still marked the distinct gap between the group's raucous US-influenced ladpop and the doe-eyed sentimentality of pussies like Westlife.

Next single 'When the lights go out' went top five and even broke the US charts, summertime dance-routine stomper 'Got the feelin' went one place better and their next three singles all peaked at #2 before 1999's 'Keep on movin' finally gave them a chart-topper. The single also provided one of the band's many links to mainstream rock music when Terrorvision began covering it as part of their encore, and mosh clubs also incorporated the Joan-Jett sampling 'Everybody get up' into their repertoire (5ive's version was infinitely better despite the shitty lyrics - once the identical intro comes over the speakers, you're actually disappointed if it turns out to be the original instead of their version). Band member Richie also admitted to a teenage love of grunge - apparently his previous musical project before 5ive was a rock ensemble by the name of 'Anal Beard', a fact revealed during a phone-in on 'Richard and Judy' when a young female fan correctly answered a question on his musical past. The rock link was again exploited when Brian May (presumably chuffed that a bunch of 19-year old twokkers would even listen to his music, let alone ask to cover it) agreed to duet with the group on a reworking of Queen's dancefloor stomper 'We will rock you' in 2000 and the group notched up a second #1, adding a third a year later with 'Let's Dance'. By this point, the joke was starting to wear thin and the band members were beginning to revive their previous pastimes of drinking and fighting during nights off on tour, so it was decided that time would be called on 5ive in September 2001.

Since the split, 'Abs' went solo and nailed three top ten hits before folding, Richie and Sean had similar ideas but changed their minds before exposing their work to the general public, Scott went into local radio and stage musicals and J dated Mel C from the Spice Girls for a bit before blethering on about wanting to kill himself in interviews and then disappearing from the public eye completely. At present, all the band members except Sean (who now has a solo record deal doing Jamie Cullum style piano jazz in wine bars) are preparing a comeback, though they haven't confirmed whether they are going to carry on with the same name despite the fact that there's only 4our of them now....

Bad Boys Inc

Years active : 1993-94

Biggest hit(s) : 'More to this world' (#8 1994)

File under : Helium-inflated showponies whinnying to gay disco kitsch

The post New Kids period brought forward a whole wave of new British boybands in the first half of the decade, and whilst Take That and East 17 hogged most of the limelight, Bad Boys Inc were a worthy prospect in their own right - louder, tackier and gayer looking than the aforementioned scene leaders, they put out a rush of squeaky voiced gaybar classics over the course of twelve months and then promptly fell off the map. Thrown together in a hasty fashion to capitalise on the new wave of teeny pop success, the group were touted round high schools and nightclubs before being thrust into the top twenty with their debut 'Don't talk about love' in the summer of 1993 and proceeded to chalk up a total of six top 40 hits over the next year. Their appeal was based on their management's decision to turn everything up to full - more cheesy dance routines, more camp vocal stylings, more blanket coverage in the pop press, and whilst their music was pretty trashy it was at least a quick-burning thrill and they'd left the scene before anyone had the time to get sick of them. Former member David W. Ross later became an actor and starred in last year's awesome 'Quinceañera/Echo Park LA' (check IMDB if you don't believe me) and has been perhaps the sole example of a teeny pop veteran not basing his entire later career on the novelty that he can do something other than bounce around stage lip-synching to shitty music - I take my hat off to him for that.

New Kids on the Block

Years active : 1986-1994

Biggest hit(s) : 'You got it (the right stuff)' (#1 1989), 'Hangin' Tough' (#1 1990)

File under : Boston boneheads turned pan-global sales device

Whilst Kylie & Jason and their Stock Aitken Waterman brethren were more instrumental in changing the face of pop in terms of the British/Australian side of the market, the template for the decade's teeny pop troupes came from across the Atlantic. The formula didn't work straight away - the group took two albums to break the Stateside charts and didn't cross over to the UK until even later, but by the time the new decade was upon us they were pretty much impossible to avoid. Their spell at the top was only about 18 months, but that period pretty much overhauled the way teeny pop was put together and marketed to the extent that every boy/girlband that appeared in their wake knew from their experience that the right balance of pop ingredients could lead to total worldwide domination (even if your music sucked ass).

