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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  1. 31
    Tom on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Hold on the singer from THE SEX PISTOLS was lamenting the loss of an era when “the svengalis had been squeezed out”??? A band styled and micro-managed by who exactly ;)

    I dunno, I should have said “death rattle” instead of “last gasp”, or maybe emphasised the transitional-ness of it – they still don’t much seem like what came later (lacklustre ‘rivals’ Big Fun were much closer). They’re kind of a horrid parody of Wham! I guess.

    I don’t think it pays to get too starry-eyed about the “golden period” of New Pop as an extension of punk, though: as music yes, Bros can’t hold a candle to it but as Dave Rimmer pointed out at the time in Like Punk Never Happened loads of these stars aspired to being “businessmen” and embraced the idea of the industry as much as the Goss boys did.

  2. 32
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Jun 2010 #

    The central problem of say PiL or BEF as self-managed post-punker multi-media operations is that they didn’t have anyone saying to them, “Sorry guys, you are GREAT at this and TERRIBLE at this…”

    Norman Mailer made a series of films that he wrote, acted in and directed: they are interesting only insofaras they are embrassingly unwatchable — the myth that awesome performers are automatically talented songwriters is precisely as romantically silly. Cameramen and women should hire accountants to look after their accounts, and the sensible ones actually do this. Obviously P-Diddy’s clothes lines are impeccably gorgeous. The exception proves the rule.

    About a year hence, I wrote a piece for the Observer that described Bros as “alien incest twins” (in a good way), but it never ran.

  3. 33
    Tom on 21 Jun 2010 #

    Come to think of it, the number of successful post-punk British boybands who didn’t write their own material is honestly quite small. Take That did. East 17 did. A1 did. Busted and McFly did. Then on the other side there’s 5ive (who surely wrote their own RAPS), Blue, JLS. But it’s not a sure thing by any means. *Stylistically* there’s a massive change but there’s no stable shift in control from star to svengali accompanying it in Britain until 1996 at least.

  4. 34
    swanstep on 22 Jun 2010 #

    Yeah, this is foul, both in idea and execution. Great review and first comment from punctum. Nothing to add:

  5. 35
    anto on 22 Jun 2010 #

    Sorry to hear about Frank Sidebottom. A beloved son up here in the North West.
    The Bros track? Not worth a comment.

  6. 36
    Slim Finn on 22 Jun 2010 #

    I really loved Bros as an 11 year old kid, and I can still see why. Their hits were catchy and totally free of yucky stuff like love and kisses. They were as energetic as I was. Even now when my musical taste has become more indie and more critic-like, I can catch a glimpse of my younger self enjoying I Owe You Nothing, and I can’t help feeling happy. The song starts to lose it’s momentum after halfway, though. 7

  7. 37
    MBI on 22 Jun 2010 #

    I’ve been trying and trying and trying to figure out what the bassline for this song reminds me of, and I’ve concluded that it’s probably Pseudo Echo’s terrible cover of “Funky Town,” another tub of ’80s dishwater that never earned the right to exist. Out of curiosity a while back, I downloaded Billboard’s list of the top 100 (U.S.) hits of 1987, and I found myself quickly un-enamored of the 1980s, for the same reason that I hated “I Owe You Nothing” instantly. The shock of energy new wave provided at the beginning of the decade has by this point devolved into a big gloopy mass of synth-cheese, and this song sucks for many more reasons than just Matt Goss’s artlessly transparent ambition and pallid Michael Jackson impression.

  8. 38
    swanstep on 22 Jun 2010 #

    @MBI, 37. I think Bros and Pseudo-echo share an especially horrible, blaring synth-brass preset. (Keyboard mavens would undoubtedly be able to tell you exactly what it is.)

  9. 39
    taDOW on 22 Jun 2010 #

    if s’express was the first brit hit i can remember going ‘wow – that would never hit over here’, bros were the first thing i can remember definitely – ‘wow – thank god that would never hit over here’. i’m not sure i can think of a worse boy band – the only comp i can think of is whoever did that awful shai remake mid90s or so. one question, prompted by punctum and others above: did they ever do a ‘break for creative freedom/maturity’ move like every other boy band from monkees (and arguably beatles) to jackson five (and osmonds? was crazy horses their ‘no strings attached’?) to new edition to nkotb to n’sync? how awful was it? anyhow this strongly colored my idea of british pop (and does to this day), for better or, mainly, worse (basically that it’s cluttered w/ gangly amateurs thinking they’re pros).

