Tom Ewing

Jun 15

A1 – “Same Old Brand New You”

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#881, 18th November 2000

a1sameold A1’s “Take On Me” was a needless re-spray of the prior generation’s classic pop. Now their magpie tendency turns to their own times. After Billie’s “Day And Night”, this is the year’s second I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Cheiron number one, a studied and whole-hearted application of the uptempo Swedish style to an English boyband. “Same Old Brand New You” makes no secret of the moves it’s learned from its sources, and adds only the lightest of new twists in the form of a body-rockin’ electro breakdown.

Jun 15

WESTLIFE – “My Love”

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#880, 11th November 2000

westlife mylove “My Love” is Westlife in their pomp – a seventh straight number one, leaving records trailing. They were as popular as they’d ever been, which is to say, not as popular as you might think: a steady fanbase of a hundred thousand or so first week fans, but nothing in the way of crossover. Still, they sounded monolithic enough. “My Love” starts intriguingly hesitant, as if it wants to be their “Knowing Me Knowing You” – “I’m all alone, the rooms are getting smaller” (Imagine Westlife, trapped in a malfunctioning TARDIS.) Of course, that doesn’t last, and the windswept chorus of “My Love” – a de facto title track for their second album, Coast To Coast – is them at their most banner-waving. It’s confident and assured, big-chested – they know what they’re about by now, these boys. Cheiron – the jobbing end of Cheiron – are back too. A memo is sent out to stakeholders: the Westlife enterprise has considered the possibility of changing its business model for the second record, and politely rejected the proposal.

Jun 15

SPICE GIRLS – “Holler”/”Let Love Lead The Way”

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#879, 4th November 2000

spiceholler The original concept for the third Spice Girls album – according to Stannard and Rowe, the writers and producers the group jilted for Forever – was that it would concern the girls becoming women, the group maturing along with their audience. Even ignoring the fact that these “girls” were already the five most successful women in British music and sticking purely to the branding, It wasn’t the most promising of ideas. Sure, a lot of the charm and quality of Spice was how unapologetic it was in drawing inspiration from teen magazine problem pages – balancing friends and boys; safe sex; being nice to your Mum. It might have aimed itself squarely at a particular market, but it didn’t talk down to them – and in not doing so, it won a far huger audience. But Spiceworld had already moved away from that, and besides, there were plenty of grown-up alternatives out there. The Spice Girls never making anything like “Black Coffee” was no shame: forcing themselves to try might have been.

May 15

STEPS – “Stomp”

Popular37 comments • 2,220 views

#878, 28th October 2000

Stepsstomp A visit to budget supermarket Aldi is a pop semiotician’s delight. The shelves are lined with Aldi’s own versions of name brands, all designed to trick – or reassure – the mind that what you’re buying is almost the authentic one, or at least so close in look as to be close in quality. The game is always to create packs that feel as near to the model brand as possible without actually drawing down any lawyerly wrath.

At Asda, for instance – where name brands sit alongside the store ones – the own-label version of Coco Pops is called Choco Snaps and features a bemused bear, not a cheeky monkey, and a large black banner with the supermarket logo. Aldi has no such modesty: its Choco Rice comes in the bright yellow livery of Kelloggs’ and has a monkey of its own. Working as Aldi’s designers must be an entertaining job, with a measure of critical analysis required to negotiate the gap between the identifiable parts of a brand and the legally defensible ones.

May 15

U2 – “Beautiful Day”

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#877, 21st October 2000

u2beautiful A theological detour. The rise of New Atheism – Dawkins et al. – seems to have made it somewhat infra dig for lifelong unbelievers like me to admit there are things we respect and admire about religions and the religious. But of course there are. For instance, one of the things I find most admirable – perhaps I just mean enviable – when I meet it in Christians is the sense of faith as a reserve of redemptive strength. The feeling that, no matter how bad things are, no matter how bad you are, Jesus loves you. The fact I don’t believe in him doesn’t invalidate the testimony of millions who have found this kind of grace when they needed it – any more than their belief invalidates the experience of those who reached for it and could not find it. I believe what they’re taking is a placebo; they believe it’s the real thing. Whoever’s right, they get a chance at the benefit, and I don’t.

Or don’t I? That kind of feeling saturates “Beautiful Day” – one of U2’s most obviously Christian singles, full of grace and floods and doves and no-room-at-the-inn. And I feel this song well enough. I think it’s the most honest and moving record Bono and the crew have landed at Number One – the one where the reliquaries of rock’n’roll and the baggage of experiment are jettisoned, and Bono sings a big, slick modern rock song about faith. Sings it well and cleverly, too – the quiet, beaten-down tone of the opening verse, that halting gap on “lend – a hand”, the breakdown into gutterals on some of the closing chorus lines; these things dramatise the idea of a man on his last chance. “Reach me – I know I’m not a hopeless case”, he pleads: there’s a need I can relate to sometimes. You don’t need to feel God is your judge to understand the urge for redemption. Irony abounds, of course – Bono’s performance here rests on him selling the idea of himself as a man of great humility. But sell it he does.

