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Sep 19

BLUE ft ELTON JOHN – “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”

Popular10 comments • 1,296 views

#945, 21st December 2002

Blue’s last Number One, and any wisps of street credibility which might have still clung to them melt away. Don’t be fooled by the off-the-peg R&B shuffle in the best: just as much as Bedingfield’s effort, this is a cynical push into Westlife territory. More cynical, even – while “If You’re Not The One” had its writer’s formalist curiosity to excuse it, “Sorry” can’t pretend to be anything more than a cross-generational Christmas cash grab.

Perhaps some small degree of respectability accrues to it from Elton’s own involvement? Elton John is a famously enthusiastic and generous collaborator – it’s one of the most endearing things about him, this desire to keep up, join in and just see what happens when musicians meet. But inevitably this approach doesn’t guarantee quality – Elton tackles his lines here with gruff gusto but you imagine the track left his mind pretty soon after the studio door closed behind him. Blue beat their chests and dab ineffectively at the song and don’t leave a mark on it: they scatter a few ad libs around Elton’s vocals to remind us (then and now) that this is 2002.

“Sorry” for me isn’t prime Elton John in any case – from the tail end of his US Imperial Phase, it’s a morose picture of a gummed-up relationship which seems to reflect the stasis of its subject. I can see why soul singers have been drawn to it – it’s melodically strong with lots of introspective wiggle room – but I find it flat. The most alive moment in this version is the uncredited harmonica solo, a few seconds of lament that cuts through the vocals and lets the track end with dignity.

Blue grooved gamely on for the regulation third album before splitting (they’ve had an unusually prolonged afterlife, including a stab at Eurovision). Their departure, though, is the end for now of a long-running strand in British pop – the attempt to come to terms with hip-hop and R&B by chucking boy bands at it. East 17, 911, Let Loose, 5ive, Blue – a decade of lads throwing shapes, rapping badly, and generally operating in the grand British tradition of being a faintly rubbishy version of what the Americans were doing. Just as in the 50s, singular visions (East 17) or sheer jauntiness (Five) could turn this ersatz approach into an advantage. But those moments were rare. Blue’s best single – the Notorious BIG sampling “Fly By II”, a few months before this – shows how unsustainable the urban boyband style was. It’s deliciously catchy but its “got the city on lockdown” fronting is all too easy to mock. The appeal of borrowed moves was ebbing, leaving a need for British pop so find some of its own – a need about to be met in the most unexpected of ways.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Jamie on 30 Sep 2019 #

    Well, at least the next entry is a good one

    This is still just so shockingly lame. 9 year old me went right off Blue after this, and he was right to.

  2. 2
    Lee Saunders on 30 Sep 2019 #

    Blimey this has a lot of views on YouTube. The very quiet “uh-huh” that is Blue’s trademark at 0:33 makes me laugh out loud. They just couldn’t help it.

    Probably more so than Queen or U2 or Michael Jackson, Elton John’s Popular story is definitely wonky and wrong. The 2000s is joint place with the 90s as Elton’s most popular Popular decade, yet this is the third (of five) consecutive Elton John number ones (out of seven overall) that revives an older song of his as consolation for him never hitting the top spot at all, bar DGBMH, during his heyday.

    There is the added novelty of Elton’s gravelly voice being answered by “yal, yal” but this is dull territory, and if Blue needed another number one in 2002 it should have been One Love, which is nothing more and nothing less than archetypal Blue but at least almost as enjoyable as All Rise, the one song by them I’d consider pretty great.

    3

  3. 3
    ThePensmith on 30 Sep 2019 #

    Would we put Let Loose under the bracket of R&B embracing boybands, Tom? Another Level, absolutely, but from what I remember of Let Loose they were more at the what-I-call Dawson’s Creek pop rock end of things.

