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Apr 14

ALL SAINTS – “Never Ever”

Popular111 comments • 8,361 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.

6

Comments

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  1. 31
    nixon on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #28 It took me weeks to get over that teeth-on-edge moment. “A few questions that I need to know THE ANSWERS TO”. Cutting through the airwaves first time out alright, but to very different effect.

    I warmed to it over time, as surely many people did given its chart trajectory, but both I Know Where It’s At and War Of Nerves are worth two of this.

  2. 32
    James BC on 14 Apr 2014 #

    I don’t much like this. I don’t deny that it does a good, even classic, job of dramatising the emotions of a breakup – much better than any number of angrier, shoutier songs – but I don’t find that a particularly enjoyable thing to listen to. Plus the occasional lyrical clunk brings out my churlish side. It’s not them, it’s me, but I give it a 3.

  3. 33
    Andy M on 14 Apr 2014 #

    @22 “only one #1 album… to share its name with a station on the Tube map”

    Well, if you’re allowing All Saints there’s been a second album one since 2011 (the one named by some vindictive TfL employee trying to confuse tourists)

  4. 34
    Kat but logged out innit on 14 Apr 2014 #

    Did Waterloo the album not get to #1 here then?

    I think we can all be thankful that Duffy’s Warwick Avenue only got to #3.

  5. 35
    anto on 14 Apr 2014 #

    One of the last songs I remember having a long slow climb to number one.
    I think it can still stand firm – The constant changes in the lead vocals and the mood are what make it compelling. It was certainly a cut-through-the-airwaves song for me as well – In fact, unless my memory has zoned out something else, ‘Never Ever’ was the first Popular entry I owned a copy of – It’s one of a very few (I’ve never really been into buying singles).

  6. 36
    Andy M on 14 Apr 2014 #

    Oh, maybe me and Flahr were thinking of the same one then. I was assuming any record with ‘King Kong Song’ would get to #1 :(

  7. 37
    Tom on 14 Apr 2014 #

    The other “holy shit what’s THIS” radio moment for me around this time was Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” – not a huge fan of their self-consciously dour turn around Mezzanine but that’s still an astonishing single.

  8. 38
    JLucas on 14 Apr 2014 #

    I like All Saints a lot – they released some excellent singles and vocally they had a really strong, interesting blend. Natalie Appleton has a gorgeous voice with a slightly Karen Carpenter-ish quality, which contrasted well with Mel Blatt’s jazzier tones and Shaznay’s slightly nasal drawl and occasional raps. (Nicole was a bit of a spare part, but she was popular with the tabloids).

    However, I do find them a bit depressing and establishment. It’s not so much their fault as the way they were embraced compared to the Spice Girls – at least initially – in terms of being the ‘acceptable’ face of female pop music. Spice Girls had feuds with rock stars, All Saints dated them. Spice Girls were bright, brash and fun, All Saints were surly, reserved and conservative. Spice Girls represented the power of friendship (even when Geri flew the coop they generally stayed on-message), All Saints were forever feuding.

    I agree on War of Nerves though, that one was really stunning, as were their forthcoming William Orbit collaborations. Their albums were patchy, but they released some excellent singles. This one was overplayed, and the intro got a bit irritating, but it’s definitely a 90s classic for a reason. 8.

  9. 39
    iconoclast on 14 Apr 2014 #

    The intro may be a bit clunky and the fade is definitely wrong, but the bulk of what’s in between is better than any song I’ve heard by the Spice Girls. This is very well crafted, nicely sung, unhurried, and has plenty of sublety; it gets my highest mark yet: EIGHT.

  10. 40
    georgethe23rd on 14 Apr 2014 #

    I never ever consciously realised the intro was spoken word, nor the chords to Amazing Grace. As such I’ve just increased my scoring of the song.

  11. 41
    Andrew Farrell on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #33 I think they’re talking about that one, All Saints the album only got to No. 2.

    #30 You do if you need a band we’re likely to see here, in fairness.

  12. 42
    Cumbrian on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #41: Seen the act in question already.

    http://freakytrigger.co.uk/popular/2003/09/david-whitfield-answer-me/#debug5

  13. 43
    thefatgit on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #37 Oooh! Mezzanine was one of my favourite albums of the ’90s. It stands up quite well even now. I loved all the chopped up atmospherics and dubby rhythms. Even 3-D’s monotone raps just highlight how jewel-like Horace Andy’s and Liz Fraser’s contributions were. “Teardrop” was the stand out, but I’d give “Man Next Door”, “Angel” and “Black Milk” their due.

    Just to keep things relevant, I think the Bristol scene had an indirect hand in determining how All Saints wanted to sound.

  14. 44
    Tom on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #43 Definitely, though it’s more obvious later. I think I’d like Mezzanine more coming to it again now – I felt at the time they’d got a particular balance of moods exactly right on Protection and things had tipped too much into darkness. But “Angel” was certainly another one of the good ones.

  15. 45
    Chelovek na lune on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #43 Presumably Cameron McVey forms part of that connection – the path going through Neneh Cherry and the Wild Bunch….?

  16. 46
    Kat but logged out innit on 14 Apr 2014 #

    Kilburn In The Name Of

    (sorry)

  17. 47
    Cumbrian on 14 Apr 2014 #

    This is good – I wouldn’t go as far as some but would probably go further than Tom, in terms of the mark scheme. When I was listening to it initially, I thought “this sounds a bit cheap, they’ve done a good job rising above the backing” but on closer inspection, it’s just the drum sound that I don’t like (and the odd bit of trumpet that sounds like it is on loan from Jimmy Nail – good job keeping that to the minimum) as listening for all the other elements of it, I quite like them. The synths that Marcello identifies are a highlight, I also quite like the squelchy bass, the organ the underscores some of Shaznay’s parts and the guitar that is restrained and percussive.