In a rare example of reverse exploitation, the group was put together by black music mogul Maurice Starr who had previously pruned New Edition for chart success and who was looking to tap the white shopping mall pop market with a new group composed of white boys. This was back when Tiffany and Debbie Gibson had lain waste to the US pop charts with their brand of anaethetised slumber-party pop, but Starr was looking for something with a bit more bite - he assembled a group of five brats from Boston and set them to work learning to breakdance, rap and generally mimic the moves of the black hip-hop acts of the time in order to lend the project a little more street-savvy attitude and tailor the end product to teenage girls looking for something a bit more beefy to bounce around their bedroom to.

The band members were recruited when they were still in their early teens (presumably to make them less likely to mouth off about working long hours for no money, whilst also getting them cheaper airline seats for the tour) and the fresh-faced little fuckers threw out a debut album of gacky vanilla soul in 1986 but it failed to gain much recognition. They kept on touring and sophmore release 'Hangin' Tough' portrayed more mature sound : that of a group of teenage boys on the cusp of manhood, cocky and dynamic and fresh from the formative experience of their first wank. Lead single 'You got it (the right stuff)' broke Stateside in '88 and conquered the UK a year later, and before anyone knew what hit them the band were everywhere you looked. Their attraction lay in the tightly-choreographed stage routines and imitation hip-hop swagger, but also in the configuration of the group : NKOTB were perhaps the act that launched the concept of boy/girlbands having a member to suit the taste of every listener, showing essentially five spins on the same formula but enhancing the personality traits so that each fan could pick his (but more likely her) favourite. The five members were marketed individually to refine their stage personas, which became a blueprint for future teeny pop acts - you had the thick-yet-attractive shampoo model singing lead (Jordan), the musclebound lummox with a hearty supply of 'bad-boy attitude' (Donny), the doe-eyed cute one who sent girls into fits of pre-pubescent poster-kissing (Joey), the quiet reflective (read : GAY) one with a permanent sheepish grin (John) and the butt-ugly mutant with a head shaped like a breadbin who only got into the band cos he could do backflips (Danny). Variations on this formula would crop up in pretty much every girl/boyband for the remainder of the decade, aimed at launching an endless line of cut-out-and-keep memorabilia to place in the shrine of your favourite teenypop beauty - they also proved that it was no obstacle having five guys singing and none of them going anywhere near a musical instrument. Hey presto! The all-singing all-dancing glossy boyband-as-entertainment-superproduct!

Of course, NKOTB owed a lot to the US tradition of multi-part vocal groups too, but the difference in their promotion was that their music was relentlessly targeted towards a fanbase composed entirely of pre-pubsecent girls - literally nobody else would have dared buy one of their records for fear of looking like a total pussy. The strategy worked though, and whilst their hit singles flew off the shelves, every conceivable product from lunchboxes to underpants was branded with their logo and flogged to giddy completists whose sole aim in life seemed to be to fill their home with as much of the shit as possible. Chartwise they conquered the States with the singles taken from 'Hangin' Tough' in 1988/1989 and took the UK by storm about a year later - once 'The Right Stuff' began their chart domination in November '89, they racked up an astonishing 8 consecutive top ten hits over the next twelve months, including a second #1 with the track 'Hangin' Tough' (also the first new number one of the decade) and the backlog of unreleased singles from their successful Stateside campaign meant that their producers could carpet-bomb the UK charts with new material and keep them in the public eye as much as humanly possible.

It was never going to last forever though - 1991 brought them just three more hit singles (two of which fell just short of the top ten) and by that point they had saturated the market to such an extent that even Smash Hits couldn't wait for them to fuck off and leave us all alone. Once a new generation of boybands (Take That, East 17 etc) cropped up in 1992, not only were the New Kids abandoned by their former fans but they were chased out of the public eye with the kind of venom previously unheard of in pop music - the previous unconditional love for the band had evaporated, and everyone (teenypop fans included) wanted them out of the picture for good. An ill-fated image change ensued and their final album 'Face the music' must stand as one of the lamest attempts at a comeback in music history. They finally bit the big one in '94 amid little fanfare.

Since the heady days of their success, Jordan is the only one to have returned to the pop charts (with 'Give it to you', #5 1999) and is currently still recording sickly love songs in the US, whilst John went into real estate, Joey did some chat shows and broadway stuff, Danny went into music production and briefly resurfaced in failed superboyband Upper Street and Donny copied his kid brother Mark by going into acting (although whilst Mark is admittedly a good actor and a bad pop star, Donny still doesn't seem to have found his true calling in life and is fucking crap at everything). These days, you can never rule out a reunion - marketing men with throw cash at pretty much anything right now - but it would probably be a bad idea. Whilst the NKOTB marketing phenomenon made pop music history, their records themselves have been largely forgotten - you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who can remember more than a couple of their songs, and even if they can the memory would be promptly coupled with a reflection along the lines of 'My God! What a load of old shite that was!!'.


