10
May 18

SUGABABES – “Round Round”

Popular19 comments • 1,698 views

#933, 24th August 2002

sugaround Xenomania – the songwriting and production team on “Round Round”, led by Miranda Cooper and Brian Higgins – defined 00s British pop, at least in the eyes of chart-friendly critics. Their magpie approach to genre, their patchwork song structures, their knack for a resonant line, all added up to music that wore its artfulness and populism with equal pride. If you believed that pop was worth celebrating, Xenomania provided gift-wrapped proof.

With hindsight, they weren’t the centre of UK pop – their crafty flourishes were a rearguard action, a heroic but doomed skirmish in a losing fight against acoustic drear. That’s for future entries, though. The signature Xenomania group – which didn’t even exist when “Round Round” came out – was Girls Aloud, and it’s their hits I’ll use to think more broadly about Higgins’ and Cooper’s style and project and legacy. But in Popular terms, the most successful was their partnership with the Sugababes. “Freak Like Me” was a masterpiece, but it could easily have been a singular masterpiece – it made a self-contained point, and if that had been the last the world heard of the group, you wouldn’t have been too surprised. It’s this follow-up that has to stabilise the Sugababes, establish them as an ongoing group without losing their moodiness.

It does so magnificently, and – in classic Xenomania style – it uses the structure of the song to do it. “Round Round” is built as a posse cut, with three entirely different verses each resolving into the “round round baby round round” churn of its chorus, whose shuddering foundation is an inspired lift from dance track “Tango Forte”. The structure works thematically – three different scenarios, each of which ends with the ‘babes shrugging off a suitor and returning to the nightlife rotation. But it also works practically, establishing the Sugababes as individual but indivisible.

The “Tango Forte” rhythm makes “Round Round” sound like an older sister to “Overload”, the group’s excellent debut – both tracks have a sense of subdued but irresistible momentum. (With its third verse “Round Round” also borrows “Overload”’s trick of a last flamboyant push against that rhythm before it locks back inexorably into place.) But emotionally, the tracks are very different. “Overload” is suffused with the dreamy passivity of early adolescence, the fatalistic sense of waiting for events to happen to you. In “Round Round” the ‘round’ – the rhythm of events – is a part of life the singers are fully at home in.

And this changes the appeal of the Sugababes. With the original trio, the queasy hook was their internal chemistry – who disliked who, how long would their surly alliance last? But “Round Round” builds out from that, picks up where “Freak Like Me” left off, setting up the reformed group as a team, each strong on their own, taking on the night together. I don’t know enough about the dynamics of girl friendship to say how true it is, but this is certainly familiar territory from fictions of that friendship – the double-sided stereotype of teenage girls as uniquely cruel to one another and also as sharing unbreakable ties. These were powerful ideas to be tapping; they helped make the Sugababes stars.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Mark G on 10 May 2018 #

    I remember Pete Waterman dismissing this as a nick off The Shadows’ “Apache”

    Umm, I dunno, is it in there somewhere? He was in the habit of slagging stuff he actually liked, if he felt in competition with it.

  2. 2
    Ricardo on 10 May 2018 #

    With hindsight, they weren’t the centre of UK pop – their crafty flourishes were a rearguard action, a heroic but doomed skirmish in a losing fight against acoustic drear. That’s for future entries, though.

    Without getting ahead of myself (or Popular, by the way, what with the bunny thing and all), I’d say that wouldn’t be an issue by decade’s end, as a bunch of young(er) guns seemed to have been taking some notes and “correct” the “patchwork”. Ironically (or perhaps historically, as History tends to repeat itself) by then, Xenomania had already not so much missed the bus but thrown themselves under it by foolishly chasing the “acoustic drear” a bit too late in the game.

  3. 3
    ThePensmith on 10 May 2018 #

    #1 – Pete was indeed in the habit of slagging off stuff he was in competition with at this time – more so considering the next Xenomania bunny we meet at year’s end, but that’s a story for then.

    The genesis of Xenomania, and how Brian Higgins met Miranda Cooper is one of those intriguing stories that only British pop music could devise. She spoke to The Telegraph for their ‘Story Behind the Song’ podcast last year about her time there (it’s a fascinating listen), and after first being a back up dancer for Gina G and Dannii Minogue, then half of a naff duo called T-Shirt, she came into contact with Higgins via Bob Stanley.

