Apr 14

ALL SAINTS – “Never Ever”

Popular113 comments • 10,931 views

#780, 17th January 1998

NeverEver You’re in the car with the radio on and no expectations, and suddenly you hear it: a song that stops everything around it, breaking through the playlist and announcing itself as a hit. More than a hit, a classic, a song you’ll be hearing for the rest of your life. And the feeling when it happens is a kind of classic itself, one of the iconic freeze-frame moments of loving music. As a self-conscious pop fan it’s something I knew was meant to happen, and every time I was listening to the radio a part of me was willing it to.

So when it did happen – when, for instance, I was in my girlfriend’s car at the end of 1997 and I heard a song start with the chords from “Amazing Grace” and a hesitant woman tiptoeing across them, talking out of the radio, asking for help turning fragments back into a life that might make some kind of sense – how much could I believe my reaction? I’d spent the back half of the year getting my own head together, and the glue I’d used was 60s pop and soul. I’d listened – a lot – to Motown, Philly, Spector, girl groups. I was ready for “Never Ever”. I needed it. Right then, I loved it.

But could I trust it? I grew tired of “Never Ever” before long. And listening to it now, the Shangri-La’s style opening monologue – so stark and startling on the radio – is horribly uncomfortable: the singer sounds abject as she begs her ex, not even for reconciliation or explanation, but just grounds to blame herself. It’s not just the styles of the 60s in play here, but their emotionally abusive attitudes too: women choking back romance comic tears, accepting that deep down it’s all their fault. “Not only will your answer keep me sane, but I’ll know never to make the same mistake again”.

It’s particularly hard to deal with given the context All Saints emerged in. The Shaznay Lewis/Mel Blatt team had been scrapping around on pop’s fringes well before the Spice Girls hit, but the renewed interest in All Saints in 1996 was born from the record industry’s sudden need to find new groups to tap the girl band market. With hindsight one of the most remarkable things about the Spice Girls is how clear a run they had, free of real competition – so that by the time alternatives did emerge the problems and strains in the Spice model were really starting to show. All Saints’ positioning as a more sophisticated option – more style mag than tabloid friendly, at least at this point – was clever and natural. But the Spice Girls hadn’t always been overworked sloganistas – if Girl Power meant anything, on the evidence of those early singles, it was about attacking situations (particularly relationships) by assuming a position of autonomy and strength. For the cool alternative to be something as apparently supine as “Never Ever” is troubling.

But while the intro of “Never Ever” may have been the cut-through moment, a dog-whistle for pop classicists like 97-era me, there’s thankfully more in the song than that. If I treat the intro as something for the rest of the song to react against, not build on, I like the song a lot more. “Never Ever” opens at its lowest point and across its five minutes at least begins to build on that and recover some kind of poise, shifting blame to the ex not on the singer: “I’m not crazy, I’m sure I ain’t done nothing wrong”.

Those lines are also when the singers begin to get loose from the straitjacket of “Never Ever”’s metronomic vocal rhythm – which finally shatters on the closing seconds, as the song shifts style entirely: a breakbeat and R&B vamping jumping “Never Ever” forward in time. And finally redeeming the song: Shaznay Lewis takes some of the most desperate, feeble pleas from the intro – “You can write it in a letter, babe” – and repeats them as a sneer. The soul-searching ends, the singer moves on, and “Never Ever” starts as a grovel but ends as a kiss-off.

Is this reading of the song useful? I’d like to think so. It suggests that “Never Ever” is a very clever record, one that draws on the past but – by using genre-play as emotional development – engages critically with it too. That’s something too few Britpop-era records managed. But for me it also recovers a little of the pleasure I felt hearing this song for the first time, stepping coolly out of the context of the radio and hoodwinking me completely.



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  1. 61
    Mark M on 14 Apr 2014 #

    I have to say that the dodgy syntax always bothered me more than the sentiments – in any case, the spoken word bit always felt knowing, acted, not to be taken too straight.

    Listening to Never Ever again more carefully, especially having read what Marcello said, it’s clear that it leans closer to what was then rather tiresomely described as ‘neo soul’ – D’Angelo etc – than much more obviously hip hop-flavoured I Know Where It’s At. I’m not sure I noticed that at the time. In any case, it’s an observation, rather than a judgement, because I really like both singles.

  2. 62
    Alan not logged in on 15 Apr 2014 #

    How bowdlerised, if at all, is the This Is Hardcore on Now 39??

  3. 63
    nixon on 15 Apr 2014 #

    #63 I have a Malaysian copy of This Is Hardcore where the model on the front cover is wearing a photoshopped jumper.

  4. 64
    Kinitawowi on 15 Apr 2014 #

    #62: It’s shortened by 1:12 from the album version, but only by chopping out the lengthy piano section from the intro. Everything else is the same.

    Much better than the hatchet job Now! 26 did on I’d Do Anything For Love, chopping a twelve minute song down to under six; This Is Hardcore’s 5:13 is still one of the longest songs to ever appear on a Now! (tied with – ha – Never Ever).

