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Jan 14

SPICE GIRLS – “Say You’ll Be There”

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#749, 26th October 1996

SYBT You can see why Simon Fuller and the label wanted “Say You’ll Be There” to be the Spice Girls’ launch single. It’s just as bouncy as “Wannabe”, but tighter and perhaps even catchier. It both fits into the mid-90s pop landscape and leapfrogs it – doing the plastic R&B thing Peter Andre does and Take That sometimes tried, but making the boys look laughable, with heaps more swagger and panache. It gives everybody in the group something to do – if this had been first, maybe Mel C would have been seen as more of a focal point, and Victoria less dismissed.

As well as being a brilliant record, “Say You’ll Be There” had another natural advantage for a management team of pop-savvy dudes: its theme. The scenario is a simple one – girl and boy are friends, boy wants more, girl does too but can’t be sure he’ll stick around afterwards. This is the kind of song young women in pop have often sung, from the Shirelles to Gabrielle’s “Give Me A Little More Time” earlier in ’96. It was – and may still be – a genre staple on magazine problem pages, too: should I go all the way? If you’re going to launch a girl group, a slick, on-trend update of this might seem like a solid, safe choice. As a springboard for “girl power” it’s a lot less distinctive.

But release it after said manifesto and the song comes into sharper focus from the very first line. “Last time that we had this conversation / I decided we should be friends”. Which establishes two things – this isn’t the first time lover-boy has tried it on, and it’s not ‘we’ decided: girls make their own choices. What’s changed this time? The boy is bringing “love” into it, and the song is asking – is this sincere or tactical? While it doesn’t exactly subvert its sex/commitment trade-off sub-genre, “Say You’ll Be There” still reframes it in the same terms established on “Wannabe”. Words don’t matter, whether they’re “zig-a-zig-aah” or “I love you”. Victoria gets the key line: a slightly weary “It would be better left unsaid”. Only actions count: prove it or move it.

In my memory this is the single that started to win the critics over to the Spice Girls, but a check of the facts shows “Wannabe” high on music press lists for ’96. What “Say You’ll Be There” did cement was a perception of Mel C as the most talented Spice. (Only talented one, according to grumps.) You can see why – she blasts her way through the final minute of this, shouting and taunting and diving and weaving between the other girls’ harmonies. It’s delirious and infectious and my favourite single bit of any Spice record – but it’s effective because she’s ad-libbing her way around a tight five-woman performance, not showboating. (A nice, coincidental riposte to Boyzone – this is how you do dynamic group singing, lads). It’s also a really necessary performance: the chorus on its own risks feeling slightly supine and Mel’s joyful interventions are a sharp reminder that this song celebrates romance on the girl’s terms.

There’s one other moment that jumps out at me from “Say You’ll Be There”. As we’ll see, their arrangements are rarely the best parts of a Spice Girls record. Here though, as with “Wannabe”, they match the Girls’ raucous delight in owning a pop moment. I love almost everything about the music on “Say You’ll Be There” – from the sinuous, ear-nagging high keyboard lines lifted from West Coast hip-hop to the little skritches of turntablism at the verse line-endings (incongruous scratching will be a signature sound of late-90s pop). Sadly, the S-Funk era promised here won’t last, but it does deliver one great incongruous thrill: the blithe harmonica break dropped in after a group shout of “I want you!”. As a moment in its own right – and that’s maybe all it’s meant as – it’s just a lovely free gift in an already terrific song. In the wider scheme of British pop jaunty harmonica breaks have a certain precedent, though. Selling millions, defying predictions, unnerving interviewers, moving like a gang, about to break America – if there’s a British group with the right to do Beatles callbacks at the end of 1996, it’s not the boys with the Union Jack guitars.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Tom on 19 Jan 2014 #

    #29 haha yes I looked for ages for the ‘real’ one. That said a couple of years later when I started doing powerpoint presentations I thought such effects were hot shit and used them a lot

  2. 32
    Kinitawowi on 19 Jan 2014 #

    After Wannabe’s in-your-face abrasiveness, clearly intended to sell the Spices to somebody that wasn’t me, it was time to let the music sell itself – and in that regard, SYBT was as good as could be wished for. But I still always preferred their ballads, and in later life I’ll prefer Northern Star to Goin’ Down (not to mention the bunnies), so I’m not going past a 7.

