In April 2018 critics at the Guardian used their own pop nous to consider the best boyband singles. The best girl band single is any of about six from Girls Aloud, with Little Mix and Spice Girls leading the pack.
According to Kate Hutchinson, the best boyband tune was End of the Road by Boyz II Men, 1992’s most-played song in America: it ‘soaked hankies everywhere, thanks to its schmaltzy verses, the oh-so-twinkly piano and those ultra-cheesy Barry-White-rivalling spoken-word bits. It’s so deftly done that it doesn’t have to rely on a key change for emotional effect.’ It’s a Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds special, and the ‘the pitch-perfect pay-off, a four-part a cappella harmony made for eyes-shut, fists-clenched wallowing, is boy-banding at its best.’ Or male vocal harmony grouping, if we’re being specific or kind.
Caroline Sullivan plumped for Blue’s All Rise, their debut song which is both ‘haunting’ and ‘understated’. Each member sings two lines of verse of a song about ‘a two-timing girlfriend [whose] wronged boyfriend points an accusing finger and minor chord builds on minor chord to a crushing finale’. Rachel Aroesti, meanwhile, discussed 5ive’s Everybody Get Up, the Joan Jett homage which takes ‘Beastie Boys-style brat-rap, maximalist pop and battle-cry stadium rock…A mercilessly entertaining antidote to insipid boyband fare that didn’t seem to know – or care – who its target audience was.’ The band are still going as a threepiece.
Laura Snapes calls Stay Another Day by East 17, the song that soundtracked Christmas 1994 and made Tony Mortimer a lot of money, ‘subtly subversive’. Where are the drums, and what is the song about? It’s not about a lover, but a loved one, Tony’s brother who killed himself. Very few pop songs, notes Laura, cover this terrain, making the song ‘a majestic outlier’.
Peter Robinson, editor of the website Popjustice, picked Westlife’s best song When You’re Looking Like That, a Max Martin classic which took the band ‘as close as they would ever get to an all-out banger: this story of a pathetic man forced to live with his mistakes’. Michael Cragg, naturally, picked The Call, another Max-penned tune, this time for the Backstreet Boys: ‘an atypically roguish lyric about a night out that results in a slurred phone call home…and some fumbling infidelity. The best bit isn’t the exhilarating chorus, the ludicrous key change or AJ McLean’s ad libs,’ Cragg writes, ‘it’s the fact that the “dun, dun, dun” bass sound is actually a sample of Howie D farting during a vocal harmony.’ Ben Beaumont-Thomas compares I Want You Back, the first *NSync hit, to ballads by ‘Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Billie Holiday and the rest of modern music’s most sorrowful figures…Tears and hair gel intermingle as the melancholy is magnified by the backings trying to dance out the pain.’ No surprises which Swedish mastermind is behind it.
I am afraid none of these esteemed writers is correct, though they all make valid points about the boyband and Max Martin using them to make lots of money. I am persuaded by an act who wrote the songs, play the instruments (with apologies to Tony Mortimer, who wrote East 17 songs and played piano) and remain, I think, one of Britain’s underrated acts who have had hits this century.
McFly first appeared on NOW 58 with their song Five Colours in her Hair, then had their second number one with Obviously, which is on NOW 59. NOW 60 contains an even better song, a ballad written by Tom Fletcher for his then girlfriend Giovanna. ‘I will answer all your wishes if you ask me to,’ sing the band, ‘but if you deny me one of your kisses, don’t know what I’d do…’
It is even more incredible to note that proceeds from the sales of All About You went to BBC’s Comic Relief appeal in 2005. I don’t know whether Tom’s royalties were waived just for the single’s release in 2005 or in perpetuity, but I do hope Comic Relief get the donations from the song’s streams and downloads. I will ask Tom Fletcher if I ever see him; he lives locally with his wife Gi and their two (soon to be three) kids. The video of Tom’s wedding speech has been viewed almost 20 million times since it was uploaded in January 2013 onto a video sharing website.
You know its name, and it has completely revolutionised culture. Any user can generate content and upload it to the service for free. Music videos have been viewed billions of times, and new acts can say they are ‘Youtube sensations’. Also in 2005, Facebook grew in popularity at Harvard University as a social networking site, while MySpace allowed artists to share music and form their own communities.