Years active : 1999-2002

Biggest hit(s) : 'Take on me', 'Same old brand new you' (both #1 2000)

File under : I'd rather listen to the fucking motorway

Probably the crappest name ever chosen for a boyband (presumably because they'd come up first in lists sorted by alphabetical order, like that was ever a mark for quality control), A1 stormed onto the pop scene in summer 1999 with their sparkling debut 'Be the first to believe', a bouncy dancefloor stonker complete with a video of the band pinging around on jet-skis in the Bahamas. It went straight into the top ten and hi-NRG follow-up 'Summetime of our lives' repeated the feat later in the year, whilst third single 'Everytime' took them to #3 before mawkish ballad 'Like a rose' spoiled all the fun and turned everything soppy. The tacky pop of their debut album was then sidetracked to make room for more commercial propositions - namely, covering 80s pop standards for a quick buck. It being the new millenium, the forward looking nature of the time had prompted record producers to grave-rob the archives of 80s pop and it was decided that A-ha's classic 'Take on me' was in need of a bleepy reworking and an accompanying dance routine that robbed the original of all of its magic (in much the same way that Atomic Kitten's butchering of 'Eternal Flame' did around the same time). The trick worked and the band crashlanded at the top of the charts (even beating the chart placing of the original which stalled at #2 on its release in 1985) and they bagged another #1 a few weeks later with 'Same old brand new you' although it plummeted out of the charts 'Bring your daughter to the slaughter' style shortly afterwards. Their fertile season in the summer of 2000 brought the band to the top of the teeny pop tree and former choirboy Ben Adams became one of the most popular pin-ups of the time (the others, a block-headed Norwegian called Christian and two nondescript gimps who looked like the sort of people you'd like to beat up for no reason, were significantly less present in their press shots). They managed two more top ten hits but their later material tried to push them more into the realms of radio-friendly pop-rock to lesser success (they even tried to tap the European market with foreign language remakes of their singles) and they dropped off the radar in 2002. Ben broke the top twenty as a solo artist in 2005, Christian went back to greater success in his homeland (Norwegians probably have a higher pain threshold than we Brits) and the other two probably work the nightshift at Lidl these days for all we know.

No Mercy

Years active : 1997

Biggest hit(s) : 'Where do you go?' (#2 1997)

File under : Lecherous border-jumpers in oversized sportswear

Cobbled together by cretinous kraut Frank Farian (also responsible for Boney M, Milli Vanilli and a host of other musical atrocities), these three donuts looked like they should have been serving cocktails in some Miami porn parlour but miraculously they landed a record deal in the mid 90s and managed to clock up a couple of hits before they sank without a trace. Farian, famous for perpetuating the colonial European mindset of exploiting ethnic minorities and picking up the cheque afterwards, wanted to launch a Latino pop troup with teen appeal so he recruited some dude who could play Spanish guitar and sing and stuck him between two twin brothers in sports jackets who made suggestive interjections about 'my lovely' in the style of Manny from Scarface when he does that thing with his tongue. Their debut single 'Where do you go?' came out in early 1997 and spent ages at #2 whilst various other records leapfrogged it to land at the top, although it outsold most of the year's chart toppers overall. Soundalike follow-up 'Please don't go' hit #4 later the same year and they had one more moderate hit before getting deported by the taste police for good.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Boy/Girlband Purgatory - Part Two

Take That

Years active : 1991-1996, reunion in 2006 minus the annoying one

Biggest hit(s) : 8 #1 singles between 1993-1996 then two more post-reunion

File under : Canal street fitness instructors after your pocket money

Without a doubt the quintessential 90s boyband, Take That rose to a level of nationwide teenypop notoriety previously unheard of in the UK - their British predecessors (Wham!, Duran Duran, Bros) may have sent adolescent females into fits of wonderlust in their time but none of them could compare with the Manc quintet's all-out domination on the UK pop market in their heyday. The advent of all-singing, all-dancing production-line boybands came with New Kids on the Block at the turn of the decade, and once they had sown their seed to worldwide success it became clear that Britain needed its own equivalent. Copying the Yanks would have been pointless - the shopping mall friendly Vanilla soul-pop of NKOTB was rooted in American musical history (ie tapping black culture for the latest trends and then producing a castrated white-boy version that parents can buy for their 12 year-old daughter without fear of too many references to penetrative sex) but we Brits needed a down-to-earth reproduction with an aura of homegrown crappiness that we could all relate to.

