Oct 19

GIRLS ALOUD – “Sound Of The Underground”

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#946, 28th December 2002

Looked at one way, this had to happen. Reality TV pop shows weren’t going away. Lightning had struck for Hear’Say, then again for Liberty X, then so often for Pop Idol that you’d think Zeus had the ITV voting lines on speed dial. The maths of it was simple enough: the audience mobilised for reality shows was multiples larger than the crowds pop could normally draw for a new release. Anything a winner released would get to number one. Simon Cowell (and gang) had hacked the charts.

But in doing so they’d also surrendered control. If winning a reality show was the golden ticket, and what you released after didn’t matter, then the winners’ single could get away with far more drama and delight than Cowell’s starchy definition of pop allowed. Critics, me included, who gasped in excited shock when they heard “Sound Of The Underground” – it’s reality TV pop, but good – hadn’t twigged that this outcome was always a possibility. Once you shatter the link between quality – however conservatively measured – and results, you create an opportunity for anything, great or touch-my-bum awful, that’s blocked by the usual filters.

You can make too much of this idea – “Sound Of The Underground” is a superb pop record, but it’s not a revolution. From another angle, it’s cynically 2002. Puretone’s “Addicted To Bass”, which shares Dick Dale-goes-Drum’n’Bass chimera DNA with “Sound”, had got to Number 2 in January. Songwriters Xenomania – Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper – were picked because they’d already had a Number 1 with Sugababes’ “Round Round”.

And yet “Sound” clearly improves on both those tracks. “Addicted To Bass” is breakneck fun, but it’s all concept and attitude and not much song once the dust clears – Xenomania borrow its ideas and use them to soup up what was already a sprightly, hooky tune. “Round Round”’s intrigue lay in its mantric chorus and circular structure but also in the job it did to establish the Sugababes as a brand – its aura of distanced cool means it can’t be as eager to please and surprise as “Sound Of The Underground” is.

“Sound Of The Underground” does, in fact, establish the Girls Aloud brand, though that wasn’t clear right away. Its immediate job was to win the competition within a competition that ended Popstars: The Rivals, by beating boyband One True Voice’s “Sacred Trust” to Number 1. The ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ gimmick could easily have been an experiment in proving every feminist dictum about male mediocrity and undeserved success. “Sacred Trust” is an affable, mid-paced blob of a song, by lads whose happy-to-be-here vibe crumpled to injured bafflement when it became obvious how badly they’d been outclassed. “Sound” wasn’t just good because it could be; it had to be.

Even then, what were the girls really going to win? A few weeks into Popstars: The Rivals, Hear’Say announced a split, citing “abuse from the public” and with their label cooling on them. Their magnesium-flare career set a boundary on any reality TV group’s ambition – whoever won the Rivals, it would be a short victory, however beautiful.

Most reality TV winners have followed the precedent. Girls Aloud did not. Here we are looking with hindsight at one of the most beloved and successful pop groups of their decade, and “Sound Of The Underground” isn’t just a pop song, it’s the First Girls Aloud Song.

What does that mean? The band, Higgins remembered, were politely sceptical when he and Cooper played them their winning song – they “liked their R&B and Mariah ballads”, and expected something along those lines. As their career continued, and Xenomania took on full songwriting and production duties, the relationship became far closer – the group became Cooper and Higgins’ muses, and both band and songwriters quickly and jointly evolved their ideas about what a Girls Aloud song might do.

A Girls Aloud song might suddenly shift style and dynamics mid-song (“Biology”); it might feel like a layer-cakes of part-finished tracks (“Sexy! No No No”). It might spring left into pastiche (“Love Machine”). It might play structural games – delaying the chorus until halfway (“Biology” again), or letting two of them fight it out (“The Show”). The lyrics would be just as elliptical, jumping trains of thought, dodging narrative, pouring out feelings but remaining somehow elusive. Mixed-up signs, as “Sound Of The Underground” put it first.

What held it all together was a promise, mostly kept, that every new single would try something different, and the girls themselves. Cheryl, Nicola, Sarah, Nadine and Kimberley’s performing, enacting, inhabiting of the songs was the guarantee that this wasn’t some aloof exercise in game-playing pop-craft, but a method for making vignettes of 21st century life and love, in all its oblique, keenly felt, confusion. The surface inventiveness would beckon you in to where a half-line could make you shiver or blush.

On “Sound Of The Underground”, for me that line is “into the overflow / where the girls get down to the sound of the radio”, an evocation of some Morlock subterranea where girls (the band, their friends, their voters, all girls anywhere) go to listen, dance, hang out. It drags the Underground metaphor out of the realm of taste and knowledge and into the world of secret bonds and dens and communions. Girls, Allowed. It appears when the track is past its punchy verses, with their crisply sung lines and karate-chop drum breaks, and into the rolling release of the chorus, a thrilling mine-train descent into this secret world.

If this was all there had been, it would still be a coup. As it was, there was so much more. But to go back to the idea that winning a reality TV show was a license to innovate – one few took – the sad truth is that for most of their career Girls Aloud were an exception, not an example. “Sound” is the only one of their most famously inventive singles to hit Number 1, and we’ll meet their best work in the comments, as sharply enjoyable rebukes to the less imaginative music which outsold them.

“The broadsheets were amazing”, Higgins reflected later, but radio kept its suspicion of his TV stars turned critics’ darlings, which limited their airplay. More fool the playlisters, you might say, but in a funny way they were right. What let Girls Aloud stay fresh was the way Xenomania helped keep faith with one original promise of reality TV shows – that it was a way to see what happened when ordinary people were pushed into an outlandish adventure. The group stayed ordinary, the songs offered new adventures every time, the results were electrifying.