May 15

A Great Big Clipper Ship

FT100 comments • 2,408 views

NME charlie nicholas On Friday I went to the first day of Mark Sinker’s Underground/Overground conference, about the British music press from 1968-1985 – dates that spanned the rise of the underground press, its colonisation of the music papers, and the besieging or breaking of its spirit during the 80s, under competitive pressure from style and pop mags. Mark picked 1985 because of Live Aid, which was barely mentioned on the day I was there. But it was also the foundation, or first plottings at any rate, of Q Magazine, much booed and hissed as villain. And it was the year the miners’ strike ended: on the panel I moderated, Cynthia Rose mentioned how miners’ wives would turn up in the offices of the thoroughly politicised NME.

This era of the press is mythical – the time just before I began reading about music. Some of its stories and inhabitants were passed down to me. The NME ran a wary, slightly sarky assessment of its 80s at the end of them: if it had been “a market-leading socialist youth paper” – Rose’s phrase – it no longer cared to admit it. But the idea of missing something special lingered. I read and was left cold by Nick Kent’s The Dark Stuff. I read and was quietly moved by Ian Macdonald’s collected writing. I read and revered Paul Morley’s Ask.

I even once ordered up a sheaf of 1975 NMEs from the Bodleian Library. This was its printed zenith as a cultural force – in terms of numbers, at least, which all the writers disdained, except when it suited them to boast. Circulation nudging a million, and it read that way – men (nearly always) telling boys (most likely) what to do, and knowing they’d be heard. The voice of the impatient older brother if we’re being kind. Of the prefect if we’re not. Later, I read the Schoolkids Issue of Oz, the magazine that put the underground press on trial and gave Charles Shaar Murray his start. It passed through my hands in 1997, almost thirty years on, a dispatch from a world that seemed completely lost. Full of mystique, of course. But it might as well have been the Boys Own Paper, for all it mattered then and there.

May 15

ALL SAINTS – “Black Coffee”

Popular68 comments • 3,118 views

#876, 14th October 2000

saintscoffee All Saints’ final number one is their most oblique, their most grown-up, also their finest. The song barely glances at its title – a pair of words out of a hundred in the lyric – but the whole record is a glance or a quiet smile, a celebration of tiny satisfactions, and of finding yourself with someone who conjures them so easily. “Each moment is cool / freeze the moment”. It’s a song, most of it, about feeling contented – a rare subject for pop, which prefers to nose out conflict (the video finds some anyway, staging “Black Coffee” as a post-Matrix bullet time break-up drama). There are songs – cousins to this, like “I Say A Little Prayer” – that capture the way love makes the everyday blush with significance, but “Black Coffee” is after something more comfortable. A day with your lover, as casually sweet as all the other ones. Nothing’s perfect, but “Black Coffee”’s rippling, overlapping melody lines make even the quarrels sound blissful.

May 15

I Know How To Curse

The Brown Wedge22 comments • 2,208 views


1978: The Shooting Star

It’s the spider I remember. In The Shooting Star, boy reporter Tintin is investigating an apocalyptic threat, a star on a collision course with our world. He visits an observatory, hoping they can tell him what’s going on. They can: the world is doomed. He is led to the telescope and through it he sees a colossal spider, clinging to the star.

The beast is only on the telescope lens. And the world is not doomed. But I was entranced. By that, by the panic in the streets, by the race to reach a new island formed in the wake of the star’s passing, and by the grotesque exploding mushrooms our hero finds there. Tintin is the first comic I can remember reading, and The Shooting Star is my first memory of Tintin. In many ways, I wish it was almost any of his other adventures.

May 15


Popular44 comments • 4,845 views

#875, 30th September 2000

westlife against I don’t know if “Against All Odds” is the best Phil Collins song. I suspect it is. But it’s certainly the most Phil Collins song, the complete conjunction of things you might associate with Phil Collins: song-shifting drum breakdowns, male pattern agony, everybloke blues. It’s also a song that attracts covers: writing about one of them on NYLPM, I said: “The ur-version of “Against All Odds” will always be by a drunk divorced man in a suburban karaoke, singing his desperate heart away – Phil’s original is just a guide vocal.”

May 15

MODJO – “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)”

Popular44 comments • 2,150 views

#874, 16th September 2000

modjo “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” came hard on the heels of “Groovejet” as a revivalist disco hit. It also works as a despondent, pleading answer record: where Sophie Ellis-Bextor embraces the dancefloor as a flirtatious zone of mystery and ambiguity, “Lady” begs for resolution. Lyrically, musically, emotionally, it circles its sampled groove like water circling a drain. Where “Groovejet” is spry, happy to lose itself in the possibility of disco, “Lady” finds a rut and keeps scratching it deeper in its despairing neediness. The singles’ proximity does “Lady” no favours – this suitor, and his simple plea, is run rings round.