The void was duly filled in the early 90s by manager Nigel Martin-Smith, whose research scouting the North West for suitable specimens unearthed Curtis Rush (AKA Gary Barlow), an ambitious youngster who had been plying his trade doing Opportunity Knocks-style soul covers on the Northern social club circuit and was looking to make it big. The rest of the band was fleshed out with body-popping nobodies who gladly left their illustrious careers as painter/decorators (Howard & Jason), child modelling (Mark) and doing fuck-all in Stoke (Robbie) to conquer the pop charts. As it has been widely documented, their early releases were jaw-droppingly tacky plastic bondage pop targeted at Canal Street's rutting shop regulars - unsurprisingly, they didn't crack the mainstream until they cleaned it up a bit and started to tickle the lower reaches of the top 40 in late 1991. Their breakthrough was a fitness-club revamp of Tavares' 'It only takes a minute' which cracked the top ten in summer '92, setting things in motion for the emergent success of their debut album 'Take That and Party' - the record spawned no less than six hit singles and stayed in the charts for ages (although it never peaked higher than #2). The group's early period is fondly remembered, and they successfully embraced media attention that portrayed them as cheeky chappy Northerners clearly chuffed to be plying their trade outside sticky-floored gay bars at long last. Their debut also gave us the cheesy-yet-lovable Barlow ballad 'A million love songs' (#7 1992) as well as their manic dancefloor cover of Barry Manilow's 'Could it be magic?' (#3 1992) featuring Robbie's first lead vocal, but that was small beef compared to what would follow.

The following year brought about what would become a rite of passage for future boybands : the 'grown up' second record featuring the band clad in spotless linen in an attempt to drag their sound out of the gutter and emulate more 'serious' soul/R'n'B artists (the reality was that their manager noticed the band members had started shaving and decided that their music would pull in more teenage girls if they stopped sounded like the soundtrack to a VHS fitness routine to 'firm up those flabby thighs for the bikini season'). Consequently, next release 'Why can't I wake up with you?' drew on R.Kelly's sleazy R'n'B pop as its inspiration and featured the band members yearning for companionship after a night of thoroughly heterosexual lurve-making - it stalled at #2 whilst Mariah Carey bored us with her spunk-gargling cover of 'Without you' but follow-up 'Pray' hit the top and began their string of #1 hits in summer 1993 - they added two more before the end of the year with discotastic Lulu duet 'Relight my fire' and anaemic ballad 'Babe' (featuring Mark Owen's only lead vocal) which ultimately missed out on Xmas #1 due to the unexpected event of something even worse coming along in the form of Mister fucking Blobby. The Robbie-led 'Everything changes' gave them a 4th #1 in 1994 and the album of the same name sold by the truckload (although its final cut 'Love ain't here anymore' stalled at #3, breaking their chain of what would otherwise be ten consecutive chart toppers).

By this stage, Take That were so ridiculously fucking popular that Gary Barlow jested in an interview that even a recording of the band members belching would top the charts upon release - he wasn't far off proving his point when the fuck-awful R'n'B clatter of 'Sure' returned them to #1 in late '94, complete with a 'raunchy' stage routine that harked back to their earlier tours in Manchester sausage factories, and the tour maintained their omnipresence whilst the third album was being put together. This was round about the time that Oasis had risen to global success with 'Morning Glory', prompting a return to guitar-based pop in the mainstream charts and Barlow again read the times correctly before churning out the bland-yet-bankable comeback single 'Back for good' which became their biggest hit in 1995 (interesting, Oasis' first #1 'Some might say' replaced it at the top) and saw them suddenly taken that bit more seriously in the increasingly cynical climate of mid-90s Britain flushed with the emergence of Britpop and self-important notions of 'Cool Britannia'. Meatloaf's sidekick Jim Steinman produced their suitably stadium-sized follow-up 'Never Forget' which hit the top later that year, but by that point Robbie had started hanging out at Glastonbury in a fisherman's hat whilst swigging off tins of Stella with 'real rock stars' - he abruptly announced that he'd had enough of boybands and quit the group in July 1995. The others carried on for a bit, nailing an 8th chart-topper with a cover of 'How deep is your love?' but by then even they had seen the grim reaper of pop success sharpening his scythe, and the accompanying video saw the remaining band members kidnapped and murdered by an ashed-faced blond female in runny make-up. The good ship Take That officially sank in early 1996, prompting phone lines to open offering consolation to fans acting like the fucking Pope had just died or something (interestingly, the 'nation mourns' phenomenon would repeat itself 18 months later after a Paris car-crash, by which time the market value of such all-encompassing soppiness had been calculated by every media slimebag looking to make some quick money selling souvenirs).

