13
Apr 14

ALL SAINTS – “Never Ever”

Popular111 comments • 8,555 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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Comments

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  1. 1
    Tommy Mack on 13 Apr 2014 #

    The intro really bothered me too. Even as a teenage boy who hated smart-arse, noisy Girl Power, I didn’t want this as an alternative, I knew this wasn’t how women were meant to be in the 90s. I think you’re right that the record rises out of the ashes of abjection. I still can’t forgive All Saints for ushering in an era of beige music and beige clothing. Without the intro and the context I’d maybe stretch to a seven, as it is, I’m hovering around 5/6.

    One of the things that struck me about listening to Barbie Girl is how recently Barbie Girl type sentiments were wholeheartedly knocking about in pop world. I feel quite uncomfortable listening to northern soul classics like Doris Troy’s I’ll Do Anything or Maxine Brown’s One In A Million and thinking what a bleak world to grow up in.

  2. 2
    MikeMCSG on 13 Apr 2014 #

    I think this lot did get a bit of traction simply from providing an alternative to the Spices; I recall someone – it would either be in Q or the free Metro paper – describing them as “the girl band it’s OK to like”.
    Did Nicole have such a prominent part again ? She always seemed to be in the background in the subsequent vids I caught.

  3. 3
    AMZ1981 on 13 Apr 2014 #

    My abiding memory of this is on a minibus going to and from a sixth form history conference in Manchester. This was one of two songs that seemed to keep coming up on the radio in an endless loop (Choose Life by the PF Project was the other) and I remember the spoken intro used to make my teeth grind.

    Never Ever took nine weeks to get to the top (the longest climb since Think Twice three years before and, leaving aside re-issues, I’m not sure if anything has topped it since) by which time it had grown on me.

    I’m not sure whether All Saints were ever intended as the anti Spice Girls, like East 17 before them they were rather swept up in the vanguard. I did read once that Shaznay Lewis was the songwriter, Mel Blatt the voice and the fact that the Appleton sisters grabbed the limelight derailed the whole thing.

    In the Spice Up Your Life thread I tried to kickstart a little sideshow but nobody took the bait. Which was worse – Spiceworld or Honest?

  4. 4
    MikeMCSG on 13 Apr 2014 #

    # 3 No group would ever set themselves up with such a negative mission; it was just a critical thing.

    I suspect not too many of us have actually seen Honest.

  5. 5
    Tom on 13 Apr 2014 #

    I don’t think the group’s intentions matter either way really – any act that becomes famous has to fit into the wider picture of what’s going on in music – critically, from a marketing perspective, from a playlister’s or store buyer’s angle. In a situation where there’s a very strong, successful pop group, surely the first thing you do if you’re a competing label is look for your own equivalent. The easiest way is to find people who already exist, fit the bill and are talented enough to make a contrasting and complimentary identity work. The second easiest thing to do is create a version from scratch – we’ll see what happens if you do that later in the year.

    (It’s not a case of being “anti”, All Saints are an alternative to the Spice Girls in the way Spiderman is an alternative to Batman: significant differences in appeal but very easy to imagine fans liking both.)

  6. 6
    weej on 13 Apr 2014 #

    Ham-fisted troubling-in-the-wrong way, shangri-las-rip-off intro followed by a few minutes of near-perfect R&B-soul-pop, followed by a minute or so of spinning wheels and a crap fade-out – A 2, a 9 and a 3, so let’s call it a 7, as the bulk of the song is a keeper. As usual with All Saints, the glossy (i.e. American-standard) production and presentation hides the mistakes made by not developing a good idea well enough.

    All Saints were a “Spice Girls it’s ok to like” and I found that annoying. The Spice Girls may not have been perfect but the problem wasn’t that they weren’t glossy and uniform enough (Shaznay’s voice is clear enough, but the other three are basically interchangable) – and the idea that you had to de-pop and de-naff girl groups to get broader appeal is an unfortunate indicator of where tastes were heading.

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 13 Apr 2014 #

    listening to this again recently I was surprised at how long it went on for. I’d be interested to hear a female perspective on the record – did/do women like it because they could recognise the sentiments in the lyrics? I seem to recall that when this was performed on TOTP there was always a triumphant whoop from the audience when Shaznay began her contributions

  8. 8
    Kat but logged out innit on 13 Apr 2014 #

    All Saints = 100% responsible for denim going out of fashion in the late 90s. I ditched my jeans and bought a pair of combats instead (better for crowdsurfing).