  3. 33
    James BC on 19 Jan 2014 #

    I thought the girl in this song was giving the guy the brush-off.

  4. 34
    mapman132 on 20 Jan 2014 #

    #26 Another theory for the conversation currently happening in the FT Top/Bottom 100 thread: Lots of commenters here were in their 20’s in the 1990’s when everything that’s popular must suck simply because it’s popular.

    Of course, I’m not saying this was true for Tom (or me) ;)

  5. 35
    Brendan F on 20 Jan 2014 #

    I think that would be true if you were asking the me of the time at which these were hits, but the me of today is seeing all of this with the hindsight that it really doesn’t get any better as time goes on so I’m inclined to look more fairly on those that have any merit. Obviously, that isn’t gonna include many of the boyband #1s and I know I won’t be alone in that.

  6. 36
    Doctor Casino on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Forgot this one completely – based on the title, I figured it was one that didn’t make it in the US, but then when I put it on I remembered it immediately. I have to say it still feels forgettable and generic though. Maybe that’s just because it slots so completely into its genre and its time – half the radio sounded like this in the mid-90s, to my memory.

    Actually, what it reminds me of more than anything is the fake music in dance/pop video games like Bust-a-Groove, or the CD of English-language songs ginned up for Sailor Moon’s North American release. Maybe it’s the general thin-ness of the vocals versus the rest of the mix, and the dinky canned percussion – makes it feel it could be anybody’s turn at a demo, session people called in to produce “party” tracks. Where are those oil drums from “You Win Again” when you need them? Never thought I’d look back at that, or something like “China in Your Hand” and go, “ahhh, yes, 1987 – when pop had muscle!” But here we are. As an album track this is probably a 5, as a Number One I want to be contrary and give it a 2 or 3.

  7. 37
    swanstep on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Don’t get the love for this at all. SYBT strikes me as seriously inferior to the big Four Tops, Jackson 5, MJ ‘Be There’ records (hell, Frank Ocean had another pretty great one on one of his early mixtapes). I think I’m thrown off slightly by all the ersatz Dre and Stevie Wonder backing, which nonetheless seems much more memorable than the (little more than serviceable surely) lyrics and vocals going on in front of it. E.g., there’s an honorable and raucous tradition of math-y and chemical-y metaphors in relationships songs (with Spilt Enz’s Another Great Divide being a personal favorite), and Verse 2 here doesn’t contribute anything to it! Instead perfunctoriness rules; a real missed opportunity in my view. The rhythm of the chorus – mostly falling away from the one – is its most interesting feature – it lopes along – but it also makes that chorus hard to remember I find. This record is to my ears slick but not really single-worthy, hence a ‘Must Try Harder’ grade from me:
    5

  8. 38
    Ed on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Like Flahr @22 and Doctor Casino @36, I couldn’t remember this one at all, and like Swanstep @37 I am a bit mystified by the love for it. Yes, the incidentals like Mel C cutting loose and the harmonica solo are great, and the groove is nicely propulsive, but the central melody is just a bit anaemic. After the knockout punch of Wannabe, this feels like a feeble slap.

    It’s interesting that there was a debate over whether to release this or Wannabe first. I remember thinking when it came out that this felt like evidence that they had been taken by surprise by Wannabe’s success, and did not have a strong song lined up for a follow-up.

    Am I right in thinking that it was sometimes a deliberate strategy when launching a new act to release one of their weaker songs – or at least not their absolute best song – first? The idea being that the first single is used to begin to build a bit of buzz in the press, on the radio, etc, but will probably not be heard by many people because the band is still unknown. Viz the classic case of this from the Beatles, releasing the dull Love Me Do before the scorching Please Please Me. In that context, SYBT would have sounded like a much more natural first single.

