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Jun 10

BROS – “I Owe You Nothing”

FT + Popular91 comments • 6,398 views

#611, 25th June 1988, video

There’s a performance-based definition of one-hit wonders, but there should be an aesthetic definition too. There are poor groups who make one important single, who against all expectations Get It Right on a particular occasion and leave the studio with something worthwhile – a record that owns its moment even, that you could put in a time capsule and 100 years from now would tell people something about what it meant to be young and alive in (say) 1988. The fascinatingly horrible Bros are, I would argue, one of those groups. Unfortunately “I Owe You Nothing” isn’t their one great record.

That would be “When Will I Be Famous?”, the most honest boy band hit of them all, four minutes of acquisitional hunger and ruthless raw need. It’s catchy, it’s funny, it sums up the gel-soaked stonewashed grotesqueness of Bros and casts a light on their tacky times. It’s a venomous pop star character study and all the more compelling because you’re pretty sure it’s actually true. And, reluctantly, I’m not meant to be writing about it. I have to write about “I Owe You Nothing” instead, the pawky runt of the early Bros litter. “Drop The Boy”, their other initial smash, isn’t very good either, but it’s unintentionally funny – these pleas for maturity juxtaposed with their signature “ROO-AWRR” sound, the noise of a rutting gerbil.

There’s plenty of hot rodent sex on “I Owe You Nothing” too, but it starts brightly: dive-bombing synths and a hustling bassline. It’s only later that the song starts loses its way, running out of musical ideas and papering that over with a momentum-killing instrumental break and increasingly purposeless grunts and yaps from Matt Goss. The overall feel is busy and tinny, very much in line with Stock Aitken Waterman orthodoxy, but SAW’s cheerfulness (and their feel for a verse melody) is missing: instead “I Owe You Nothing” jabs and nips at its audience and its subject. “I watch you SUFFER with no feelings – no feelings at all”: I don’t think there’s been as spiteful a number one as this since “Out Of Time”. But even though Bros’ spite is interesting, the performance and arrangement doesn’t give it much force.

Spite seems key to the Bros project, though, and to their strange season of hugeness – only really scuppered when they were allowed to write their own material. Manager Tom Watkins obviously knew that the oddness of the Bros package – cold-eyed, chiselled twins on the make – was the stuff of hits given the right angle. Tender wouldn’t cut it – Matt Goss was too shrill a singer – so the way to go was to play up the Goss brothers’ icky aloofness. For anyone outside the target audience, they were created to be hated, marrying the glossy selfishness of the handsome with the insular selfishness of the twinned to make records powered deliberately by a mix of malice and entitlement. In fact, even for people inside the target audience they seem an anomaly and a risk, at least compared to the sure-thing boybands who would boss the 1990s. Bros the phenomenon are more interesting than a lot of the people we meet on this blog – but that doesn’t make this record much better.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    Promethea on 23 Jun 2010 #

    Bros were the first pop band I had literally no opinion about; their brief spate – it felt like two months – was over so quickly that I somehow always had the feeling that I’d missed it, like I was out of the country or something (I wasn’t, except for a ten day family holiday to Tenerife).

    Obviously one (I don’t care which) became a reasonably successful movie villain in B-list sci-fi. The other, however, is apparently a Rat Pack style crooner in Vegas – I know this because the True Movies Channel on Freesat (which I am unreasonably fond and often seem to end up watching when there’s nothing else on; they show Roots on a near permanent loop and sometime soon I’m going to manage to catch all the instalments) had a long-running advert for his show there, with a competition to win a trip to see him. While the rules and prize were explained, at interminable length, one of his songs is played and it is one of the most annoying, repetitive ditties in a long while: da da da, da da da, da dadada dadada. He wears a Sinatra-style homburg hat (probably gone bald) and suit and is clearly trying to get the crowd who are too cheap to buy tickets to anyone they’ve actually heard of but are slightly too classy to just go to a tribute band. Matt, or possibly Luke, Goss as Rat Packer: ludicrous, but I suppose it shows that they really would do anything for fame.

