21
Jun 10

BROS – “I Owe You Nothing”

FT + Popular96 comments • 8,800 views

#611, 25th June 1988, video

There’s a performance-based definition of one-hit wonders, but there should be an aesthetic definition too. There are poor groups who make one important single, who against all expectations Get It Right on a particular occasion and leave the studio with something worthwhile – a record that owns its moment even, that you could put in a time capsule and 100 years from now would tell people something about what it meant to be young and alive in (say) 1988. The fascinatingly horrible Bros are, I would argue, one of those groups. Unfortunately “I Owe You Nothing” isn’t their one great record.

That would be “When Will I Be Famous?”, the most honest boy band hit of them all, four minutes of acquisitional hunger and ruthless raw need. It’s catchy, it’s funny, it sums up the gel-soaked stonewashed grotesqueness of Bros and casts a light on their tacky times. It’s a venomous pop star character study and all the more compelling because you’re pretty sure it’s actually true. And, reluctantly, I’m not meant to be writing about it. I have to write about “I Owe You Nothing” instead, the pawky runt of the early Bros litter. “Drop The Boy”, their other initial smash, isn’t very good either, but it’s unintentionally funny – these pleas for maturity juxtaposed with their signature “ROO-AWRR” sound, the noise of a rutting gerbil.

There’s plenty of hot rodent sex on “I Owe You Nothing” too, but it starts brightly: dive-bombing synths and a hustling bassline. It’s only later that the song starts loses its way, running out of musical ideas and papering that over with a momentum-killing instrumental break and increasingly purposeless grunts and yaps from Matt Goss. The overall feel is busy and tinny, very much in line with Stock Aitken Waterman orthodoxy, but SAW’s cheerfulness (and their feel for a verse melody) is missing: instead “I Owe You Nothing” jabs and nips at its audience and its subject. “I watch you SUFFER with no feelings – no feelings at all”: I don’t think there’s been as spiteful a number one as this since “Out Of Time”. But even though Bros’ spite is interesting, the performance and arrangement doesn’t give it much force.

Spite seems key to the Bros project, though, and to their strange season of hugeness – only really scuppered when they were allowed to write their own material. Manager Tom Watkins obviously knew that the oddness of the Bros package – cold-eyed, chiselled twins on the make – was the stuff of hits given the right angle. Tender wouldn’t cut it – Matt Goss was too shrill a singer – so the way to go was to play up the Goss brothers’ icky aloofness. For anyone outside the target audience, they were created to be hated, marrying the glossy selfishness of the handsome with the insular selfishness of the twinned to make records powered deliberately by a mix of malice and entitlement. In fact, even for people inside the target audience they seem an anomaly and a risk, at least compared to the sure-thing boybands who would boss the 1990s. Bros the phenomenon are more interesting than a lot of the people we meet on this blog – but that doesn’t make this record much better.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    punctum on 21 Jun 2010 #

    The Industry. That’s all the Goss bros seemed to go on about – “we’re proud to be in this industry,” “we’re in this industry to be successful,” “you have to have ambition to succeed in this industry” – as though music were equivalent to foundry spot welding, or breaking the necks of chickens on conveyor belts, rather than an art for things which need to be expressed because language alone is insufficient. From their peroxided eyes downwards they were the coldest of all teen idols. “I’ll watch you crumble like a very old wall,” sneers Matt Goss, the owner of the most annoying and overused cosmetic growl in pop since Eden Kane, at the beginning of “I Owe You Nothing,” equating his treacherous ex-lover with a Stock Exchange colleague who’s tried to offload some dodgy shares into his gleaming portfolio.

    Though they were careful to steer clear of explicit party politics (“it’s a bad example to the kids who want to get into this industry”) Bros were Thatcherites to their last milk tooth, were about nothing save ambition and revelling in its perceived rewards. Their debut album was called Push, and their single titles tell their own wretched story: “When Will I Be Famous?,” “Drop The Boy,” “Cat Among The Pigeons,” “Too Hard,” “I’m Backing Britain.” Judging by the way Matt Goss pronounces “Karl Marx” in the first of these – i.e. as someone who thinks Karl Marx was the curly-haired mute who strummed the harp – and also by the fact that their lyrics were largely written by their manager (the very knowing Tom Watkins), it may well be that Bros were an elaborate, BEF-style conceptual joke – played on and against themselves – about the vapidity of unrestrained free market economics, but their music was never sufficiently compelling to warrant that kind of penetration.