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  1. 1
    Raphael Rechabite on 8 Oct 2019 #

    It is perhaps the greatest example of Trojan horse entryism in all of pop. The conclusion of a year whose most popular artists were now unloaded from a determined conveyor belt, a year when it seemed that the good guys (and girls) had lost, that any fancy concept of pop as something more than “just pop music” – and let it be said here for the record that anyone who belittles pop by referring to it as “just pop music” has never understood pop, either properly or improperly – was a hopeless and somewhat dated utopian dream. Cowell was intent on ripping off the singles chart’s mask of democracy and turning the chart from a semi-monitored free-for-all (even the eighties when the charts were already being mocked as formulaic, provided beds for tenants as diverse as Coldcut and the Sisters of Mercy, Vanessa Paradis and Whitney Houston, Eric B and Rick Astley) into a pitilessly plotted pie chart of anticipated profit margins and preordained Phillips curves of cold rationalist economics whose employees did exactly as they were told, or else; one cannot exactly imagine Gareth Gates as a tea boy in the streamlined, deathlike offices of SYCO “Entertainment.”

    By the end of 2002 PopStars had become PopStars: The Rivals, or boyband versus girl group, or Louis Walsh versus Pete Waterman, or possibly death versus life. However many thousand candidates whittled down to five per gender, to form a compulsory pop group with the aim of nailing down the Christmas number one long-term leasehold once and for all; an end to surprises and hiccups, a firm fencing off of the leftfield with guard dogs and barbed wire, a pop where “popular” was all that counted, and whose consumers were to be told exactly whom and what they should make “popular,” offered only a tiny soupçon of front-of-shop samples rather than the galaxy of full options.

    The wonder is that Walsh and Waterman ended up on exactly the opposite side that we might have expected from their previous histories. But the slide rule was set; capture the Christmas number one, with the Christmas number two as a consolation prize. In addition there was the token novelty act – a Transylvanian sorority duo named the Cheeky Girls, who thankfully will not be directly troubling Popular (though their punctumised mirror images will be making themselves known very soon) – who pseudo-accidentally managed to bag the Christmas number three slot. The future in theory was looking bleak enough to make one want to abandon the notion of a chart completely.

    Waterman’s boys were One True Voice – watching Walsh’s Westlife two or three years too late, Waterman wanted some of that heartfelt static anti-action and set them to work on a soulful, passionate and honest ballad entitled “Sacred Trust” which the lads yowled at melismatic gunpoint. Walsh, meanwhile, was entrusted with the girls, noting rather more astutely the prolonged absence of the Spice Girls, the imminent end of Atomic Kitten, the recent triumphs of Sugababes and a gap in the market waiting to be filled. To this end he engaged the services of the writers and producers of the last Sugababes number one.

    And thus did Louis Walsh, of all people – as the Pete Waterman of fifteen years earlier might have done – let in the X-factor of Xenomania, a collective with ideas of their own and clear recollections of what New Pop had meant in the first place. Had Walsh done his homework and listened to the two tracks which Brian Higgins and his team had co-written and produced for Saint Etienne on their then-recently released Finisterre album, “Action” and “Shower Scene,” he would have better realised what he was allowing the Girls to get themselves into. Finisterre is a record whose quality and significance have become steadily more apparent over the intervening years, with its underlying urge to drag pop out of the seabed-bound grave of greyness; and with the above two songs in particular we are seeing a virtual prototype of what Xenomania intended to do with Girls Aloud. At the time it largely passed through the chambers of pop commerce unnoticed – but then that is more often the case than not when it comes to genuine innovation.

    Xenomania’s team also had connections with the KLF – most notably keyboardist/arranger Nick Coler, whose history stretches back as far as the Rubettes – and the instant when Girls Aloud first performed “Sound Of The Underground” on the final episode of PopStars: The Rivals, only a few minutes after all the participants had been dragooned to perform a comfy MoR rendition of “Winter Wonderland” which would not have been out of place on The Black And White Minstrel Show circa 1972 (all the better to demonstrate exactly what was planned to be overthrown), indicated a dramatic new start and an inwardly smiling victory.

    Away with “soul” and “passion”; Xenomania’s chosen route was the thin but solid neon line from the Shadows to Kraftwerk, the Shirelles to Miss Kittin – thus the channel-panning wave of Duane Eddy guitar (as if to say THIS is where pop begins again) in the intro and the luscious thrust into Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” riff. They sing of disco dancing in their own bedroom, neighbours banging on the bathroom wall which they interpret as wanting the bass to be cranked up further, totally and deliriously enticed into the groove, minds screwed by the bassline, the block shaking as tremulously as the one which eventually collapses in Young Marble Giants’ “Eating Noddomix” as the girl happily does herself up in front of the mirror.

    The chorus is fortissimo and unsentimental but feline and utterly confident, like Bananarama fed through Art of Noise, but with minor chord augmentations and twists which reveal the song as something which Hatch and Trent would happily have written for Petula (“Water’s running in the wrong direction” is a very Jackie Trentian lyrical observation) but which is unashamedly here and now in the end of 2002 sense. And thus, at the end of the most depressing Popular year yet to be surveyed – and completely at odds with the quality of music happening away from the number one slot during that period – the major disease of the year was turned back on itself and water splashed in the polite boys’ aghast faces by the girls; always the Girls. When Burchill called them the best pop group since the Pistols, it was entirely logical and understandable.