  10. 40
    Erithian on 22 Jun 2010 #

    Maybe it was the blond-twin thing (he writes, as the proud father of blond twins himself) but Bros entered into the popular consciousness like few other acts of the time – certainly few with such a comparatively short life-span. John Sullivan certainly noticed them, as in the episode of “Only Fools and Horses” where Rodney has to pretend to be 14 to claim a Spanish holiday prize, the first question he is asked by a fellow member of the Groovy Gang is “do you like Bros?”. In the very next series, Del’s unsellable junk includes 275 Free Nelson Mandela T-shirts and 150 Bros LPs. (“Fashions change so fast in the pop world, I was caught unawares – they could be back in fashion next month”.)

    They were skewered memorably by French and Saunders in their Star Test parody, and were given enough rope by Tom Hibbert in one of the best Q “Who The Hell?” features. Then they were off down the road to financial ruin, telling us that they had had to compete with Michael Jackson in their lifestyle choices, and few of us ever felt sorry for them.

    RIP Chris Sievey too. Still holder of the record for the longest (unbracketed) title of a hit single in the UK chart with the Freshies’ “I’m In Love With The Girl On The Virgin Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk”. And the man of whom a great review circa 1981 said “he’s done more for Manchester than bloody John Bond, bloody Malcolm Allison and bloody Dave Sexton put together”.

  11. 41
    MikeMCSG on 22 Jun 2010 #

    #31 Well we could debate the exact extent of McLaren’s contribution to the Pistols till the cows come home but at the end of the day Lydon and Matlock wrote the songs.

    Dave Rimmer’s book came out long before Bros so it’s disingenuous to cite him as supporting your theory. From the Beatles onwards there are very few artists/bands who don’t aspire to some greater control of their own destinies. In that respect you can compare Bros to almost anyone though not many disappeared down the plughole as quickly as the Goss boys when they attempted it.

    # 33 Take That had the novel idea of putting the pasty, chubby songwriter in the band but no one fancied him ; the actual teen idols were and are muppets. East 17 are an interesting exception ; I’ll give you that one. McFly and Busted were the start of something new; I detested them but wouldn’t put them in the Westlife/Blue bracket.

  12. 42
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Jun 2010 #

    The problem being, consistently, that creative control as aspired to by the Beatles, Lydon, the new pop crew, was and remains a false and misbegotten grail. It either means (cf the story of Apple, or Lydon’s PiL after the first split) that people incompetent to do A. B and C have placed themselves totally in charge of A, B and C, brooking no criticism, constructive or otherwise; or it means (the tale of indie generally) that the horns of possiiblity are drawn calamitously in, and a passive-aggressive aesthetic of non-delivery develops. The energy of the Beatles or the Pistols derived as much as anything from the unfolding struggle for control within the project. With the struggle won, quality always speedily dives.

    (The idea that quality can only come from having the songwriters on-stage is a weird rock-formed delusion that no other strand of pop — or culture — hobbles itself with. The team is always more than the faces on the LP: I always liked the soulworld habit of thanking every single relevant person, though I bet lots of people got forgot even in those endless lists.)

  13. 43
    DietMondrian on 22 Jun 2010 #

    Re: the “shaggy-haired bedlington terriers phase” – weren’t they originally called Gloss when they had the big hair? Or did Smash Hits (or some such) make that up, and I took it at face value?

    Truly dreadful band, by the way, who contributed to my move away from the charts and into the indie ghetto.

  14. 44
    MikeMCSG on 22 Jun 2010 #

    #42 No of course quality is not dependent on the songwriters being performers or vice versa. Cathy Dennis’s songs sounded very poor when delivered in her thin voice and then brilliant when belted out by Jo in S Club.