  9. 9
    thefatgit on 13 Apr 2014 #

    I was sorely tempted to make an obvious Beatles/Stones comparison in regard to Spice Girls/All Saints, but for reasons Tom states in his review, All Saints hit the top just as Spicemania was beginning to peter out. Before that “I Know Where It’s At” suggested All Saints was populated entirely by Sporty Mel C-alikes, with a very TLC-alike sound. That had to be a winning combination didn’t it?

    As I recall it, All Saints were touted as a more sophisticated and nuanced girl group, who understood their forebears from the pop’s past and built their sound on a steadfastly R&B foundation. Yes, “Never Ever” was unexpected, and somewhat welcome as a form of contrast to primary-coloured Aqua or Spice Girls.

    Listening to it now though, it doesn’t sound like a natural follow-up to IKWIA. It sounds resigned and world-weary. The “Amazing Grace” chords tie it to pre-pop. The spoken intro recalls Spector. The wah-wah guitar recalls 70s funk, all filtered through a lens that might have been formerly used by The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. It’s still very listenable, despite the weedy lyrics. If the Spice Girls were hankering after a “man”, All Saints were getting all cut up over what was definitely the “boy who thinks he can”. Given the choice, I’d prefer the sassier IKWIA over this.

  10. 10
    Tommy Mack on 13 Apr 2014 #

    8: Ugh, yes, I had a nasty green pair, nice and baggy for shuffling around to drum’n’bass.

  11. 11
    Another Pete on 13 Apr 2014 #

    To date they are the only number 1 act I’ve actually met, albeit obliviously at the Reading Festival in 1997. They were just this group of girls walking past me until one of them (Shaznay) stopped and asked where I got my T-shirt from. ‘A shop in Norwich’ I replied of which one of the Appleton’s then took the piss out of my home town (This might of been pre-Partridge, or at least him being synonymous with Norwich/Norfolk). Noting the unplaceable accent ‘So where you from then?’ I asked ‘London’ came the stock response from all four. I just assumed they were just four mates at a festival and thought nothing of it until about a month later they were promoting ‘I know where it’s at’ on TV and then it hit home when I recognised that accent again.

  12. 12
    James Masterton on 13 Apr 2014 #

    You know I had to laugh reading that as Never Ever is one of those records where I too remember exactly where I was when I first heard it, in this case riding on a bus to my parents’ house as it pulled out of Leeds bus station. Was listening on headphones and was at that moment utterly captivated.

    You may be interested to know that most commercial radio stations edited the monologue off the start of the copies they played, the feeling amongst most programmers being that it slowed things down too much and was an audience turn-off despite the appeal of the rest of the track.

    Oh yes, and the interminably slow climb to the top of the charts experienced by the single meant it did set one record. Never Ever sold more copies before reaching the top of the charts (900,000 to be exact) that any other record before or since.

  13. 13
    punctum on 13 Apr 2014 #

    An exemplary and most auspicious start to what was, in chart terms, the real year of Girl Power; statistically, 1998 boasts the largest proportion of number one singles by female artists throughout any calendar year. And while there is little doubt that much of this triumph was owed to the example that the Spice Girls set – there are least two chart-topping acts from this year I can think of who can fairly be said to have been directly inspired by them – the demographic and range was large.

    However, while there will be plenty of Spice input into 1998 it could also be said that the baton was in the process of being taken, or wrested, from them. In the case of All Saints, the tortoise/hare scenario seems particularly apt, since the heroines of Ladbroke Grove had been in existence for most of the decade in one form or another – Shaznay Lewis and Mel Blatt being the dual constants – and earlier in the nineties had even been on the books of ZTT, based one road up in Basing Street. There is the story that they even briefly toyed with the notion of calling themselves Spice. But nothing quite gelled until at the eleventh hour Canada came to the rescue in the form of the Appletons; and more prosaically, practical help and artistry was provided by the avant-New Pop reliable Cameron McVey, one of the key bridging figures between New Pop Mks I and II and much else worthwhile in contemporary British pop besides.