Robbie's premature exit Judas-style was crowed about in the press as a rather crafty move, as it set him up for his much-applauded return from the brink after a few months clattering around like an 18-stone Oasis roadie doing fuck-awful George Michael covers - I can't even be arsed listing his solo hits here, but let's just saw that there isn't one of them that I can bear listening to without taking the radio and jumping up and down on it until his excruciatingly irritating voice dies out slowly amongst the hiss of electrical components slowly collapsing into a shell of shattered plastic. I always thought Gary lost out when the band split seeing as he was the only one with anything you might loosely term musical talent, although it's unfortunate that he put his skills into practice making turgid Michael Bolton B-sides on his debut 'Open Road', which actually topped the album charts and gave him two solo #1 singles before Robbie got off the boards as a solo artist. Williams' runaway success since the demise of Take That chimed in nicely with post-modern British culture - it somehow became awfully clever to like him, as if there was something terribly profound about a jumped-up variety performer doing crap impressions of Oasis ('Old before I die'), Sean Connery ('Millenium'), Ian Dury ('Rock DJ'), Frank Sinatra (the entire 'Swing when you're winning' album), or the kind of pub carpark kareoke ('Angels') that makes you yearn for the oncoming nuclear apocalypse just so you NEVER EVER EVER HAVE TO LISTEN TO THAT LOATHSOME FUCKING GARBAGE EVER AGAIN. I don't care if his clever bugger lyrics tap into the zeitgeist of Blairite Britain or whatever you want to say in his defence, Robbie Williams is an irritating c*nt and I would rather bang nails into my fucking head that listen to any of his shitty fucking music.

Anyway, there is a happy ending to this tale.....After Gary's solo career faded in the late 90s and he went behind the scenes to write songs for younger, better looking pop artists, Mark notched up two #3 hits in the aftermath of the band's break-up before vanishing for several years only to reappear on (you've guessed it) 'Celebrity Big Brother' in 2002 and return to the top five. His records made amusing attempts to reference his status as a teen icon turned serious musician ('I am what I am', 'Child', 'How the mighty fall' etc) but couldn't hide the fact that his music sucked donkey dick. Howard & Jason (who were always wallpaper as far as the band were concerned) went into DJing and acting to no earth-shattering levels of success, but as the years went by it became more and more obvious that a rising tide of 90s nostalgia would make for the ideal context for Take That to return from the grave. The marketing men got the group back together minus Robbie and originally planned to keep the comeback to a series of arena gigs playing to giddy twenty-somethings revisiting their youth - however, it soon became apparent that their previous fanbase hadn't acquired any better taste in music since their early teens and the tour romped home with such success that a new record of was produced and the newly-christened 'manband' returned to the top of the charts. As I write this, Take That are currently #1 in the UK with their 10th chart-topper whilst their album 'Beautiful World' continues to sell by the truckload, only for Robbie Williams to be left languishing at #16 with some Pet Shop Boys rip-off with wanky lyrics whilst he lies drooling in celebrity rehab on the downward tide of his solo career. Sometimes, I do find myself thinking that there is a God after all....


Years active : 1995-96

Biggest hit(s) : 'I need you' (#10 1995)

File under : Day-glo Eurovision wife-swapping experiment

By the mid-90s, experimentation with the boy/girlband template led to an increased number of mixed gender pop hybrids, aimed at enhancing the group's appeal by targeting fans of both sexes. One of the more successful attempts, Deuce, were cobbled together by former Bros manager Tom Watkins who decided to pull up some blond work experience dogsbody on photocopy detail in his office and offer her a record deal if she could rope in some mates and form a band. Wikipedia doesn't specify whether the lucky subject (lead vocalist Kelly O'Keefe) had to suck him off in the stationary cupboard as part of the deal, but I have my suspicions all the same.

