If Max Martin has a number one hit in America in the 2020s, he will have had a chart-topping song for four decades in a row. [Update: he did.] I don’t think even Paul McCartney did that. I wrote this essay on Paul’s birthday, June 18, on which he turns 76. Max Martin will be 48 years old in 2019.
Maybe by then I will have finished my Max Martin musical [update: so did Max, with & Juliet opening in the UK in late 2019), which will incorporate his greatest hits, including many of his 22 number ones (as of June 18 2018). In it, two kids meet at a club, can’t feel their face then shake it off. A third character, the androgynous Denniz, makes Max think she has kissed a girl and eventually they raise a glass to their new relationship because they can’t stop the feeling. Martin, meanwhile, has no tears left to cry and it’s just him + his hand. Above all, everyone demands to be hit, one more time.
Without Max Martin, I don’t know whether I’d want to call myself a songwriter. It’s a stupid pursuit, but one that is fun, quirky and hopefully lucrative enough to pay some bills instead of doing something dull like not creating sound every day. In fact, I just wrote a song during the composition of this essay with the hook: ‘Like the angels, love is ageless…’
I first heard Max’s music as a fan of the Backstreet Boys, not knowing it was him who wrote all the music and told the boys to sing over the top of his demos. I can’t remember when I twigged that the same guy was writing a lot of the top 10 in any given week. As I’ll explore in this series, the era of Max stretches from 1996 right the way to today, where he helped Ariana Grande put her feelings about the Manchester Arena attacks into No Tears Left to Cry, which moves him to 68 American Top 10 hits, as of June 18 2018. Sixty-eight. People would kill to have one.
…Baby One More Time (the lacuna denoting ‘Hit Me’ but henceforth Baby One More Time is the name of the song) is the smash to end all smashes. It took over pop music in 1999, helped make the former Mouseketeer the biggest pop princess on earth and meant everyone wanted the golden touch of Martin Sandberg, then only 27. A rocker with long hair, Max learned about pop music from Denniz Pop, whose Cheiron studio would produce great Swedish pop of the era.
Michael Cragg’s masterful site Maxopedia (Maxopedia.co) was launched in May 2016 and on the day it went live I was there for a solid hour reading essay after essay about Max Martin’s many hits. Of Baby One More Time – co-produced by Rami Yacoub but with every musical idea created solely by Max – Michael writes that the ‘quintessential Max moment’ is ‘every single glorious second of it’ and prompts the question: ‘Is this the best song of all time?
‘It deserves to be enjoyed solely just as a piece of art that will eventually be hung in the Louvre. There is not an ounce of flab on this song. There are no wasted moments. Every line is a hook, every pre-chorus bit is as good as most other proper choruses.’
The intro, ‘synth crash at the 42-second mark’ and Britney’s vocal are all perfect, to Michael. Max protégé Robyn turned the song down; Baby One More Time would have been a hit but not a standard had she sung it, though she would have her own standards in the 2000s. Read the full essay here and see if you come away in disagreement.
In 1999, before downloads and Napster wrecked the sales of recorded music in physical formats, every American spent an average of what would now be over $75 on music. The most popular acts were manufactured: *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Britney shifted millions of units. All had hits written for them by Max Martin.
Sylvia Patterson summed up the era’s princess pithily in her memoir I’m Not with the Band: ‘A purposelessly visual construct, custom-built by business-pop alchemists in the lab of teenage fantasy, brilliantly, she was sponsored by Pepsi (and Listerine [a mouthwash]) and aggressively marketed as the perfect pop brand, a 2D hologram projected onto the international skyline for captivated fans to colour in with the crayons of their own imagination. With pulsing sexual charisma and some of the greatest pop tunes, and videos, of the modern age.’
That’s music journalism, which also became a casualty of the digital era. Writing on Freaky Trigger as part of his Popular series documenting every UK number one, critic Tom Ewing gave the song 9/10 and wrote 2000 words of his own about the importance of Baby One More Time here.
To him, the song is ‘a ruthlessly lean, superbly constructed pop song: a track with awesome momentum earned by impressive economy, where every note or idea leads to a payoff, and each payoff sets up the next one.’ It also has religious connotations (‘give me a sign’) and is about ‘helpless obsession…choreographed as a statement of total confidence. Britney is not the machine’s puppet,’ adds Tom, ‘she’s its pilot.’
For all the gripes about identikit pop, no other singer could do Baby One More Time but Britney. I’d add that Crazy In Love is a Beyonce song, Rehab is an Amy Winehouse song and Shape of You is an Ed Sheeran song, because it mentions ‘takeaway pizza’. Nobody has dared to cover these songs on record, in the same way that nobody wants to cover Livin’ La Vida Loca by Ricky Martin (albeit Shrek’s cast led by Eddie Murphy as Donkey had a good go). A three-week chart-topper in summer 1999, which is missing from NOW 44 despite being the summer’s big song, no other singer could do Livin’ La Vida Loca justice, and it is one of the best pop songs never to be on a NOW compilation.
In the second half of 1999, pop music was full of the stars of the twentieth century having hit songs, acts who sold millions of albums whose sales were about to be blitzed by the digital era and who would have to make their money on the road. Diana Ross had Not Over You Yet, Tina Turner sang When the Heartache is Over, Phil Collins won an Academy Award for You’ll Be in my Heart from the movie Tarzan and Tom Jones, helped by his son who acted as his manager, had a duets album called Reload whose first single was a collaboration with The Cardigans on the old Talking Heads song Burning Down the House. All of these acts, in 1999, were over the age of 40 and were thus ‘heritage acts’. Tom Jones deserves a musical to match those telling the stories of Diana Ross (Motown the Musical) and Tina Turner (Tina, currently on in the West End of London). I’ll write it if someone else doesn’t; he truly is the closest thing Britain has ever had to Elvis Presley, whom he knew well.