This digital era, coupled with the popularity of music downloads in lieu of CD singles, gave the user unbelievable choice. We were all John Peel, which was a blessing as Peel died in October 2004 and his Radio 1 show was given to three people, all with different tastes in music. I asked Mark Radcliffe via email if there could ever be another Peel and he said categorically not, though Peel’s son Tom Ravenscroft is doing a great job in carrying on the family name. My nickname for BBC 6Music, on which both Tom and Mark broadcast, is BBC Radio Peel.
There are eight bits of catalogue on NOW 60, the most successful of which is at the very end. Music was entering an era when anything was fair game: Waiting for a Star to Fall by Boy Meets World became Falling Stars by Sunset Strippers; I’ll Stand By You, written by Billy Steinberg, Tom Kelly and Chrissie Hynde, was the BBC Children in Need single 2004 and gave Girls Aloud another number one; Out Of Touch by Hall & Oates was remixed by Uniting Nations; Shine by Electric Light Orchestra had a simple beat added to it, without much point, to give The Lovefreekz a hit; Raghav borrowed Murder She Wrote by Chaka Demus & Pliars and put out an English-language version of his own song Teri Baaton, which became Angel Eyes.
Strings of Life was an anthemic house tune turned into a new track by Soul Central featuring the vocals of Kathy Brown. It seems anachronistic to have a nineties-style vocal house track in 2005, the year which saw the release of an awful movie called It’s All Gone Pete Tong. Need To Feel Loved, by the dance team Reflekt, is on the film’s soundtrack and also on Disc 1, along with a song called Heartbeatz, a lost Eurodance classic with contemporary synths that would certainly sound great with a mind altered by substances.
Remember NOW 48 and Peter Kay’s character putting up with his car-sharer’s tastes? In 2005, Peter starred in a video, also for Comic Relief, that seemed to play on repeat on the music channels I used to watch. VH2 was still going, as was MTV2, but I also enjoyed MTV Base for r’n’b, The Vault for odds and sods and The Box for pop. On the hour, every hour, there was Is This The Way to Amarillo, the Howie Greenfield and Neil Sedaka song made a hit by Sheffield-born Tony Christie. In the video for Comic Relief, Peter mimed it while marching on a treadmill smiling his megawatt end-of-the-pier grin, which sent thousands of people to the phones to donate to a great cause, initiated by Richard Curtis, Emma Freud and Lenny Henry.
The video, which went viral before Youtube existed, includes the following figures, many from Peter’s childhood: Rod Hull and Emu; Keith Harris and Orville; puppets Sooty and Sweep (but not Soo); Geoffrey and Bungle from Rainbow; Mr Blobby being hit by a snowball; Ken and Deidre Barlow from Coronation Street; Paddy McGuinness from Max & Paddy and Brian Potter from Phoenix Nights, Kay’s big TV sitcoms; actress Sally Lindsay; a man who always smoked cigars whose name escapes me (and whose crimes were ignored during his lifetime); five actors in Bolton Wanderers kits who are all under four feet tall; Jim Bowen from Bullseye; Davina McCall dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz; Ronnie Corbett; Michael ‘Parky’ Parkinson, who was a huge fan of Peter’s comedy; Shaun Ryder and Bez from Happy Mondays; Brian May and Roger Taylor from Queen; Shakin’ Stevens; and, of course, the actual Tony Christie, who could not believe his luck.
Strangely, I stopped recording the charts in the logbook on February 9 2015, the week that the most downloaded song was Galvanize by Chemical Brothers. Kamaal Fareed appears uncredited on the track as Q-Tip, who intones the line ‘my finger is on the button’, which is as close as pop got to political during the era of the Iraq War.
The 1000th song to top the UK charts was One Night by Elvis Presley, one of seven new entries in that top 10 which included Somebody Told Me by The Killers, which hit number three and follows that year’s other great rock song on Disc 2. Apple had released their first iPod in 2001. Three years later, and with Bono again knowing where the wind was blowing, U2 allowed their song Vertigo to soundtrack a commercial for the latest model. Both the track and the item sold well; I think I had my first iPod in 2004, after sticking to CDs, tapes and Minidiscs until then. I learned that there is such a thing as too much music…
Oddly I wasn’t interested in NOW compilations in 2005, preferring to buy CDs that were on offer at both HMV and Virgin and record tunes off Radio 1 and Radio 2 onto my desktop. New songs that impressed me included What You Waiting For, the debut solo single from Gwen Stefani of No Doubt, If There’s Any Justice by Lemar, Back to Basics by Shapeshifters (as good as Lola’s Theme) and Dakota by Stereophonics.