I personally think that Watkins' cash would have been better invested had he marketed Deuce as a bisexual tennis-themed disco act, but in the end he plumped for the production-line aerobic Europop that was omnipresent in the charts at the time. Deuce were still above-par as a pop act though - the two girls weren't bad looking and did a nice line in matching tartan miniskirts and too much make-up, while the blokes.....well, I wasn't really paying attention. Debut release 'Call it love' hovered on the cusp on the top ten in early '95, whilst follow-up 'I need you' did slightly better on the back of a failed Eurovision bid (the TV audience went for the risible UK rap collective 'Love city groove' instead, who romped home in 10th place on the night). Awesome Eurogospel anthem 'On the Bible' gave them a hat-trick of top 20 hits, but Kelly ditched the band later that year and an attempt to launch a re-tweaked version of the group in '96 fell flat on its arse. Deuce's place in the pop archives is secure nonetheless, primarily as an example of the split gender teeny troupe format that would later be refined towards the end of the decade to reap greater dividends (Steps, S Club 7 etc) - add to that the fact that former member Lisa Armstrong married Ant from Ant & Dec last year, and you're looking at what could be an important branch in the family tree of plastic pop.

Point Break

Years active : 1999-2000

Biggest hit(s) : 'Stand tough' (#7 2000)

File under : Sadistic Geordie knuckleheads on the Byker bandwagon

Perhaps the last group to qualify as '90s pop' on this list (their debut single 'Do we rock?' broke the top 40 in October 1999), Point Break were a trio of body-popping Geordies thrust into the pop mainstream in an attempt to cash-in on their Smash Hits credentials (two of the three had previously appeared alongside Ant & Dec in Byker Grove). Their music was standard hi-NRG boyband pop tailored for robust dance routines onstage, but they couldn't maintain much in the way of success and faded out after five top 40 hits including a sole visit to the top ten. Their hasty departure from the public eye may have stemmed from an interview I once spotted in the aforementioned pop magazine where they playfully admitted to torturing small animals for a hobby (I am not making this shit up - I lost the article otherwise I would have posted it here) but the facts have been lost in the mists of pop history.
And no, they didn't have any connection with that shit surfing film with Keanu in it.

PJ & Duncan/Ant & Dec

Years active : 1993-97, then back for the 2002 World Cup

Biggest hit(s) : 'We're on the ball' (#3 2002)

File under : The Kid & Play of Whitley Bay

Originally cultivated as part of fictional dance act 'Grove Matrix' under the watchful eye of Geoff, the teenage 'Byker Grove' recruits may be better known these days as presenters on British light entertainment TV, but we shouldn't overlook their considerable contribution to popular music in the mid 90s - the duo stacked up a dozen top twenty hits over the course of three albums (most of which were admittedly pretty rubbish) and managed to successfully dump their fictional alter-egos without disappearing from the charts.

Through the eyes of those nostalgic of 90s pop culture (who will always refer to the duo as PJ & Duncan rather than by their real names), it's hard to be really nasty about these guys or their music despite the fact that it was so naff - indeed, the thoroughly Northern crapness of their records shines through to make it impossible to dislike them completely (in the same way that fellow Northern cabaret star Peter Kay can't bring himself to hate Bullseye despite its myriad faults - 'It were shit, but it were good'). Perhaps this is just Northern solidarity, or it may well be a more strategic reaction to geographical isolation from the London-based music scene - 'Well, the Fresh Prince is never gonna play a concert up here so we might as well churn out our own 10p version to cash in on the act'. Either way, the Geordie duo managed to eke out an existence making lovable yet undeniably shite pop music for a few years until they went permanently into teatime telly.