    Their official debut single, “I Know Where It’s At,” did very well indeed, peaking at number four in the early autumn of 1997, though at that stage it was still unclear whether they intended to be Spice competition or the next and better Eternal. But “Never Ever” stopped everyone in our tracks with its patient humility and uncomprehending but solidly restrained anger. While “Too Much” was finally not much more than a sterile run through of stock moves designed to neutralise the kinks out of the Spice Girls and make them palatable to the dreaded “international audience” – and yet the brashly, cheerily unrefined “Wannabe” was their biggest global seller – “Never Ever” feels like a living ballad, one that’s still being written even as it’s being sung. The opening deadpan, or blank, monologue over Sunday School piano, organ and harmonised hums, too numb to do more than mouth the speaker’s words of mystified betrayal, reminds me of a nervous convent schoolgirl sitting awkwardly in the confession booth, trying to stutter out guilt she isn’t at all convinced is hers to own; it is fully worthy of comparison with the Shangri-Las except it boldly persists for over a minute – “commercial suicide!” screamed the suits – before the musicians kick in and the song begins to unfold, or fold unto itself.

    It kicks in with a teasing tickle of question mark guitar gestures – performed by session guitarist Richard Hawley – half-hidden funk beats, Shuggie Otis organ splurges and the six-inch trampoline bounce of the underlying rhythm. Already the girls are sufficiently distracted to seek self-pleasure – feel that choral rivulet on the word “roam” which intrudes as they “take a shower/I will scour.” The astute round robin of lead vocal duties – all four Saints take multiple turns, but as seamlessly as the transition from acoustic to electric bass near the beginning of the title track of Bitches’ Brew – means that we view different perspectives of the same basic (if naturally muddled) thought process; the voices change from soft and vulnerable (though these get the more troubled feeling: “Don’t wanna communicate,” “Go insane”) to strident and mildly resentful in a tiger purring kind of way (“I’m not crAAA-zAYYY!”). Shaznay’s lyric, too, is meticulously assembled, its schemata so subtle that it can be made to rhyme with both “A to Z” and “A to Zee.”

    Then all join forces for the sensual sleigh bell chorus, all coming down and breathing with just the right amount of gap left in between the “never”s and “ever”s, as if showing their betrayer how mad he must be to walk out on a summoning of sirens which is beyond sexy. Note how McVey subtly increases the density of the arrangement in minute steps, such that we have a virtual synth orchestra decorating the final, climactic chorus, before at the end pulling out the rug of sorrow and self-examination to reveal a wonderfully dirty funk undertow with wolf-whistle scratching as Lewis demands that he get in touch, by letter (“baaaabe”) or ‘phone or “to my face” before heading off to search for him. You hardly notice that the record lasts just under six-and-a-half minutes – you would only narrowly fail to fit the first three Supremes hits into that timespan – but it needs its length, to ponder, to develop, to realise.

    Another miracle of “Never Ever” is that it achieves precisely what none of the Soul, Passion and Honesty brigade ever did, which is to make a soul-pop record which has all the essential ingredients of a classic soul record in terms of subject matter, arrangement, pacing and performance – the Marvelettes would have been proud to have recorded it – without bashing the listener over the head with its alleged authenticity; this is because not once do any of All Saints resort to histrionic outbursts; the emotions rise organically from the nature and propulsion of the song, as they should do. Nor did they pose as Real Soul Singers onstage; their TOTP performance found them shuffling in a Brechtian chalk circle, shrugging their shoulders with hands wedged deep in the pockets of their slung-on combat trousers, each Saint patiently queuing up and waiting her turn to step back into the spotlight. If Woody Allen had been a girl group he would have been All Saints by this evidence. And it was magic; they looked and acted naturally, did not appear “professional” (even though all of them were stage school veterans), were not even apparently attracted by the global glitter which by then was beginning to squeeze the life out of the Spices. So great is “Never Ever” as a record that it takes the attentive listener a long time to work out that its chord sequence is identical to that of “Amazing Grace” (it was deliberately so) – and you instinctively think of “was blind, but now I see,” and “Never Ever” describes what they were thinking in the seconds before they saw the light – “when you gonna take me out of this black hole?” Peerless, and still New, Pop. 10

  14. 14
    Alan not logged in on 13 Apr 2014 #

    Where do they get all the sewing machines from?