  2. 62
    swanstep on 23 Jun 2010 #

    @23_Daves, 59. I’m pretty sure the underlying keyboard is the (hard to program, hence notoriously, widely just used for its presets) Roland D-50 (which we’ll soon be hearing almost exclusively from Enya). You can listen to all of the D-50’s presets here. I think #54 jete strings is the core one, but a lot of the brass presets (15, 33, 35, 45) are close.

  3. 63
    Gavin Wright on 23 Jun 2010 #

    Bros were the first boyband I recognised as being an actual phenomenon – this was basically because a) unlike, say, Brother Beyond, they had a whole TWO hit songs I’d heard and b) girls at school drew the band logo (three figures holding up the band name if I remember rightly) on their exercise books. I also distinctly remember them falling out of favour, probably the first time I’d been aware of a changing trend in pop.

    Having not given the band much thought since 1988, I had no idea they were quite so obnoxious (although even as a child I thought ‘I Owe You Nothing’ was pretty mean-spirited) or so reviled – I wonder if at any point they accused the british public of ‘hating success’? That’s usually what people like this (the clueless and arrogant) come out with when their popularity starts to slide.

    I’d also like to voice my approval of Marcello’s farmhand/chicken line, very good.

  4. 64

    […] and ambition — Brit edition! By humanizingthevacuum One of Tom’s best posts. He’s illuminating on the phenomenon of Bros, the English boy band that mesmerized their […]

  5. 65
    Tommy Mack on 24 Jun 2010 #

    Re: “punk pushed the svengalis out of the way and let pop stars emerge naturally”.

    Johnny Rotten, Adam Ant, to a certain extent the early Beatles is that they were fun, clever, creative performers colluding with svengalis to create something striking, original and, hopefully, commercial. Whereas Bros and their ilk come across as dead-behind-the-eyes marrionettes mindelessly following orders in blind pursuit of success in it’s narrowest terms. Any fun to be had with Bros seems to come from the fact this artless ambition is both overt and at the core of their ethos.

    That said, I did think they were cool for about a week in 1988, around the same time I though Jason Donovan was cool because he had a leather jacket. 28 years old I was, Stew!

  6. 66
    Mike Atkinson on 24 Jun 2010 #

    I don’t think I’ve heard this song at all since 1988, so re-visiting it was an odd experience: it’s clunkier than I remember, and somehow more… wrong, I suppose. Almost as if they were trying to make a late 80s pop single, and failed to read the manual (as opposed to The Manual) properly. But that’s just a trick of the light, of course. As for the vocals, they made me audibly gasp and LOL in the middle of the street – so, yeah, thanks for that. (And thanks also for ruining my 1988 quiff/ripped 501s/DMs “look”. Harumph.)

    I well remember the Radio One greatest-single-of-ALL-TIME poll, and the horror I felt when “I Owe You Nothing” topped it. But then again: fuck the canon, pop’s an eternal “present”, etc. This was not how I saw it at the time!

    There was a lengthy, approving, and hence strangely out-of-context feature on the Bros phenomenon in The Face, which came over all sociological-anthropological about the “authentic mirror of teenage Britain” aspect of their fame, as I recall. As a card-carrying Face-reading trendy, this did rather confuse me!

    My sister briefly went out with one of their regular session players, more or less at the height of their fame. His background was soul and gospel, and she related his defences of their art with some amusement.

    I had nursed a vague memory that late-period Bros, circa 1991, was starting to get quite good, particularly their last hit “Try”. How wrong I was.

  7. 67
    Chris Gilmour on 24 Jun 2010 #

    Well, my first confession is that I do own this, a seven inch with the Luke sleeve. My second confession is that I did have something of a thing for aforementioned ‘band’ member, which confirms that they did have at least one male admirer, and I spent an inordinate amount of time staring at their first Smash Hits spread in 1987, around the time this single was first released. After Luke, I moved on to Bobby Brown. Yeah, I know.

