NOW 52: Sugababes – Freak Like Me

In 2018 we live in an era, to quote broadcaster Stuart Maconie, where ‘everything is available, all the time’. Music from the jazz era can sit alongside Fats Domino’s fifties cuts, which can sit alongside Rock and Roll by The Velvet Underground, which can sit alongside a nineties grunge act who took the minimalism of the Velvets to extremes. What is there left to do with pop music other than look back to the past and plunder it, like ancient societies ransacking others?

Thus the era of the mashup was upon us, as touched upon in previous essays. The most successful came from the mind of Richard X, who repeated the trick Spacedust had employed to get a number one: re-record a club banger with a different set of vocalists when he couldn’t clear the original sample. In his case, his mashup of Are “Friends” Electric and Freak Like Me became We Don’t Give a Damn About Our Friends. It was purred by the second incarnation of The Sugababes, Mutya and Keisha having been joined by Heidi, who replaced Siobhan, and retitled Freak Like Me. A world in which Gary Numan could have his hit song (he wrote Are “Friends” Electric) sung by three pretty popstars to have a hit 20 years after the original came out (the cycle strikes again!) was an odd world, but summer 2002 was a wicked time to be a music fan. Critic Tom Ewing gives the song a perfect score and writes a eulogy to it here: http://freakytrigger.co.uk/popular/2017/07/sugababes-freak-like-me/

I admit to being caught up in the rush to hear all recorded sound ever; I found my site to share mp3s and felt no shame in sourcing the latest and greatest tunes to burn to something called a Minidisc (Uncle Jonny, what’s a Minidisc?!). I was still taping the charts off the radio, which was topped by Just a Little by Liberty X, which makes me smile as I recall my friend Daniel Stewart singing ‘Sexy!’ and doing a sexy dance. He was white and six foot tall, which made it hilarious.

This was the summer of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, where England took revenge on Argentina with a David Beckham penalty but came unstuck when Ronaldinho chipped David Seaman from 45 yards as England lost to Brazil, the eventual winners. Elvis Presley’s estate had licenced a hot remix by Junkie XL (or JXL) of his rare cut A Little Less Conversation, which was the meat in the (peanut butter) sandwich with Will Young preceding him and Gareth Gates following with their second post-Pop Idol singles at the top.

TV pop shows would produce an act who would start making hits in 2003 but before Girls Aloud, the Sugababes were the feistiest girl group and deserve their place in the playlist. An appearance from George Michael with Freeek! is welcome, as is Kylie Minogue with Love At First Sight, another mighty pop song. Both acts had by 2002 had hits in all three decades that NOW has existed as a series.

Catalogue on NOW 52 includes If Tomorrow Never Comes, another country music suggestion from Louis Walsh to Ronan Keating. It ensured that Garth Brooks had writing credits on a UK number one to match his humungous American success. It is also nice to see a Prince song, I Would Die 4 U, here in a dance version by The Space Cowboy, on a NOW in the twenty-first century; the Purple One was preparing a comeback under his old name, ditching the squiggle, so this whetted the appetite for it. Mad’House take Like a Prayer by Madonna and put a heavy beat underneath it, while Intenso Project turns Dreadlock Holiday by 10cc into Luv Da Sunshine, which sounds like summer 2002. The Swiss army knife went to work again…

Other dance bangers that helped clubbers lose themselves in summer 2002 include the melodic trance of (Take Me Away) Into the Night by 4 Strings, Dove (I’ll Be Loving You) by Moony, Be Cool by Paffendorf (with orgasmic vocal noises), the jerky At Night by Shaketown, the salsa-tastic It Just Won’t Do from Tim Deluxe ft. Sam Overnik, Shooting Star by Flip & Fill and Forever by Dee Dee. The last two of these are known as ‘vocal trance’.