  2. 2
    Mark G on 8 Oct 2019 #

    Everyone recognised the sample of the Chantay’s “Pipeline”, but for me there were broader elements of Magazine’s “Shot By Both Sides” involved.

  3. 3
    Timbo on 8 Oct 2019 #

    It’s easy to underestimate what a shot of adrenaline this song is. Even if Girls Aloud had stalled after their follow up, this song is so arresting because it bucks the trend of what a reality TV pop song should be. It avoids the familiar trope of imagining the singers had finally realised some hard-won goal after years of setbacks, adversity and missteps (“All This Time”, “That’s My Goal”, “When You Believe”). That wouldn’t have worked for Girls Aloud. They were too young and too immediate to imagine they had in any way struggled to finally capture their moment.

    It’s also easy to forget that in 2002, pure pop wasn’t critically accepted (still). Pitchfork didn’t exist back then (a blessing?) but whilst it’s happy to afford the Swifts, Perry’s, and Jepson’s of this world their rightful kudos, would it have done at the turn of the century? By getting the broadsheet music press not just behind them, but occasionally positively salivating (I remember the now defunct Observer Music Monthly being particularly positive), the Girls Aloud/Xenomania project achieved something that previous boy/girl band behemoths (Take That/The Spice Girls) hadn’t previously achieved. And maybe that’s an important point. Girls Aloud were very successful. But they weren’t juggernaut successful. Which probably allowed Xenomania their outlet for experimentation. So although some reality born pop stars were leaning into credibility at this time (Will Young), Girls Aloud fully joined the dots between pop and critical praise in a way that feels natural today.

    The experimentation of songs such as “Biology”, “The Show” and – latterly – “Untouchable” is a key characteristic of Girls Aloud’s appeal to the music press, but it disguises the basic alchemy between writer and artist that exists – alchemy that doesn’t always come off. Not everything Girls Aloud and Xenomania did turned to gold. They had a strange predilection for cover versions that, whilst often fun (“Jump”), were often pretty gloopy and uninspired (“I’ll Stand By You”). They famously weren’t that good at ballads – probably because their air of dishevelled, mischievous ‘girls about town’ didn’t lend itself to overly serious emoting. But it’s also key to note that they didn’t have to be experimental to be brilliant. “Call the Shots” is the most obvious example of a structurally straightforward pop song being shimmeringly brilliant, just because it is.

    Presumably because it had to be recorded at breakneck speed, there’s a real urgency about “Sound of the Underground” and thankfully, any rough edges were wisely kept from being smoothed over (witness Kimberley’s pure Yorkshire accent in “a mixed up sigggnnnn!”). From the first few seconds of twangy surf guitar onwards, you know exactly where you are with it, what it’s supposed to do, and where it’s going to take you. And it still sounds arresting now.

  4. 4
    ThePensmith on 8 Oct 2019 #

    My most immediate memory when I’m asked to recall ‘Sound of the Underground’ is that of my school bus c. late November/early December 2002. There were a group of girls in my sister’s year, who were Year 11 at this point – two of whom were twins – who worshipped at the altar of Westlife and Blue. As far as they were concerned, like the producers of Popstars: The Rivals assumed, it was a done deal. It was widely accepted that how the voting usually played out on these sort of shows, where the watching and voting audience were mainly girls and young women, was that the boys – sorry, Pete Waterman, male vocal harmony group – were going to win on account of being well…boys. And thus better in their eyes.

    I can still picture the looks on the Year 11 girls’ faces now, that morning that our local radio station, from our driver’s in-bus system (long since bought out by Global/Heart) played first One True Voice’s ‘Sacred Trust’ for the first time, and then ‘Sound of the Underground’. Talk about famous last words. I also recall looking around and seeing more than a few mutterings or head nods to the effect of ‘this is actually properly good’, and, in contrast, the universal whispers of ‘This is a bit shit’ about One True Voice. Certainly the moment I heard it I knew Girls Aloud had potential way beyond the show they came from. You place the two videos and songs side by side and there’s no contest. One True Voice looked and sounded like a bunch of lucky winners come pound shop Westlife, which pop and boybands were already moving away from. Girls Aloud looked like the sort of pop group that could be launched minus reality TV stabilizers. They’re in a cage in the video for Christ’s sake. As Timbo pointed out above it wasn’t another ‘Evergreen’ or ‘A Moment Like This’. It felt like and it indeed was the sound of pure British pop for that next decade.

    I mentioned this back on the entry for ‘Round Round’ about Miranda Cooper’s interview for The Telegraph’s ‘Story Behind the Song’ podcast from 2017 (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/artists/story-behind-girls-alouds-sound-underground-inspired-wheels), but it’s particularly relevant companion listening for this entry, as the genesis of ‘Sound of the Underground’ was an interesting one. Her and Niara Scarlett (another of Xenomania’s many co-writers who subsequently ended up with Giselle Sommerville as part of their short lived vanity project Mania – they had just one top 30 hit, the brilliant if slightly too clever for its own good ‘Looking For A Place’ in 2004) came up with the chorus melody, and sang ‘The wheels on the bus go round’ to it in early demos when it was being projected for Orchid, a girl group Brian Higgins was putting together at the end of 2001 for pitching to Polydor (they ultimately put Orchid on the back burner, and it was rumoured at one point that ‘Sound of the Underground’ was meant to go to another Louis Walsh charge in the shape of Samantha Mumba, who had not long released a fast disappearing top 5 hit ‘I’m Right Here’ at the time ‘Popstars: The Rivals’ was on air, off a never released second album before she was quietly dropped).