    Anyway, the record; I certainly remember liking it but I don’t think I’ve played it since the late 80s and have had no wish to. Even at the time I can’t have played it more than two or three times. It was certainly weaker than the two singles that preceded it , and ‘Famous’ and ‘Drop the Boy’ at least had an identity, even though we couldn’t be sure whose identity it was.

    I’d never really noticed that it was trying to emulate SAW; I think I would have considered myself something of an expert on SAWs output at this point and the fact that I’d missed it can only mean it failed. Tom is certainly right about the breeziness and melody in SAW compositions; their best work is exhilarating and is crammed with hooks. This song sounds as if it was written under duress, no one sounds or looks as if they’re enjoying themselves and they don’t seem to particularly want us to enjoy ourselves either.

    The Brosettes in my school did tend to be the brassiest and toughest of my female classmates; perhaps it’s because people with the most defensive personalities tend to succumb to peer pressure and follow the crowd, I dunno. Certainly the more bookish girls were more into the PSBs. So Tom Watkins won either way!

    I don’t have an opinion particularly on Bros now, though I can definitely understand why people hated them. I think if I’d been a year older I would have too. So many records from this year are very dear to me, they feel part of me, and I still play them all the time. Many, many of these are manufactured pop records. But this is not one of them. It just means….nothing. Truly disposable.

  8. 68
    Erithian on 25 Jun 2010 #

    So the question that has to be asked, especially by those of us who weren’t at school to witness the phenomenon, is: were Brosettes the scariest girl fan group of them all? We’ve got Tom saying 15/16-year-old boys hated and feared Bros and Brosettes, Wichita calling them powerful and intimidating, LondonLee saying he wouldn’t want to be a copper up against them, 23 Daves and his hard-as-nails cigarette smoker, Chris above saying they were the brassiest and toughest at school, and pink champale over on the Glenn Medeiros thread scoring a snog with a “more than half ironic” Brosette (or did the “ironic” refer to the snog? I think we should be told).

    So were they scarier than Duranies and the rest, and if so why? I recall a feature in Record Mirror in the 70s bringing together girl fans of the Rollers, Mud, Slade and the Osmonds, and they all got on well – but would Brosettes have fought their corner? More information please!

  9. 69
    wichita lineman on 25 Jun 2010 #

    Gosh, BRA vs POR is so unappetising I am lured back into Bros’s icy arms.

    Two words:
    1. Grolsch (how did that happen exactly?)
    2. Aryan (unthinking, unsmiling robots expecting the earth. Seemed a bit familiar).

    Erithian, I’m intrigued to know when that RM feature ran as the Rollers peaked a good 18 months after those other acts. Possibly the lack of competition is what gave the Rollers their enormous fanbase.

    Re: ” the “quality” of the stateside product is miles ahead of anything Bros could come up with”… It didn’t seem that way at the time to me, not by any stretch, but Tom’ll get there soon enough….

  10. 70
    Steve Mannion on 25 Jun 2010 #

    Yeah that’s really not the case wrt the first #1 of the 90s – not long now!

  11. 71
    Billy Smart on 27 Jun 2010 #

    Yes, take it from one who was 15 and living in Bros country at the time, Brosettes were generally pretty tough, but perhaps that’s just because following pop stars gives young girls an aura of preoccupation with something that excludes boys. IIRC Tom Watkins domiciled the Gosses in Lewisham at the height of their powers, so tales of seeing them in the flesh – not always exaggerated – were often told around my teenage manor.

    My main memory of Brosmania in action was a girl who lived in my street phoning the 0898 premium-rate daily Bros news line: “Matt says that he loves his fans!”

    Naturally we boys all saw them as folk demons. I did feel a bit sorry for them when their sister died though. Fleet Street hacks to the famous young brothers outside the funeral: “Are you feeling SAD Matt and Luke?”… The next day’s headlines: “BROS STAR IN FOUR-LETTER FUNERAL SHAME”

  12. 72
    Billy Smart on 27 Jun 2010 #

    Re: the BEF/ Heaven 17 connection. In the Melody Maker Albums of the Eighties feature in January 1989, David Stubbs wrote about the malign influence of Penthouse & Pavement which “paved the way for the witless Filofax soul of Bros”

  13. 73
    Billy Smart on 27 Jun 2010 #

    TOTPWatch: Bros performed ‘I Owe You Nothing’ on the Top of the Pops transmitted on June 16 1988. Also in the studio that week were; Sabrina, Erasure, Sisters of Mercy and Matt Bianco. Mike Read & Gary Davies were the hosts.