I’ve been harsh on Stereophonics. I like their louder stuff and Dakota was a ‘return to form’. It sounded brilliant in a car – I spent most of 2005 learning to drive, failing three practical tests – and Dakota is probably their best song, charting at number one. Bands with guitars still had their moment, and on NOW 60 there are songs by Keane (This Is the Last Time), Doves (the excellent Black and White Town, about small-town life) and The Bravery, with An Honest Mistake. Written by the man who would write She Wolf for Shakira, named Sam Endicott, The Bravery were picked by music critics to be the Sound of 2005 (50 Cent had been the Sound of 2004), and I loved their song Unconditional. The vocal was mannered on An Honest Mistake but people seemed to dig it. Shakira, meanwhile, had been nowhere to be seen on any NOW with her songs about ‘small and humble’ breasts.
There were many interesting independent-minded acts who won plaudits and awards. Thirteen Senses from Cornwall (where renowned pop writer Fraser McAlpine lives) are on Disc 2 with Thru The Glass (naff spelling), as are Feeder, who take the Stereophonics turn to balladry with Tumble and Fall. A much better ballad is Wires, Joel Pott’s song about his child which was an Ivor Novello winner thanks to its lyric about ‘corridors’ and ‘automatic doors’; Joel would help George Ezra in the 2010s as a staff songwriter once Athlete came to an end. I preferred their first album Vehicles & Animals but Tourist sold well off the back of Wires. Ditto So Here We Are, not my favourite Bloc Party song (that’s Little Thoughts, followed by Helicopter and Banquet), which was a sweet ballad sung by Kele Okereke who is an openly gay rock musician who has followed his own path as a solo act as well as a frontman. (His sister knew some friends of mine when she was up at Edinburgh University.)
The Imperial Phase of Robbie Williams’ career ended with Misunderstood, co-written with Stephen Duffy; Darius put out the title track of his album Live Twice; Daniel Bedingfield returned with Wrap My Words Around You, which was poppy enough; Lucie Silvas still performs the poptastic top ten hit Breathe In, co-written with the great Judie Tzuke; Atomic Kitten are on NOW 60 with a sweet ballad called Cradle, as is a duet between Brian McFadden and Delta Goodrem called Almost Here. Verbalicious (‘Leeds-born and Florida-bred and with a Jamaican father and Irish/Latin American mother’ says the booklet) offer Don’t Play Nice, while a group called Freefaller try to leap onto the Busted/McFly wagon with Do This Do That, which must have sounded fun on Saturday morning kids TV. I also loved Baby It’s You, by JoJo, a great and smooth follow-up to Leave (Get Out).
In other music, Ciara had a big hit with Goodies, Ashanti returned with a rougher sound on Only U, Akon introduced himself with Locked Up, featuring prison bar percussion and LL Cool J was continuing the second act of his career with Hush, in which he claims he will ‘swim to France’ for his lady. ‘Cool James’, whom the Ladies Love, would move into acting and sometimes pop up in the charts. Nelly continues his streak by roping in (ha!) Tim McGraw, the biggest country music star at the time, on Over and Over, a UK number one. I was not a country fan then, but at least I knew who Tim McGraw was.
Impressively, young Joss Stone teams up with Brian and Eddie Holland to write the triple-time soul song Spoiled, while Kylie employs Scissor Sisters (uncredited) on I Believe In You, proving that whatever she does (indie-minded rock, disco, electronica, country) her fanbase will approve. Filthy/Gorgeous became the fifth hit from the debut album by Scissor Sisters, whose year in the spotlight must have helped their bank balances. Geri Halliwell, as Geri, put out a song called Ride It. I don’t remember it.
NOW 60, I should note, came out the month my mum and dad separated. No song on the compilation instantly made me think of that, but I suppose All About You being my Best Boyband Song Ever could be reasoned accordingly.