Their first two releases were direct spin-offs from their Byker Grove musical project but failed to breach the top 40, and the duo were repackaged as 'PJ & Duncan AKA' in an attempt to turn the established kiddie TV stars into chart-friendly purveyors of tinny Tyneside hip-hop. Next single 'Why me?' stalled at #27 in early 1994 but their commercial breakthrough came with the timeless classic 'Let's get ready to rhumble' which peaked at #9 later that year. Their producers had no doubt witnessed the success of fellow TV personality Will Smith and his chart-friendly pop-rap hybrid which reached an early career peak when 'Boom! Shake the room!' topped the UK charts in late 1993, so they decided to throw together a low-budget remake with the Geordie duo throwing shapes in stussy clothing and spouting the kind of unintentionally hilarious rap lyrics that suddenly made East 17 seem like a serious prospect. The track was so side-splittingly fucking crap that it became a cult success and still gets requested in clubs over a decade later, and even yours truly has to admit that it's one of the most lovable singles of the 90s - let's not forget however that when the lads were busting moves outside a power station in the video and banging on about how they were 'raw like sushi', this wasn't some kind of post-modern comment on pop culture, they were COMPLETELY FUCKING SERIOUS.

Later releases maintained a steady hit rate (twelve hits all charting between #9 and #18 over a three year period 1994-97) mixing their established 'Rhumble' rap with pop-swing ('U krazykatz'), diet-Britpop acoustics ('Shout'), 60s Monkees nostalgia ('Better watch out' and their manic cover of 'Stepping stone') and some of the worst ballads ever committed to vinyl ('Eternal love', 'Perfect'). They reverted to their real names for third album 'The cult of Ant & Dec', the title hinting at the across-the-board appeal they would later cultivate as TV presenters, and finally ditched their pop career in 1997 only to briefly re-appear for England's typically botched attempt World Cup attempt in 2002 with the biggest hit of their career, a cover of kitsch football anthem 'We're on the ball' - yet another example of them drawing success from something fundamentally rubbish. They continue to appear on British TV on what seems an everyday basis whenever I go back to the UK, and must by now rank amongst the prime knighthood candidates for services to our national heritage : 'Arise Sir Ant and Sir Dec!', 'Why aye pet, that's canny mint that is!' etc etc.


Years active : 1997-98

Biggest hit(s) : 'All out of love'(#11 1997), 'The story of love'( #11 1998)

File under : Transport café Boyzone with rickets

Successfully pimped as a post-Boyzone nuclear fall-out in the mid 90s in their native Ireland, these guys attempted to crossover to Britain later on to fairly muted success. Aside from the fact that their music was totally faceless, the band members looked like they'd been rounded up by the childcatcher and reared on white cider 'n' table scraps in some dingy basement until they were ripe for the pop charts. Their management attempted to repeat Boyzone's success in flinging out a piss-feeble Osmonds cover as their starting move, but the single ('Let me in', #12 1997) stalled just outside the top ten, a feat they proceeded to repeat with two of their next three releases. It might not have mattered in another genre, but chart placings are everything when you're working on pop territory and the urchins swiftly found themselves back in the bargain bin.

Let Loose

Years active : 1993-1996

Biggest hit(s) : 'Crazy for you' (#2 1994)

File under : Blue Peter shampoo commercial old enough to know better

Straining at the very limits of what could be termed a 'boyband', Let Loose looked more like a bunch of London session musicians who'd lost out at auditions for Simply Red's backing band and decided to ply their trade to pre-pubescent tweenies instead. Lacking any of the tacky ITV charm that their peers East 17 and Bad Boys Inc rode the wave on, these guys were thoroughbred BBC monkeyboys - all cut glass accents, finely conditioned hair and smart casual togs that made them look like models from the new season's C&A catalogue. However, they found their niche amongst the kind of dickless wimpy pop acts that 'Going Live' would champion, relieved that they'd found a band with teeny appeal who didn't spend their entire performance grappling with their willies or slobbering over the 13-year olds in the front row. Their drummer could totally spin the sticks too! Rock 'n' roll abandon or what???

Their debut single 'Crazy for you' took a couple of chart runs before it hit the bigtime, but the ghastly overproduced 'feel-good' pop/rock scudder managed to stick to the rim long enough in the summer of '94 to peak at #2 and rank amongst the year's top sellers. They managed to tail it off with another couple of top twenty hits, but the whole shebang had 'one hit wonder' painted all over it. Surprisingly, they brought out a second record two years later and returned to the top ten with a similarly porridge-like cover of Bread's 'Make it with you'. Pastel suits and ballads were lined up to prolong the agony but fortunately they couldn't hang on for much longer and the project breathed its last in late '96.