  15. 15
    Alan not logged in on 13 Apr 2014 #


    “Never ever did I ever feel so low”

  16. 16
    Housetoastonish on 13 Apr 2014 #

    If there was ever a mid-late ’90s pop/RnB hit which was crying out for an Arab Strap cover it’s this one. Imagine Aidan Moffat sadly sighing his way through that intro.

  17. 17
    mapman132 on 13 Apr 2014 #

    We’re now entering the decline-of-Spice British Withdrawal period on the US pop chart where it seemed each big British or Irish boy or girl band would manage one, and only one, US hit which would never be heard again after it dropped off the chart*. All Saints actually bucked this trend slightly since “I Know Where It’s At” had already hit #36 before “Never Ever” got to #4. But otherwise, the trend started here as I hadn’t heard NE in years and have never heard their output after it.

    That being said, I actually like this more than I remember. I don’t remember the intro at all (maybe US radio skipped over it) but it’s not bad. The one thing I don’t like about the song is its odd tailing off at the end. Overall, they seemed to be positioning themselves as a harder-edged R&B Spice Girls. It’ll be interesting to see if this sound continues over the unfamiliar bunnies to come. 6/10.

    *Interestingly, this forum will not be encountering the one UK boy band to buck the trend and manage multiple US hits over the period 1998-2002: BBMak

  18. 18
    Mark G on 13 Apr 2014 #

    Hi, I am on holiday so just popped in to say a definite 10, for all the reasons Tom and Marcello have described, but am too lazy/late to repeat or add to, cheers.

  19. 19
    Ed on 13 Apr 2014 #

    #9 The analogy I was going to draw was that All Saints were the Clash to the Spice Girls’ Pistols, but actually they are more like the Jam: not as radical either musically or ideologically, more conventional in appearance, more obviously rooted in a tradition, and generally just not nearly as interesting.

    I have been a bit surprised by some of the positive responses here – although Punctum gets great respect for the Bitches Brew comparison! – for me, Tom’s assessment and mark are spot on.

    I can see they had something, though, and one of their bunnies is probably my favourite number one of the past two decades. But that’s for another day.

  20. 20
    Tom on 13 Apr 2014 #

    Of the five singles released from their first album, I think the two that I won’t be writing about (“I Know Where It’s At” and “War Of Nerves”) are my definite favourites.

  21. 21
    Ed on 13 Apr 2014 #

    @20 I’d forgotten War of Nerves! That’s a great song. But the bunny I was thinking of is from the second album.

  22. 22
    flahr on 13 Apr 2014 #

    Only #1 artist to share their name with a station on the Tube map (although not actually on the Tube).

    (There is also, pleasingly, only one #1 single to share its name with a station on the Tube map, and also only one #1 album – although this last one I’m not so sure about.)

    (My walk home from work passes Hanson Street, which makes me think ‘I wonder if that’s the only street in W1 to share its name with a #1 artist?’, and then Newman Street, which makes me think ‘surnames only doesn’t count’, and then Whitfield Street, which makes me think ‘one letter! so close’.)

  23. 23
    Billy Hicks on 13 Apr 2014 #

    Two memories of this, both years after the initial release:

    * Spring 2001, Year 7 and first year of secondary school, where a major talking point amongst friends was a pretty *huge* million-selling bunny and this, noting that if you sang them together they fit perfectly. Without going into too much detail, “Wherever you go…” “Never ever have I ever felt so low…” “Whatever you do…” “…when you gonna take me out of this black hole” etc.

    * January 2013, when this played in a trendy Shoreditch bar and *every single one* of my friends knew every single line, including the youngest who was born in 1994 so wouldn’t even have been three years old when this hit the top.

    I adore this, not something I play regularly but something I enjoy whenever I hear it. 8 or 9 depending on mood.

  24. 24
    Billy Hicks on 13 Apr 2014 #

    *four

  25. 25
    Chelovek na lune on 14 Apr 2014 #

    To my ears, and mind, a pretty fabulous composition, and pretty darn good performance. Possibly the final 90 secs or so could be tightened up a bit, but this is very welcome here.

    ‘War of Nerves’ is quite fantastic – mildly interesting to note, too, alongside some pretty great bunnies, that every one of their nine singles made the top ten.