    When the final 10 girls were selected, they all recorded the song (and some, as you mentioned Tom, were none too impressed, expecting a big Mariah Carey style ballad. Needless to say those girls didn’t make it into the final group) so that week by week as they were voted off, Brian and Miranda could delete their vocal contributions before piecing together the final mix. However, interestingly, they did speculative mixes with all possible combinations of members, but none without Javine Hylton in the line up who everyone thought was a dead cert to win. It meant that Sarah Harding had to hastily re-record all of Javine’s lines before their video shoot the Monday after they made the final lineup.

    The B-side was a cover of East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’, and at one point it was billed to be a double-A-side before it was apparent there was no such need to do so, but they still performed it on TV a handful of times. The girls also interestingly recorded a version of ‘Sacred Trust’ as I believe the Popstars producers were initially pushing, in another twist, for both bands to release the same song. Thank God Polydor and Louis Walsh put their foot down on that one. No one knew about this until their version was released as a rarity on the bonus disc for their 2006 best of album ‘The Sound of Girls Aloud’, and proved you literally can’t polish a dud. Needless to say Brian and Miranda had no part in their version of it whatsoever.

    Given we’ve got a while before we discuss GA next on Popular – there’s a hell of a lot of #2 watches for them between now and then – I think my commentary on what happened next will be coming at each of those instances in turn (largely because I don’t care for/will have much to say in favour of any of the records that beat them). But this was and will always remain a classic pop single and worthy chart topper. And Nicola Roberts’ side ponytail on the single artwork was iconic. 10. Enough said.

    #2 watch – a returning Cheeky Girls for its second and third weeks, thus ensuring both they and GA outsold One True Voice in the long run. On its fourth and final week, it was the debut of short lived comedy rock outfit Electric Six with ‘Danger! High Voltage’. It’s possibly their single after that one (‘Gay Bar’) that they are more remembered for, mind. And by remembered, I mean stumbled upon only at instances like these and reminded of how dated they made themselves even at the time.

  5. 5
    Lee Saunders on 8 Oct 2019 #

    If I wasn’t so preoccupied with uni, work and numerous other writing projects, I should have prepared a comment that really tries to illustrate why this song is amazing and why Girls Aloud are probably my favourite thing about pop in the 21st century. Much of the commentary thus far does that job well enough though.

    At the time, I was a little boy and liking Girls Aloud would have been uncool in primary school; my favourite bands in 2002-04 were Bunsted, McBunny and Good Charlotte, boys with guitars. Never mind that Girls Aloud were a more inventive guitar group than all of them, what with them having hits with intertwined surf rock, skiffle, electric blues and garage punk riffs. But I liked SotU in secret, and even more so No Good Advice. And I used to play Jump on Now 57. And Love Machine I knew was a banger really. And by the time their final bunny came around I was 11 and realised my mistakes, though it took a quite a good few more years for them to become what they are to me now.

    Its with this single that Xenomania truly become like Basement Jaxx in terms of what Tom once referred to as the molecular gastronomy of pop. Combining drum & bass and surf rock might seem on paper like a big Goldie meets Tarantino 1995ism, but in execution nothing in all of 2000s Popular screams the reckless adventure of the decade’s most exciting pop acts as much as this.

    Nothing’s within spitting distance of being out of place, in particular the dual rumble of the dubby bass and twangalanga guitars, the segues between sections (especially the jungle breakdown melting into the fluid bridge near the end) and and of course the girls themselves, never raising their cooing voices much, carried along by the sway of the music but also very conscious of how cool they’re being.

    It’s virtually a 10, but considering the heights GA would reach on their very best songs I might have to go for a 9. A massive shame that they don’t reach the top spot with some of their best songs – The Show in particular might be the greatest almost No. 1 of the 21st century – while the next two times we see them its with covers that are far from top drawer. But Sound of the Underground strikes me as one of the most assured entrances in all of pop, a defining song of 2000s British pop as a whole, or at least the side to 00s British pop that I love the most.

    Nah, its a 10

  6. 6
    Lee Saunders on 8 Oct 2019 #

    #3 Pitchfork did exist in 2002 but indeed their attitude to pure pop could be summed up by them reviewing Kylie’s Fever as an April Fool’s Joke, an IIRC sincere review (and CGYOOMH would just a few years later be hailed the 5th best single of 2000-04) but given that safety net in case it ‘backfired’.

  7. 7
    Jamie on 8 Oct 2019 #

    A solid 10, and it’s only their fifth best single in my opinion. A shame none of their better ones made it to the top.

    The whole battle for number one seems so much more reflective of the stage of pop music for much of its history. Oh, the boys can do well enough when they want to but it’s always the girls who ultimately win in the pop music game.

  8. 8
    Oli H on 8 Oct 2019 #

    I had to comment what an amazing critical rundown this was, and Raphael’s comment is something else too – kudos for ressurecting this from the memory archive

  9. 9
    Edward Still on 8 Oct 2019 #

    This great song really did come from nowhere. I was in the first year of uni when it was released and mentioned in the Darius thread about students’ ironic love of all things pop. Well no-one liked this ironically, but everyone liked it.

    There’s always one pop group that everyone seems to like, even those who say they normally wouldn’t. Girls Aloud pretty much picked that baton up from out of the gate with this song, perhaps passing it over to the rebirthed Take That towards the end of the decade. I have never met anyone who said they disliked them and considering they are a girl group launched from a reality TV show that’s quite something.