    An unusual chart topper to discuss this, not so much musically mind as you point out. Firstly because of where it put Elton John. As Lee has noted this is one of three bunnies of his we visit in the next three/four Popular years ahead (two of which as a guest star), and once again one that became a bigger hit upon a second release. He’d done his album the year before this called ‘Songs from the West Coast’ which had repositioned him as a contemporary easy listening ‘great songbook collection’ star of sorts, a route that others like Rod Stewart would follow the pattern of in years to come, particularly those releases that were scheduled in the last quarter of any given year for the what I shall politely call ‘Nan present’ market.

    And that’s before we’ve got to Blue. ‘One Love’, the first single and title track from their second album was perhaps a little unfortunate to run into the duopoly of Nelly and Kelly and Justin Timberlake’s solo debut when it entered at #3 a mere eight weeks before this (it was still inside the top 40 when this charted), but the album of the same name had topped the chart and was selling by the truckload (their second in a row after ‘All Rise’ had belatedly climbed to the top in May, seven months after its release), they’d just sold out their first arena tour, and all four members (but particularly Lee Ryan and Duncan James) were prime tabloid and teen mag fodder. They were the biggest boyband in pop at that moment in time.

    And yet, as you rightly say, in common with other comparable acts from 2002 (Liberty X, Kittens 2.0, I am looking at you) their music was starting to feel secondary to their profile at this point. Commercially speaking this was probably going to be as good as they ever got, especially given the emergence of certain other boybands that weren’t of their stature yet, or indeed of the same style of pop music, but who would overtake them in both popularity and sales in twelve short months. I don’t think I need to tell you who, lest to say they are bunnied.

    Musically however, the edge of their debut, at least in the choice of singles, seemed to be a little lost around this point. Catchy as it was, ‘One Love’ was essentially ‘All Rise’ Mk II and a suggestion they wouldn’t diverge from a formula. On ‘Sorry…’ StarGate seemed to have dumped the same harmonica and beats from ‘All Rise’ at a tenth of the speed underneath this, complete with Simon’s cod hip hop ad-libs, Lee’s high note riffing, Duncan’s smouldering and Antony’s standing at the back doing very little. Then Elton comes in and growls around the piano looking like a dinner lady (ta for that description, Boy George). For such a superstar collaboration for the time, it all felt a tad by numbers, and still does. 3 is accurate, possibly 4 were I feeling a bit kinder about this.

    The third album that followed the year after this, ‘Guilty’, did still top the charts but sales were way down on the first two albums, and only two of it’s singles (the Gary Barlow co-written title track, and the actually rather good enormo-ballad ‘Breathe Easy’) got near the top before they split, or rather, shuffled awkwardly around saying the ‘s’ word and said they were simply ‘taking a break for a year’ from which they didn’t return properly until Eurovision in 2011, a litter of failed solo efforts following the path before it. That said, Duncan moved into acting and actually put in a surprisingly stellar turn playing a camped up parody of himself as ‘Duncan-from-Blue’, hyphens and all, in the Channel 4 sitcom ‘Plus One’ in 2009.

    Whilst this is our last encounter with Blue, it’s worth noting that around the time of this single, Simon Webbe (who also had a brief solo career as a one man Lighthouse Family tribute no one knew they needed) had set up a management company and was ‘doing a Ronan Keating with Westlife’. He had formed/was managing a short lived five piece boy/girl combo called VS, who were signed to the same label, had a couple of modest sized hits cut from the same cloth as Blue’s material and supported them on tour. We subsequently meet one of their members five times over in a band who, to all intents and purposes, resumed Blue’s crown as quite good pop with light R&B influences boyband about six Popular years from now.

  4. 4
    AMZ1981 on 1 Oct 2019 #

    Re3; Your suggestion that Songs From The West Coast `re positioned Elton John as an easy listening, great American songbook, nan market etc artist` is so badly wrong I’m sorry to say it’s almost offensive. Songs From The West Coast was released in 2001 and was hailed as a stunning return to form that came completely out of the blue and his best album since Captain Fantastic twenty five years before. American Triangle is an unflinching retelling of the murder of Matthew Shepherd and can surely only be filed under uneasy listening.