  5. 65
    Garry on 15 Apr 2014 #

    I haven’t heard this in years, and can barely remember it. All I can think of hearing it now is Macy Gray would eat them for breakfast.

  6. 66
    wichitalineman on 15 Apr 2014 #

    The fashion for combat trousers – or any kind of combat clothes – led to several pub arguments, at least a few years hence. My take was that wearing army fatigues while we in the midst of “shock and awe” wars was insensitive at best, provocative, and asking for trouble.

    As for Never Ever, the opening line similarly drove me to distraction, and the ‘Spice Girls it’s ok to like’ angle was very West London-driven, just as all the action was shifting eastwards. Much better to come from All Saints.

    Their first album has become the Tears/Every Loser Wins/No Parlez of today’s charity shops.

  7. 67
    glue_factory on 15 Apr 2014 #

    @Kinitawowi Have you heard the k d lang “Tomorrow Never Dies” ? A great lost Bond theme if there ever was one.

  8. 68
    wichitalineman on 15 Apr 2014 #

    Everyone pitched for the Tomorrow Never Dies theme – Pulp, Dot Allison, Saint Etienne, probably others. There were a rash of b-sides with remarkably similarly titles (eg Tomorrow Never Comes) within a couple of months of the film coming out.

  9. 69
    Steve Mannion on 15 Apr 2014 #

    They are all easily imaginable and so naturally I have moved on to a Bond theme by Aqua in my mind featuring Rene as Blofeld of course. Hmmph…what is Danish for Weltschmerz anyway?

  10. 70
    Tom on 15 Apr 2014 #

    Surely the whole point of Rene – as we’ll see again in a couple of entries – is that he looks NOTHING LIKE the character he’s supposed to “be” in a given vid?

  11. 71
    glue_factory on 15 Apr 2014 #

    #68, I hadn’t realised there were so many, I was only aware of the k d lang version from Matt Berry playing it on Jonny Trunk’s radio show. Looking forward to checking out those others tonight.

  12. 72
    thefatgit on 15 Apr 2014 #

    “You can write it in a letter, Babe”. If NE was brought up to date what would be the (in)appropriate response on social media? Snapchat?

  13. 73
    Cumbrian on 15 Apr 2014 #

    “You can tell me on your tumblr, Babe”?

    “You can tell me through my twitter feed”?

  14. 74
    ciaran on 15 Apr 2014 #

    I played this on Sunday for the first time in years and thought to myself it wasn’t anywhere near as good as I remembered.

    Playing it yesterday there was a slight improvement and today in a case of ‘third time lucky’ it’s grown on me all over again.

    Kind of similar to how it was in late 97/early 98 as like Mark Morrison and R Kelly in popular the momentum and airplay behind it was enough to send it to the top after many weeks around the top 10.

    Like many I’m not terribly keen on the introduction (but it’s necessary to build the whole song around) and the fade is underwhelming considering what came before it.It took a few listens to come around to enjoying it again but it’s a decent beginning to Popular 98. Bit similar in mood to You Might Need Somebody by Shola Ama under a year earlier.7

    At the time All Saints were a welcome alternative to the overexposed Spice Girls and with NE and ‘I know where its at’ it was a good start. A bit up and down after this but there is like Erithian hinted at earlier there is one exceptional AS chart topper to look forward to.

  15. 75
    Chelovek na lune on 15 Apr 2014 #

    #74 (and others): I am mildly intrigued at all this talk of “one exceptional AS chart topper to look forward too”, on the grounds that there is one that I think is an absolute delight *but* it seemed to me to have been, at the time, rather overlooked/underrated – and not heard that much since, and it was by no means close to being their biggest seller. We shall see….

  16. 76
    Tom Ewing on 15 Apr 2014 #

    Yes, I’m intrigued too! Didn’t realise one of their later hits was The One.

  17. 77
    ciaran on 15 Apr 2014 #

    #75 – All my opinion of course.And sliightly linked to another chart topper we have yet to get to here.

    #76 – You may have already written about it in prehistoric era FT! It will sound like ‘I Feel Love’ or ‘Telstar’ compared to what follows Never Ever…..

  18. 78
    Auntie Beryl on 15 Apr 2014 #

    I still wear combat trousers to this day, at festivals. Before All Saints I was wearing jeans, which was foolish.

    Anyway, this is not quite a 10 but most definitely a 9, in context and in absolute. There is a 10 to come.

  19. 79
    daveworkman on 16 Apr 2014 #

    Sorry, nothing particularly pertinent to add other than I discovered Popular last week, and it bizarrely coincides here with the point at which I became a music ‘fan’ – at the beginning of ’98 at the age of twelve I started writing down the Top 40 (and recording the new entries on cassette – I can admit that now, can’t I?), a habit which continued for a good eighteen months before my musical tastes moved away from the charts. My first single was MMMBop, and up until September 1998 I only bought the occasional cassette single and compilation, not buying an album until I got my first CD player, so I’m now hugely looking forward to wallowing in my memories of this major year for me.
    Sorry, I realise this is fairly irrelevant – so to keep things on track, listening to this again, and reading some of the thoughts in the post and the comments, I’m intrigued as to whether anyone thinks this would work as a cover version sung by a male singer/singers?

