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Mar 20

SUGABABES – “Hole In The Head”

Popular19 comments • 1,691 views

#961, 25th October 2003

“Hole In The Head” has three tough acts to follow. “Overload”, the one which perfectly introduced the Sugababes and their core idea – talk-to-the-hand teenage moodiness as a girl group operating system. “Freak Like Me”, the one (and the one-off) which brought them back from the edge of dissolution. And “Round Round”, the one which established, with an easy confidence, who the Sugababes were as a newly stable concern. 

So it’s predictable that “Hole In The Head” feels a little like “Round Round” part 2; and also predictable that it underwhelmed – this is Sugababes being an ordinary band, sounding like themselves, with no extraneous drama. It trailed an album whose title – Three – cemented this new normality: three girls, the same three girls as last time, with a third album, move along, nothing to see here.

And adding to the sense of a single slipping through the cracks is the way that the sound of “Hole” – that skiffle-y, schaffle-y, ska-ish acoustic big beat – now plays like Xenomania’s dry run for Girls Aloud’s “Love Machine”, a record whose sound fits its horny, chaotic vibe to perfection. “Hole In The Head” feels like an awkward older sister.

But listening to it, all this contextual stuff melts away: “Hole In The Head” is very good indeed. If it lacks a high concept, it makes up for it in a band and songwriters getting better at playing to each others’ strengths. The choppy briskness of “Hole” is a marvellous backing for the Sugababes’ soft, rapid, speak-singing, and the unshowy melody gives them opportunities for lovely turns of individual phrase – the emphatic hiss on “face” in “You’re in my face / Tell me what’s your name?” is a particular favourite. Other Xenomania acts might have offered a greater canvas for fucking around with song structure or working out pastiches – the Sugababes were the best singers they had to work with, and “Hole In The Head” makes sure to remember that.

The song suits the band’s persona, too – a break-up track built for dancing, a brush-off that centres itself on contempt and anger, not grief, a defiant rebuke to “Nothing Compares To U”. Kissing my ass, it turns out, compares to you. Favourably. And the song’s best moment, in its double-time kiss-off of a bridge, is also its most Sugababes-y: a two-line summary of the band’s appeal: “Just because you made me go “hooo” / Doesn’t mean I’ll put up with you.”

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Comments

  1. 1
    AMZ1981 on 5 Mar 2020 #

    I still have this down as the weakest Sugababes number one (bunnied duet cover excepted) but having just revisited it it’s better than I remembered it and has held up well. I suppose it’s a consolidation rather than a leap forward and the overall feel is of a band marking time. It also suffers from getting barged from the top pretty quickly (it dropped to 5 the following week and even if there hadn’t been any new releases it would have only been 3) which gives it a placeholder feel.

  2. 2
    ThePensmith on 5 Mar 2020 #

    An about accurate thesis of the least remembered Sugababes chart topper, Tom. More than functional and miles ahead of anything their contemporaries were doing in October 2003, but as you say, by their own standards a tad by the numbers. I do recall a friend of mine at school around this time saying you could sing the chorus of ‘Round Round’ over the top of this – which given Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper’s method of keeping libraries of their artists’ vocals and chorus/bridge/verse/middle 8 ideas is probably closer to the truth than we realise.

    Still, it’s video – with Mutya’s razor sharp talon-esque acrylic nails being a particular highlight – was very memorable, as indeed were the lyrics (‘You’re in my face, sorry what’s your name? / Takes more than begging to reverse my brain’ – so sassy). Only bunny outside The Offspring to mention Ricki Lake to my knowledge. ‘Hole in the Head’ was definitely the smart commercial choice to launch the ‘Three’ album with, but I would argue their other singles from the album were more bunny worthy in terms of their place in their canon as a group – chiefly, the ‘Love Actually’ soundtracking, Diane Warren penned mega ballad ‘Too Lost In You’ (#10 that Christmas), another Xenomania helmed floorfiller ‘In The Middle’ (which also sampled the synth riff from German dance DJ Moguai’s ‘U Know Y’) which made #8 in March 2004, and then August of that year saw them round things off with the genuinely lovely ‘Caught In A Moment’ which also made #8 before they took a year’s break whilst they recorded their next album – from which we meet one bunny – and Mutya had her baby.