    I don’t think Sound of the Underground is quite as great as others. It’s quite obviously far superior to the dross that precedes and (presumably) follows it on Popular, but in my opinion doesn’t reach the heights of Biology, The Show or Something Kinda Ooh which really perfect a formula that’s still in it’s larval stage here. Still a high enough 7 that I’ll round to an 8.

    Stray thoughts:

    Having revisited some of their bigger hits on the walk home, Cheryl definitely come across as the most distinctive singer. I almost wrote worst, but that’s probably unfair. Her lines definitely seems to ‘jar’ more than the others, who seem more in sync with each other and indeed the backing tracks.

    Following on from that it’s a shame that her rather tepid solo career was the only real one of note post-GA. I have heard good things about both Nicola and Nadine’s output but shamefully have never investigated.

    Love Machine is their main critically-acclaimed song I could never get on with. Seems to me like a couple of good ideas that never really get started, let alone go anywhere. Nice bridge though.

  10. 10
    Steve Williams on 8 Oct 2019 #

    I was very pleased to see The Observer Music Monthly mentioned in #3, this was indeed the kind of thing they wrote about frequently to the extent that I suggested Observer Pop as a genre in itself, as practiced by the likes of Annie, Lorraine, Alphabeat and so on, who would release upbeat pop songs that thirtysomethings like me would think were very clever and rush out and buy – often while the kids themselves were pretty nonplussed.

    The ultimate example of Observer Pop is surely Rachel Stevens who at the start of her solo career was very much marketed as a pop star for adults and her LP Funky Dory was full of clever, angular pop songs with loads of references to Bowie and the like, and got brilliant reviews, and it flopped and they had to re-release it with a load of disco covers.

    I wish The Observer Music Monthly was still going, I did like it a lot.

    The thing about Popstars The Rivals is that the show itself was to my mind the worst of these talent searches and it seemed to be the exact moment the wheels started coming off this thing. The show was nothing like the original Popstars, it aped the Pop Idol format to the absolute letter – even the set looked the same – and it was all a bit rickety on screen, there were endless “special editions” when people dropped out or were disqualified, and the shows themselves were a right mess, everyone cried all the time and Davina could barely hold it together. It was a really bad series.

    And even though they were forming a group, because they wanted to do it exactly like Pop Idol they always sang solo rather than together, so it could have been a right racket when they finally formed the group. Of course, after all that, they were brilliant.

    I secretly quite like Shakespeare’s Way With Words, mind.

  11. 11
    lonepilgrim on 8 Oct 2019 #

    it’s a pleasure to see so many contributions and conversation returning to this site – and this song is a suitable stimulus – it blends many different musical genres into a deliciously rich confection. The singers avoid the anonymity of some dance acts without adopting exaggerated personalities such as the Spice Girls. Even for an old timer like me this burst into my consciousness thanks to the enthusiasm of my pupils

  12. 12
    Timbo on 9 Oct 2019 #

    #10 Rachel Stevens is an interesting point, and totally agree about her being the ultimate OMM pop star. “Come and Get It” is still lauded as a lost pop classic but (aside from the brilliant “Some Girls”) it obviously didn’t chime with the public. She was possibly too much of a blank canvas for it to work (I don’t mean that to sound as harsh as it does…I like Rachel!) But – although they weren’t consistent tabloid fodder like the Kerry Katona’s and Katie Price’s of the times – there was a slight air of chaos about Girls Aloud that probably enhanced their appeal. Although they weren’t marketed as distinct “personalities”, there was enough edge to hang on to them – Nicola’s introverted spikiness, Cheryl’s “coatroom” moment, Sarah’s legendary nights out – to give them an attitude that the wider media could latch on to. And wasn’t Mike Skinner’s “When You Wasn’t Famous” written about a daliance with one of them? I would love to know the truth behind that……

  13. 13
    will on 9 Oct 2019 #

    The thing that got me at the time was how un-Christmassy this sounded! Like most people I expected the winning act’s first release to be some gloopy ballad. Instead we got the least festive Number One since Pink Floyd..

    Still brilliant, though at the time I wrote that brilliance off as a fluke (a reality pop concoction making a decent record? Surely some mistake!) It was No Good Advice that was the game changer for me. I still recall hearing it on CDUK for the first time and my jaw just hitting the floor at how good it was..

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    ThePensmith on 9 Oct 2019 #

    #12 – Mike’s never come clean on who ‘When You Wasn’t Famous’ is about. But he’s quite insistent it was neither Rachel or indeed Holly Willoughby, who made a cameo in the video.

    I agree that the simmering chaos of Girls Aloud was what made them a thrilling prospect. They were kind of like Bananarama in that respect, I recall Jennifer Saunders talking about working with Bananarama with Dawn French on their Comic Relief single as Lananeeneenoonoo, and she said they were such big drinkers/party girls that she saw one of them fall out of a cab backside first – which later inspired the pilot episode of Ab Fab funnily enough. Oh how I wonder what a French & Saunders take on GA would’ve looked like…

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    James BC on 9 Oct 2019 #

    Still bewildered by the universal acclaim this gets. It’s great that they didn’t go for a ballad so A for effort there, but for me the result of all the daring experimentation is only OK – it’s not really about anything, you can’t really dance to it, it’s not a huge amount of fun. Later Girls Aloud songs would connect a lot better.

  16. 16
    Cumbrian on 9 Oct 2019 #

    Biology didn’t get to number 1? Biology? Didn’t get to number 1?