All of these songs are on Disc 1, showing the pulling power of dance music, guaranteed to get people dancing in clubs just as rock and pop, downloaded via torrent sites as mp3s, could be a more private passion. Nigel & Marvin took the Chocolate Puma track I Wanna Be U and yelled ‘follow the leader!’ over it while encouraging people to ‘jump and wave’. Incredibly, people were still going to gyms and needed a soundtrack to follow the instructor. This is pop at its most serviceable and I am sure both Nigel and Marvin didn’t have to work again, or just returned to the clubs or gyms.

The first appearance on a NOW of irritating trance group Scooter comes with a pointless cover of The Logical Song by Supertramp, while Kelly Llorenna follows up her NOW 51 appearance on the Flip & Fill track True Love Never Dies with a cover of Taylor Dayne’s Tell It To My Heart. Likewise, did the world need an eight-piece S Club Juniors to sing catchy pop songs in pre-pubescent voices? The group included Frankie and Rochelle, who would graduate to The Saturdays, and I loved the song One Step Closer. I also loved You by the grown-up S Club 7, another piece of fluff that played on the second series of their TV show, which had moved from Miami to LA.

Acts who return to NOW 52 after previous NOW outings include Enrique Iglesias (Escape), Sophie Ellis-Bextor (Get Over You), Atomic Kitten (It’s OK!), Britney Spears (I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman) and Oasis, after a break, with the morose Stop Crying Your Heart Out, which closes Disc 2. Snot-rock is still represented with the Puddle of Mudd song Blurry.

US r’n’b is still at its height. NOW 52 treats the listener to When You Look at Me by Christina Milian, Rock the Boat by Aaliyah, Foolish by Ashanti and the mighty No More Drama by Mary J Blige, one of those self-empowerment anthems that make a lot of money. Nelly, meanwhile, is Hot In Herre, which I heard on the radio while finalising this essay and realised how brilliant a pop song it is. ‘Herre’ is how you spell ‘here’ in Missouri; the chorus is loud and dumb while the song is addictive, is carried by a wonderful beat from the Neptunes and is sung-rapped expertly. It may be the best song of that era, where the Neptunes also helped *NSYNC have a hit with Girlfriend, a version of which includes Nelly.

Over in the UK, garage was still having its moment and the poster girl was Ms Dynamite, whose album A Little Deeper gained a lot of plaudits and included It Takes More, a song which asked ‘how many Africans died for the baguettes on your Rolex’. Her brother Akala has just put out a book called Natives, examining identity and masculinity; he is a great speaker and ambassador for Shakespeare. I also loved Freak Mode by The Reelists, a track in the tradition of Craig David, that was a summer smash in 2002.

The eclectic environment of the time means some interesting juxtapositions. Amy Studt’s debut song Just a Little Girl, a mix between Avril Lavinge and Britney Spears, sat next to an amazing collaboration between producers 1 Giant Leap, Maxi Jazz from Faithless and Robbie Williams reciting a poem addressed to his dad about how he was ‘the man you thought I’d never be’. Sheryl Crow returned with Soak Up the Sun, whose verse included the words ‘communist’ and ‘diddly-squat’ and had one of her finest sun-soaked choruses. She is still performing today. Moby followed up the album Play with more of the same and led with the Bowie-inspired We Are All Made of Stars. He is still performing today; his 2018 release Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt was a top ten album in Belgium and a top 30 album in the UK.

Fans of Robbie and Moby made new discoveries on NOW 52 with Mancunian rockers Doves, whose song Pounding does just that, and Scottish indie rockers Idlewild, whom I saw play American English and other hits in 2007. Written by Roddy Woomble, a cult Scottish singer-songwriter who was always touring the folk clubs while I was studying up in Scotland, the song is what my friend Matt’s wife Kate calls ‘moany indie pish’, but it carries the listener along with its baroque elegance and descending B major arpeggio intro.

It’s better than Stop Crying Your Heart Out, though I did love an acoustic ‘drone’ version of that song sung by Noel that removes Liam’s effortful vocal; Leona Lewis would later cover it, pointlessly, thanks to Simon Cowell’s intervention. Cowell and Gallagher, together at last…

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