The Spice Girls split in 1998 to allow five stars from one constellation to shine, or to put it another way, One Become Five. Geri Halliwell joins the two-timers club with both Mi Chico Latino and Lift Me Up on NOW 44, while Melanie C offers the title track of her album Northern Star, which is a slowie. Emma Bunton, meanwhile, sang the vocals on a pointless cover of the Edie Brickell song What I Am, which was produced by Tin Tin Out, launching with catalogue.
Give It To You was a Jam & Lewis track co-written with a very young Robin Thicke that gave former New Kid on the Block Jordan Knight a hit. Robbie Williams took She’s The One to number one, to the disgust of Guy Chambers’ old mate from World Party and writer of the song, Karl Wallinger. I hope the royalties helped soothe the irritation. The video, which saw the star introduced by commentator Barry Davies as ‘Robert Peter Williams’, had him skating on ice as he showed how imperious he was at the time; this was yet another hit from his album I’ve Been Expecting You. Angels, meanwhile, was still reaching the top 75 thanks to CD single sales in January 2000; this can only be down to the presence of used record stores like Our Price, which was another casualty of the download era.
Meanwhile, Ronan Keating took a ten-year-old country music song called When You Say Nothing At All, sang it while sitting on a park bench in the video, had it included on the soundtrack to the Richard Curtis movie Notting Hill and had his first solo hit, a number one. Westlife, who were like Boyzone but more beige, had two more number ones of their own – If I Let You Go and Flying Without Wings – which are both missing from NOW 44. Likewise Genie In a Bottle, the debut single and two-week number one from Christina Aguilera, Britney’s fellow Mickey Mouse Club member who put out a new album in June 2018 after a long stint in the red chairs of The Voice US.
A quick mention for Five, who had their first number one with Keep On Movin’, which was one of the pop songs of 1999 but was omitted from NOW 44 in favour of the equally brilliant likes of Sing It Back by Moloko, Summer Son by Texas, Canned Heat by Jamiroquai (later to be used in the cult film Napoleon Dynamite) and Moving by Supergrass, one of the songs Gaz Coombes still plays in his solo sets.
Matt Slocum wrote Kiss Me, the transatlantic smash from Sixpence None the Richer, which sounds like teen dramas set to music thanks to Leigh Nash’s sweet vocals. The band have since released three albums and Matt has been a studio musician, but I hope he still receives those Kiss Me cheques, as is my hope for the three writers who sang about ‘drinking in LA at 26’ as Bran Van 3000. The tune was synched to a beer commercial who probably saw the potential in a song about drinking soundtracking people in an advert to sell something to drink.
Clubbers in the UK’s superclubs like Ministry of Sound or Fabric (in London) or Cream (in Liverpool) vibrated to songs like The Launch (DJ Jean), Diving Faces (Liquid Child), Don’t Stop (ATB), Back In My Life (Alice Deejay), Turn It Around (Jamaican vocalist Alena), 2 Times (Ann Lee, with a very high-pitched vocal) and King of my Castle, the enormous number one from Wamdue Project. Did the song’s producer Chis Brann ever work again? Research says he released seven albums under the name Ananda Project and four as P’Taah. When the BRIT Awards committee listed him as Best British Newcomer, he pointed out that he was from Atlanta, Georgia. Is that funny or sad?
S Club 7 had their S Club Party, running down the names of the members in the second verse as a kind of rollcall (Tina, Jon, Paul, Hannah, Bradley, Rachel and of course Jo, who had the flow). Following it came Mickey, the Toni Basil song brought back into the charts by Lolly. A few songs later comes the Fatboy Slim remix of I See You Baby (‘SHAKING THAT AAASSS!’) by Groove Armada featuring the awesome vocals of Gram’ma Funk, which was another winner for the Fatboy. Funkstar De Luxe took the Bob Marley song Sun Is Shining and turned it into a summer smash 30 years after a young Bob had laid down his vocals. It is amazing that Bob hasn’t more readily been plundered for dance remixes.
Despite his well-documented misdemeanours, R Kelly kicks off Disc 2 with If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time. The disc also includes Never Let You Down by Honeyz, Sunshine by Gabrielle (that one was all over commercial radio in 1999) and three party tunes that were all in the charts over summer. In fact, I can in no way nerdily use my old logbooks to see what was where. When Vengaboys hit number one with a version of a Boney M song with the new title We’re Going to Ibiza, Shaft’s version of Dean Martin’s Sway was at six and Bailamos by Enrique Iglesias (not INglesias as I wrote) was at 8. The previous week, Shaft had been at three and Enrique had entered at four.
Vengaboys ended the run of Mambo No.5 by Lou Bega, whose trick of mentioning the names of several girls (Monica, Erica, Rita, Trina, Sandra, Mary, Jessica and ‘you’) was nicked from Song for Whoever by the Beautiful South. The song is due an ironic comeback next year due to the 20-year cycle as people online shout: ‘OMG MAMBO NUMBER FIVE IS 20 YEARS OLD!!’ Will Enrique have the same comeback? He’s playing the UK in September 2018 so maybe he will. As for Britney, after a breakdown and custody battles for her children, she was the Queen of Las Vegas for four years, playing 50 shows a year between 2014 and 2017.
What a great idea for a hen party: Britney in Vegas, one more time.