    I am reminded of Pete Townshend’s quote about I Can See For Miles only getting to number 10. “I spat on the British record buyer”. Seems fair. Also probably says something about how little attention I paid to the chart by that point in my life.

  17. 17
    Auntie Beryl on 9 Oct 2019 #

    For Observer Music Monthly, see also Popjustice: Freak Like Me and SOTU feel like two crucial singles in that site’s rise to prominence, sharing with OMM an unashamed love of mainstream pop music that shouldn’t have been as rare as it was, previously.

    PJ is still going, the forum arguably more vibrant than Peter Robinson’s main site prose; Girls Aloud ranked top 5 in a recent Ultimate Popstar poll of forum members.

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    AMZ1981 on 9 Oct 2019 #

    I think it’s important to take Sounds Of The Underground in its immediate context (ie the winner of a contrived battle of the bands) and not get lost in the wider career story of Girls Aloud which we get to discuss in time.

    I say this because there is a temptation to see this as an explosion of genuine talent when it’s solely a triumph for one set of Svengalis over another. Tom’s original article says that the girls expected and wanted a different type of song (we can only speculate on whether a straight cover of Stay Another Day would have outsold Sacred Trust) and yet some people seem to be seeing SOTU as a gang of feisty girls outclassing a bunch of hapless boys. Girls Aloud didn’t choose this song, once they did they made it their own and deserve credit for it, but the key decision was not theirs. And with both records made on the quick they were lucky, partly perhaps to get a song that hid any limitations they might have had but that the boys ended up with one that exposed theirs.

    There is nothing particularly wrong with Sacred Trust; I don’t think anybody else has mentioned it’s a Bee Gees album track – solid enough but you can see why the Bee Gees kept it in an album context. For the two teams who had to choose and market competing songs it was an interesting experiment not just to find out what would sell but what wouldn’t. ThePenSmith has more or less said the same thing but the relative failure of Sacred Trust seems to mark the end of an era for a certain type of boy band and the genre now appears to reboot, briefly taking refuge in a pop punk crossover but we’re coming to that.

    Looking slightly ahead (as has been noted Girls Aloud’s second bunny takes a relatively long time coming) Sounds Of The Underground did transcend the TV show by crossing into the clubs for new year and it was hardly surprising when the fine follow up also did well. What was not obvious at the time is how they would develop into the decade’s superior pop act. It’s also worth noting that Sugababes had already set a high watermark for what a girl band could be and we know with hindsight that their quality control would prove more erratic than we thought. But Sounds Of The Underground needs to be seen for what it is – simply a manufactured act striking gold with a better song than they deserved, and we have an even better example in two bunnies time (assuming Tom concurs – there are some Popular entries where I genuinely don’t know which side he will come down on and the next Patreon entry is one of those).

    Finally it’s interesting that in the seventeen years since the `Rivals` format has never been competed. I asked the question as to what if Girls Aloud had just gone with a generic cover instead but as I wrote my post the questions kept on coming. What if Girls Aloud and One True Voice had swapped songs? And what if Sounds Of The Underground had gone up against Hold On Me by Phixx (the OTV `rejects` group) complete with its S&M themed video?

  19. 19
    Nixon on 9 Oct 2019 #

    Girls Aloud confuse me greatly, because on paper, they should be one of my favourite groups of all time. The descriptions always sound excellent, hitting almost every Why I Love Pop button, and those descriptions are often written by people whose opinions on great records I otherwise always share – indeed, are often written by people who themselves have *made* great records I adore.

    But I’ve just never liked them. At best I find them OK. Steps, Kylie, and Saint Etienne’s rejected demos lashed into functional shape, occasionally kind of pretty, maybe verging on catchy. At worst, they’re *terrible*. Jackboot jumping on my toot toot forever.

    And I don’t understand. I don’t know if there are many people who really love pop music, but not Girls Aloud, as opposed to just dismissing them categorically (whether the category is pop, reality TV, daytime radio or whatever).

    At first I wondered if maybe they became so lauded because, as Tom said, by all expectation and precedent they should have been awful, and the fact they weren’t caused people to mistake competence for brilliance. But I don’t think so. However bored and cold this leaves me, people I respect and trust clearly love it and the group in a genuine way, and so I just feel… Left out? Like there’s something I’m missing that’s stopping me from having a great, shared pop experience.

    I think, like Oasis, this is just one of those pop things that I’m just destined never to get or enjoy, even if lots of other people really REALLY do. But I can’t see how the actual records match up to the praise, which is a bugger because I really want to hear the records you’re all apparently hearing. 4.

  20. 20
    Nixon on 9 Oct 2019 #

    (When I posted a rambling rant like that on another forum about 10 years ago, someone responded “Admit it, you voted for One True Voice, didn’t you?” Someone else then followed up with “actually I think Nixon was IN One True Voice”, which made me laugh, at least.)

  21. 21
    Tommy Mack on 9 Oct 2019 #

    Friend of a friend WAS in One True Voice. My friend and a few other uni mates got to go backstage at the final and meet the Girls. My mate said, like everyone else, he told Sarah Harding that their song was better but the boys would probably get the Xmas #1 cos “all the little girls will buy it.”

    The only other memory I have is him saying that Girls Aloud were squired by grim-faced knuckledraggers, glaring with barely restrained violence at any other man in the vicinity, perhaps aware they were already on borrowed time.

    I liked this, probably an 8 for me. I was never that into GA, more through omission than conviction but I was always curious to hear their latest whenever I caught it.