    “Why don’t people have the same ambition as us?” wailed Matt Goss in an NME interview. The late Steven Wells gently explained to him that it was because the vast majority of people in Britain were not incipient high-flyers but worked their backsides off in shit jobs for shit money and therefore could be expected to resent millions being paid to flaunt-happy peroxide prannets for hopping about and belching about how good it is to be famous and rich. The hapless Matt couldn’t quite get his head around that. “I Owe You Nothing,” from its title downwards (you will note that there is rarely, if ever, any “up” when it comes to Bros) is a callous declaration of premature triumphalism, “sung” by Matt in his trademark 78 rpm combination of farmhand Michael Jackson attempting to strangle chicken George Michael, with entirely irrelevant growls and “ooh”s every half-second, and is made infinitely worse by the knowledge that the track was remixed for 45 reissue (having flopped on its first outing in late 1987) by Fred Maher, ex-Material and then still current Scritti associate. Thus all the spatial bigness which Green did so much to deconstruct is put here to completely unironic use, and underlines exactly why that emptiness had to be filled with something, even if it were only charm. As it turned out, Bros ended up owing everyone else everything, and limped away suitably humbled. But their four number two hits, in addition to their (mercifully) sole number one, spell out exactly what was so reprehensible about late eighties mainstream pop – even the supposedly “plastic” variety – and why the second wave of New Pop was so sorely needed. After listening to this I had to play “Oh Patti” twice in a row to cleanse my “soul.” To paraphrase the Gosses, “oh yeah, no no, yeah yeah.” Such industry.

  2. 2
    Rory on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Oh, how I hated them in 1988 — and time hasn’t softened that, much. It gives a little more perspective, though: as well as seeing them as the proto-’90s-boy-band, and as well as hearing the obvious SAW-inspired touches, I can now hear a heavy influence from late-period Wham.

    Great review. Dreary tune. 3.

  3. 3
    Hazel on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Despite having claimed for the past 20-odd years that it was ‘Walking On Broken Glass’ by Annie Lennox, I’ve just been hit with the terrible realisation that this might be the earliest song I can remember.

    It is pretty blvddy awful isn’t it? Mind you, I’d probably like it if Depeche Mode did a cover version, they seem more suited to the spite but it’s actually nastier than them by a fair distance. I’d never thought of Bros as the ‘spiteful’ boyband (I never think of Bros at all, really) but there’s something really ghoulish about this, not least the suggestion that the audience is meant to be going ‘THAT’S RIGHT, WATCH THEM SUFFER!’ with gladiatorial glee.

  4. 4
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Watkins totally made sure he got his name on the songwriting credits as well, though IIRC it was all done by their producer Nicky Graham (hahaha no not her off Big Brother) who also did NORTH & SOUTH’s ‘I’m A Man Not A Boy’ hurrah :)

  5. 5
    Rory on 21 Jun 2010 #

    [Double post deleted, sorry about that.]

  6. 6
    Matt DC on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Are Bros the biggest pop phenomenon of the 1980s not to have been revived at any point over the last 10 years? They seem to be one of the last vestiges of the 80s that is unquestionably in the realm of bad taste. Although there is a great grime riddim that samples When Will I Be Famous.

  7. 7
    Tom on 21 Jun 2010 #

    #1 I totally agree w/you about the repulsive Thatcherite-ness of it all Marcello but I think the unashamedness of that is what makes “Famous” an actually great record – horrible and ugly and disagreeable but urgent and strong too. Quite willing to believe I’m alone in this though!

  8. 8
    wichita lineman on 21 Jun 2010 #

    The Goss growl – I think Danny Baker said at the time that you never see Matt Goss and The Big Match’s Brian Moore in the same room.

