The formation of minor boyband 911 is a telling vignette of how pop in the late 90s was working. The general boyband narrative is one where a managerial Svengali recruits rosy-cheeked poppets who emerge three or four years later, a little wiser, hopefully richer, and generally sporting unfortunate facial hair as a sign that they are now their Own Man. They celebrate cutting their ties with the pop machine by falling into complete obscurity, and then it’s all over bar the reality show reunions. It’s a career.
What’s – mildly – interesting about 911 is that the motive force for their existence wasn’t a dollar-eyed manager or a talented singer – it’s two backing dancers who saw how well other former backing dancers were doing and decided, quite sensibly, that they wanted a bit of it. So they found a willing manager and then cast about for someone to sing the songs. It’s an origin story that doesn’t really fit the familiar pop storyline of rampant exploitation: instead, you could make an inspiring business case study out of it. And I suspect that’s because British pop was increasingly working like a business – staffed by young people who might not have had formal qualifications but who were more canny about the value of their labour and the structures they were working in. In the stage school era, pop is a job and is advertised, interviewed for and treated (if you’re sensible) with the same clear-eyed unsentimentality as any other desirable but precarious employment. One of the interesting things about reality TV pop is that it made a spectacle of the “wide-eyed kid gets their dream ticket” storyline at exactly the point it was becoming archaic in the biz as a whole.
Perhaps it was 911’s entrepreneurial viguour that made record labels initially slightly wary of them. Or it could have been that, if “A Little Bit More” is any evidence, they were shit. That search for a vocalist had ended up with Lee Brennan, and listening to “A Little Bit More” I wish they’d hunted harder. “A Little Bit More”, like any bedroom jam, requires a mix of conviction and fantasy from its lead singer. “Oily” and “desperate” aren’t really the adjectives you want to be reaching for. Brennan’s pinched, wheedling voice might be the least charismatic boyband performance we’ve met in the 90s – he makes Peter Andre sound like Isaac Hayes. The saving grace, perhaps, is that Brennan is so weedy that he can’t make the lyrics of this hoary old song – “When your body’s had enough of me…” – sound as skeevy as they might sung by someone less callow. But when you factor in the preset twinkles of the production this is one of the most negligible Number Ones yet.