  22. 22
    AMZ1981 on 10 Oct 2019 #

    Just to add to my last post I’ve revisited the `other` One True Voice single, Shakespeare’s Way With Words which I have to admit to not remembering at all; it sneaked in at number 10 in early June on fanbase sales and dropped to 28 a week later. All things considered it’s not as horrendous as it could be, particularly as its not the band’s fault as to how badly dated it sounds now. But it seems strange that the band (and their puppet masters) chose to follow it up with something slightly limp six months after the fact when they could have come out swinging with something harder edged in late February. Of course OTV would split acrimoniously and it may have already been obvious that the band could not work together long term but that makes it even stranger that the barrel wasn’t scraped before it dried out completely.

  23. 23
    Nixon on 10 Oct 2019 #

    I seem to remember there being a ‘what went wrong’ OTV documentary, on Sky rather than ITV, in remarkably short order – possibly even before the second single appeared?

    (Making the charts themselves the competition finale essentially means your ‘real’ final episode is missing, so it makes sense there’d be a demand for such a show, but even then they seem to have been punted into the long grass remarkably quickly.)

    In the meantime there’s maybe a discussion to be had on ‘why Liberty X but not OTV?’, when the former were an ‘accidental’ by-product of their show while the latter were part of the plan from day one of theirs. ‘They weren’t interesting and the song was naff’, sure, but then how and why didn’t OTV displace Westlife? Or, indeed, why wasn’t this twofer format repeated?

    I wonder if, when we’re talking not about a public vote but a real actual sales battle, the stakes for the loser are simply too high. Nobody outside your fan base cares if you made it to the Cup Final but then lost 6-0, and come August the casual fans who cheered you along have all already moved on. And in pop, you don’t get many chances to shake that ‘losers’ tag.

    In any case, it feels like a watershed moment in that while several future runners up in these things will become not only bunnies, or bigger than their erstwhile conquerors, but actual bona fide stars, the days of every wannabe in the final half-dozen banking a hit single just as a prize for going deep into the competition are over.

    Once the spell is broken, the model settles down: if you aren’t the winner you won’t automatically get a hit or even a record deal. You *can*, but you’d better be either exceptionally good (essentially letting the record buying public correct the decision of the voting public, obviously not a thing in this particular iteration), or enough of a novelty to stand out from the near-exponentially expanding pool of former reality show contestants now that ‘as seen on TV’ alone won’t cut it. And this, along with a surfeit/glut of similarly formatted shows competing for attention, feels like the start of that.

    Or, well, that’s my theory, anyway. It may not stand up to scrutiny with actual facts!

  24. 24
    AMZ1981 on 10 Oct 2019 #

    Re23 OTV aren’t directly comparable with Liberty X as Popstars The Rivals was effectively two sets of winners facing off against each other in a grand final. Also Liberty X were slightly atypical in that it was a strong third single that reversed their commercial fortunes.

    Obviously we’ll have plenty of opportunities to discuss a long run of reality TV stars but it’s perhaps worth noting that the one thing Cowell et al couldn’t control was the technology changing the music market. The reality machine really needed the single as a physical souvenir but that market was already in decline, forcing them to chase the albums market with cover version heavy releases and eventually that option collapsed as well.

  25. 25
    Edward Still on 10 Oct 2019 #

    As has been hinted at a couple of times, this joins a list headed by Ghost Town of Dancefloor fillers that prove rather hard to actually dance to once you get there. See also: Can’t get you out of my head.

  26. 26
    Purple K on 11 Oct 2019 #

    #4 – I was 14 at the time and I remember the attitude of “oh of course, the boyband is going to win” that was being muttered around. I remember hearing both songs and thinking “Sound of the Underground” needs to win because it’s infinitely cooler, and when I listened to the R1 chart show and it was announced at the Xmas no.1 I felt goddamn vindicated.

    Looking back in hindsight, it feels like the few true gems surrounded by a neverending sea of tripe that filled the charts in the early 2000s. I don’t know how we survived it, guys.

  27. 27
    Kit on 11 Oct 2019 #

    ^ Discovering the context of this from the last big wodge of Populars certainly explains how they became so big so fast, for someone from the other side of the planet. Comments about the paucity of #1s to come make me hope Tom finds interest to comment or maybe Less Popular on some of the other singles along the way.

    Lovely to see MC’s prepared comments burst forth from hibernation for the occasion.

    “the debut of short lived comedy rock outfit Electric Six with ‘Danger! High Voltage’. It’s possibly their single after that one (‘Gay Bar’) that they are more remembered for, mind. And by remembered, I mean stumbled upon only at instances like these and reminded of how dated they made themselves even at the time.”

    NB that “short-lived” here means “now in their 20th year, having released in the last fifteen of those: 16 studio albums, several live and B-side compilation albums, two solo albums by the lead singer/songwriter, and still touring annually and playing better shows than in 2003, not least due to having many more great songs now.”

  28. 28
    Shiny Dave on 11 Oct 2019 #

    My memories at the time were all about how everyone talked about Javine being robbed, which might have been another part of why One True Voice were the favourites to get the Christmas number one until we heard the songs. This could have gone down as the third great Cowellian chart robbery (joining the two Robson & Jerome releases that kept Wonderwall and Common People off the top) with the twist that this was Cowell-on-Cowell warfare. If “Sacred Trust” really had been the Christmas number one, is pop in the 00s even worse than it already was? (And it was already bad enough that there was a pointed shift towards blokes with guitars seemingly on the assumption this had to be where the fun was, even if it really wasn’t.)