    There was another, slightly more ambient sounding Xenomania track on the ‘Three’ album called ‘Situation’s Heavy’ (another Edele from B*Witched co-write too, after her turn on Girls Aloud’s ‘Some Kind of Miracle’) that I still love and think would have been a brilliant single. Overall, I would take this era of Sugababes on their just functional days over Atomic Kitten at this time on their bloody awful days (which would be every time as we discussed before). 8 for me too.

    #2 watch – probably the only instance in recent memory of the Notting Hill carnival sending a song up to the higher reaches of the chart: ‘Turn Me On’ by Kevin Lyttle. Was tagged in partnership with the Sean Paul/Wayne Wonder runners up we’ve discussed, despite not strictly being a reggae/Diwali riddim track, but it has the same energy those tracks possessed, even if he sounded like he was singing it with a cold.

  3. 3
    inkwisitive on 6 Mar 2020 #

    Pretty decent song, although I was always left confused by the pronunciation at the end of the chorus, that somehow gets a “t” sound into “such a fool” (and the lyrics definitely are “such as fool” as confirmed by some vocal backing/ad-libs).

    Probably just me, though! Round Round is definitely a better song, and one which I believe Xenomania knew would be a hit from the drum track alone.

  4. 4
    Lee Saunders on 7 Mar 2020 #

    It hadn’t occurred to me that this is their least remembered number one but indeed, and its also one of their most moody – in a good way. More straightforward structurally than either of their previous two No. 1s, it still feels all bubbly and squelchy, the little flickers of synth whirring that bounce out of the mix et al. And as its relatively subdued there’s no risk of it overwhelming the group, perhaps only spotlighting them more at any given moment; even when it gets almost angry in the second half of the middle-eight, Keisha sees no need to change her tone (change of melody though for the ‘just because you make me go ‘oooh” part, in typical Xenomania fashion not sounding at all shoehorned or even showy – a later bunny for them pulls this trick off repeatedly). I’ll add to the 8s, though In the Middle would be a 9.

    Also part of pop’s Ricki Lake-referencing triptych with Pretty Fly and Strong. In hindsight the video makes me think of Girls Aloud’s Hoxton Heroes, though the guys here aren’t ‘indie clones’, more Lenny Kravitz or (more timely) adult School of Rock – weird stuff.

    Wonderful new entries elsewhere in the top 10 – Emma’s Maybe (no Maybe about this being my favourite song of hers), Sophie Ellis Bextor’s Mixed Up World (I like how ‘mixed up’ here is represented by her android vocals, makes me think of the Flying Lizards’ mid-80s stuff of all things) and R.E.M.’s Bad Day (their last great single).

  5. 5
    Chelovek na lune on 7 Mar 2020 #

    This has an insanely catchy hook in the chorus, if nothing else, although it’s a long way from being Xenomania at their astoundingly brilliant best. I think I prefer it to “Round Round”, nonetheless, even if it is a little less challenging. Relatively innovative pop-dance aimed firmly at the pop charts, the market-town dancefloor and mainstream radio though: it’s alright.

    A seven, or on a bad day, a six.

  6. 6
    Mark M on 8 Mar 2020 #

    I do think that Sugababes mark II are sometimes a bit under-appreciated because they were simultaneously compared with:
    a) Sugababes I, who felt more authentic, even though the two actual mates, Keisha and Mutya, stayed together for II. (Because Heidi Range had been in Atomic Kitten? Because she was blonde and called Heidi? Or simply because all later members to vocal groups are viewed with suspicion, something amplified in retrospect by the way that Sugababes reached no-original-members status?)
    b) Girls Aloud, whose origin story made being manufactured a positive.

  7. 7
    ThePensmith on 8 Mar 2020 #

    #6 – this debate continues to rumble on, even now with the original lineup of Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan winning the legal rights to the name back just last year (albeit with what one suspects is a hefty NDC they had to sign regarding talking about it all, it wasn’t even broached when they were on Graham Norton with DJ Spoony last October). To be honest, the whole lineup change thing was made more of a big deal than it actually was. If you consider how many times Oasis changed line up or lost members and no one batted an eyelid. Somehow because they were a girl group it made better copy, which is ridiculous. I’d say v1.0 and 2.0 are my favourite incarnations and they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Heidi’s a lovely girl, and has a good voice, but Siobhan was always a stronger singer than her. I also suspect she wouldn’t have done a track about Christmas turkeys on a solo album like she did (‘Iodine’ from her brilliantly underrated ‘Revolution In Me’).