    “I watch you crumble like a very old wall” is always guaranteed to raise a laugh from people who don’t remember it. I can’t think of many worse Popular opening lines. And Matt Goss’s diction was so bad, his vowels so contorted and garbled in his imitation of Michael Jackson, that you could hear the record a hundred times and never know that’s what he was singing. I never twigged Tom Watkins was the lyricist – “the Brotherhood” as a writing credit seemed in place to fool people into thinking the group wrote their own material, while possibly being a nod to “the Corporation” who wrote Michael Jackson’s earliest hits with the Jackson 5. I am prepared to believe it was, as Marcello suggests, all a BEF type gag, as they started printing their hilarious lyrics on the front cover of each single from the desperately poor I Quit onwards. Wot, no photo??

    This single came in three different 7″ sleeves, one Bros member on each cover, which probably helped it to number one when four of their other singles fell one place short. I was reviewing the singles for NME the week this came out (a teenage dream fulfilled! I think SOTW was the Sea Urchins’ Please Rain Fall) and got sent a copy in the Craig ‘Ken’ Logan sleeve. As did every other music journalist, I suspect.

  9. 9
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Jun 2010 #

    I loved “Famous” at the time – 6 years old is when you get optimum ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ answers eg astronaut/Olympic athlete/pop star. I didn’t see the concept of being famous as wanting to be like Bros, more that fame in itself was exciting! And obviously achievable, as I had won the egg and spoon race at Sports Day AND I knew the order of all the planets and how many moons they had. Fame was clearly just around the corner and I was impatient!

  10. 10
    vinylscot on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Pretty spot-on review Tom, but if you really want to torture yourself, have a listen to the b-side of the 7-inch. It’s an a capella version, so the instruments don’t get in the way of the grunting… and there is a hell of a lot of extra grunting too! It was a good one to put on the pub jukebox just as you were leaving.

    Was their later hit “Sister” widely hated or tolerated? I ask as I have a friend (not me, honest), who always brings it up whenever the (guilty) pleasures chat comes up in the pub, and we’re never quite sure if he’s taking the p*ss or not.

  11. 11
    Tom on 21 Jun 2010 #

    “Sister” was generally derided I think, to an extent that (given its subject matter) now seems pretty cruel. But my frame of reference was fellow 15/16-year old boys, who hated and feared Bros and the Brosettes.

    The worst Bros single IMO was “Chocolate Box” – any vitality or songwriting discipline completely drained away, just leaving grunts and spasms.

  12. 12
    wichita lineman on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Re 11: that makes Chocolate Box sound most intriguing.

  13. 13
    wichita lineman on 21 Jun 2010 #

    By the way, Brosettes were very much like Bay City Rollers’ fans – fiercely loyal packs of girls, powerful and intimidating by force of numbers, with their own independently-created fashion (home-made tartan gear/Grolsch bottle top footwear). Male fans just didn’t exist. Likewise, both groups bloomed intensely for one summer – the chart positions don’t really suggest how much bigger Bros seemed in ’88 than the year after.

  14. 14
    thefatgit on 21 Jun 2010 #

    They were the most famous band to come from my hometown, Camberley in Surrey. The Goss’s attended Collingwood school, and were soundly beaten up by future estate agents and tyre-fitters alike. The poodle-permed pair were born to perform and had been regulars in school productions, bands and amateur performmances, before being whisked off to drama school, never to be bothered by the bullying future tyre-fitters again…

    “When Will I Be Famous” was hilarious among those of us who knew of the pre-fame Goss’s. Tom Watkins pop makeover machine had taken a pair of shaggy-haired bedlington terriers and transformed them into chiselled whippets, eager to hunt down their prey. Even the famous SuBo makeover pales in comparison to what Watkins had done with the Goss’s

    The cruel irony is “I Owe You Nothing” is a spiteful rebuke to those who had slavishly followed BROS from their debut. Those who had put Grolsch-tops on their shoes, festooned the arm-pockets of their MA-1 jackets with BROS badges, bought the 12″ acid house remix of “Drop The Boy”. “Push” was the 80’s processed into a rather bland and unpalatble paste, but (nearly) all the elements were there: BIGNESS, aspiration, ambition… but no heart, no “SoulPassionHonesty” as it were. This same Tom Watkins had brought us the PSB’s 4 years earlier with “Opportunities”. That had been a synthpop pastiche on Thatcherism. Now he brings us Thatcher-Youth singing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”. Hateful.