    As Tom says, though, releasing Wannabe first was a master stroke, not only because it was such a great song that it made the world sit up and pay attention, but also because it provided a context for all the songs that came after.

    That is particularly important for my favourite Spice Girls track, which is…. But I had better leave it at that for now.

  9. 39
    Tom on 20 Jan 2014 #

    #38 I know that’s one of the strategies for a new album from a returning act, but I dunno about launching an act – of course, even if it was a strategy, it’s one that’s coming to an end around this point: in the 00s and 10s, first-single performance becomes a lot more critical and relative flops are harder to recover from.

  10. 40
    Tom on 20 Jan 2014 #

    #37 Here’s what I think is going on in the maths verse.

    “If you put two and two together you can see what our friendship is for / If you can’t work this equation then I guess I’ll have to show you the door”

    So we have a) slightly feeble pun (“two and two… for”)

    b) rather better joke – if the guy (I’m still reading it as a guy) can’t add 2+2 then, indeed, the relationship is probably not a keeper.

    c) meaning tweaked by context of the song – the song is about (in my reading) suspicion that this guy is spinning her a line. So “what our friendship is for” is highly ambiguous. Does he think (has he thought all along?) the entire point of the friendship was to get to romance, or was the friendship actually authentic? The “2+2” i.e. obvious answer might well be very different from either perspective, making the equation rather trickier than it initially seems.

  11. 41
    Cumbrian on 20 Jan 2014 #

    On Wannabe, I said that I quite liked it but marked it down because of the “introducing the band” section, which is an affectation I just can’t get behind by anyone. SYBT is also pretty decent and gives the lie to the idea that there’s only one or two of them that can sing (Emma gets us off to a nice start and kudos to whoever pointed out that Victoria’s lines are also delivered well, as well as the Mels doing their thing) but again I feel I have to mark down due to a bit in the middle. Geri’s verse is just awful. I’m not hugely for competence as a total marker of quality (you can get away with not being able to sing if something else is offered) but that said, her inability to get somewhere near the notes really makes me cringe. 7ish.

    10: Not only is The Man paying for the video with its questionable high kicking, it’s also interesting how they dole out new nicknames to each of the group for it and settle on a variant of Zulu for Mel B. Maybe it’s the early 10s PC part of me saying this but I don’t think this would go unremarked upon if it were a fresh video being produced today.

    15: I think Emma Bunton suffers in my memory because her post-Spice career comprises only one memorable song (a bunny) and a cover of What I Am with Tin Tin Out plus a whole load of stuff I don’t think I have ever heard (or if I can then can’t remember it). Doubtless she’ll be discussed more in the fullness of time but you’re right, I think, in that she has a decent enough voice – my problem is it’s just not that memorable for me (I can’t even remember how she sounds on SYBT – and I have just finished listening to it again and remarked that it was a nice start at the beginning of this entry, so I wonder why I can’t recall it now?? – because the other members of the group do stuff that stands out more).

  12. 42
    Tom on 20 Jan 2014 #

    #41 Emma made an innocuous sixties-influenced pop album which got praised to the skies by some (and is, to be fair, probably the best solo Spice LP, but it sounded pretty anaemic compared to the other stuff happening in pop when she put it out)

  13. 43
    Cumbrian on 20 Jan 2014 #

    #42: Is that Free Me? I am currently doing a Wiki run and it’s the one that “looks” like you’ve described, given Emma looks a bit like Twiggy on the front cover. (It’s also not available on Spotify, I have just discovered – so much for catching up on it).

  14. 44
    Jon (@octojon) on 20 Jan 2014 #

    what a belter. the @MelanieCmusic adlibs 😻 RT @tomewing: A morning repost for the “Say You’ll Be There” Popular entry http://t.co/tKsNfJq7sQ

  15. 45
    whatever on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Melanie C’s last pop CD (‘The Sea’, not that with musical showtunes ‘Stages’) is ana amazing album. Loving it even over 2 years since it’s release.