    Miranda was initially the immediate clearing house for Brian’s post-‘Believe’ era material as Moonbaby. Signed to London Records as Sugababes Mk 1 were, their only single ‘Here We Go’ (later re-recorded first by Aqua’s Lene Nystrom, then by Girls Aloud) failed to chart (Radio 1 apparently refused to believe Cooper was the one writing the songs and thus playlist the song, on account of seeing a press shot of her bathing in a champagne glass, saying words to the effect of ‘That dolly bird’s not written this’).

    After London axed the Moonbaby project, it resulted in the writing of the immediate (non-bunnied) follow up to Girls Aloud’s first bunny which was about the whole experience. ‘Round Round’ – or rather, the chorus, was apparently written in less than half an hour by Cooper before Sugababes arrived at the Xenomania headquarters (the old vicarage in Westerham, Kent). She said it was of only two occasions in the time Xenomania were active where they had the whole song more or less ready to go, save for Keisha, Mutya and Heidi’s contributions on the verses.

    It’s certainly one of their singles that still grabs my attention now. There is a tendency – probably more so with their next bunny in over a Popular year from now – to think of this as ‘Overload’ redux like Tom says, but sonically it’s so complex and rich in differing yet cohesive sounds, and an early indication of what made a pop song bearing the writing credits of Brian and Miranda such an exciting prospect for British pop music at that time. And I’ve always had a soft spot for Heidi’s weird and warbly middle 8 bit.

    9 for me.

  4. 4
    ThePensmith on 10 May 2018 #

    As for the chart from this week, not a great deal else of event. So Solid Crew’s Romeo was the second highest new entry at #3 with his laid back but otherwise ineffectual solo debut ‘Romeo Dunn’. Daniel Bedingfield was new in at #4 with ‘James Dean (I Wanna Know)’ but it’s pretty much Pointless answer territory considering the single he did follow that up with (although I do think it’s actually a stronger single than that one).

    New entries also from the short lived Mk 2 of Hear’Say at #6 with ‘Lovin’ Is Easy’ and H and Claire at #8 with the aptly named ‘Half a Heart’, both of which were nowhere to be seen in the top 20 the following week as if to highlight how far out of popularity both acts now were, but also how few sales were now required for a top 10 entry as opposed to a few years prior.

  5. 5
    lonepilgrim on 11 May 2018 #

    The production has some dub like effects which appeal to me and along with the propulsive rhythm puts me in mind of Pump up the Volume. A killer chorus and some dramatic attitude are the icing on the cake.

  6. 6
    S on 11 May 2018 #

    I remember Pete Waterman dismissing this as a nick off The Shadows’ “Apache”

    All of modern music is a nick off of ‘Apache’. So that’s hardly a fair criticism.

  7. 7
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2018 #

    *Normal commenting service resumed*

  8. 8
    Lee Saunders on 19 May 2018 #

    Hooray.

    The beat swings, by which I mean it sounds like its swinging, round and round. Round round. At times it even sounds like its swinging backwards (2 minutes in, it sounds like its changing direction back and forth). On board the roundabout are not only the Sugababes but a plethora of attention-to-detail squeals, whirs and bleeps – something “Freak Like Me” has too but, perhaps more to the point, something Xenomania would treat as something of a necessity. The brief high pitched tone at 1:00, halfway through the bridge, is the sort of thing I mean. Why is it there? Because it sounds good. It’s the sort of thing Basement Jaxx would have done if they were producing (and Xenomania’s similarities to Jaxx on Popular are far from over).

    And of course there’s the choppy structure, like the ridiculous/brilliant part when it turns into another song completely (which is Xenomania already finding their feet), and indeed the assured Sugababes and lyrics themselves. The “won’t change for any man” themes were there on some of the group’s later hits (especially on their Xenomania songs, like [2003 bunny] and Red Dress). But here, the fully formed Sugababes and the restlessly inventive Xenomania are already striking their pose. Lyrically and musically bold, Round Round sounds very confident with all the risks its playing. Two number ones in a row after the wilderness period, they now had reason to be confident they had the right audience, too.