    I will readily admit though – and we’ve got a few more Sugabunnies to discuss this point – that by the time they got to the last Island Records lineup, who we don’t meet, I had lost interest, mainly because the material had got so crap, and also the clueless handling of the situation by their management. At least when they still had a member connecting them to their origins they still made sense. Otherwise you end up with the 00s equivalent of the Three Degrees.

  8. 8
    Kinitawowi on 9 Mar 2020 #

    @7 It’s all about the public face of the group though. Nobody cared about Oasis’ lineup changes because as far as 99% of the public were concerned they might as well have consisted of Liam, Noel and some backing musicians – Noel’s departure spawned massive interest even among the people who’d long since ceased to care about the band. With girl groups they’re pretty much all the public face (by design).

    And Iodine is amazing. “There is no left wing to fight the right wing” is still one of the most chilling lines in music 17 years after it was recorded.

  9. 9
    James BC on 9 Mar 2020 #

    I was never a big fan of Round Round so I have no difficulty in saying that this is far better. Great title, instantly engaging lyrics (what is Round Round even about?) and generally much more fun and joie de vivre, while still keeping the cool factor that differentiated the Sugababes from Girls Aloud. Not that it necessarily made them better, but you do have to maintain your brand identity.

    It’s not always easy to pull off a song that says “We’ve broken up and I don’t care”, without sounding like you’re protesting too much. Pink springs to mind as an artist who’s strayed on to the wrong side of that line a couple of times. But the Sugababes manage it here, making the previous generation of breakup songs look a bit like hard work. “I Will Survive” is all very well, but listening to this I realise that it’s a bit self-limiting in its defiance: it is still written from the loser’s point of view. The equivalent person in the 21st century can realistically hope to do a bit better: I Will Thrive.

  10. 10
    lonepilgrim on 10 Mar 2020 #

    Another chart topper sufficiently memorable to penetrate my consciousness at the time – listening to this now I like the way the contempt is controlled rather than over emoted. For some reason – maybe the key or the BPM – this reminds me of Pink’s Let’s get this party started.

  11. 11
    James BC on 22 Mar 2020 #

    Just thinking about other positive breakup songs where the singer sounds genuinely not bothered, better off out of it, and breezily moving on to better things. I think the precursor and champion of the genre might be M People’s Moving On Up.

    Did they never have a number 1 single? They must rank high on the list of acts that should have (which I still think of as The Prince List, showing my age).

  12. 12
    Kinitawowi on 23 Mar 2020 #

    M People never made the top spot; the closest they came was indeed Moving On Up, which got to number 2 before the Fresh Prince got in the way.

  13. 13
    PapaT on 23 Mar 2020 #

    11- There is Kelly Clarkson’s deathless “Stronger” (surprisingly no higher than an 8 in the UK, although it reached that peek twice during a long ride up and down the top 20), but it always seemed like she was protesting a little too much.

  14. 14
    Andrew F on 23 Mar 2020 #

    Possibly Beyoncé’s Irreplaceable (“to the left, to the left”)? At the time I through she was protesting a bit too much as well, but that no longer seems a useful projection onto her.

  15. 15
    Lee Saunders on 23 Mar 2020 #

    “Just thinking about other positive breakup songs where the singer sounds genuinely not bothered, better off out of it, and breezily moving on to better things.”

    Handbag house has this in spades. Later still You Can’t Change Me by Roger Sanchez and N’Dea Davenport is potentially my favourite of the era (2001 in this case).

  16. 16
    Mark M on 23 Mar 2020 #

    Re13: And also Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone.

  17. 17
    James BC on 23 Mar 2020 #

    Oh in Irreplaceable she definitely IS bothered. There are clues all through the lyric. That’s what gives the song its emotional heft. Much like Gwen Stefani’s Cool, where you’re only getting like 15% of what the song can offer until you realise that they are NOT cool.

  18. 18
    The Lurker on 23 Mar 2020 #

    #11 – how about McAlmont and Butler’ Yes?

  19. 19
    James BC on 24 Mar 2020 #

    Yes is a great song but the lyric isn’t direct enough. You could listen to it for years and not realise it was about a breakup. Plus I do detect a slight note of regret underlying the soaring chorus.

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