  15. 15
    MBI on 21 Jun 2010 #

    “farmhand Michael Jackson attempting to strangle chicken George Michael”

    It has been posited that the most beautiful phrase in the English language is “cellar door.” I humbly submit that is, instead, the above quote from punctum.

  16. 16
    Rory on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Number 6 in Australia on 14/8/1988. Previous Oz Bros* hits were “When Will I Be Famous?”, number 10, and “Drop the Boy”, number 9, both peaking on 3/7/1988. After “I Owe You Nothing” they had a few top twenty hits through to late 1989, then nada.

    *The horrible thought just occurs that there may be a tribute band out there with this very name. Please, no.

    Edit: The reality is even more baffling.

  17. 17
    flahr on 21 Jun 2010 #

    The review and comments on this one have been pretty accurate this time – it feels a bit weird looking back on it that enough people bought this to send it to the top, with an emptiness and lack of joy that doesn’t seem to have much mass appeal. Docking a point for those ridiculous snorting noises leaves the Bros with 3pts.

    P.S. Is there something in their oeuvre to mash up with “Let Me Love You” and produce Mario Bros.?

  18. 18
    will on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Er, well, I actually like it. And I liked I Quit as well.

    Oh I know they’ve been a national joke for over two decades and the Goss twins didn’t do themselves any favours at the time, but I liked the whole…boyishness of the Bros caper. IOYN and its proceeding two singles nail an adolescent impatience for life to begin that seemed so guileless and gauche compared to previous groups in their position (Unlike Bros, Wham and Duran were clearly men by the time they celebrated their first Number Ones).

  19. 19
    vinylscot on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Some synchronicity here – cross-posting with the Wets and Billy Bragg post. The singer/comedian Chris Sievey/Frank Sidebottom, who supported Bros at Wembley, died this afternoon. RIP Chris/Frank

  20. 20
    Tracer Hand on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Sascha Funke did a fantastic “remix” of WWIBF for BPitch Control.. almost 10 years ago… (ulp!) –

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSs0eN8L2X4

  21. 21
    Steve Mannion on 21 Jun 2010 #

    I quite like/d When Will I Be Famous? too (that super brief waltz tempo switch towards the end seemed quite a wtf moment at the time ha ha). I saw Bros mainly as just filling the space vacated by Wham albeit upping the macho aggression considerably. This seemed to make them more popular with boys (at least similarly minded boys) in a way which East 17 would improve upon (with the tacky rapdily dating grasps at masculinity replaced by a more 90s Lad approach of course).

    But bad as they usually were I’d still put Bros before Hoss (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoss_(band))

  22. 22
    thefatgit on 21 Jun 2010 #

    #19 Seconded. A fine talent surely missed.

  23. 23
    Andrew Farrell on 21 Jun 2010 #

    #18 – Yes I was a Boy and not yet a Man at the right time to really enjoy these – I got the best of recently and will thoroughly represent for all they songs they didn’t write. A lack of “SoulPassionHonesty” = a very very good thing, obviously.

    Also no-one has yet mentioned Luke Goss’s transformation into an actual being of hunger in Blade II?

  24. 24
    Dan Worsley on 21 Jun 2010 #

    I think they were the most supremely loathsome group in history, or rather Matt and Luke were, for the reasons Marcello outlined above. They apparently paid Ken off (Copyright Viz) who then promptly hooked one of the Appleby sisters and then became a big shot in the music biz, while Matt and Luke were having their Porsches repossessed. Can’t think of a more satisfying case of schadenfreude in pop music.

  25. 25
    Izzy on 21 Jun 2010 #

    I did think about trying to engineer a Bros revival a while back. The image has loads going for it (particularly that they initially had a platoon of male fans too) but the weakness of a lot of the material is a problem.

