Apr 14

ALL SAINTS – “Never Ever”

Popular110 comments • 6,433 views

#780, 17th January 1998

NeverEver You’re in the car with the radio on and no expectations, and suddenly you hear it: a song that stops everything around it, breaking through the playlist and announcing itself as a hit. More than a hit, a classic, a song you’ll be hearing for the rest of your life. And the feeling when it happens is a kind of classic itself, one of the iconic freeze-frame moments of loving music. As a self-conscious pop fan it’s something I knew was meant to happen, and every time I was listening to the radio a part of me was willing it to.

So when it did happen – when, for instance, I was in my girlfriend’s car at the end of 1997 and I heard a song start with the chords from “Amazing Grace” and a hesitant woman tiptoeing across them, talking out of the radio, asking for help turning fragments back into a life that might make some kind of sense – how much could I believe my reaction? I’d spent the back half of the year getting my own head together, and the glue I’d used was 60s pop and soul. I’d listened – a lot – to Motown, Philly, Spector, girl groups. I was ready for “Never Ever”. I needed it. Right then, I loved it.

But could I trust it? I grew tired of “Never Ever” before long. And listening to it now, the Shangri-La’s style opening monologue – so stark and startling on the radio – is horribly uncomfortable: the singer sounds abject as she begs her ex, not even for reconciliation or explanation, but just grounds to blame herself. It’s not just the styles of the 60s in play here, but their emotionally abusive attitudes too: women choking back romance comic tears, accepting that deep down it’s all their fault. “Not only will your answer keep me sane, but I’ll know never to make the same mistake again”.

It’s particularly hard to deal with given the context All Saints emerged in. The Shaznay Lewis/Mel Blatt team had been scrapping around on pop’s fringes well before the Spice Girls hit, but the renewed interest in All Saints in 1996 was born from the record industry’s sudden need to find new groups to tap the girl band market. With hindsight one of the most remarkable things about the Spice Girls is how clear a run they had, free of real competition – so that by the time alternatives did emerge the problems and strains in the Spice model were really starting to show. All Saints’ positioning as a more sophisticated option – more style mag than tabloid friendly, at least at this point – was clever and natural. But the Spice Girls hadn’t always been overworked sloganistas – if Girl Power meant anything, on the evidence of those early singles, it was about attacking situations (particularly relationships) by assuming a position of autonomy and strength. For the cool alternative to be something as apparently supine as “Never Ever” is troubling.

But while the intro of “Never Ever” may have been the cut-through moment, a dog-whistle for pop classicists like 97-era me, there’s thankfully more in the song than that. If I treat the intro as something for the rest of the song to react against, not build on, I like the song a lot more. “Never Ever” opens at its lowest point and across its five minutes at least begins to build on that and recover some kind of poise, shifting blame to the ex not on the singer: “I’m not crazy, I’m sure I ain’t done nothing wrong”.

Those lines are also when the singers begin to get loose from the straitjacket of “Never Ever”’s metronomic vocal rhythm – which finally shatters on the closing seconds, as the song shifts style entirely: a breakbeat and R&B vamping jumping “Never Ever” forward in time. And finally redeeming the song: Shaznay Lewis takes some of the most desperate, feeble pleas from the intro – “You can write it in a letter, babe” – and repeats them as a sneer. The soul-searching ends, the singer moves on, and “Never Ever” starts as a grovel but ends as a kiss-off.

Is this reading of the song useful? I’d like to think so. It suggests that “Never Ever” is a very clever record, one that draws on the past but – by using genre-play as emotional development – engages critically with it too. That’s something too few Britpop-era records managed. But for me it also recovers a little of the pleasure I felt hearing this song for the first time, stepping coolly out of the context of the radio and hoodwinking me completely.



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  1. 101
    Cumbrian on 23 Apr 2014 #

    #2 watch – Never Ever kept off Bamboogie by Bamboo, not quite riding its KC and The Sunshine Band hook to #1.