    Bros were not crap because they didn’t write their own songs but because as punctum says their music was contrived and derivative – a K-Tel approximation of genuinely talented performers. And of course they (and sadly S Club too) got a very limited slice of the cake compared to “the management”. It was surely a better time when the teen idols emerged naturally and the likes of Cowell and Fuller had less influence on the process. That’s what I was lamenting.

  15. 45
    Tom on 22 Jun 2010 #

    We’ll get a chance for some direct comparison of Take That’s songwriters, but it’s a way away :)

    Re. Dave Rimmer – I was reading your argument to be “punk pushed the svengalis out of the way and let pop stars emerge naturally”. What Rimmer suggests is that the way these pop stars emerged naturally was basically by becoming their own Svengalis, and (to Rimmer at least) this didn’t seem to have changed things much. That doesn’t contradict your point, it just puts into question the idea that an age of real Svengalis is better than an age of inner Svengalis.

    I think we’re mostly in agreement about the essential shoddiness of Bros, mind you!

  16. 46
    Steve Mannion on 22 Jun 2010 #

    Early ’88 is when I first started reading Smash Hits (only for about 18 months in total iirc) so when I came to it they were slavishly devoted to both Bros and Kylie(&Jason) but fairly witty with it. Fond memories of the mag at this point probably means I feel less antipathy to a bunch of the acts they were obliged to champion (at least now if not then). The comparison with a-ha is not something I initially thought about but yes of course quite a gulf of imagination and sophistication between them.

  17. 47
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Jun 2010 #

    Having cited BEF for argumentative porpoises, I really didn’t expect this — which I had completely and entirely forgotten — to remind me so much of Heaven 17! Except with a better singer hoho —

    My rule of thumb is to assume that lovesongs (and thus hatesongs) are to be treated and will be treated as directed at the core audience: Bros’s audience may have thought the twins were hott wee cuties for a while, but “I owe you nothing” from star to audience was always going to be unforgiveable and un-get-roundable in the long run, however well delivered. My memory of their bust-up with their fans was that they were being punished for their bid for musicianly credibility, which was not what they were being hired for…

  18. 48
    Erithian on 22 Jun 2010 #

    Oh, and that thing in your voice mate? – Benylin will clear that up.

  19. 49
    LondonLee on 22 Jun 2010 #

    #13 I was living in a flat behind the Hammersmith Odeon at this point and will never forget popping out to the shops one Saturday afternoon to do my shopping to find the Broadway swarming with hordes of young Brosettes who were there to see them play a matinee gig. My only ever encounter with that kind of Beatle-/Rollermania, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a copper trying to hold back that lot.

    This isn’t that bad, the chorus is catchy and lively. Though it did make me rethink my uniform of 501s and Doc Marten’s at the time, I even had a white Levis jacket.

    Was Matt Goss the first to copy Michael Jackson’s vocals like that? I know all teenyboy idols do it now but watching the video it occurred to me this is the first time that comparison entered my head.

  20. 50
    Tom on 22 Jun 2010 #

    #47 – the quality really did drop precipitously when they started writing their own songs though, so it’s hard to work out if it was solely an ideological move on behalf of the fanbase.

    But it might have been! The fast turnover of fandoms tends to get explained away (by outsiders) in terms of – oh, they grow up, they move on to the next thing, which is very superficial as an explanation, doesn’t explain why some fandoms last a year and some last a lot longer and tends to reinforce the idea that fans are by nature undiscerning, which is obviously bunk. I think massed fans are VERY alert to changes in quality, though sometimes their definition of ‘quality’ is quite different and factional and their discernment works in other ways. We’re used to this idea with (say) TV fandom but are slower to attach it to pop.

  21. 51
    TomLane on 22 Jun 2010 #

    Yep, “When Will I Be Famous” is pretty great, but this one is just okay. A second listen, though, and I’m singing along. A decent 6, and a non-charter in America.

  22. 52
    MikeMCSG on 22 Jun 2010 #

    # 49 Junior and David Grant did a nice line in Jackson impersonation but yeah Matt Goss might have been the first white guy to try it.

  23. 53
    thefatgit on 22 Jun 2010 #

    #50 Isn’t the presence of a certain Boston boy band already diverting the Goss/Goss/Ken fanbase attention towards them? After all, the “quality” of the stateside product is miles ahead of anything Bros could come up with.