    But of course Girls Aloud won the chart battle and we were spared a repeat of a mid-90s mistake. What we got instead was a repeat of a mistake avoided from later in the decade that also involved a not-music ITV show.

    Somewhere during the Britpop years, the last traces of 50s-era game show prize regulation were removed, but ITV’s first attempt at a proper American-style huge-prize game show, “Raise the Roof” (so-called because its prize was a house) was ahead of its time only in Bob Holness reading out questions from a proto-tablet, and the format was seven shades of broken and the show a deserved flop. In 1998, they decided to give it a proper go with a format that followed the working title “Cash Mountain” – prizes doubling with every question, unprecedented riches on the line. Lottery jackpot levels, even. Testing found that what resonated with audiences was the idea of someone becoming a millionaire, and thus the show got planned around a £1m top prize and became “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”

    So what in tarnation has this got to do with Girls Aloud? Pete Waterman was tapped to do the music. He did Pete Waterman stuff with it. ITV brass hated it. They looked for someone to rewrite the music and got Keith Strachan – a theatre composer who actually troubled Popular as the co-writer of “Mistletoe and Wine” of all things! – and his son Matthew. The rest is history that’s actually still going on, as the show and the Strachans’ score for it continue to be on the air (albeit as a revival following a multi-year hiatus).

    (Here’s the relevant bit of a documentary on the show talking about the show’s development, beginning with that Waterman theme.)

    Four years later, we get another ITV show with monstrous expectations, another assumption that Pete Waterman in full that’ll-do mode will carry it, and another quick demonstration that it wouldn’t. And once again it was someone who’d previously been behind a notorious chart-topper (or in this case many more than one!) who delivered the improbable salvation and created a lasting success.

  29. 29
    Shiny Dave on 11 Oct 2019 #


    One great thing Electric Six were responsible for was my favourite radio edit in history. Specifically, the edit of “Gay Bar” for Japanese radio, needed because references to nuclear war were… not exactly a good idea in the only country ever to have actually been on the end of it. That couplet became “let’s do an edit / do a radio edit.”

  30. 30
    Jamie on 12 Oct 2019 #

    I love that the top comment on the YouTube video points out that the exploding lightbulbs get more screen time than poor Nicola.

  31. 31
    Mark M on 27 Oct 2019 #

    I have no memory of whether I watched Poststars: The Rivals at all – I had watched a lot of the original Popstars, but very little of Pop Idol. I certainly have no recall of the future Girls Aloud early in the competition, but I was definitely aware of the boys v girls concept. What I do remember is being surprised by what an exciting track Sound Of The Underground was – even at that early stage in history it seemed at odds with reality-game-show pop’s default tendency.

    And I haven’t shifted from that initial impression – I think it’s a collection of thrilling noises, the kind of explosive pop moment the young Nik Cohn would have loved.

    The thing that intrigues me is how thuggish Cheryl looks in the first few videos, which is not how she looked on the show (I’ve checked) nor how she looked later. She looks a right bruiser, especially in the No Good advice promo. And I don’t think that’s just her subsequent legal difficulties distorting my perception – I think it’s smart work from the stylists to make her look match the music.

  32. 32
    dollymix on 4 Nov 2019 #

    As an American, and someone who didn’t listen to much contemporary music in 2002, this was nowhere near my radar at the time. I first heard them shortly after Chemistry came out – I think from Fluxblog, an mp3 blog that’s still kicking today, although it could have been a similar source. “Wild Horses” was the first song that really grabbed me – I still think it’s one of their best. I probably wouldn’t put “Sound of the Underground” amongst their best songs, but as a statement of purpose it’s incredible.

  33. 33
    Chelovek na lune on 5 Nov 2019 #

    At the time, my ears pricked up: this was clearly a cut above the usual already tiresome TV talent-contest fare. Not least, it must be admitted, because the production and the shape and structure of the song – the zigging and zagging, the back and forth – take on a life of their own, and shape its impact; these cut through to the casual listener, perhaps more than the vocals of the performers. In a TV talent show this is positively subversive; in the mainstream pop realm this kind of play is not unknown (“The CIrcus” by Erasure springs immediately to mind as another – if anything even more – incongruous example of very superior construction and performance enthuisastically supported then by Smash Hits, effectively the Pop Stars of its day).

    Reading Julie Burchill – a writer and thinker who is always insightful, often deservedly provocative, generally brave and more often than not deeply wise and well-considered in her arguments and worldview, wll beyond her perceived public persona – a few months later – a few months later, in the Guardian (not sure if it was around the time of their second or their third single) was what really turned me on to Girls Aloud, and the notion they would be well worth listening to, they were a far more interesting proposition than they might superficially, initially, have appeared to be. And so it proved (it took a while, and their bunnies don’t entirely reflect this, alas, but this is hardly unprecedented, but for a time, they did get there)

    I don’t quite it was quite evident from SOTU that we were witnessing the first steps of probably the finest pure pop act of the decade. But for now this was a very superior Christmas number 1, probably the best since “Always On My Mind”. And indeed formed in a similar slightly subversive and eclectic pop spirit.

  34. 34
    mae on 25 Nov 2019 #

    julie “prostitutes should be shot” burchill is not even remotely insightful, brave, wise or well considered in her arguments and worldview

  35. 35
    Gareth Parker on 24 May 2021 #

    Agree with Mae’s comment above. Burchill is utterly ghastly in my opinion. As for Girls Aloud, I admire the energy here, so a 6/10.

  36. 36
    Kinitawowi on 5 Sep 2021 #

    RIP Sarah. 39 is no age.

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