  14. 74
    Tommy Mack on 30 Jun 2010 #

    Heinz. That’s who Bros remind me of. As in Just Like Eddie, not baked beans. Not just the Aryan thing, but the dimwitted, grasping hunger for fame and inability to see that others might think you a bit of a bell end for being that way.

    I’m aware Telstar might have been less than fair to Heinz coz it’s a movie and you’ve got to have a villain, but then my Dad did recall seeing him booed off stage in Sheffield because a) He was known as being arrogant and b) they all thought he was gay (different times, etc…) – both points touched on in the film.

  15. 75
    punctum on 30 Jun 2010 #

    #72: That’s like blaming Joy Division for the Rose of Avalanche.

  16. 76
    wichita lineman on 30 Jun 2010 #

    Re 74: Good call. Heinz didn’t do himself any favours in the Joe Meek Arena doc (circa ’91) snarling “where did all the money go?” All the money from his solitary no.5 hit. And this was after Meek bought him a speedboat amongst other toys.

  17. 77
    23 Daves on 30 Jun 2010 #

    #76 – I watched “Telstar” and the Arena documentary back to back with a friend of mine, and at the end of all this he had to conclude sadly: “God, Heinz really *was* an unlikable prat, wasn’t he? I thought they were exaggerating everything, but that actor really nailed him!”

    We’re frequently expected to feel sorry for Heinz because he died with only a fiver to his name (or something – people seem to rant and rave about this on YouTube a lot underneath his videos) but really, if someone refuses to see the error of their ways or their attitude right until their final days, I’d say that’s their own lookout. He had more fame and success than he truly deserved, and certainly more than most of us would ever rightfully expect for ourselves.

    Much the same could be said of the Goss twins and their bankruptcy woes.

  18. 78

    I think the Telstar actor did something else, too: he caught hints of what it was Meek was maybe drawn to, a kind of goofy now-and-then charisma that was nothing like the way Heinz wanted to BE as a performer, but was there to be used if he’d had more self-awareness, there but swamped in the useless tantrummy unlikeable side of him. Because you don’t entirely think what the HELL DID JOE SEE IN THIS GUY!?? (It’s not like he was simply handing the plum role to his cute boyf who was amazing in bed and the onstage stuff didn’t matter….) There’s moments when the crush nearly sorta kinda makes sense.

    (In other words, I too think the actor nailed it…)

  19. 79
    DietMondrian on 1 Jul 2010 #

    I’ve cast JJ Feild (who played Heinz) as Damon Albarn in the biopic of Blur I have in my head.

  20. 80
    wichita lineman on 1 Jul 2010 #

    Sukrat, I’m not sure it went far past blind infatuation. Even ignoring the tantrums, Heinz could barely sing and in his one cinematic vehicle that survives – Live It Up – he comes over as gormless and charmless.

    A lot of his records are better than people would have you believe, mind, probably because Meek put the same effort into them as HDH did for the Supremes. Questions I Can’t Answer helped Germany get to the Pop World Cup final, You Were There has an intriguingly ambiguous (ie gay) lyric, I’m Not A Bad Guy is genuinely fierce with v tough guitar work.

  21. 81
    Tommy Mack on 1 Jul 2010 #

    I felt genuinely sorry for him in the scene where he’s sitting on the bed with Joe and saying something like ‘People just don’t like me, what if they never like me?’, unable to see that he’s brought it on himself, his need to be liked making him behave in the most unlikeable manner imaginable.

    You can’t imagine Bros experiencing that sort of humbling moment, just more greed and resentment towards the people for disowning them out of jealousy etc.