    9

    As for Xenomania eventually chasing the “acoustic drear,” I’d only heard Sweet About Me – if that’s what you mean – for the first time in many years last month, and the first time I’d heard it since being aware that it was Higgins, Cooper and co. behind it. Not a bad song but They Could Do Better.

    #4 I prefer James Dean (I Wanna Know) to Daniel’s first #1 too. Like all of his first four singles it feels like he’s chasing something different (perhaps what partly cost him a long term career in the end but there’s more time to discuss that, as there already has been) and in this case its electroclash.

    Round Round’s debut week is also of some significance to me: When I first found out (many years later) that Coldplay’s In My Place had gone down from #2 to #13 and spent only two weeks in the top 20, it was that seemingly unusual statistic (“but it’s so ubiquitous!”) that got me obsessed with chart run trajectories for the first time.

  9. 9
    ThePensmith on 19 May 2018 #

    #9 – I find it hard to see ‘Sweet About Me’ as, as #2 put it, ‘acoustic drear’. Perhaps because of Gabriella Cilmi’s unfortunate timing of being launched at the same time as, and thus associated with two bunny holders in the same mould as her as she was 10 years ago, then I can see ‘by association’ it was a natural assumption to make. If I remember correctly, where ‘Sweet About Me’ in particular was concerned regarding chart trajectories, it had an incredibly long gestation period from debuting to becoming a top 10 hit.

    Probably because of its saturation airplay that year in the UK and Europe and a sense of market overkill, it explains why Gabriella’s career – which save for one other top 10 hit with the sadly forgotten and brilliant ‘On A Mission’ in 2010, and a mildly popular reworking of Connie Francis’ ‘Warm This Winter’ for several Christmases thereafter – was short lived.

    Miranda and Brian actually sketched out that song in 2005 when Xenomania were on a weekend away in Paris. If you bring up the instrumental on YouTube, you could close your eyes and almost hear someone like Brigitte Bardot whispering sweet nothings over the top of it. ‘Sweet…’ arguably owed more to 60s French and European sounds than it ever did to anything else.

  10. 10
    Lee Saunders on 19 May 2018 #

    #9 I wouldn’t call Sweet About Me ‘acoustic drear’ either, and your angle on the song is definitely convincing, though at the time its soft sound felt to me as fitting in with Bunny (which rhymes with her actual name), though I’m wondering if its placement on Now 70 after Warwick Avenue and Sara Bareilles’ Love Song is perhaps colouring my memory. As far as 60s pop homages go, Xenomania would later hit #1 with (an albeit more upbeat) one in later 2008 that I know was decried by some for what they perceived was conceding to the popularity of Amy and Bunny.

    Listening to the instrumental I’m actually reminded of another Xenomania effort from the time…the song that came two tracks later on Now 70.

    Anyway, probably getting way ahead of ourselves here.

  11. 11
    AMZ1981 on 19 May 2018 #

    Round Round did indeed appear to position Sugababes as the superior pop group fighting a rearguard action against the reality TV machine. These were real performers who’d had to graft for their success (rather than having it handed to them for singing on TV), had songs of their own to sing and maybe, just maybe, had something to say. However and leaving aside the fact that even Darius would have crushed them in a 2002 chart head to head it didn’t happen like that, despite the Sugababes being one of the biggest pop groups of the decade.

    Round Round feels like it should be a nine for me but instead it’s a generous seven. Like Freak Like Me before it I should have fond memories of this but somehow I don’t. It just feels a bit drab and dated in 2017.

    Returning to the Popular present, I think it wasn’t until the next year that I bought the Angels With Dirty Faces album (rave reviews, even from the serious music press) expecting a superior pop album. I was disappointed; I thought it was a few decent singles and the rest drab filler.

    The Sugababes hadn’t peaked yet (that would be the 2005 bunny) but their artistic shine would vanish pretty quickly. In part this was because the reality TV machine would soon play their ace and ensure that Sugababes were arguably only the second best girl group of the decade but nobody saw that coming. However the Sugababes are remembered now not just for their songs but for the cat fights and sackings that would ensure they finished their career as a laughing stock with no original members left. But that’s to come.

