Does every Beatles need a Stones? East 17’s manager Tom Watkins may have come to think so. His group poked their noses into the charts before Take That, but found themselves defined against Gary and the boys, and showed every sign of revelling in it. Take That looked back to disco; East 17 knew their way around a rave. Take That were a five-pack of flavours; East 17 moved as a crew. Take That flexed for your gaze but stayed at arms length; Tony Mortimer wrote songs about eating you out. North v south, cheeky v lairy, smooth v rough – playbook stuff, just the way the pop press like it. One effect of the division is that Take That moved onto ballad territory long before their rivals – East 17 always had a place for mid-paced bump’n’grind, but avoided the real weepies.
Until now. This is East 17 doing a slowie, and really going for it, piling on the trimmings of balladry until the song creaks. To this day it shows up on Christmas compilation albums because it’s got Christmas bells on – the clanging chimes of emotional doom. But it’s got everything else on too (except drums). Something about its shameless blowout ambition suits the season, though: all the overdriven heartbreak of a Christmas Day soap packed into five wailing minutes. By its final choruses “Stay Another Day” is piling the bells and strings and multitracked pleading chorales on like marzipan and icing, finding a space partway between Cliff Richard and Jim Steinman.
Linking it all together is Brian Harvey’s sometimes clumsy vocal. Given an Important Song to sing, he picks his way through the tune like he’s too big for it, a laddish King Kong doing his best not to hurt something frail and precious. The effect turns out to be perfect for the record – Harvey’s sad, sing-song, man-child vocals are wounded and baffled exactly when they need to be, when his character’s understanding of the situation breaks down: “Don’t understand what’s goin’ on… All that I do seems to be wrong.” It’s the same bewildered impotence Joy Division tapped in “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.
So for all its ungainliness, “Stay Another Day” has soul, of a sort. Sincerity, at least. I don’t think sincerity is an automatic pass in pop music – pop for me is about making shapes other people can fit themselves into, and honest self-expression is one route to that but not the only one. But sincerity can ambush me nonetheless. At the time “Stay Another Day” came out the relationship I was in seemed to have ended – I didn’t turn to this song, but I could feel the need in it, and give it a nod of recognition. It’s messy, it’s ridiculous, and it knocked every Take That single to that point into Brian Harvey’s backwards white cap.