  16. 46
    Andrew on 20 Jan 2014 #

    #43, here it is; she was going under the mononym of “Emma” for a short while, it didn’t catch on but Spotify lists it as such.

    https://play.spotify.com/album/5jy5A7ghTIqupzeLwFuKQt

  17. 47
    Cumbrian on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Cheers Andrew.

    There’s definitely some weird quirks to Spotify. I tried to listen to the original Professional Widow earlier today on Boys for Pele via Spotify but it’s been replaced on the album by the bunnied version (though I might be revealing that I know nothing about Tori Amos there – the remix wasn’t included on the album right?)

  18. 48
    anto on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Bright and brash and tight, A stronger track than ‘Wannabe’ even if it is less personalised. I think maybe a lot of people were in two minds at this point – some days it was ‘oh no, not this lot again’ on other days it was ‘well, they are quite fun’.

  19. 49
    Brendan F on 20 Jan 2014 #

    #46 – both versions are on my CD – I guess it’s a reissue

  20. 50
    Tom on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Re comments upthread on the thin-ness of the production on this – there is one thing I hate about it, which is the “twinkly” effect they plonk over the verses a couple of times, the kind of absolutely stock sound that makes me think everything else I like about the track might be a happy accident on the part of the producers.

  21. 51
    leveret on 20 Jan 2014 #

    As a 16 year old indie-loving schoolboy at this time, I was teetering on the brink of developing a loathing of the Spice Girls after Wannabe, but this track was enough to placate me. It still sounds pretty good as an R&B-flavoured pop tune, especially the (almost) Dre-like synths, but as others have noted the production is a bit cheap-sounding. Still preferrable to the mega-saturated contemporary sound though. A solid (7).

    This was probably the high point of my ability to tolerate the Spice Girls. After this, media over-exposure took its toll. Although it was nice in a way to have a big pop act with a bit of personality, it soon became a bit of overbearing.

  22. 52
    Rory on 20 Jan 2014 #

    As I mentioned, I had only listened to this once until today, but the tune ran through my head off and on throughout the weekend (in a good way), which is a sign that it’s firmly better than a 5 for me. Listening to it without watching the video, so that I barely register who’s singing what, it works well. The harmonica break reads as a teensy bit 1985-Eurythmics to me, but that’s okay. I suspect I’m going to end up doing the same as I did with Kylie, and pick up the Spice Girls albums many years after the fact to hear everything I missed.

    Referring to our handy marks-out-of-10 guidlines: definitely enjoyable; no problem hearing it regularly; might want to own it. Highlight of the charts at the time? I dunno, there’s some stiff competition in 1996. So it’s on the border of 6 and 7. I agree with Tom about the twinkly effect, though, which I never like much; it always feels as if the producers are trying to wave fairydust over the track to convince us that the singers are magical pixies. Echoes of Disney princesses and the pinkification of everything. Six it is, then.

    (Shiny new gravatar! Sadly I have no picture of myself covered in gravy, as the word would seem to require.)

  23. 53
    Gavin Wright on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Re: “the sinuous, ear-nagging high keyboard lines lifted from West Coast hip-hop”, I’m glad you mentioned this – I heard ‘SYBT’ for the first time in ages late last year (at a club where most of the music was ’80s/90s r&b) and my immediate reaction to the intro was “Which Dr. Dre song is this?” I’d never made that connection before but it seems obvious now.

    I have to say this is probably the only Spice Girls single I’ve ever really liked. A (7) from me.

  24. 54
    thefatgit on 20 Jan 2014 #

    I’m sure the producers of this, as well as Dr. Dre were aware of “The Funky Worm”. Rather than sample it, use the same keyboard setting (I believe there’s somebody among the comments crew who is something of an expert in determining which synth/organ made which sound) to get your funk on, so to speak.

  25. 55
    weej on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Agreed entirely with JLucas at #15 – I always thought Emma had the best voice and we’ll be seeing how great it can be on their next number one. Disagree with same @ #13 though – Victoria’s part on here just sounds like she’s been protooled into complete anonymity. As for Mel C, I can admire her voice in terms of range, but it just seems too shrill and unsubtle to really love, and I have a suspicion that much of the praise she received was from people who didn’t like The Spice Girls.