S Club 7

Years active : 1999-2003

Biggest hit(s) : 'Bring it all back' (#1 1999), 'Never had a dream come true' (# 1 2000), 'Don't stop movin', 'Have you ever' (both #1 2001)

File under : Bisexual midget gang-bang broadcast live on Children's TV

Simon Fuller, fresh from his success forcing the Spice Girls down the throats of millions of unsuspecting punters worldwide, was hungry for a new cash cow towards the end of the decade and came up with the idea of mass-marketing another teeny pop troupe (this time mixed gender) via a prime-time slot on kids' telly - standard promotional duties would not be necessary, as the viewers would be subjected to the group's musical output whilst the series unfolded and would then rush to the record stores to procure themselves a copy of the soundtrack.

Did it work? You betcha. S Club's massive success was partly due to the marketing strategy - the TV show aired a couple of weeks before the release of their debut single which duly rocketed to #1 in summer '99 - but their widespread success can also be clearly traced to the more 'adult' appeal of the group. FHM had taken to roping in pop tots for 'glamour shots' (read : wanking matter) round about this point - a practice which has since become practically commonplace for teeny pop troupes but was still relatively rare at the time - and the band's female members became as popular amongst adult males with idle hands as they were with hyperactive ankle-biters dancing in their bedroooms (apparently the TV show was especially popular in men's prisons - eeeek!). Similarly, the male members covered all the relevant bases (crewcut and muscle-strapped, ethnic and street-savvy or blond and angelic) to please the audiences looking for a meatier end-product. All in all, S Club managed to straddle the line between 'innocent' kiddie playtime pop and knowingly lascivious midget clusterfuck without being branded as shamelessly oppurtunistic. A friend of mine once commented that the TV show, with its barely surpressed sexual content and rack of persil-washed cuties bouncing around the place, was ideally configured for bisexual audiences to totally cream over. He was probably right, and few are those who didn't have some preference for the Clubber they would most like to strap to the love-machine for many an hour (my personal vote goes to Hannah, the androgynous blond dwarf with a nice arse. We were made for each other).

Ahem. We are getting slightly off track here. In musical terms, the band's debut 'Bring it all back' was the sort of über-irritating kiddie crap that made you want to throw the radio across the room but they soon diversified into faux R'n'B, gawky balladry and the kind of nauseating showpieces where they all have to fucking sing just to remind us how many people are on the stage. However, their forte remained the simply-too-happy-to-put-into-words squeakiness of singles such as 'Reach', perhaps their best known release (it stalled at #2 in 2000 but outsold most other records that year) primed with a video of the group dispensing happy vibes wherever they went - this twittering fuckstreak of a record made you want to hunt down the person responsible for foisting it onto the world and kick the bastard to death. Similarly, their mawkishly sentimental ballad for Children in Need, 'Never had a dream come true' (#1 late 2000) also made you wonder exactly how bad those kids had it for the rest of us to have to sit through such unlistenable crud just so someone would send them a cheque for some nappies. Slightly more palatable were their more dancefloor oriented releases such as the self-referential 'S Club party' (#2 1999) and latter-day disco revamp 'Don't stop movin' (#1 2001), both of which kept it short and to the point with nice videos of them all in tight trousers.

The inherent pertness of it all could only last so long, and in 2002 token beefcake Paul Cattermole decided to jump ship and reform his high-school metal band (wonder why I never heard them on the radio?). The others carried on for a few more months but it was obvious that their stock was losing value quickly - the final blow came when a younger (much younger, I mean pre-pubescent) version of the band came to prominence in 2002 and began to rival them in the chart stakes. A brief brush with the law on trumped up 'drugs charges' for the three lads couldn't win them back any credibility, and the group disbanded permanently in 2003. Since then, ladmag favourite Rachel has managed to notch herself up a few hits with the kind of music nobody would give a toss about if there wasn't a comely wench singing it, Bradley turned up briefly in barrel-scraping offcut boyband Upper Street, Tina went into chewing-gum adverts, Paul and Hannah revealed they'd been in and out of each other's underwear for most of the band's lifespan before splitting off into careers as a failed rock star and bit-part TV actress respectively, Jon went back into shitty West End musicals and Jo turned up late last year entertaining the nation on Big Brother with her brand of Bernard Manning-style racial discourse. A reunion is of course not impossible (when Rachel's solo career hits the skids once she's edging 30 and the rest of them rack up huge tax bills) but for the moment they remain preserved in eternal perkiness in the minds of pop fans worldwide.