  20. 80
    Erithian on 16 Apr 2014 #

    #74 #75 #78 – of course we could all be talking about different songs! We’ll know when the time comes…

  21. 81
    wichitalineman on 16 Apr 2014 #

    Re The One: A future AS number one was much-acclaimed at the time, and I quite liked it; another kinda sneaked out, and quickly disappeared, which I thought was an absolute gem. But… both ages away! Looking forward to 1998, a very jolly year for me.

  22. 82
    Chelovek na lune on 16 Apr 2014 #

    #81 sounds like we have the same gem in mind….I’ll drink to that. Some good stuff on the way first tho…

  23. 83
    Patrick Mexico on 17 Apr 2014 #

    Nah. Never liked it then, never liked it now. A stage-school appropriation of soul classics, not a million miles from what made Punctum very angry indeed on the Eurythmics – … Playing With My Heart thread.

    If the Spice Girls, for better or worse, were the sound of pop eating itself, this is the sound of pop thinking it’s better than the riff-raff next door because it owns more than three types of pasta. FOUR.

    They’d redeem themselves later, though. And earlier than most people here think!

  24. 84
    James Masterton on 17 Apr 2014 #

    #73 Interesting to note that at this point in time we are but a few months away from Hot N’ Juicy singing “I sent a message on the internet but it rejected…” which was the first ever pop music reference to bounced email.

  25. 85
    Steve Mannion on 17 Apr 2014 #

    #79 Dave your interesting reference to ‘writing down the Top 40 and recording it on cassette’ got me thinking as 1998 seems quite late on for doing either of those things. I’m not sure at what point the Beeb started publishing the chart on their website but perhaps around this time (from the mid 90s I’d stopped listening to the chart as broadcast and would just check it on Teletext a few minutes after 7pm each Sunday but I’m sure I was looking at it online by the very end of the decade). I wonder also how many people were recording the chart to MiniDisc (mono of course) or even directly to a hard drive around that time (not that many I’m sure).

  26. 86
    daveworkman on 17 Apr 2014 #

    #85 Steve, yeah it does seem a bit quaint now, but my family were never at the cusp of technological change – I was the first to get a CD player and first went on the internet at school! However, I think things did change relatively quickly, indeed in my lifetime have changed at enormous speed, and I think I would have been riding that wave. I do remember copying down the charts from Teletext initially, but towards the end of my endeavours scribbling down the charts, I do think I was just getting them off the net. And in terms of cassettes, did anyone read this yesterday? (http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/27036235)

  27. 87
    Tom on 17 Apr 2014 #

    #85-86 re cassettes – through most the 90s I made “cassette diaries” of any songs I liked – mostly taped off CDs borrowed from work, often from CD singles I bought. I added a song at a time with no thought of theme or flow, simply starting a new tape when I’d finished one. It gradually tailed off, I finally switched from Walkman to Discman towards the end of ’98 and that finished it. But by that time I had 60 or so tapes of randomly accreted favourites.

    (& hello Daveworkman, good to have you commenting!)

  28. 88
    Cumbrian on 17 Apr 2014 #

    I’ve worked out what the sleeve of this reminds me of. It’s the scene in Almost Famous where the band T-Shirts arrive, the band aren’t happy with them and the guitarist remarks, “I can see by your face that you want to get into it” to which the lead singer replies “How can you tell? I’m just one of the out of focus guys”.

    In fairness, the rest of All Saints probably didn’t mind at this point – though I believe that they split up originally over a jacket one of them was wearing, so maybe they did.

  29. 89
    Rory on 17 Apr 2014 #

    Steve @98: MiniDiscs were always a relatively expensive option, so I’m not surprised that a twelve-year-old wouldn’t have been using them (I was thirty in 1998, but still couldn’t justify the expense, and never used them). Tapes were still in use: CD players weren’t universal in new cars at this point, and many were still being sold with cassette players into the 2000s. And that’s new cars; many families would have been driving older cars with tape decks, which would have encouraged their use in the home as well, if only to record stuff to play in them.

    As for hard disk recording, no way was that a viable option for a 12-year-old in 1998. My oldest MP3s would date from around then – a handful of rarities – at a time when an album’s worth would have filled up a 100MB Zip disk in no time. 1998 was just before the radical change in hard disk technology that saw capacities increase by one or two orders of magnitude in the space of a year, which in turn facilitated the explosion in MP3 use: before that shift, a typical hard disk was about 2GB, and expensive. As for CD-Rs, burners had only just become affordable for consumers in 1998, but the blanks themselves cost pounds each, not pennies – again, not something within reach of a 12-year-old. Without cheap forms of digital recording, the best way for the average person to record audio in 1998 was still to use cassettes.

  30. 90
    Billy Hicks on 17 Apr 2014 #

    Our house was completely cassette until I got a CD walkman for Christmas 1998, and I didn’t start downloading mp3s until the start of 2003.

    But then in between that I used to just tape the videos from music channels, which I thought was a novel idea at the time as you got the song+video without having to go out and buy the CD.

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