    This is my least favourite single from the first album – it’s not bad, there’s just nothing that really grabs me about it. Still worth a 6 though.

  26. 56
    Will on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Re 51: Interesting you mention that. I think for most non-out and out pop-lovers this is the Spice single they like best. Certainly it is around that time that friends of mine that loathed Wannabe came out and said ‘actually they’re not bad, are they?’ or words to that effect. As you say, at this point over-exposure hadn’t yet sullied their appeal.

    Myself, I loved SYBT; a very relaxed-sounding record that doesn’t wear its influences too heavily (as some of their later Number Ones had a tendency to). For me, an easy 8.

  27. 57
    iconoclast on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Next to its predecessor, SYBT is solider and – necessarily, in a very U-rated way – funkier. It’s also less frenetic, more prosaic, and lacks charm. Parts of it are quite good; the bridge (“Any fool…”), thanks to the absence of the annoying keyboards which disfigure the rest of the arrangement, is nice, and the harmonica solo is the undoubted highpoint. The strange two bars of fast chanting seem to have come from a different song entirely, however, and at the end it just drifts mechanically off into an uninspired fade. Ultimately it’s not worth much more than a ho-hum and a resigned sigh as impressionable preadolescent girls up and down the country are once again successfully bilked of their pocket money. Moreover, any claims to “girl power” in the verses – already questionable next to the not-at-all-fetishistic-honestly costumes in the video – are rendered null and void by the reaffirmation of traditional patriarchial values in the chorus: all he has to do is be there, and she swears she’ll give him “everything – all that joy can bring”. SIX.

  28. 58
    iconoclast on 20 Jan 2014 #

    ouch – double post!

  29. 59
    tm on 21 Jan 2014 #

    When girl pop singers flaunt their charms, they’re never trying to sell records to the boys are they? I remember, around about this time asking rhetorically ‘who the hell is buying Robson and Jerome records?’ To which a female friend replied ‘Maybe all the girls who think they’re really fit’ My reply I think was ‘I think the Spice Girls are fit but it wouldn’t make me buy their shit music’ (I was heavily into my shit Britrock at the time…oh dear)

    Is it a fair assumption that when boybands get their pecs out, they’re enticing their female (and gay male) fan base but generally for girl bands, it’s more that they have to be sexy to be seen as cool by the girls who are going to buy their stuff? I don’t know any man who ever bought a record because he fancied the singer but it’s a generally culturally accepted criterion for young women. Or is it more that men (again, very sweeping statement, I realise) are more likely to cite some other reason (“Polly Harvey has a great voice”, “Louise Werner is a great songwriter” etc) to save face?

    When a teenage boy has a pop crush, he’s far less likely to buy or listen to the music. Is that a reasonable assumption and if so, why should it be so?

  30. 60
    Tim Byron on 21 Jan 2014 #

    My recollection of my feelings about ‘Say You’ll Be There’ at the time was that it was a bit of a disappointment after ‘Wannabe’ – it was missing some of the punk/spunk/sense of fun of that, and instead was a more run of the mill pop song. It wasn’t terrible, I thought at the time, but it was a bit out-of-date R&B-wise, and it seemed like a safe song, whereas there was something anarchic-seeming about ‘Wannabe’ (I think ‘Wannabe’ as the first single was the right move – it probably got the Spices noticed by a wider demographic than ‘Say You’ll Be There’ would have, whereas ‘Say You’ll Be There’ maybe was the song that solidified the fandom).

    Nowadays, I’ve warmed to ‘Say You’ll Be There’ – things like the Dr Dre and Stevie Wonder bits show me that the production team knew what they were doing, had a good sense of pop history, etc (I’m still actually surprised that it’s possible to play harmonica like that and not actually be Stevie Wonder). It’s catchy. So I guess it’s a 6-7 for me now?

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