    No such issues for ‘When Will I Be Famous?’ though – it’s a fabulous record with great energy, a classic hook and the rare ability to capture its moment perfectly. Only the rhythm track and a couple of weird and weak lulls let it down, but if it had made it to Popular it’d’ve been worth a very high mark indeed.

  26. 26
    lonepilgrim on 21 Jun 2010 #

    I was quite prepared to loathe this as much as I did at the time but actually enjoyed the music.
    Marcello’s insight that Fed Maher had remixed it explains why. I can imagine it being sampled to produce something more interesting.
    The Goss Bros seem to represent a highly styled template for the future of boy bands which I find utterly unappealing – although as I’m not the target audience I doubt that the svengalis will lose any sleep.

    re 19
    Very sorry to hear of Chris Sievey/Frank Sidebottom’s death – I had a shaped picture disk by him from around this time which I still regret selling

  27. 27
    Tom on 21 Jun 2010 #

    #26 the thing is though that future boybands are almost nothing like Bros! The way people went on to market boybands – gangs of approachable but boyish boys within which the initiate can pick favourites – is really different to how Bros were pushed, maybe because twin-ness complicated the whole fancying element (intriguingly perhaps!). Also Bros were an “actual band” – Nicky Graham billed himself as “The Brothers” to try and make it look like Goss/Goss/Ken wrote the songs; they each had designated instrumental roles…

    It’s much more the last gasp of the Wham!/Duran era, particularly Wham! than it is a harbinger of the New Kids/Take That one. I think that extends to the songs too – with Wham! we had the huge discussion of are they Thatcherite/are they pro-dole – and Bros takes that to a sort of extreme.

  28. 28
    wichita lineman on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Male Bros fans at the time? I guess not being at school anymore, I never met any and assumed they didn’t exist! But they were, like the later boy bands, designed with a calculated pink pound appeal.

    The ‘Brothers’ not the ‘Brotherhood’, soz.

    In 2005 I saw Chris Sievey/Frank Sidebottom at a Ken Livingstone fund raiser. Slightly tipsy, he fell backwards off a six foot high stage, landing on his head. I think if he hadn’t been wearing his papier mache head he would probably have left us that night. Very sad to hear of his passing today. Oh Blimey It’s Christmas is probably my favourite festive song title.

  29. 29
    Mark M on 21 Jun 2010 #

    As I may have mentioned before, the most notable thing for me at the time about Bros was that they killed off the post-Hard Times look that had been a big deal in London at least for the middle part of the decade. Thousands of pairs of pre-torn Levis, bomber jackets in PoW checks, DM shoes all dumped down the charity shop sharpish. The shoe thing might have been the most damaging, contributing the hegemony of the trainer that was to come…

  30. 30
    MikeMCSG on 21 Jun 2010 #

    # 27 “It’s much more the last gasp of the Wham!/Duran era, particularly Wham! than it is a harbinger of the New Kids/Take That one. I think that extends to the songs too – with Wham! we had the huge discussion of are they Thatcherite/are they pro-dole – and Bros takes that to a sort of extreme.”

    I couldn’t disagree with you more on that point Tom and you’re insulting both groups by squeezing these chancers into the same bracket. It was around this time that John Lydon appeared on the JSP BBC2 show which looked back over certain artist’s careers – perhaps someone could remind me of the title ? – and really laid into them. He understood that the Gosses were the pallbearers of punk, nailing down the coffin lid on a golden period where the Svengalis had been squeezed out and the teen idols emerged naturally from a pool of people writing their own songs and taking control of their own careers – Adam Ant, Duran, Wham, A-ha. Simon Cowell was merely the stooge frontman for the “Wonderdog” single in that period.
    For all the reasons Marcello outlines, Bros brought all that to a shuddering halt and we were back in the age of Child and Flintlock again.

    IIRC Radio One had a poll for the Greatest Single of all time and ran the countdown on the August Bank Holiday. You could feel the embarrassment when this was announced as the number one !

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