  2. 102
    Your Brother, The Astronaut on 24 Apr 2014 #

    @89 Just to add to all the below, as Popular comes closer and closer to the 00s it easy to overstate the growing influence of the internet over music consumption. While I’m sure it varied from place to place (and the Welsh valleys were hardly at the cutting edge of technology for a variety of reasons) when I was a teenager in the early 00s everyone used tapes to copy off CDs/radio and I don’t really remember the internet being a ‘thing’ with regards to downloading/listening to music until rather suddenly in 2004/2005.

  3. 103
    Garry on 24 Apr 2014 #

    @89, @102 etc I worked over the Uni summer holidays of 97/98 and bought a double cassette/CD player like the one my mother bought at the start of the 90s.

    Before then I would tape my small CD collection to listen to under the covers at night on my Walkman. Similarly I made tape copies of anything I wanted to take to college in my first two years. I only threw out these cassettes recently when I realised everything I had on CD was not digitised.

    In school I would tape a lot of music off the radio – mostly not pop but sometimes it was. Every 6 months or so I would compile the best of these tracks, with the odd track from other sources such as the library, borrowed music or even taped off television.

    I still have these 15 cassettes in their own special case. I gave them names: there’s Leitmotiv, Deja Vu, Everything, Green, Blue (the first side slow, mournful songs, side two release). There were even a couple of themed cassettes, the self-explanatory Places (Prefab Sprout’s Hey Manhattan etc), and Places (side one was Portraits – ie songs about people, side two Landscapes which I can’t tell you what it was about because I didn’t fill in the track listing). Looking at them now there are songs I can’t remember I even taped and the names are all silly but that’s being a music fan in isolation for you.

    I stopped making compilations sometime after I reached the radio station, probably because my radio show was a pretty much a weekly mixtape so the need to create an unchangeable mixtape no longer had any interest.

    The problem with burning CDs was they didn’t always work in other computers, and were especially flakey and often scratched in car CD players. But this was all later again, in the 00s.

    My earliest digital media are MOD files which date from 1990, though I doubt this was when I got them. Jump forward to 1999 and I have a bunch of .ra files which were downloaded from some form of King Crimson fan site (mostly side projects from Bruford) plus an mp3 of The Sheltering Sky.

    So as others have said here tapes were still big in the late 90s due to the costs of CD, burners etc.

  4. 104
    weej on 24 Apr 2014 #

    When my housemate got Napster in 2001 I would actually wire up my mini-stereo system to the headphone socket and record the downloaded mp3s onto cassette. The idea of listening to them through the computer seemed silly, and nobody I knew had an mp3 player.

  5. 105
    Garry on 25 Apr 2014 #

    @104 It took me years to listen to music on the computer rather than burn them to CD. The noise of my earliest computers were too loud for me to bother hooking up speakers or headphones to listen to music. Then at some time or other computers seemed to get quieter.

  6. 106
    Steve Mannion on 25 Apr 2014 #

    And the music got ‘louder’ via compression!

  7. 107
    Garry on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Compession never worried me too much. I grew up with too many cassettes taped of the radio – often scratchy AM radio – and then copied again onto cassette compilations. I could never call myself an audiophile.

  8. 108
    Mark M on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Re: various – likewise, in my quasi-but-not-fully Luddite way, I still only buy songs off iTunes if I’m making a mix CD for a friend or for a very rare DJing outing. Otherwise, I’m happy with legal free streaming or, if I actually want to own a whole album, I’ll either go for vinyl or a cheap CD (a fiver from Fopp works out better value than paid-for-downloads and you’ve a got a thing).

  9. 109
    Ed on 6 Feb 2015 #

    Just heard this by Le Tigre for the first time. It’s from the following year:


    Surely a homage / parody at the beginning there.

  10. 110
    glue_factory on 7 Feb 2015 #

    Re: 109. That’s brilliant, I’ve never noticed that before.

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