  26. 26
    Erithian on 14 Apr 2014 #

    Time to declare an interest in that I’ve met one of the band, indeed I’ve known her dad for some 25 years. David Blatt, football nut, language teacher, traveller, all-round good egg and author of two books, “Manchester United Ruined My Wife” and “The Red Eye”, about living life with Manchester United as your religion. We used to hold Football Supporters Association committee meetings in his print studio near Old Street where his family lived “above the shop”, so I first met Melanie when she was about 12. David and I worked together in the FSA Football Embassy during Euro 96 – I remember him leaning out of the window after every England goal v Holland announcing the score to Piccadilly Circus – and it was around then that he told us his daughter was in a band. And then 18 months later they started having hits.

    As James beat me to it in saying, “Never Ever” holds the record for highest sale of a single in the weeks before the week it reached number one, the chart run going 3-5-6-5-4-4-4-2-1 over a big-selling Christmas period. The day it got to the top there was a party chez Blatt, all the girls plus special guests. Jamie Theakston came along, as did Stuart Zender, Jamiroquai bassist and soon responsible for the baby bump Mel sported at gigs. And Robbie Williams showed up as well, and David spent a happy half-hour chatting to him about Port Vale FC.

    To be honest, it felt to me like a patchy single, if a single can be patchy – I wasn’t too sure about the length of the spoken intro and the Shangri-Las imitation, and although the main body of the song swung like a good ‘un the “A to Z” and “A to Zee” lines jarred. Overall, though, a wonderful record and a pleasure to see at the top – as even people who don’t know their dads have confirmed!

    As we’ll see, further Number 1s followed, at least one an absolute classic in my book. Fast forward to the present, and Mel (whom I last saw filling our wine glasses at her dad’s 60th) was a mentor in the New Zealand version of X Factor last year. She’s now on the comeback trail with All Saints – they’ve just supported the Backstreet Boys on tour, and later this year they’re headlining a 90s/00s revival tour with the likes of East 17, Atomic Kitten and Jenny from Ace of Base. Good luck to them.

  27. 27
    Steve Williams on 14 Apr 2014 #

    I like these stories of when you first heard this song, and I am reminded my flatmate burst in one day to ask if I’d heard it because he was totally smitten by it. And indeed the All Saints LP was totally ubiquitous around university, so I used to hear it any time I was in someone’s flat or, especially, someone’s car. For me this song, and this album, is the sound of the Aston Expressway, as we’d listen to it while shuffling between Subway City, Bakers, The Que Club, The Arcadian Centre and other student staples in Birmingham. We absolutely lapped it up.

    I always liked it and especially so compared to the other albums on heavy rotation in our flat which were Tracy Chapman, an early Shania Twain album when she was still very much a country, rather than pop, artist and a Janis Joplin compilation I grew to absolutely despise. Compared to those three, I would elect to listen to All Saints as frequently as possible.

    Regarding the point above, I always thought Mel Blatt was a brilliant pop star, I found her very amusing. I remember on the Record of the Year TV show – either this year or one of the later ones – when she positioned herself behind the band who won and every time they crossed over to the green room during the voting, she would be behind them pulling a series of ridiculous faces.

  28. 28
    Martin F. on 14 Apr 2014 #

    But but but she already KNOWS the questions

  29. 29
    alexcornetto on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #16 – You say that, but nothing will ever top an Aidan Moffat-sung cover of an Atomic Bunny a few years down the line. Possibly the only time any of their songs was coupled with a Fall song anywhere (a cover of ‘Bill Is Dead’ was on the flipside).

    …man, that Sick Anchors single is wonderful.

    As for Never Ever, a lot of fond memories of this one. Yeah, “A few questions that I need to know…” has become a modern day “Jailbreak somewhere in this town” (see #28), but this is postmodern, magpie-eyed late 90s pop at its purest and least smug. Tarantino-style, the references are there if you get them; if you don’t, it doesn’t impair how great the song is.

    Flash forward to their double-bunny covers single a few months later, and that greatness vanishes for me completely (at least for a couple of years).

    This one’s a 9.

  30. 30
    MikeMCSG on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #22 You don’t need to substitute a letter in Whitfield.

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