  12. 12
    wwolfe on 20 May 2018 #

    I don’t know if this made any kind of a splash in the States, but I do know this is the first time I’ve heard this song. Which I regret, because I like this a lot. That’s a hook! The singer may not be Darlene Love, but the writers and producers have taken care to write a melody that sounds perfect when sung by this particular singer. I look forward to having this stuck in my head for quite some time.

  13. 13
    ThePensmith on 20 May 2018 #

    #12 – no breakthrough for Sugababes v2.0 in the States – although there was a release for their next bunny there in 2004, it only made #96 on the Billboard Hot 100. There was also the time when a future bunnied rapper ‘signed’ v3.0 to his label but with hindsight that’s debatable.

  14. 14
    Matthew K on 21 May 2018 #

    I really want to make a line graph showing the cumulative total number of #1s since 1952 until now, and on the same axis the number of reviews on Popular – it’d be an upward creeping line with another upward creeping line starting in 2003, aiming toward the first line at some mythical future intersection.
    Or will the project finish when the #1 of August 2003 is reviewed?

  15. 15
    Andrew Farrell on 21 May 2018 #

    Bah, someone has definitely been fiddling with the Matrix (not the other song-production team): I could have sworn that this project started with a list of the 1000 UK #1s that Tom had downloaded, but of course that milestone isn’t until early-2005. Not that it wouldn’t be a decent stopping-point anyway.

  16. 16
    Izzy on 23 May 2018 #

    This didn’t grab me at first, but I always try to keep an eye out for strong reactions in other people as a guide to genius-hiding-in-plain-sight. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.

    With this I remember my girlfriend picking me up from somewhere and this coming on in the car and she could not keep still. Not just tapping a finger either, but properly bouncing about in the seat. It was slightly alarming but I was grateful for the heads-up, and also a little grateful when something else came on.

    Reader, I married her.

  17. 17
    CommuterLove on 24 May 2018 #

    #16, interesting comment in the opening paragraph, and well put. I’m fairly sure some or other thread on here looks at how we encounter and filter ‘new’ stuff, and esp how we open ourselves up to “you liked this so maybe you’ll like this algorithms.” But there’s no sub for that ‘strong reaction’, is there? Aside from pointing me persistently towards China Crisis and Aztec Camera, Spotify knows me pretty well, but that’s all hidden maths, and I don’t get to see how it generated pleasure in others (dancing, singing, admiration of lyric) … or how much? In Bob’s Yeah Yeah Yeah book, Somewhere in the middle of the 1980s, he makes the point that some bands existed (and became popular) because of people being used to buying records – no-one could’ve really loved Go West or Living In A Box, for example. Could they? Similarly, I find myself streaming all sorts of good-ish stuff (All Hail Discover Weekly), and in doing so I feed the process of other people streaming all sorts of good-ish stuff. But I sometimes miss the process of learning to love a song just because of how much someone else is into it.

  18. 18
    Shiny Dave on 30 May 2018 #

    11. This is interesting in terms of thinking just how big the Sugababes *actually* were!

    They were clearly big – even in this era you don’t get multiple bunnies across multiple years any other way – but they were in the shadow of other styles throughout their career, and other exponents of that career from four months after this. But how dominant *was* acoustic drear (and electric drear) in the 2000s? Looking ahead, Daniel Bedingfield’s two remaining bunnies fit that but are one-week wonders, acoustic drear tops and tails the list of 2003 bunnies but both of those are defined by the reality TV machine (one’s from it, the other reached #1 as an explicit reaction against it), Westlife have already had their last number one that wasn’t in November (!), and frankly I don’t get the impression that the style had the top of the charts even close to itself.

    If anything, my sense of the mid-2000s is an era of contrasting uptempo pop styles jostling it out while AOR and Cowellian beige held down its own fort. Then again, the latter owned the most lucrative part of the year…

  19. 19
    wichitalineman on 24 Jun 2018 #

    Re “acoustic drear” – I’m thinking of Vagabond, Xenomania’s Kravitz-cum-Starsailor. Being Xenomania, some of the songs were still pretty strong, but mostly they sounded like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xH2mvay7V4

    Round Round is a beautifully structured, oddly understated thing. Seems mildly miraculous that it was a number one, but the impact of Freak Like Me cast a long shadow. I’m fairly convinced I heard a much longer initial version – maybe one day we’ll hear Xenomania’s sketches/demos/unreleased material.

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