  24. 54
    Hofmeister Bear on 22 Jun 2010 #

    #53:’You Got It (The Right Stuff)’ was still over a year away from release in the UK at this point.

  25. 55
    Hofmeister Bear on 22 Jun 2010 #

    But yes the timelines between NKOTB turning up at the fag-end of 89 and Bros’s singles failing to enter the top 10 in the UK definitely overlap.

  26. 56
    thefatgit on 22 Jun 2010 #

    #54 yes, when IOYN was #1, but the discussion above was about when Bros began to write their own material and how their fanbase reacted to it, which is around ’89.

    (simultaneously posted there!)

  27. 57
    swanstep on 22 Jun 2010 #

    I owe you nothing” from star to audience was always going to be unforgiveable
    This point from Lord Sukrat ties in with a thought I had about the vid.. The gal in the vid. is quite dishy and one definitely has the thought ‘She’s out of your league mate. If there’s anyone who owes someone something…’ Beyond that tho’ the vid. makes her unappealing and even vaguely contemptible – insofar as she’s an audience surrogate, I can’t see them being amused. The comparison case for me is the vid for Nync’s Bye Bye Bye: a phwoar-worthy gal is given the kiss off. She’s definitely an audience surrogate, but it works because the vid. leaves no doubt that she’s fab, that the lads are fatally attracted to her etc, that she’s hard to break up with/leave etc., and the overall vibe’s v. fun. By the end of the vid. we want that gal back, for the boys to work it out with her, or whatever it may be. Thus, little girls got to play-act their inner femme fatale, being too-much for Justin and co.. My sense is that the core audience ate that up – wished they were that smoking hot girl being able to say ‘Just you *try* and break up with me boy!’

    Bros’ song is bad I reckon, but with boy-band hind-sight, I think we can see that a cleverer vid strategy could have made it a lot less farcical and unpleasant, and avoided much of Lord Sukrat’s problem.

  28. 58
    thefatgit on 22 Jun 2010 #

    Seen through the “out of your league” lens, Matt’s “Ooo-eerr” scans as shorthand for “I hope this one doesn’t come back and bite me on the arse!”. For one moment there you could envisage the girl in the vid rolling down that Merc tinted window, and see the barrel of a gun poking out.

    Or was that just wishful thinking?

  29. 59
    23 Daves on 22 Jun 2010 #

    #38 – Yes, what the hell was that? I despised Bros back in 1988, but then it was for all their obvious cultural baggage, plus the fact that I was obviously at an age where I reacted terribly to “mainstream puppets”. Now when I hear this for the first time in what must be at least fifteen years, the main thing that grates on my nerves is that appalling keyboard pre-set. Truly, if they’d got Sweep off the Sooty and Sweep show to squeak along behind them it would only be a tenth as grating. Even a kazoo would have been preferable.

    Oddly though, for however much I hated the band at the time, listening to their stuff now doesn’t generally provoke much of a reaction in me at all. It’s not memorable, it’s not energetic, it’s not inspired, it’s not even offensive, it just is. It’s hard to understand how a band so mediocre could have become so successful. The classic argument will always be “Well, they were a pretty bunch of boys, that’ll always sell”, but the truth is that most desperately average teen fodder doesn’t sell in great quantities (the aforementioned Big Fun are one example of that). They have to have two or three good pop singles to sustain a career of more than a few months, and like most posters, the only example I can think of in Bros’s case is WWIBF. I’ve tried and tried to hear what legions of Brosettes might have been getting out of them, but I’m utterly stumped.

    As an aside, I was once asked out by a Brosette at school – she was the first to start smoking cigarettes in our year and was as hard as nails. Being a shy and insecure spotty teen, I thought she was taking the piss and blew my chance (I still find it hard to believe she wasn’t taking the piss, actually). Whenever I hear them – which isn’t at all often – I do sometimes wonder how odd it would have been if we had hooked up.

  30. 60
    lockedintheattic on 22 Jun 2010 #

    The various references to Big Fun on this thread has just prompted me to listen to their version of “Blame it on the Boogie”. Dear god. They make Bros sound like ABBA. Out of tune singing, terrible styling, awful dancing.

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