    What Songs From The West Coast didn’t do, as many people expected, was produce a string of hit singles. The first single, I Want Love hit number 9 (the best performance for a lead single from an Elton John album since Nikita from Ice On Fire in 1985*) but after that it was diminishing returns. Since then Elton John has continued making music but, by his own admission, has stopped seeking to create hits and retreated to the margins. The quality control has been a bit erratic but The Captain And The Kid from 2006 is well worth a listen and The Union was a collaboration with long forgotten American singer songwriter Leon Russell that brought the latter back into the spotlight.

    However it’s right to say that for an artist once famous for not getting to number one he has had a remarkable number of chart topping appearances in the 2000s. The British record buying public may have let a song as powerful as This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore vanish without trace at 24 but was happy to send a lazy rehash like this to the top. The two mitigating factors are that, like 5ive’s take on We Will Rock You two years before it’s more a Blue record than an Elton John record and Sorry Seems To Be … was hardly Elton’s best song in the first place.

    *If Something About The Way You Look Tonight is treated as a special case.

  5. 5
    Lee Saunders on 1 Oct 2019 #

    Notably, Elton isn’t even on the sleeve, a fate which would also befall Stevie Wonder and Angie Stone a year hence. Seems odd when your featured artist is more famous than you.

  6. 6
    Lonepilgrim on 1 Oct 2019 #

    I picked up a rather ropey French Greatest Hits of EJ in a charity shop a while back and what struck me was a) how long many of his 1970s & 80s singles were, and b) how slightly quirky in chord sequences, lyrics or song structure many of them were – so in retrospect it didn’t seem surprising that he failed to reach number 1 so often.
    This version is the definition of meh – the song a cut above the bland mush of Westlife’s last hit but delivered with a similar faux intensity

  7. 7
    James BC on 3 Oct 2019 #

    Quite a good quiz question: what Elton John song was produced by Stargate?

  8. 8
    Shiny Dave on 3 Oct 2019 #

    As others have noted, what a weird set of number ones Elton John had!

    The most interesting thing about this one is probably that R&Balladry could now be considered this utterly generic, thus confirming what “Dilemma” heralded – hip-hop really was the basic grammar of pop now, including a British pop that had spent the mid-90s comprehensively distracted by guitar groups. You don’t get a song this nakedly made for commercial safety with these beats if it’s not.

    That, and the fact it’s a good (not great) song that probably deserved revival, are two of the three modestly interesting things about it. The third, and this is something I only noticed playing the two versions in a row just now, is that they genuinely sped it up. I think I prefer it slower with Elton wallowing in pity, this tempo just makes it seem more like a Generic Blue Track despite Elton’s (and the harmonica’s) best efforts. 3 might be harsh, but 4 isn’t.

    #6 Now you’ve got me wondering if we’d have met Elton a lot more in 20th-century Popular with a less elliptical lyricist than Bernie Taupin!

  9. 9
    AMZ1981 on 3 Oct 2019 #

    It’s often overlooked that Elton John began his career very much as an album artist; two records from his imperial phase – Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water – are completely hit free (although the latter does of course produce a bunny eventually). It’s also perhaps overlooked that he made a bold stylistic leap from being a singer/ songwriter to riding the glam wave.

    Until the nineties he was also pretty prolific; an early eighties album 21 At 33 reflects this in the title (albums against age) so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the quality control slipped a bit – in fact given his abuse of drugs and alcohol it’s amazing it didn’t slip even more. And yet throughout the eighties not only did he keep producing hit singles but he seemed to become a national pop institution second only to Cliff Richard (and let’s not forget that a forgotten single featured a gay themed school based video released at the heart of the Thatcher era).

  10. 10
    Andrew on 5 Oct 2019 #

    As it understand it, Elton’s Song (the one that AMZ1981 is referring to) was never released as a single – they released a “video album”on VHS the next year which did include the video – except in the UK where it was left off.

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