    Better minds than mine have identified the strength of the song itself and vocals, where it’s coming from and where it’s going to. The only other thing that I thought about when hearing this was, given the band immediately coming up next, how oddly apposite the spoken word intro was – and the resolution of the song towards “hang on, I’m certain it’s not me that’s in the wrong” too.

  18. 48
    thefatgit on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #45 I didn’t realise Booga Bear and Cameron McVey were one and the same! My “indirect” becomes direct with a definable lineage there.

    You learn something new… etc.

  19. 49
    mapman132 on 14 Apr 2014 #

    I have to admit I can’t hear the rapping-over-piano intro without thinking of Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” (not sure if that was a hit in the UK)….

  20. 50
    swanstep on 14 Apr 2014 #

    @43. I love Mezzanine too, esp. ‘Dissolved Girl’.
    @37. Big “holy shit what’s THIS” radio moment for me at this time was Rage against the Machine’s ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ (Springsteen cover). I’d kind of ignored/only half-listened to RATM up ’till then, but that track blew my mind, made me a fan.

  21. 51
    swanstep on 14 Apr 2014 #

    Other musical mind-blower for me of 1998: Clint Mansell’s soundtrack to Aronofsky’s first film Pi.

  22. 52
    23 Daves on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #8 That’s probably the only thing I truly resented All Saints for – by the end of 1998, combats were everywhere. In the end, I even had friends dropping heavy-handed hints that I should buy a pair.

    “Are you going to buy some combats soon, then?”
    “Don’t you own any combat trousers?”

    I hated them, I thought they were incredibly ugly and I never bought a pair. They did seem to be the dominant trouser choice for one hell of a long time, though – a couple of years into the next decade it seemed to me.

    Anyway, “Never Ever”. Not much to add that hasn’t already been said, but its interesting to see the intro mentioned by so many as being a perceived weakness. Perhaps I’m a sucker for that kind of old-school idea, though, to the extent that I tend to zone out on the rather more dated social attitudes it contains (my wife frequently criticises me for subjecting her to sixties pop music whose lyrics could easily be interpreted as misogynistic, or at the very least containing very entitled male attitudes).

    A great song in all, and crucially one I’ve never quite tired of despite its constant exposure.

  23. 53
    Tom on 14 Apr 2014 #

    Even I had some combat trousers. EVEN I. (IDK if I consciously knew it was All Saints’ fault though) (They failed to see actual combat.)

  24. 54
    Tommy Mack on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #50 My WTF radio moments are mostly bunnied: a couple coming up soon from a certain indie bassist turned DJ and another (also bunied i think) a long way off from a blonde haired sociopath named after a sweet…

    Oh and this, just the other day, which is quite brilliantly vulgar and possibly the complete opposite of Never Ever: http://vimeo.com/20163100

    Footnote: Hmmm…hadn’t seen the video before, let’s say it somewhat detracts from the song’s feminist credentials….

  25. 55
    Tommy Mack on 14 Apr 2014 #

    Foot note 2: tbh the radio edit is better, being pretty blatant without actually resorting to grubby words.

  26. 56
    flahr on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #42: I did say surnames didn’t count…

    (We have already met Whigfield)

  27. 57
    thefatgit on 14 Apr 2014 #

    #50 my WTF (as in pull the car over and listen in plain awe) radio moment comes around 9 Popular years from now.

    Clue: “*****! Gosh! What have you done to the Nation?”

  28. 58
    Kinitawowi on 14 Apr 2014 #

    “The alphabet runs right from A to Z”.

    A line so shit they included it twice. IKWIA was better and there’s at least two more bunnies that I’d far rather listen to than this. I’d far rather listen to Appleton’s post-breakup work than this (Fantasy is actually quite fun and Everything Eventually is hilarious).

    4.

    #33: the sign TFL put up at the aforementioned DLR station is quite amusing.

  29. 59
    Kinitawowi on 14 Apr 2014 #

    Also, let’s do Now! 39 Disc 1:

    All Saints – Never Ever
    Lighthouse Family – High
    Janet Jackson – Together Again
    …well, not actually a bunny, but a song that’s probably more of a story for not making the top spot than it would have been if it did, so it can wait
    Natalie Imbruglia – Torn
    Billie Myers – Kiss The Rain
    Robbie Williams – Angels
    Various – Perfect Day
    Boyzone – Baby Can I Hold You
    Tin Tin Out featuring Shelley Nelson – Here’s Where The Story Ends
    Space featuring Cerys Matthews – The Ballad Of Tom Jones
    Texas – Insane
    Hanson – Weird
    LeAnn Rimes – How Do I Live
    Shania Twain – You’re Still The One
    Sheryl Crow – Tomorrow Never Dies
    Radiohead – No Surprises
    The Verve – Lucky Man
    Pulp – This Is Hardcore

    And with the notable exceptions of Sheryl Crow (seriously, TND is terrible), the not-a-bunny-but-still, and of course itself, I’d still rather listen to all of these than Never Ever.

  30. 60
    swanstep on 14 Apr 2014 #

    @58, Kinatowi. Haw haw, I don’t like that line either. The central ‘Never ever have I ever…’ refrain is pretty irritating too I find. Since never ever have I ever heard NE (or anything else from All Saints) before a couple of days ago, however never ever, I’m finding it hard to get my thoughts about the track to gel. Their William Orbit tracks were more my scene on first few listens, but NE is slightly growing on me. Can’t decide whether or not I should scrape it off.

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