  22. 82
    Tommy Mack on 1 Jul 2010 #

    Another thing that occurred to me (I’ve been thinking about Bros more than they really deserve!), the sort of aspirational hostility Bros deliver (We’re ace, you’re sh t, we’re going to destroy you on our way to the top) is unusual in rock/pop, but is a staple of rap.

    I suppose it’s more palatable to come accross like a self-centred peacockish sociopath if it’s assumed that you’re escaping the ghetto and have seen enough sh t to justify your ‘me against the world’ ethos. Like Lily Allen seemed a lot less fun once you found out her lineage; the spunky braggadocio of a young upstart turned the tantrums of a spoilt brat.

  23. 83
    Dominic on 4 Jul 2010 #

    Actually I think Bros were strange among boy-bands (if that what they were, and I suppose it is) in that they had a bit of a solidly heterosexual white working-class male fan base as well as the screaming girls.. (I knew of several such blokes in Dagenham, and also Stevenage – this is nothing to do with metrosexuality!). The whole Grolsch-bottle top-on-shoe wearing thing, the sort of obnoxious laddishness. To be fair some of their tunes weren’t bad, although I have to agree that “When Will I Be Famous?” is heads and shoulders above the rest

  24. 84
    abaffledrepublic on 14 Jul 2010 #

    #21: supposedly Craig (Ken?) found out he was leaving the group by walking into the management’s offices at the end of the year and spotting piles of calendars with pictures of just the Goss bros. This could be apocryphal but given the unpleasant reputation of the group and manager under discussion, it sounds believable enough.

    #61: Matt (it was definitely Matt) had a brief shot at a solo career in the mid 90s. I never steeled myself to listen to his effort, but the sleeve had a shot of him with dark hair and a designer goatee, looking remarkably like George Michael did at around the same time.

  25. 85
    Mark G on 19 Jul 2010 #

    Yeah, Craig was the winner: He got the payoff, the future career and one of Mel and Kim, whereas Bros got to keep all the debt.

  26. 86

    […] goed, tot zover de update, de discussie over wat er nou juist niet klopte aan de band gaat hier verder. Feit blijft wel, dat dit hun grootste hit was. Het haalde de nummer 4 in 1988 en deed over zijn […]

  27. 87
    delannoy on 29 Dec 2010 #

    , je pense que bros a sonné la fin , suivre duran duran , ha ha, wet wet wet, la c etait encore bien , la suite avec les new kid , moyen niveau marketing, la suite take that , nul!! bros a cependant reussi quelques chanson pas mal, des live aussi, la voix de Goss pouvait etre prenante parfois sur certain titres méconnu, manquait un bon producteur, plu mur!a noté, le chanteur Matt actuellement sonne bon avec gossy, ecouté firefly, along for the ride, tt simplement excellent!! plus rien a voir avec bros!

  28. 88
    DJBobHoskins on 5 Jan 2014 #

    Another one where the version that hit #1 was the 7″ remix, but largely unavailable. I always thought it was probably the best example of 80s ‘fuck you’ spite. But there we are.

  29. 89
    adelaide medeiros on 8 Apr 2014 #

    1. All. The. Young. Girls. Like. You. And. Women. 3 hundred. Of. Them. Dont. Be. Surprise. Men. We.all. like. Glenn. Medeiros.he.got. to. Pick.l.got.to.close.to.you.l.was.found.by.you.

  30. 90
    sbahnhof on 6 Aug 2015 #

    The chorus of “When Will I Be Famous” did some fairly heavy lifting from “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood imo. Not that that’s going to change anyone’s artistic opinion of Bros :)

    It’s funny how some songs live on in unusual places. Like the 9-second cover of WWIBF by Die Ärzte – right in the middle of a live punk album (from 1988). Very much of its time!

  31. 91
    MUSICALITY on 24 Apr 2017 #

    Sorry but I actually think Bros were great with a great sound and especially this chart topper and ‘When Will I Be Famous?’!
    They were briefly the biggest British pop band Worldwide also during this time which is often overlooked.
    This track did well across Africa at the time also.

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